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Don't Miss That Magic Shot With These Five Tips

Don't Miss That Magic Shot With These Five Tips

Making a photograph can be a painstaking process involving location scouting, test shots, lighting setups, model releases and so much more, depending on your subject. However, some subjects — such as wildlife, children, sporting events, and such — require a photographer to be much more nimble. That's why I try to follow a few simple rules to be ready for when that unexpected magic moment arrives. 

Keep Your Camera Nearby at all Times, Even at Home

It goes without saying that you're going to miss the shot if you don't have your camera with you. Most photographers I know make it a policy to bring their cameras with them wherever they go, so they don't miss out if an opportunity presents itself. But when they get home, the camera is tucked away in its bag and often goes into a closet or home office. Since we're never truly "off the clock," it seems counterintuitive to put your camera away simply because you are at home. 

We often think of exotic locales or expensive studios as the place to make incredible images, but the truth is, there are amazing photographic opportunities all around us every day, and shooting near your home can yield great results.

For instance, I live next to a bird sanctuary and I'm often able to capture some of my best wildlife images from my own backyard. I've adopted a policy of keeping my camera on a small table near the doors that lead out to my deck. I'm able to quickly grab it if an opportunity presents itself, such as the other day when I was grilling dinner out on the deck and noticed an osprey circling over the pond. 

After spotting the bird, I dropped my grill tongs, grabbed my camera, tossed the lens cap aside and started firing away. The osprey continued to hunt for the next 20 minutes (to no avail) before moving on to a new location. During that time I was able to capture some of the best images I've ever taken of the bird. I burned my dinner in the process, but it was worth it. 

With a camera readily accessible, I was able to capture this image of an osprey swooping in for a landing near my home.

Keep Your Most Versatile Lens Attached

That story would have ended differently had I left my Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L II attached to my Canon 5D Mark IV after my most recent shoot. When I was done with that particular day of shooting, I removed the 24-70mm and locked in my Canon 100-400mm f/4-5.6L IS II before setting the camera down on that table. 

I knew that if I had to quickly grab my camera to shoot something, it was likely going to be something that required a longer reach. If my kids were doing something cute in the house, the 100mm focal length would obviously be too long, but I usually have my iPhone on me, so that would cover the wider focal range I might need around the house. 

I could have attached my Sigma 150-600mm, but it doesn't perform as well in lower light as my 100-400mm and it isn't as sharp at the long end. It would have given me some extra reach, but I was more confident I'd capture a sharp image at any time of day with the Canon, so that's the one that stays attached most often. 

Keep Your Camera Settings Close to What You Might Need

Light is constantly changing and every image you make will likely require different camera settings in the triangle. But that doesn't mean you can't optimize your chances of getting the shot by thinking about the most likely settings you might use. 

If you're shooting a subject that isn't posed or that you'll have to set up to capture quickly, you're most likely going to want a fast shutter speed. If your subject is something that you could use a slower shutter speed on, such as a landscape, that probably means you have time to change your settings, too. 

When I put my camera down in the house, I set the shutter to 1/2,000 s and the ISO to 1250, which usually handle action well in most lighting situations. Then, if I have to pick it up quickly, I only have to adjust my aperture and I'm ready to shoot. If I'm heading out to shoot some surf photography, I'll glance around and find a subject that approximates the lighting conditions I'll be shooting and set an appropriate exposure before I pack up the camera and head out to my location. 

Upon arrival, I may have to adjust, but my settings are usually pretty close to where I want to be. That means I can set up faster and be ready to capture the action sooner, which is sometimes the difference between getting the shot or not. 

You can even keep your camera set on shutter priority mode and let it handle the rapid adjustments until you're ready to take over and shoot in manual during a break in whatever action may be happening in front of you. 

You can't replicate a wave, or re-pose a surfer who just went airborne off a double-overhead swell. And the wave that comes in just as you arrive at your location may be your best chance to capture the image you planned to make. But if you show up and your aperture is set to f/2.8, you may miss the focus on a crucial shot because you weren't set up ahead of time.

I captured this image immediately after setting up during an epic swell in 2017. A half-second after this image was taken, the wave had fully crashed and moments later the surfer disappeared into the wash. Had my camera not been approximately set before I arrived, I'd have missed it.

Keep a Card in Your Camera

I've done it. I've missed a shot because my I forgot my memory card in the SD slot on my laptop. My older camera would allow me to activate the shutter even if a card wasn't in the camera. One day when I saw a pair of F-22 Raptors fly by on their way to a local air show, I got very excited to capture the moment, only to be disappointed when I went to take the card out of the camera and saw an empty slot. 

Since then, I generally operate with three memory cards. The 5D Mark IV has dual slots, so I leave an empty CF card in it at all times, along with an SD card. When I take out the SD card to download photos, I put another one into the camera right away. This way I always have an SD card in camera and, in the event that it reaches capacity, the CF card acts as a backup. 

Keep a Fully Charged Battery in Your Camera

Similarly, I rotate three (sometimes four) batteries. I have a battery on the charger at nearly all times, so when I head out to shoot, I always grab it and put it in my bag. When I am done shooting, I remove any batteries that I've used (usually one, sometimes two) and put them on the charger. Then I take the full-charged one I had put in my bag earlier and insert into the camera, so I'm powered up and ready to shoot at a moment's notice. 

If I didn't keep this practice, there would no doubt be some days where I'd go to pick up the camera off that table and find a dead battery costing me precious time. 

These are all simple things I do on a regular basis to keep my camera ready to go and increase my chances of capturing a quality image when time is of the essence. What do you do to make sure you're always ready? Drop a comment below and let us know the routines that keep you ready to shoot on the go. 

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Michael B. Schuelke's picture

Excellent article, I try to do the same as I live on a tidal estuary with birds coming frequently. I haven't burned dinner, yet. I keep an older camera in the car and the newer D850 on a tripod with the 200-500 on it.

Brian Pernicone's picture

Keeping a tripod in the car (and, even better, with a camera mounted on it) is one I definitely overlooked. I keep a Manfrotto BeFree compact tripod in the back of my car, but I don’t leave a body on it. I probably should. Great tip!

Michael B. Schuelke's picture

I don't keep the D850 in the car; just the D700 and I keep it out of the sunlight. the tripod I have ready to move out to the deck.

Brian Pernicone's picture

Keeping the camera in the car is definitely temperature dependent. I wouldn't do it in the summer or winter in New England. Temps inside the car are too extreme.

Deleted Account's picture

Great article. When hiking, I'm always set up for wildlife because if I encounter a cool landscape or macro opportunity, I'll have time to change settings. Animals don't usually wait around. :-)

John Dawson's picture

Good info, thanks. I think I'll program one of my custom shooting modes for generally good quick-draw shots.

One problem I see is heat in a vehicle. I live in Boise and daytime temps have frequently been 100+ of late. I don't know how I would deal with that, absent hauling my camera to and from my vehicle, which would get really old in a hurry.