Cameras are made for taking photos, not sitting in a drawer in your house. Here’s how to—and why you should—carry your camera pretty much anywhere, no matter what you’re doing.
My camera has been through a lot. I’ve held it while I tumbled down a ski hill, I’ve banged or bashed it more times than I can count, it’s been splashed by waves, and it’s still sticky from where a pint of beer got spilled on it. But by having it with me and putting it through all this (and more!), I’ve taken some great photos. I’ve never missed a shot because I left my camera at home out of fear.
John Shedd once said, “A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.” It’s the same with cameras. They’re tools for capturing images. If you aren’t going to take your camera out and shoot, you’re doing it wrong.
Now, of course, you can take great photos without your camera every leaving a photo studio, but that’s a tiny part of photography as a whole. For anything like landscapes, adventure sports, street photography, or travel photography, you’re going to need to put your camera at risk to get the shot.
Know Your Camera’s Limits
This is a manifesto for using your camera, not carelessly breaking it. My camera has lots of dings, dents, and scrapes, but I’ve never broken a lens element by dropping it straight down on concrete because I wasn’t using a strap when I should have been.
That’s why one of the most important things you need to do is know what your gear’s limits are. Professional DSLRs and mirrorless cameras are made from sturdy metal-alloys and use lots of rubber gaskets to keep out water and dust. They can take a lot more abuse than an entry-level DSLR. On the other hand, some rugged point and shoots or action cameras like a GoPro have so few moving parts that they’re practically invulnerable.
Read the reviews, look for abuse tests on YouTube, and once you’ve got an idea of what sort of punishment your gear is designed to take, you can make informed decisions about what to do with it.
Keeping Your Camera, Out, Ready, and Safe
Most of the time, when you’re shooting, you want to be able to keep your camera out and ready to use. The key is to do it as safely as possible. Your camera will always be at less risk sitting at home, but that doesn’t mean you can’t minimize the risks to it when you’re hiking, rock climbing, or shooting around New York City.
First, though, let’s talk about keeping your camera out and ready. Whether you use a mirrorless or DSLR camera, the smaller and lighter the whole setup is, the easier time you will have carrying it around. Big heavy cameras with big heavy lenses are unwieldy whether you’re halfway up a crag or pushing through a subway crowd. Also, changing lenses when you’re out doing things is a bit of a nightmare. You’re better off choosing a zoom lens that covers the range you want to shoot, rather than swapping and changing.
I use a Canon 5D Mark III with Canon’s 17-40mm f/4L zoom lens. It’s a pretty hefty setup, but the 17-40mm is less than 5” long, so it works for me. If I want something smaller, I go with Canon’s excellent pancake 40mm f/2.8 lens. What setup you go with is going to depend on your preferences, but I wouldn’t recommend going with a much bigger setup than mine unless you’re a professional getting paid. Lenses like a 24-105, 18-55, or 24-70 all should hit the sweet spot, especially if you have a mirrorless camera. These focal lengths all cover a very flexible range so you can shoot landscapes, portraits, and action shots as you need.
If your camera is out, it should be ready for you to start shooting straight away. Turn it on and remove the lens cap. Also, make sure you’re shooting with exposure settings appropriate for what you’re doing.
Okay, now that you’ve got a camera that’s set up to be kept out, let’s look at doing it safely. The simplest way is with a good camera strap. They leave your camera hanging by your waist where it’s easy to grab. Check out my roundup of good camera straps over on ReviewGeek for some recommendations. My favorite is Peak Design’s Slide camera strap.
The problem with camera straps is that, while they keep your camera accessible, they also leave it free to swing around and bump off stuff. This isn’t really an issue for street or travel photography, but if you’re doing something active like hiking or skiing, it gets very annoying, fast. A better solution then, at least for times you’re more active, is to use a camera clip like Peak Designs’ Capture. It secures your camera to your belt or backpack strap. It’s still accessible but won’t swing about as much. I like to use a regular strap as a tether as well, for added security.
With this setup—a reasonably compact, flexible camera and lens combo and a strap or clip—your camera will be out, ready to use, and safe for most activities. I confidently carry this setup whatever I’m doing. The straps and clips keep it attached to my body so, as long as I don’t take a bad fall, it stays safe. They also make it hard for thieves just to grab it.
Selecting The Right Camera Bag for Your Needs
When you don’t want to have your camera out for some reason—or keeping it safe is more of a priority at that moment than having it ready, like when you’re skiing down steep hills or belaying your friend on a tricky pitch—then your camera should be in a bag. There are dozens of camera bags to choose from, but really, there are three primary kinds (though I am just making up the names).
City bags keep your camera safe and look like a standard backpack or messenger bag. Peak Designs Everyday line of bags fall into this category. They generally have space for a laptop and your regular daily carry stuff. By not “looking” like a camera bag, they make your camera less of a target to thieves.
Adventure bags are hiking style backpacks, that also have padded camera compartments. Expect things like hip belts, external gear straps, loops, light weatherproofing, and all the other stuff you’d get with any other dedicated outdoors back. F-Stop Gear’s Mountain line is a perfect example.
Travel bags are backs designed for air travel (and also other kinds of travel) with your camera. The two kinds you get are regular bags with camera compartments, like Peak Design’s Travel Backpack, or hard shell cases, like the ones Pelican makes, that are basically indestructible.
Which bag you use depends on what situation you’re trying to carry your camera in. I have one of each because I’m a bag-fanatic, but you should choose the one that best suits the situations you need to protect your camera in.
Other Ways to Keep Your Camera Safe
There are a few other things you can do to keep your gear safe.
Deliberately buy hardy gear. I know I’m hard on my stuff so I always buy gear that can take a beating. If you know you’re going to be a bit rough, go with stuff that will take a bit more punishment even if it costs you a little more.
Always keep it attached. Follow a simple rule: your camera is always attached to your body, whether it’s with a strap or in a bag. Don’t let yourself use your camera without a strap (something a lot of photographers are guilty of) and you’re almost guaranteed not to drop it.
Insure your gear. I pay for insurance every month that explicitly covers my gear. It’s just a nice safety net to have. Just make sure you get a policy that covers accidental damages. While you may be used to paying pretty hefty amounts of for things like auto and home insurance, insuring a camera and related gear is a lot more reasonable (as a general rule of thumb the cost per year to insure your equipment will be around 10% the value of the gear).
Take your camera out: it’s great fun to take pictures. And if you follow my advice, it will most likely stay safe and, in the worst case scenario, be easy to replace thanks to the insurance.