There are a lot of articles with suggestions for gadgets to buy yourself or gifts to buy your friends and significant others that are interested in photography, but a lot of them are filled with inexpensive gadgets and novelties that are, admittedly, very neat, but aren’t really what you (or they) need. On the opposite end of the spectrum, some of the suggestions are wildly expensive, too, which makes them unlikely gifts. I will also say that when I was (slowly) improving in skill with photography, a lot of these lists and articles didn’t really represent my needs and wants. After all, I didn’t really know what I needed at that point in my growth. If I could go back in time, I wouldn’t have wasted my money, or let my family waste their money, on that cheap wide-angle adapter or the pack of extremely cheap screw-on filters that I never used (or shouldn’t have). And while I DO enjoy my lens mug immensely, it didn’t help me improve my skill or challenge me in any way.
The 50mm Lens
I often am asked the question, “what lens should I buy?” – often by people who only have a kit lens. When I was in their position, the biggest temptation was to buy any lens that filled out my focal length. What I mean by that is that a kit lens (usually 18-55mm) fills your most basic needs of a wide angle (at 18mm) and ‘normal’ (at 55mm). Normal means that it, supposedly, shows the perspective closest to what your eyes see. What I wanted first was a 55-200mm or 70-300mm lens. While these lenses can be useful if you need to shoot your kid’s soccer game, they’re not great in low light. Honestly, I ended up shooting in low light a lot more than I thought I would.
Another thing I noticed about my kit lens is that I couldn’t get that blurred out background that I saw in other people’s photos. Admittedly, you can get a similar effect at the ‘long’ end of the focal range of the telephoto lenses I mentioned above, but shooting a portrait or candid photo at 300mm on a crop-sensor camera isn’t always convenient as it puts you a long ways away from your subject. There is one item that can fulfill your need for shooting in low light, blurring the background, and more while staying within your budget. Without hesitation, I always tell people to buy what we call a ‘prime lens’. A prime lens is a lens with a fixed focal length (you can’t ‘zoom’ it) but has a wide aperture (it lets a lot of light in). Prime lenses are also often sharper, quicker to focus than zooms, and will allow you to achieve that blurry background you want. Most manufacturers make an inexpensive 50mm lens that is actually pretty good. Both Canon and Nikon make a 50mm 1.8 lens that is quite affordable. If you are using Nikon, you might also consider the 35mm 1.8. I personally think it’s a better focal length for crop sensor camera users. Another benefit to 50mm primes: you can use them on a full-frame body if you upgrade at some point.
If you plan to take pictures of people, one of the most valuable items in your camera bag, besides your prime lens ;), can be a good reflector. As simple as they are, a reflector can be a game changer for portraits. To get that nice, backlit look, reflectors are certainly your friend.
Your camera simply does not have the dynamic range to expose the background and your subject properly, especially when backlit. If you buy the reflector I recommend (Westcott 5-in-1), it also has a couple metallic sides and a diffuser. The diffuser can be used to soften harsh sunlight on your subject. This is especially good if you’re forced to shoot when the sun is high in the sky (think noonish).
Whether you just need to brighten up a room or light a person, there is a ton you can do with just one flash. Scroll down to the ‘Education’ section if you’re interested in learning flash basics and more. The flash that Jim recommends is the Yongnuo 560 – the current model is the version IV and it is fantastic. It’s all manual, but you can go a long way with a manual flash. The YN560 version IV has a built-in transmitter and receiver that allows it to not only be triggered (by radio frequency) from a considerable distance, but also allows it to control and trigger other flashes. You can also get the YN560tx controller if that interests you. The best part of this excellent flash is the price: it’s only ~$70!! Honestly, for the functionality you get from it, that price is stupendous. You could buy a set of three of these plus the 560tx controller for under $300…seriously, some name brand flashes cost far more than that for ONE flash. Don’t get me wrong, the name brand flashes are amazing, but at that price, buying three plus a controller just isn’t attainable for most of us.
