Photography for Beginners Part 18: Accessories

Each post in this series builds on information discussed in previous posts. See the Photography for Beginners page on the menu for links to all the posts.

Part 17:  Glossary of Photography Jargon

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It’s time to turn our attention to photography gear. We’re starting with accessories because some might work with the camera you already own.

When considering whether or not to buy a specific accessory weigh the cost vs. benefit. If it’s a small and inexpensive item it won’t matter much if you rarely use it, you’ll be happy you have it those times you do need it.

But if it’s a pricier addition to your kit, consider how much you you’ll make use of it in the real world.

From personal experience I know it’s easy to fantasize about how you could do X if only you had Y piece of gear. But will you actually do it? Fiddling around with extra equipment is a joy for some and an annoyance for others

Knowing this about yourself will help guide future purchases.

Money isn’t the only factor in this consideration, there’s also the cost of storage and weight. The more doodads you own the harder they are to keep track of, the heavier they make your bag, and the more space they take up.

Do you want to carry a camera bag that contains gear for every conceivable situation, or are you a minimalist? Every item you acquire has to go somewhere, whether it be a large and expensive lens or a small and cheap gadget.

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Camera Stores

I’m a big fan of shopping at physical camera stores for all but the most mundane photography supplies. They have knowledgeable sales staff for when you need guidance on a purchase and you can try things before buying. Trying before buying is especially important when purchasing a camera, tripod, or bag.

Some camera stores also sell used equipment. Every lens filter I own I bought used for about half the price of new. I also bought my remote shutter release used. By buying used items from a store you can inspect them first to make sure of condition.

My store of choice is Kenmore Camera at the north end of Lake Washington. It’s a very large store and the parking is right in front of their door, so it’s as accessible as it gets. Their sales staff have been very helpful, whether I’m looking for a cheap doohicky or buying an expensive camera. No hard selling or upselling tactics. (I don’t have a relationship with them, I’m just a happy customer.)

The other major camera store in the Seattle area is Glazer’s, located downtown in South Lake Union. It’s also a very large store and while I haven’t been there I’ve heard good things.

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Cleaning Supplies

First of all, don’t clean your lens more often than necessary. The glass is hardy, but the coatings are more susceptible to damage so you don’t want to make contact unless needed.

A few specs of dust on the front of the lens won’t affect your images, they’ll be invisible in your photos. Dust on the rear element of interchangeable lenses can show up, so be a bit more persnickety about that.

The rule of thumb for cleaning lens elements is to go from least contact to most, and don’t do more than is needed.

Cleaning Kits

Pre-packaged cleaning kits are attractive because they come with several types of items and many of them are super cheap. I won’t say never buy such a kit but you should know that the items included in the vast majority of cleaning kits available from places like Amazon are of very poor quality.

You’re often better off buying each item you need separately so that you know it’s high quality and you know it’s something you will use. (I think about half of all cleaning kit contents end up getting tossed in the trash.)

With that said, there are a few nicer kits on the market at very reasonable prices with decent quality contents. I bought one such kit recently because I really wanted the case in order to organize and store all my cleaning items. I was tired of them being loose in my camera backpack.

I picked that specific kit over others with cases because it included a blower with a very short nozzle like I’d been looking for. (Most have long nozzles.) It was definitely worth the approximately $25 I spent for the kit and I’ve kept and used all of the items that came with it except for two, which I did toss. (I already had a better version of one and the other I never use.)

Air Blower

They have a squeeze bulb and a nozzle to blow dust off lens elements, the camera body, and the sensor in an ILC. Because you’re cleaning with air nothing touches the camera so there’s no risk of scratching.

There are some really cheap ones available, often sold as part of a cleaning kit, but it’s better to spend a bit more and get a good one. Giotto Rocket Blowers are the most commonly recommended brand.

Squeeze the bulb a few times to get any dust out of the blower before pointing it at your camera.

Never use canned compressed air on your camera.

Brush

Brushes are good for heavier accumulations of dust on lenses and the camera body. They can get to stuck particles in tiny spaces that a blower won’t dislodge.

