8 Tips for the On-Cue Photographer

Be prepared. — Photo by Richard X. Thripp

I was reading 5 Reasons to Take Your Camera Everywhere in 2008 over at the Digital Photography School Blog, and it really resonated. You need a camera with you to take any sort of photos—this is a point that is not stressed enough in photography guides and classes. I’ve produced my best work on outings not intended for photography: Sky of Fire, Two of Us Against the World, and Sky’s Camouflage, for example. The article is good, but I want to add eight tips so that once you have your camera with you, you’re ready to use it:

1. Leave the SLR at home. Get a small point-and-shoot (P&S) camera so you aren’t loaded down. Make sure shutter lag is slim to nil; the venerable Canon PowerShot A620 (photos) has been in my pocket since 2006, though it’s harder to come by as its gone out of production.

2. Keep one, versatile lens. While this contradicts the above tip, there are some situations where you’ll need an SLR. P&S’s aren’t typically suited for low-light, so if you’re out in the evening or anywhere indoors, where P&S’s can’t work with the ambient light, take an SLR and a fast lens. My choice for such situations is the Canon EF 50mm f1.4 (photos); open the aperture and crank up the ISO speed, and you’ll be able to hand-hold without a flash even for night-time street photography. Then there is bright mid-day, where a slower, zoom lens will be your best bet. I still use the Canon Rebel XTi kit lens (photos); it’s a good start for wide-angle photography and produces sharp photos at f/8.

3. Drop the camera bag. While a bag for your lenses is acceptable (though picking one lens will save weight), your camera needs to be at the ready for baby Lucy to skip through those mud puddles. I’d never be quick enough to get the shot at the top of this article with my camera cooped up in a cozy bag. If you have a P&S, stow it in your pocket, or sling an SLR around your neck.

4. Freshly charged batteries are a must. Murphy’s law states that your batteries will fail just when you need them the most.

5. Have space for 100 photos on your memory card. While you may not capture that many brilliant photos, you won’t have time to swab the decks when that seagull grabs the fish, or those clouds form your Aunt Mary’s face. With the burst modes on modern cameras producing three photos a second, you’ll want plenty of temporary space for crazed snapping.

6. Set your camera. That 15-second exposure with tungsten white balance won’t cut it for a spontaneous afternoon portrait. Set your ISO speed, white balance, and flash preferences, then choose your aperture or shutter speed in the priority modes, and have the camera take care of the rest. If you’ve forgotten to do this, dial in Auto mode real quick for that fleeting Kodak moment; sub-optimal results are better than an over-exposed, blue mess. Use RAW mode for editing leeway, though note that the larger file sizes will slow you down from shot-to-shot.

7. Brace yourself. Blurry photos of your precious moments are no fun. Turn up the shutter speed as much as you can; the same as your lens’ focal length at minimum (i. e. 1/50 second for the EF 50mm f1.4, or 1/80 on the XTi because of the crop factor). Hold still, keep the viewfinder glued to your face, and support the lens barrel with your other hand while you click three shots, then delete all but the sharpest. If you have a P&S, don’t keep it at arm’s length as you’ll shake the camera more.

8. Turn off auto-focus. Even on SLRs, auto-focus causes the biggest delays from click-to-shoot. If your subjects will be consistently far from your camera, lock in the focus and switch to manual mode, then enjoy the lightning-fast shutter lag. Alternately, half-click your shutter button a few seconds in advance and hold it—then when you push down all the way, you’ll get a quick photo with the settings the camera locked in.

Photography is as much about skill as it is being in the right place at the right time. When life’s picture-perfect moments pop up, be sure to have your camera at the ready.