One Practice You Should Steal From Airplane Pilots

One Practice You Should Steal From Airplane Pilots

Pilots have to juggle a number of responsibilities, in high stakes situations. They rely heavily on one tool to help with all their tasks, one which you should be using too.

While photographers and videographers aren’t typically in the same high stakes situations as pilots, a mistake like a wrong camera setting or forgotten piece of gear can easily derail a shoot. To help reduce the chances of this happening, you should get in the practice of creating some basic checklists.

A good checklist should have a defined purpose and logical organization. For a gear list, start with the essentials like your camera and memory card, adding more niche items as necessary. When creating a checklist for a particular technique, consider which settings or practices are most fundamental for a successful shoot. Also, consider whether you should be organizing by depth first or breadth first —  for most procedures, I like to create the initial outline of important topics, then drill down in detail. Using nested checklists can make it easy to roll up the individual categories when reviewing the list.

Some examples that I use include a packing checklist of the basics, grouped by category. Cameras, lenses, batteries, memory cards, chargers, and cables are all in the first group. Then, I have my supporting electronics; like my phone, chargers, laptop, headphones, flashlight, or other electronics. With this list, I can check that I not only am not leaving anything behind when I pack for a trip, but since I know what I brought with, I can avoid leaving anything at the hotel.

Some other helpful checklists could center around setups for lighting, specific shoots like products and portraiture, or new techniques you’re learning. With cameras growing increasingly complex, a baseline checklist of settings could prevent wasting frames on a daylight shoot while still set at ISO 6400 from the nighttime shoot the previous day.

Now, you don't need to literally run every part of a shoot via a checklist, but consider writing down either the most complex aspects of your shoot. Taking some of the mental work out of the mundane aspects of shooting can help you refocus on the creative aspects, as well as prevent expensive mistakes like forgetting a piece of gear.

I’ve got a few that I use frequently, including packing lists for travel and astrophotography shoots, and I’ve tried a number of different ways to keep track of these lists. Recently, I found an app perfect for my purposes — Simplenote.

Simplenote's clean interface, with dark theme support

One of the top criteria is accessibility — if the checklist isn’t easily available, you won’t use it. Simplenote is free, with apps for Windows, Apple, iOS, Android, and a web app. Additionally, it doesn't require integration with any third party service, since it syncs notes with just a free Simplenote account. This universal compatibility is really important — I wouldn't want my documents stuck in an app that is constrained to one or two platforms. Along with that, the app also supports exporting your notes, meaning you're never tied to the platform itself.

I think that checklists should be easy to modify, since I sometimes change my mind about what equipment I want to bring or need to add a few specific items for a shoot, both of which necessitate making a change to the list. Simplenote works well in this regard, as the text editor style interface makes for easy changes. 

Given the broad platform support, it is important that the app handles conflicting changes well. Whenever I've had a conflicting change, there's an easy interface for resolving those issues. As a final perk, the app's developers seem to provide great support. When I found a bug, it was quickly resolved via an app update.

The practice of making and using checklists can help photographers refocus on the creative aspects of the shoot, while having the right app makes adopting this habit even easier. Next time you're planning a shoot or packing for a trip, consider making a checklist. Have you made a checklist for anything photography related?

Lead image courtesy of Jan's Archive

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20 Comments

Never leave home without one and usually take several. Keeping the list short and simple is key so I separate into several categories; shooting landscapes portraits or cityscapes and packing for roadtrips and packing for airplanes. Have never thought of an app, I just create a word document, print then plasticise. When you are tired, hungry or long overdue for a coffee the checklist ensures you don't overlook a small but crucial step. Also great for new photographers who can easily get overwhelmed.

Alex Coleman's picture

I like the physical document idea as well, although I change up my list periodically and would tire of reprinting it.

Arthur Morgan's picture

A short pencil beats a long memory every time.

No memory is so firm as the most faded ink.

A similar phrase was introduced into English usage through Arthur H. Smith's Proverbs and common sayings from the Chinese, which gives "The palest ink is better than the most capricious memory."

A word document printed and plasticized, now we are talking.

Motti Bembaron's picture

My equipment (except light stands and modifiers) is stacked in drawers. I start from the top and by the time I get to the bottom one I have everything. However, a short equipment checklist is always a great idea.

Alex Coleman's picture

I've got a similar organizational setup, but there are a number of pieces that are essential for one shoot but useless for another, leaving me checking back with the list.

Motti Bembaron's picture

Yes, I am doing more product shoots now and that requires a different set of equipment so lists are very handy.

John Cliff's picture

I mostly do video and often do multicamera shoots so I use an Excel document and have one that is project specific...gear needed by category, must have shots, secondary shots, location, contact numbers...and another that is a pre shoot checklist for ensuring my gear is set up correctly...I print both out before the shoot and make sure they are in my gear bag (along with an outline of points I want to cover in the interview)I have to do this because I had a brain injury a few years back which has affected my memory but I think it is a great idea for anyone

Alex Coleman's picture

Definitely can be helpful. I like your addition of essential info like a shot list and contact information.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

Always a check list and sub lists. For example a list for all batteries to charge or purchase. Long trips, I add a pillow in case I get too tired and need to take a nap...

Alex Coleman's picture

The batteries/chargers list is essential! Especially since some devices still haven't standardized on USB charging, meaning it's tough to find a particular charger in a more remote location.

Kirk Darling's picture

Checklists are good. I also use specialized cases. One is a portrait case, for instance, and another is my video case (which is so large it's right at the limit of my ability to get it into my minivan). When all of the cut-to-fit spaces in those cases are filled, I have all the equipment I need. I have lighting cases that are the same way. A glance shows me if everything is there.

Alex Coleman's picture

That's a good strategy. If I had the money, I'd love to have an insert or bag for each shoot, so I could just grab, fill, and go.

Paulo Macedo's picture

I compare one item on the pilot's checklist to one item on the photographer's checklist.

Check fuel gauge and Keep your batteries charged.

If you mess any of these two, things will go bad.

Alex Coleman's picture

Exactly. With some specific rechargeable batteries, it almost feels like it'd be easier to find Jet-A fuel.

Paulo Macedo's picture

That's why I have 7 batteries. All charged.
Then I can proceed and taxi to and hold short runway 05 via taxiway juliet 2 and contact tower on 118.15 when ready.

Sylvain Durand's picture

The check list is a basic organizational trick. However the airplane pilots have the habits of saying it out loud, it is a good practice that I apply to myself

Alex Coleman's picture

Japan's rail system takes it a step further, with pointing-and-calling, which is intended to reduce "coasting" through the motions. I haven't gotten to that point yet!

I have an easy solution to this problem although the weight is sometimes a bit much, but anyway I have 95% of my gear at all times in my ThinkTank Airport Accelerator. The only things which are not in that bag are my 300mm 2.8 and 400mm 2.8 VR lenses and an extra speed light, but I rarely use flash. Anyway, I can also reconfigure the bag easily and replace my 70-200mm 2.8 with my 300mm 2.8 quickly. I have the Nikon Holy-Trinity kit and two Pro bodies in the bag, along with a TC, SB-910, triggers, filters, etc. I can also add my laptop or iPad to the bag. My point is that it's easy to remember the couple things that are NOT in the bag when I know that I might need them, I take them along or remove something and add them to my existing kit bag.

Alex Coleman's picture

Having a "go-bag" like that can be nice, especially since it encourages you to bring your gear, just in case.