Get a quality brush designed for cameras so that the bristles are soft enough to not scratch the lens. Camel hair is a good choice.

Don’t touch the brush bristles because that transfers oils from your skin and then you smear the oil on your lens.

Never use a brush on the sensor (or the mirror in a DSLR).

LensPen

These are an effective, easy, and quick way to clean smudges and fingerprints from lens glass. They have an added advantage of containing a brush in one end of the handle.

The cleaning end is a felt pad coated with carbon, which reloads each time you replace the cap. You clean the lens with the pad by moving in small circles from the center outwards.

LensPen is a brand name and there are cheaper knockoffs available. If you decide you want one buy the brand name. They aren’t that much more expensive and your lens isn’t a place to go cheap.

Make sure you carefully follow the included instructions. LensPens don’t last forever, but they’re good for around 100 cleanings on average. That should last a casual hobbyist for years because you only use one when absolutely needed, right?

Lens Wipes

Lens wipes are the traditional means of cleaning smudges and fingerprints from lens elements and they’re cheap. They come in two styles.

With the dry lens tissue type you also need a small bottle of lens cleaning fluid. Dab some fluid onto the dry tissue and clean the lens using small circles. Make sure you only buy quality tissue and fluid designed for use on optics.

The second type is individually packaged and pre-moistened. They are more convenient and compact, but a little more expensive on a per use basis.

Sometimes the cleaning fluid from either type leaves residue behind. That can be removed with a microfiber cloth or a second dry tissue.

Microfiber Cloths

If you are trying to keep your gear to an absolute minimum and only want to purchase one type of item from the cleaning list this is it.

Microfiber cloths are very handy to have with you at all times. They take up almost no space and serve multiple purposes such as removing lens smudges, wiping down a camera body, clearing moisture from the lens element, and protecting a loose lens in your bag.

Microfiber cloths are inexpensive and usually sold in multiples for one price. I like these that I ordered on Amazon because each cloth has its own little vinyl envelope to help them stay clean and organized. Most are just sold loose.

Microfiber cloths need to be washed regularly, otherwise oils and dirt build up in the fabric and can transfer to the lens.

Microfiber Towel

This isn’t for cleaning so much as drying off. If you shoot in damp or wet conditions (rain, snow, dew, waterfalls, waves) the compact microfiber towels designed for camping are a great solution for wiping down your camera when done and do a much better job of absorbing moisture than the slick little microfiber cloths.

I have this one ordered from Amazon. It was the smallest one being sold that I could find. When stored in the little pouch that comes with it the size is very compact, fitting in the palm of your hand. The pouch is plump, not flat, but squishes into fairly small spaces.

Be sure to leave the cloth out to completely dry after use before putting it back in the pouch or you’ll end up with an unpleasant surprise. Microfiber towels are advertised as quick drying but that’s only in warm and dry conditions. If it’s cool or humid leave it to dry for a day if possible just to make sure.

Sensor Cleaning

This is for ILCs. Dust and other matter can enter the body and get stuck to the sensor, which then shows up in all photos taken. If you can’t blow the particles out with air you need to clean the sensor.

There are various types of cleaning kits out there, but since I’ve never used any of them I’m not qualified to discuss them. Look on YouTube for videos to decide which kind you want to use.

You should never touch or clean the sensor with anything other than items designed specifically for that. If you have any doubts about cleaning a sensor correctly yourself pay to have a professional cleaning done at a camera repair shop.

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Filters

There are a lot of different kinds of lens filters available that have different kinds of effects, so I’m only going to list filters that are commonly used.

Filters come in two main styles: screw-on and filter holder systems.

The screw-on type are round and screw into threads on the front of your lens.

If you only have one lens buy the filter size that fits it. The sizes are in millimeters. Your lens should have a little 0 with a slash through it symbol somewhere on the front and then a number like 58mm. That symbol is telling you the lens takes a 58mm size filter.