Here’s a cool item that is highly underestimated: the Yongnuo RF-603 trigger. It comes in a set of two and is compatible with the YN560 flashes mentioned above – it can be triggered by the flashes and can also trigger the flashes. You can also use them to trigger your Canon or Nikon flashes (and others). That’s simple enough, but what some people don’t know is that they can also be used as a remote shutter release. If you’re taking a group shot and you want to be in it, just set up your camera on a tripod, and connect one of the RF-603 units to your camera (and connect the supplied cable) and take a second unit with you. You can also put your camera on a light stand or painter’s pole to get a different perspective. Here are two uses of this setup: real estate photography and portraits.
With and without painter's pole – Photo by Jim Harmer
Speaking of tripods, you can get a decent one for just over $100 and they’re necessary for certain types of photography such as landscape, long exposures, time lapse, compositing, etc. Believe me, I’ve tried to do some of these things without a decent tripod, and they didn’t go well.
There are many types and many brands of filters out there, but I’ll just mention two: ND aka neutral density, and polarizing. Neutral density filters are essentially sunglasses for your lens – they block light. Why would I want to block the light entering my camera?
Well, if you’ve ever tried to take a picture of a waterfall without one, you know the struggle. Unless it’s pretty dark outside, it’s hard to get your shutter speed low enough to blur the water. If you attach an ND filter to your lens, all of a sudden you’re able to get a proper exposure at a lower shutter speed. The first time I used one felt miraculous. You can also use ND filters to allow you to blur moving objects, like clouds, in the middle of the day. Another application I’ll mention is in flash photography. Once again, you’d be using it to allow you to use slower shutter speeds in the middle of the day – but in flash photography, you’re slowing your shutter so that you can keep it at or under your camera’s flash sync speed. If you want to know more about ND filters and flash photography, I’ll be talking about it in a future article.
As far as polarizing filters go, I have to be honest: I don’t understand exactly how polarized, unpolarized, and linear light work, so I’ll just tell you what they do as well as I can. To quote the Wikipedia page on polarizing filters, “A polarizing filter…is often placed in front of the camera lens in photography in order to darken skies, manage reflections, or suppress glare from the surface of lakes or the sea.” So if you’re at a lake and you want to see the nice rocks, etc. that are under the water, but all you’re getting in your image is a reflection or glare, you can pop on your circular polarizer filter and twist it until the reflections abate to some extent. The same idea applies to windows – if you’ve ever tried to take a cool portrait through a window, the odds are that you had to fight the reflections to get the shot you wanted, if you got the shot at all.
With and without an ND Filter – Photo by Nick Page
I recently had the opportunity to try a new product that I’m pretty impressed with. When I’m trying to set up my camera for a landscape shot, I want to move quickly, but especially when I'm setting up my lightning equipment while a client is waiting, the longer it takes, the more stress I feel. So, in the name of efficiency, I’ve picked up a few products to speed things up. It’s often a hassle to get my ND filter threaded correctly when I’m in a rush and it’s just another one of those time-suckers. When I discovered the Xume magnetic filter adapters, my interest was peaked, indeed. Quite simply, all you have to do is thread a ‘lens adapter’ to the lens and a ‘filter holder’ to your filter and your filter just pops right onto your lens. When I finally got to try it, I literally laughed out loud. It’s definitely going to save me some time and frustration. The make a magnetic lens cap for the system too.
Many people overlook the cleaning and maintenance of their equipment. Let me tell you about a few very affordable options to put in your bag. The first thing I think you need is a blower. I prefer the Giottos Rocket Blower – it pushes a lot of air and is good quality. You want to use this first so that the larger debris is blown out before ever touching your lens. The next thing I would get is a Lens Pen. It includes a brush on one side and a cleaning implement on the other. After you’ve used the blower, brush off anything that the blower missed, then turn the lens pen around and clean the lens as the instructions indicate. That’s the quick way to do it.
Alternatively, you can use things like microfiber cloths, lens tissue paper, and cleaning liquid to clean your equipment. I generally do it this way when I need to do a deeper clean. Here’s a cheaper kit that contains all of the items mentioned. But when you need a quick fix on the fly, you can grab a Zeiss lens wipe and do an express clean.
