Photography for Beginners Part 19: Accessories Continued

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 18:  Accessories

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This is a continuation of our discussion of common photography accessories.

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Batteries

It’s a good idea to always have at least one spare battery with you. That way you won’t be caught out if you forgot to recharge or your battery lost juice from sitting in the camera too long between uses. (The latter has happened to me more than once.)

More than one extra is safer if you will be taking a lot of pics with no access to recharging, like on a backpacking trip, or will be shooting in very cold weather.

The debate usually comes down to: should you shell out the bucks for extra batteries from your camera’s manufacturer or buy substantially cheaper third-party batteries?

Manufacturer batteries are the safest choice. They usually last longer and are less likely to fail or damage your camera.

Inexpensive third-party batteries from companies like Wasabi are popular and work well. But you have to be vigilant because some have a tendency to swell. If that happens when stored in your camera you may not be able to remove it again, so I recommend that you don’t leave one in your camera for an extended period of time when not using the camera.

One of the advantages of buying third-party batteries is that they often come in kits. I bought a set with 2 batteries and a travel charger. By getting the set with 2 batteries I have a spare in both of my camera bags and the charger is much more compact than the one that came with my camera. This 3 piece kit cost less than 1 battery from the camera manufacturer.

Make sure you buy the correct battery for your specific camera model.

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Lens Hood

The designed purpose of a lens hood is to shade the front lens element so you don’t get sun flares in your photos. Which is definitely important.

But lens hoods also serve to shelter the front of the lens from rain and snow, and help protect the front lens element from accidental damage.

Using a lens hood at all times, regardless of shooting conditions, is the approach a lot of photographers take for front lens element protection, rather than permanently attaching a clear filter to every lens. That’s what I do because I’m a bit of a klutz and a filter without a hood could easily get scratched.

If your lens bumps into something or you drop the camera chances are good the hood will protect the lens from scratching. It’s not foolproof protection, but it works well most of the time. (I was shooting at night recently so didn’t need the hood, but having it on there saved my most expensive lens from a drop on the pavement. The only thing that got scratched was the hood. Whew!)

If you have a P&S with a collapsing lens you can’t use a lens hood. But most bridge cameras and almost all ILC lenses can use a lens hood. If one didn’t come with your camera or lens you should consider buying a hood that will fit. The correct length of the hood is related to the focal length of the lens.

Lens hoods come in plastic or metal, and bayonet mounts or screw-on mounts.

Bayonet mount hoods are designed to fit your specific lens, they are quick to put on and take off, you can use a filter with them, and they attach to your lens in reverse position for compact storage.

Screw-on mounts use the filter threads at the front of the lens so you can usually find a third-party hood that works even if no company makes a bayonet mount for your specific lens. Screw-on mounts are more secure. However, you can’t use a filter and the hood at the same time, and they don’t store in a bag as nicely.

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Lights

If you do any shooting at night you want at least one light in your bag. If you shoot near the car or in well-lit locations a small keychain type flashlight is enough. If you need your hands free or will be walking down dark trails you’ll want a headlamp. For serious light painting, a larger neutral color flashlight is a good investment.

I put a tiny red bulb flashlight on a lanyard to hang around my neck for easy access in the dark. A red bulb helps protect night vision. I also have a headlamp that has both red and white bulbs for walking around or when I need more light. The white light has two strengths so it doesn’t have to be on full blast, which is very bright.

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Macro

Most point and shoots have a built-in macro feature for doing close-up photography, so you’re covered if you have that type of camera.

With ILCs you can get frustrated with the minimum focus distance on typical lenses when you want to take close-ups of flowers, etc. I can’t shoot anything closer than one foot away with my main lens.

There are three solutions. Buy a macro prime lens. (The best option, but expensive.) Buy an extension tube. Buy a close-up lens.

Extension Tubes

An extension tube increases the space between the camera sensor and rear element of the lens, which reduces the minimum space needed between the front of the lens and the subject. Tubes can be stacked for greater effect.

A tube must be designed to fit your camera’s mount and can be from the manufacturer or a third-party. The tube mounts to the camera body and the lens mounts to the tube.