If you have more than one lens you have to decide if you want to buy filters to fit each lens, or buy one large filter that can fit more than one lens using step rings. Step rings are inexpensive.

Step rings have two different measurements, so you can screw the 58mm side into your lens and screw a 62mm filter onto the 62mm side, or whatever the actual measurements are.

Step rings have the advantage of letting you buy one expensive filter to use on several lenses. The disadvantage is they can get stuck to the filter, and if there is a large size difference between filter and lens you have to use more than one ring, which can cause vignetting. Brass step rings are better than aluminum because they don’t get stuck as easily, but are more expensive.

Screw-on filters can be stacked, but depending on the lens and filters, this risks vignetting.

Filter holder systems use large rectangle filters and a holder that attaches to the front of the lens barrel with screws or clamps. The filter is dropped into the holder in front of the lens. Most holders allow filters to be stacked.

The advantage of holder systems is that you have one filter size to use with all your lenses, vignetting isn’t much of a problem, and graduated filters only work well with holders. The disadvantage is that systems are expensive, take more space, and are a bit cumbersome to use.

Beginners should stick with screw-on filters to start with. They’re easy to use and are a less expensive initial investment. Once you have a lot of experience, if you discover that using filters is an important part of your photography you can consider if you’d like to invest in a holder system.

When it comes to filters quality matters. A lot. There are tons of super cheap filters for sale out there, but you get what you pay for. Super cheap ones often aren’t even made from glass. There’s no sense in putting junk in front of your lens because it will reduce IQ and can add reflections and flares.

At a minimum you want real glass with a multi-resistant coating (MRC). The higher the quality of your lens the higher the quality of glass you want in your filters, or you’re wasting what you spent on that lens.

Note: Compact P&S cameras that have a lens that collapses into the body don’t usually have filter threads. There are kits you can buy for some models to use filters with an attachment, but the filters are very poor quality and the attachments are clunky. In my opinion it’s not worth it. You’re just buying junk you’ll hate using.

Clear and UV/Haze Filters

UV filters, also called haze filters, were invented for use with film. Film is sensitive to UV light and using a UV filter reduces the UV rays hitting the film.

Digital camera sensors don’t have this problem so there’s no benefit to your images from using a UV filter. There can be a drawback though because you’re adding a layer of glass that can reduce IQ.

However, a lot of photographers still use them or a clear filter to protect the front lens element from accidental damage.

People argue on both sides about the protection benefits vs. potential IQ loss. So it comes down to personal choice as to whether you should stick a clear or UV filter on the front of all your lenses. A damaged lens element from a drop or bumping into something is no joke. But reduced IQ in all your photos isn’t funny either.

If you decide to use a filter for lens protection purchase a high quality one because it will be there for every single photo you take.

Circular Polarizing Filter

Polarizing filters are the most practical to have in your bag for the average photographer. They help cut through atmospheric vapor/haze, reduce reflected glare, and aid color saturation.

They are most useful for landscape photography, around water, and for foliage.

The benefits come at a cost though. Sky looks unnaturally dark blue, some color cast is introduced, and you lose 1-3 stops of light, depending on the filter. (Two is average.)

Polarizing filters don’t work well with wide-angle lenses because the effect is unevenly distributed across the frame, most noticeable if you have sky in your composition. If you have a zoom lens with wide-angle at one end, it’s best to zoom in a bit before composing when using one.

Polarizing filters rotate to increase or decrease how much effect you want to add. You can see the changing effect in an EVF or live view. You get the most benefit when shooting 90 degrees from the sun, so there’s little benefit when shooting into or directly away from the sun.

Only purchase a circular polarizer, because that kind is needed for autofocus and light metering to work in many cameras. Buy the best polarizer you can comfortably afford since it will be a staple piece of your regular kit.

Neutral Density Filters

After polarizers these are the most commonly used filters. ND filters are dark and their purpose is to reduce the amount of light coming in through your lens so slower shutter speeds can be used in daylight.

Smoothing out water with long exposures, especially for waterfalls, is the most common use of ND filters, but they are also used with long exposures to blur movement of things like clouds or crowds of people.