When you are browsing for camera bags, it can be very hard to sift through all of the information and actually find something you want and need. My first camera bag was a cheap Nikon bag that came with my first camera. I learned very quickly that I wasn’t going to keep it around for very long. It didn’t properly accommodate my gear and it wasn’t as customizable as I needed it to be. It was also not terribly comfortable. While there are a lot of expensive bags out there, I was lucky enough to stumble upon one that I loved and wasn’t very expensive, in the grand scheme of things. The Lowepro Event Messenger 250 is currently, only $40 and accommodates 3 of my medium-sized lenses, Canon 5D Mark III, a flash in the side pocket, a laptop or ipad (or model releases & wedding timelines) in the padded laptop compartment, and a ton of accessories like batteries, memory cards, etc. can fit in the front compartment. That’s not all. My favorite part is that Lowepro put some extra thought into how the bag opens and closes. It has velcro and a clasp. Image you’re at a wedding at a quiet ceremony and you accidentally close your bag and the velcro sticks together. To open your bag, you’d have to loudly rip apart the velcro. Lowepro thought of this and made the velcro strips with the ability to disengage them. That’s just one bag, but it’s one of my favorites.
‘Stock’ camera straps are quickly becoming a pet peeve for me. If you’re the type of person who just puts the strap on your neck and lets it hang on your chest and you’re happy with that, more power to you, but a lot of other people are looking for more. For me, it started when I began wearing my camera strap draped diagonally across my chest so that I could essentially wear it on my back and pull it up and forward to use it. Its was manageable, but troublesome. When using it this way, the strap isn’t long enough and it often sticks to your shirt. At some point, I started second shooting at weddings, capturing a mix of photos and video. When I would try to use my camera on a slider, tripod, or hand-held stabilizer, the strap was quite a nuisance. I took off my strap, and for a while, I didn’t have any strap, at all. Then I heard about the BlackRapid RS-7 strap. It’s comfortable and convenient. Of course, they also make the RS-Sport that includes a secondary strap that prevents the strap from slipping on your shoulder. I recently tested out the Yeti, one of their dual straps. As a wedding ‘prime-shooter’, this strap is essential for me during the ceremony so I can drop one camera and quickly grab the other. There are other manufacturers and styles of straps such as Peak Design and Holdfast, as well as some less expensive ones. Personally, I only use a strap about 10% or less of the time anyway, but when I do, it’s my BlackRapid.
I would be remiss not to mention software. Post production software is arguably one of the most important photography tools you can own, and adobe has, somewhat recently, made their software collection subscription-based, turning a potentially multi-hundred dollar expenditure into mere pocket change. I don’t know about you, but because Photoshop was so expensive, I never actually paid for it until now. Now, you can get both Lightroom AND Photoshop together for only $10 per month. That’s staggering, in my opinion. That means if you skip two or three Starbucks visits per month, you can get a powerful bundle of industry-leading software to assist you in making beautiful images. Don’t skip this one!
There are a lot of educational websites out there, but just this month (April 2016), Improve Photography Plus was launched, making ALL of Improve Photography’s digital content available for 19.99 per month. That’s an excellent deal – I was just considering the purchase of a class that would have cost me over $100 for just a few hours of content. With this subscription, you not only get the 195 tutorial videos (including Jim’s Lighting in a Flash workshop), but also all of the Lightroom presets the site has produced to date, RAW sky images for sky replacement, and a collection of contracts and ebooks (and more to come). You also have the opportunity to ‘upgrade to mentoring’ which means that you’d get personal, one-on-one advice, tutoring, and critiquing from the mentor of your choice, so long as they’re available.
I call this a bonus because it’s not like the other categories or items. Atmosphere Aerosol is a tool to bring ambiance to your photos and allows you to bring fog/smoke on location. You don’t necessarily need it, but it’s a fun and useful thing to have in your bag. I’m currently having quite a fixation with this product as you can see from my previous article.