It’s probably happened to you before: you’re hiking down this trail, and all of a sudden you notice a bird or any kind of wildlife that doesn’t seem to mind your presence. You’re presented with a perfect photo opportunity, but then you remember, “Oh wait, my camera is tucked all the way into my backpack! And, worse: I think my wide-angle lens is on there!”
By the time you get out your camera, put on a longer lens and find the right exposure, that bird or dragonfly is probably in another zip code.
That’s why it’s a good idea to always keep your camera ready for action as you’re hiking down a trail. Always keep it by your side and ready to photograph a distant subject that may only be there for a second or two. Here are a few tips for making your camera ready to go:
#1 – Keep your longest telephoto lens on the camera
Most wildlife and insects don’t let you get very close, so keep your telephoto lens on the camera to ensure you fill the frame as much as possible. The longer lens will also help you isolate your subject more.
#2 – Take off the lens cap
This seems like a no-brainer, but I’ll admit I still forget this one sometimes. Putting your eye up to the viewfinder and realizing your lens cap is still on is a five-second mistake that could cost you “the shot.” Keeping your lens cap off will make your lens more vulnerable to dust and scratches (if you happen to drop the camera), so also make sure you use your lens hood too!
#3 – Disable mirror lockup
Mirror lockup is great for those times when you have a controllable subject and you’re shooting from a tripod, but when you’re doing any kind of action photography, mirror lockup will just slow you down. So, turn it off.
#4 – Enable continuous shooting
To increase your chances of getting a sharp photo as you’re handholding your lens, make sure you enable continuous shooting so you can just hold down that shutter button as the camera rapidly takes more shots.
#5 – Set ISO to 400 or 800
You can also increase your chances of getting a sharp photo by using a faster shutter speed, and increasing your ISO will tremendously help with that. For bright and sunny conditions, use ISO 400, but if the sky is overcast don’t be afraid to increase it all the way to ISO 800.
#6 – Set your aperture to the widest or sharpest
If your lens is pretty sharp at it’s widest aperture, feel free to use that, but also consider stopping down by one stop (that’s where most lenses are their sharpest). The wide aperture will help you get a fast shutter and help isolate your subject against its background.
#7 – Pre-set the exposure for direct sunlight
Throughout the day as the light conditions change, you should continue to update the proper exposure on your camera for a subject that’s in direct sunlight. But, also keep mental notes of other exposures: if the sun goes behind a cloud, side light, back light, etc. Use the histogram to help you find that proper exposure. And, memorize the f-number series so you can quickly jump between apertures/ISOs and update the exposure quickly.
#8 – Turn on image stabilization
Since you usually won’t have much time to take the shot, you’ll be stuck with hand-holding your camera. So, remember to turn on image stabilization (or vibration reduction on Nikons).
#9 – Make sure you have room on your memory card!
Also make sure you have plenty of room on your memory card, so you don’t start shooting photos in a burst and then get stuck because you filled up your memory card!
#10 – Pre-focus your lens
If you’re trying to target one specific subject (e.g. hummingbirds) that you can usually approach at a regular distance, then you can save time by pre-focusing your lens to where you think you’ll encounter your subject.
What did I miss?
Is there something else that you do to keep your camera “ready for action?” If so, please share it with us by leaving a comment below!
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About the Author: Steve Berardi is a naturalist, photographer, software engineer, and founder of PhotoNaturalist. You can usually find him hiking in the beautiful mountains and deserts of southern California.