The “neutral” part means that the filter is neutral in color effect. It supposedly won’t change the colors of your images. But all ND filters add a color cast, even if only very slightly. The more expensive a filter is the closer to neutral it usually is, but that’s not always the case. It varies by both brand and product lines within brands.

ND filters are rated by how many stops of light they reduce. So a 2 stop ND filter would let you slow down the shutter by two stops (i.e. from 1/500 to 1/125). Unfortunately, some brands make things more difficult than they have to be and instead of stating stops they use a numbering system like ND 64 or .09. So you may need to look up equivalents online when shopping.

As a beginner you only want to buy one filter at first to give it a try and I think a 6 stop filter is a good place to start. A lot of experienced photographers say to start with a 3 stop.

Normally I would defer to the voices of experience, but that doesn’t provide much reduction for the instances when a beginner is most likely to be using one in my opinion. Plus, that’s only 1 more stop than you get from simply using a polarizer instead. Decide for yourself what makes the most sense for how you think you’ll be using the filter at first.

When starting out, buy a medium quality filter. You can upgrade to a really good one later on if long exposures become an important part of your photography.

You will probably need an ND calculator to figure out what to change the shutter speed to. You can get an app for your phone or print a chart from the web to keep in your bag.

To use an ND filter:

– Frame your composition, manually focus, and choose your settings for a regular exposure. (Autofocus won’t work through really dark filters.)

– Put the filter on your lens and reduce the shutter speed by the number of stops of your filter. So if the camera meter tells you that without the filter the shutter speed is 1/125, with a 6 stop filter change the SS to 1/2 a second.

– Take the pic and check both the exposure and quality of the motion blur. If needed, adjust the SS and try again. You can also try bracketing to help.

Variable ND Filter

These are a great idea in theory, the zoom lens of filters, but not as great in practice. A variable ND filter goes from 1 or 2 stops to 6 or 8 stops usually. You change how dark it is by rotating a ring. The idea is you only have to buy 1 filter instead of 2 or 3.

However, a variable ND filter is simply 2 polarizers sandwiched together, so at the high end they become unusable because a dark X appears in your photos. If you get one that states it goes to 8 stops it might only be usable up to 5 or 6. They can also be difficult to calculate SS for because the stop markings on the ring are not accurate.

Even though variable ND filters aren’t usually considered a quality piece of equipment, they may be worth considering for people who just want to give using an ND filter a try, who like the idea of having flexibility with one filter, and aren’t sure yet if they’ll be doing much long exposure photography.

They’re not really worth paying top dollar for, so medium quality should be sufficient. Though this is one category where I’d say that if you’re thinking of it as merely a toy to have some fun with and not serious photography gear, you could even get a cheap one. Just don’t expect to create frame-worthy prints with it.

Update: I’ve recently become aware of a variable ND filter from K&F Concept that supposedly avoids the X problem and is useable through its full range. So if you’re interested in this kind of filter you might want to check it out first.

Graduated ND Filter

A graduated ND filter is dark at one end and clear at the other. They’re usually used in landscape photography when you have a bright sky and don’t want to blow out the highlights when exposing for the foreground, like at sunset. You make the dark part cover the sky and the clear part cover the ground to get a balanced exposure.

They come in hard edge and soft edge. The hard edge have a sharp cutoff between the dark and clear. A soft edge gradually fades from dark to clear. A soft edge is usable in more situations because a hard edge is really only good for flat horizons.

Graduated ND filters work best with a holder system because you can slide the filter up and down in the holder to position the gradient exactly where you need it in the composition.

They are sold as screw-on type filters too though. The problem is the dark to light transition is in the exact middle of the filter, which means the horizon must be in the middle of the composition frame, breaking the Rule of Thirds.

If you want to give a graduated ND filter a try you can buy a screw-on one anyway knowing the limitation, and maybe frame your composition in a way that you can do some cropping after the fact to get a visually stronger end result.

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Part 19:  Accessories Continued

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