Extension tubes are usually sold in sets of 2-4 sizes. Avoid the cheapest tubes because they have less reliable mounts and no electronic communication between camera and lens. Decent quality tubes start at around $40 and the best tubes tend to be upwards of $70, depending on camera brand and mount.

Extension tubes work very well because they don’t have any optics so can’t degrade IQ. The drawbacks of tubes are that every time you use one you have to remove the lens from the camera, which potentially allows dust on the sensor, and they are a hassle if you’re switching back and forth between shooting up close and at a distance.

Close-up Lenses

Close-up lenses are also called close-up filters and diopters. Most screw onto the front of the lens like a filter. They reduce the minimum focal distance and magnify the subject.

Close-up lenses work best with standard and telephoto lenses. The wider angle a lens is the more vignetting there is, the more distortion at the edges there is, and the less magnification effect you get. If you have a mid-range zoom lens use the longest focal length.

Avoid the cheap close-up filters (often sold in sets with different magnification strengths). They only have a single element and you’ll end up with ghosting, reflections, and chromatic aberration (blue and magenta fringing). If you’re going to buy one choose from the following three brands.

The best close-up lenses are made by Canon. They have two optical elements with anti-reflective coatings which makes them quality gear that mostly maintains IQ and avoids chromatic aberration. They are available in two diopter/magnification strengths and prices range from $70 to over $100, depending on size and magnification.

Opteka also makes close-up lenses with two elements and they only cost around $25. The quality isn’t as high and they are only available in a very strong 10x strength, which may not be right for your lens and can make focusing more difficult due to extremely shallow depth of field. But if close-up photography is something you only rarely want to dabble in they’re the most economical choice.

Canon and Opteka make their diopters in very few sizes so you may need to use a step ring. Canon is the only one that makes a large 77mm size.

Raynox makes a slightly different type. Their diopters use a snap-on mount that works like a lens cap rather than screwing into the filter threads. The advantage is they fit more lenses without step rings, but vignetting can be more of a problem. The Raynox lenses have three elements, come in two diopter strengths, and prices are generally around $60-70.

If you decide to go with the close-up lens option, read up on the quirks of using them to make sure you use it properly and that you buy the best one to work with your focal length. Disregard any camera models mentioned in product listings. They don’t matter. The only thing that matters is filter thread size.

Close-up lenses add a layer of glass that can potentially reduce IQ, but they are quick and easy to use, and you don’t expose the sensor every time you add or remove them.

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Mini Tripod

If you hate lugging a tripod around but sometimes need one to steady your camera a tabletop/mini tripod might be the answer.

They are limited in usefulness because you need something to put the tripod on like a table, rock, or log, otherwise you can only shoot with the camera near the ground. On the other hand, sometimes you want to shoot from very low, and that’s easier with a mini tripod than full size.

Mini tripods come in many styles. Some have clamps or suction cups. Some have flexible, bendy legs that you can use straight or wrapped around things like a viewpoint railing. Some have solid legs that fold up very compactly. Some are miniature versions of full size tripods.

Which type, brand, and model to get depends on your camera, how you expect to use the mini, your budget, and the storage constraints of your camera bag.

If you have a light and compact point and shoot camera you can use pretty much anything.

If you have a have a larger or heavier camera, and/or a large lens, you need to buy a quality mini and pay attention to the max weight rating of the models you’re considering. In my experience you need a mini rated for at least two pounds more than your camera and lens weigh. Even then, long lenses cause problems for minis.

Weight is important in two respects. First is the legs, especially if they’re the flexible kind. A cheap flexible mini can’t reliably hold up a camera of substance, no matter what their advertised weight rating might say. (This is from personal experience with my bridge camera.)

Second is the tripod head. If you have a heavy rig the head on a cheap mini probably can’t hold it in place. If you’re doing a long exposure you end up with a soft or blurry photo if there’s creep. Plastic heads that come on cheap tripods also make it difficult to precisely frame your composition because they don’t move as smoothly.

