"Prepare to be spontaneous" is probably the most appropriate piece of advice you can give any budding photographer. Now, I would love to say that i coined it, but I didn't. I heard it recently in a B&H Prospectives video on Aerial Photography with Vincent Laforet (well worth a watch by the way). Vincent used this phrase, and I found a perfect description, and in many situations it makes the difference between getting the shot and not.
What does it mean?
How can you be prepared to be spontaneous? Surely the processing of preparing for it makes the act no long spontaneous. It is an oxymoron, but in terms of photography it extremely poignant! As a photographer, we have to be ready for the moment, often not knowing what that moment will be. For example, when photographing wildlife, you have about 3 seconds to take your first image before the subject notices you can potentially runs up. If you are not prepared you miss the shot. So, it is basically saying if you are not ready for any potential eventuality, you will probably miss it.
Since there is an infinite number of possible moments, it is impossible for account for all, so I split it into two possible eventualities; Those you are predicting or hoping to happen (previsualization) and those completely surprising and unpredictable moments (aka "tiger, tiger, tiger!").
This is the easiest situation to be "prepared for" so I am explain it first. This is for situations where you are waiting for the right moment.
Take this image for example:
We were lucky enough to have a tigress follow our jeep for about 20 minutes, so this gave us plenty of opportunity to shoot different things. We drove far head to a dip in the road, out of sight of the tiger, turned the car sideways and lay down to get an eye level shot... all we needed to do then was wait for the tiger to come round the corner! Bingo! We were prepared!
Another good example is my yawning leopard story. I knew I wanted to take a picture of leopard yawning right at me, so when the opportunity presented it's self, I made sure i was in the right position with the right camera settings ready for the shot when/if the moment arose!
This all pivots around the basis that you already have an idea of what you want so you can get all set-up, and wait for the right moment! This is also the situation where you have time to make sure everything is right regarding your camera settings, "tiger, tiger, tiger!" however, is a different situation.
Tiger, tiger, tiger!
For anyone who has not been lucky enough to go on safari in India AND see a tiger, let me explain. When you are driving around or waiting for a sighting, everything is quite, everyone is looking, then all of sudden, someone excitedly exclaims "tiger, tiger, tiger!" whilst pointing in a direction. Everyone grabs their camera and gets to work. Now for this kind of truly spontaneous situation, if you and your camera are not ready you miss out... big time!
Here's an example of YOU not being ready!
This was a prime "tiger, tiger, tiger" moment. We drove round a corner and saw a tiger, it saw us and vanished right into the bamboo. Out of a jeep of 4 people, i was the only one to get a shot, and that was because I had my camera in my hand and was ready! I've said it before and I'll say it again, you have 3 seconds to take a click before the subject will (might) disappear... If you are not physically ready, you will miss out!
However, you being ready does not mean your camera is too! Here is a prime example of this:
It was the start of a safari and still dark, when all of a sudden alarm calls exploded around us and a leopard came out of the tress on our left. Everyone hefted their cameras and shot away for the 30 seconds it took for the leopard to cross. After the excitement, there was disappointment in the jeep, as several of the photographers had the wrong settings, and their images were blurry. Their camera was not set up for the situation and they missed a great series of images.
How to be prepared!
1) Always have your camera set to the most flexible settings
I start with “standard” shooting settings, that is a kind of ” jack-of-all-trades" default that fits immediate action if it should arise. Note, this is constantly changing as lighting conditions change, but this is my general starting point:
- AF set to continuous and center point only, back button AF
- Aperture priority with the lowest F-value my lens can do and the ISO set to give a shutter speed around ~1/500 to 1/1000; fast enough to stop the action
- I set the WB to the most appropriate for the lighting situation, but since I shoot RAW, I will optimize it after the fact
- I put IS on “number 2” mode (panning)
For more information as to how I cycle through my camera settings, read this! :)
2) You be ready
There is no point having the camera ready, if you are not...
- Keep your camera out and close. Don't have it in your bag if you know you are shooting or might shoot. Keep at hand. Have it around you neck/over your shoulder when on the street, or next to you when on safari. You need to able to get it up to your face and click within 3 seconds!
- Keep an eye out for changing lighting conditions so you can optimize the camera settings.
- Try and pre-visualize possible images in and around you. This way if they become possible, you are ready.
- Stay alert! Try to keep focused so you reduce your reaction times.
3) Avoid the "oh shit" moment
Other than having your camera all ready to go when you out in action... make sure you camera is ready to go ALL THE TIME. I can not count the times i hear people saying "Oh shit" followed by "battery is dead", "Card if full" or "Wrong settings" when they take their first photo... So to avoid this "Oh Shit" moment I make sure that my camera is ready to go when i put it away. This way, if i need it, i can just grab it without thinking! Things to consider:
- Always have a lens on your camera... it does not matter which, if you need to take a pic, ANY lens is better than none. I trend to keep the Canon EF 40mm f/2.8 pancake lens on my camera instead of a body cap. It is not much bigger than a body cap, and you can actually shoot with it. You can always change the lens if you have time, but this gives you an option if you don't!
- Make sure the lens is set to AF (not manual focus) and that IS is on (IF applicable)
- Always have full batteries in your camera. Swap out the used battery after a shoot (even if not full discharged) for full ones... You need to re-charge the other one anyway! :)
- Always have an empty card in your camera. After a shoot, download you images and put a new empty card in the camera RIGHT AWAY.
- Have you camera set to "jack-of-all-trades" settings, so that you can just shoot if need be. You can always optimize the settings if you have time.
I hope this helps. Let me know if you have any other tips to stay prepared in the comments!