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Backpacker Photo School: Get Your Camera Ready

In the first edition of our new photo skills blog, BP's senior asst. photo editor shares rule #1 for taking the perfect photo: Always have your camera out. That's not as easy as it sounds.

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In the five years I’ve spent working in Backpacker’s photo department, I’ve seen a lot of amazing shots. And not just from the pros: More and more, our readers are capturing all the right moments, too and more often than not, it’s all about timing.

So, what does it take to grab the perfect shot without a moment’s notice?

The first step is—don’t laugh—to have your camera out. Like a lot of people, I’ve been guilty in the past of carrying my camera up and down mountains without ever even taking it out of my bag. But if you don’t have your camera ready to quick-draw, you’ll be restricted to shooting only when your party takes breaks.

This raises a few problems: 1) Rest breaks are for resting. 2) You’ll spend your time clamoring for uninteresting shots while everyone else eats honey-roasted cashews. (And, come on, you know you want some cashews too). 3) Is an animal really going to choose your rest stop as its opportunity to pass through? Doubtful.

More often than not, spectacular things happen unexpectedly in the middle of a hike. If you’ve got your camera packed away, chances are, you’ll miss the moment. Tell me if this sounds familiar: “I’ve got to take off my pack and find the camera. I think it’s in the lid of my pack. Or is it entangled in my rain jacket somewhere? Wait, that’s the headlamp. Maybe I put the it in the smaller pocket on the side.”

Before you know it, the weather or light or wildlife you’re hoping to shoot has changed or moved on, and there’s no picture left to take by the time you’re ready for it.

Missing the shot gets old fast, so you can either give up carrying a camera you never use, or get smart about packing. Here’s how:

Always have your camera instantly accessible—it shouldn’t take more than a few seconds for you to go from hiking to clicking. Less time looking for your gear means more time spent composing the perfect shot.

We all know we drink more water when it’s in a Camelbak because it take no effort to get at. In the case of point-and-shoots, I’m almost positive hip-belt pockets were invented specifically for cameras to be extra accessible. These pockets open wide enough for a small point and shoot to easily slide in and out. I can have my camera out and turned on before I even stop walking.

My camera’s small enough that I put it straight into my pocket when I leave my pack. Why? I never want to go without it; If I go off trail into the woods or scramble up a big rock to a great view, I’ve still got the camera with me.

The same goes for SLRs with heavy lenses. Buried in your pack, they’re just more training weight. And hanging a heavy camera around your neck all day gets tiring—trust me, I know.

We’ve got a solution: I use a technique that Backpacker’s Rocky Mountain Editor Steve Howe taught me. Simply attach a LowePro Topload ($30-$120 depending on the size) to the shoulder straps of your pack with a carabiner on each side so the camera hangs in front. All day the camera’s at the ready, but it doesn’t weigh on your neck like it would if you just used the neck strap. Plus it doesn’t swing around as much and it’s well protected until you’re ready to shoot.

Bottom line? You will come home with more photos if your camera’s ready to be used on every step of your hike.

How do you keep your camera ready for the perfect shot? Share your comments below. Have a photo you want to share? Enter it in our Reader Photo Contest!

To get you inspired, click on this slideshow of of reader photos I love because they all captured just the right moment:

—Genny Fullerton

Image credit: Ben Fullerton

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