A Photographer’s Checklist

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Atul Gawande knows his checklists; his book, The Checklist Manifesto, has garnered rave reviews and spent ages on the bestseller list. He’s a general and endocrine surgeon who relies on them to keep things going smoothly in the OR. It’s a good thing, too, since even a small failure can have disastrous consequences. As photographers, what we’re doing doesn’t generally leave lives in the balance, but it’s still a good idea to have our own checklist to make sure that everything goes well during a shoot, whether we’re in it for the money, or just a good day of shooting. What follows are the essential things to look out for when you prep for a day out with your camera.

•Is your bag clean, inside and out? Lint brushes are helpful for the bag’s exterior, while a vacuum helps get stuff out of the interior. No sense in cleaning your lenses if your bag’s just getting them dirty.
• Are your batteries charged? This includes not only the camera’s battery, but also batteries for your flash, and making sure the backups are also charged.
• Is a backup battery packed? Some batteries are rated for thousands of shots. They’re not rated for nearly as many shots if you don’t have them with you. I had one long weekend when I made the mistake of leaving one camera battery at home in the charger, so I was thankful to have my “spare” to get me through.
•Are your memory cards clean (i.e. images backed up) and formatted properly? Having a few days’ worth of stuff on your card(s) means not having room for today’s shots, and can also mean frantically going through older pictures trying to figure out what to delete to make room. Save yourself the headaches.
• Spare memory packed? An additional caveat to the point above. It’s especially vital if you’re going on a long vacation or a shoot that you know is going to involve a lot of photos.
• Camera body clean, free of dust, dirt and fingerprints (including viewfinder and LCD)? Enough said.
• Lenses packed? Sometimes you’ll only want to carry part of your kit with you. Think about where, and what, you’ll be shooting, and pack accordingly.
• Lenses clean and capped (both ends)? Dust, smudges and fingerprints can wreak havoc on your photos.
• If you use a UV or other filter to protect the lens, is it secure? This is especially something to look out for if you’re using multiple filters (say, a UV or skylight filter to protect the lens, along with a polarizer), since sometimes taking one filter off the lens will loosen the other.
• If you have other filters (Polarizer, ND, Infrared), are these also clean and in a safe place? Get a filter wallet, or, barring that, use the cases the filters came in for protection.
• If you’re using a tripod, is the quick release plate already on your camera? Over time, I’ve gotten in the habit of just leaving the quick release plate on the camera all the time. It only comes off if I’m using the monopod. This way, I always know where my quick release plate is, and it’s always ready if I want to use my tripod, versus having to pause and put the thing on the camera each time. Besides, if you’re changing it too often, you can strip the threads on either the quick release or the camera itself.
• Is your tripod/monopod clean, and is all the hardware (especially the head and clamps) in proper working order? Make sure everything’s as tight as it’s supposed to be, especially if you’re in the habit of using a heavy lens on a heavy body.
• Have you packed, at the bare minimum, an air blower and cleaning cloth? Even if you’ve taken care to clean your gear before a shoot, sometimes conditions – dust, pollen, inquisitive toddlers – can lead to issues during a shoot that can affect your images.
• If you’re planning on using a remote release, are its batteries working?
• Have you packed your manual or other reference? You never know when you’ll suddenly want to use a feature or setting that you haven’t touched since about a week after you bought the camera, and have since forgotten how to use.
• Are you bringing lens hoods with you?
• Do you have a pen and paper with you? You never know when ideas will be sparked, or connections made. Have something with you to record what needs recording.
• Have you packed a towel or washcloth for those “ohshit” moments? It’s not just the gear that gets dirty, sometimes it’s us. If you don’t want what’s on you on your camera, get it off before it becomes a problem.
• If you’re shooting an event, have you made a checklist of the shots you expect – or are expected – to get?
• Finally – and perhaps most importantly – have you checked your settings? I’ve missed shots because I forgot to reset things like white balance, exposure compensation or ISO from a previous shoot, and have also lost time switching modes or settings on the fly, when I could’ve avoided the issue by checking ahead of time. These things don’t take long to change with practice, but sometimes even those brief intervals make a huge difference.

So there you have it… the essential checklist for your essential “stuff.” Incidentally, it’s also helpful to go over these items after a shoot, as well. Leaving your equipment dirty, your batteries depleted, or neglecting any of these other items after you’ve used your gear isn’t a good idea either, since there are times you’ll want to be able to just grab your kit and go, without having to worry over whether one or more of its component bits are going to fail you. It probably wouldn’t be a bad idea to print this list, or one like it, out, at least ‘til you’ve committed to the routine and do it as a matter of course. There are other lists you could make as well, dealing with individual photo shoots, postproduction workflow, and other things, but we’ll take those up in the future.

Have I left anything out? Is there something you do to take care of your gear as part of your routine that you could share? Email me!