There are certain things that every photographer needs and should be happy to have, such as extra batteries and memory cards. But those items are essentially the socks and underwear of the photo world. If you’re going to treat yourself to some gear to upgrade your bag (or give a photographer a gift), you want something a little more fun than the photographic equivalent of boxers. There are items in all price ranges that can make a surprising improvement in your shots, and a lot of them cost less than $50. Here’s a sampling:
Although this bulb for blowing air looks
like a toy, it’s indispensable. Dust on your camera sensor will leave marks that show in the same place on each and every shot you take. If you sometimes change lenses, you’ll eventually get dust on the sensor. But unless you really know what you’re doing (really, really know), you shouldn’t use any cleaning product that touches the sensor.
That’s where a bulb can be handy. Squeeze it, and a little burst of air clears the dust. The bulb is better than canned air, which uses propellants that can cause more damage to a sensor than dust.
The fins aren’t just for a cutesy look: They keep the bulb from rolling away, as round ones have a tendency to do. $10.
Camera lenses and LCDs collect dust, and eventually the dreaded fingerprint or two, which leave hard-to-remove oils that dirt clings to. The lens pen is a two-step tool containing a soft goat-hair brush for removing loose debris, and a carbon-impregnated pad that soaks up oils. It’s simple, it’s clever and it works. $15.
When you want to carry your camera outside your back or shoulder case, you’re often left with a tangle of straps that can make it hard to jump on that sudden photo opportunity.
Capture is a creative answer to that tangle, adding a high-quality, quick-release camera mounting system to any strap. You can secure your camera to a strap you’re already wearing, such as a shoulder bag, a backpack or even a belt.
The Capture is made of powder-coated aluminum and claims to support up to 150 pounds. The screws used to attach it to a strap can be opened without tools, and it fits straps up to three inches wide and about a half-inch thick.
It has a locking mechanism to foil grabby thieves, and the part that screws into the camera doubles as a mount for most Arca-Swiss-style tripods. $80.
A reflector is an inexpensive way to remove harsh shadows from your shots. Collapsible reflectors, such as those from Lastolite, which range from 12 inches to 6 feet by 4 feet, consist of fabric on a wire frame and fold to about a third their open size.
They come in highly reflective silver; a less reflective white; gold, which casts a warm glow; and other variations.
To use one, place it facing your light source. Using a reflector makes it possible to shoot in harsh sunlight without having to use a remote flash, which is much costlier than a reflector. $15 to $100.
A flash tends to spray harsh light somewhat indiscriminately, creating a flat image, especially if it’s mounted atop a camera’s hot shoe. Some pros bounce their flash off the ceiling or a cardboard reflector to reduce the harshness; the Flash Bender takes this concept a step further.
The device is like a cardboard reflector, except that it has built-in bendable wire so that you can adjust it to focus the direction and shape of your light for each shot. Adding a $20 diffusion panel can give your flash the softer look of studio lighting. $30.
Although there are a lot of tricks that you can do in Photoshop, one that software has yet to match is the look you get from mounting a circular polarizing filter on your lens.
These filters reduce reflections, just as polarized sunglasses do, but the advantages are far more abundant. Blue skies become a richer blue, rock and asphalt show more detail, and clouds go from featureless masses of white to detailed swirls with depth and texture.
As a bonus, the filter will serve as a first line of defense against anything that might fly up into your lens.
It may be worth spending an extra couple of dollars to have a lens filter wrench in your bag. It applies even pressure to remove a stubborn filter, which may decide at the worst possible moment that it doesn’t want to come off. About $70, depending on size.
If you’re ready for an all-out splurge, then a camera from this awkwardly named category may be the ticket. These cameras have smaller sensors than digital single-lens reflex cameras (that’s not so good), but without the mirror of the DSLR, they’re much lighter and smaller, about the size of a large point-and-shoot camera.
As with DSLRs, you can change lenses for true wide-angle and telephoto shots. And because there’s no mirror, there’s no DSLR “mirror slap” sound — the loud click that accompanies each shot. Mirrorless cameras are almost silent (that’s all good).
The sensor size and lens formats vary from brand to brand, but an entry that typifies the largest class of these cameras — called Micro Four Thirds — are the Olympus Pen cameras, which range in price from $400 to $900, with lenses priced from $300 to $900. Unfortunately, those prices are also typical of the category. $400 to $1,000.
Camera bags can be a major expense, but you can convert your messenger bag into a camera bag with a padded insert such as the Timbuk2 Snoop. It has a scratch-resistant lining and partitions that can be moved and reconfigured using some hard-gripping Velcro. The inserts are $30 to $50, depending on size. It would be nice if the zip top were padded and you could buy extra partitions, but that’s not the case. The curved shape is great for messenger bags, but if you have more squared-off luggage, you might consider the $30 BBP Camera Paddy Insert. $30 to $50.