Joby brand GorillaPods are king in the flexible leg category. They are sturdy and have quality metal heads that can be purchased with the legs or separately. (The legs can be used without a head, but it’s more difficult to precisely frame a composition that way.) GorillaPods come in several different weight ratings, ranging from under $20 for light cameras to over $100 for heavy DSLRs. The drawback is they take up quite a bit of space due to their leg design.

I haven’t used any of the non-flexible minis. This page has hands-on reviews of several models and can serve as a starting point for your shopping. It’s from 2012, so models may have changed and new ones have been added, plus it only covers a few of the many brands, but at least it gives you an overview of some prices and styles.

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Rain Protection

Unless you have a heavily weather sealed camera you should think about how you want to protect it from moisture intrusion from things like heavy dew, rain, snow, and waterfall spray.

Some photographers just use things like a freezer bag or the free shower caps you get in hotels. But there are cheap options available designed specifically for cameras.

OP/TECH makes rainsleeves that are fairly easy to use, come in two or three sizes, and you get a two pack for under $10. They aren’t robust so may tear at some point (thus the 2 pack), but they are reusable. They take up almost no space, even when dried out and folded back up after using, and easily fit in almost any camera bag. The relatively thin plastic allows you to use many camera controls and look at the back screen without having to reach up under the sleeve or fit it around the viewfinder.

Neewer makes something somewhat similar, but with an umbrella type telescoping arm that attaches to the hot shoe and extends out over the lens. You get a 2 pack for about $16. I haven’t used this kind, but I like the design idea for the lens better than the drawstring of the OP/TECHs. However, the Neewers aren’t nearly as compact.

For large DSLRs several brands offer rainsleeves that are part nylon and part thick clear plastic for under $15. They’re not as compact as the OP/TECHs, and can be more difficult to use than the first 2 types, but they are much more durable. They look like they might not work well with smaller bridge and mirrorless cameras, but I haven’t tried it.

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Reading Glasses

These aren’t an obvious photography accessory, but I picked up the tip from an online comment on focusing and it’s a good one. Some people have more trouble than others nailing sharp focus when using manual focus. Sometimes the cause is that your near vision isn’t as good as it could be, and you may not even realize it.

A lot of viewfinders have diopter adjustments to correct for vision, but that doesn’t solve focusing with the back screen. Using a cheap pair of readers from the drugstore can help. I have a $10 plastic pair stored in my camera backpack and I find them particularly helpful at night.

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Remote Shutter Release

If your camera has a port to plug in a remote shutter release it’s a good idea to get one if you do much shooting on a tripod. They’re inexpensive and don’t take up much room in a camera bag.

Without a remote release you have to always use the camera’s timer delay which can get annoying if you take more than a few shots. It can also mess up your timing for light trails. If you plan to use Bulb Mode for ultra long exposures you must use a remote release.

Whichever type you buy, you must make sure it works with your specific camera model.

Wired Remotes

The wired kind is one piece that plugs into the camera port. At the end of the wire is a small plastic part you hold in your hand with a button to activate the shutter. The button has a lock so if you’re using Bulb Mode you don’t have to hold the button down the entire time.

Wired remotes use a USB connector and draw power from the camera so they are very reliable and you never have to worry about dead batteries.

Most camera brands sell wired remotes for their camera models that can use one, but you can buy third-party remotes that work exactly the same for under $15 usually.

Wired remotes are the best choice because they are easy to use, small, and very reliable. The only drawback is you have to be next to the tripod to use them.

Wireless Remotes

Wireless remotes have two parts. The receiver attaches to the camera’s hot shoe and has a wire that plugs into the remote port. The shutter release is a separate piece you hold in your hand and works similar to a wired remote.

The advantage of wireless remotes is that you can trigger the shutter from many feet away from your tripod. So you can wander around the area and visit with other photographers, or sit in your car or tent to shelter from a cold wind, while still taking photos.

The disadvantages are that you have 2 pieces to keep track of, both pieces require batteries, and they take up more room in a bag between the 2 parts and spare batteries. They can also sometimes be finicky to get working correctly. I recommend wireless remotes only for those who need the distance feature.

Intervalometers

A more advanced type of remote release is an intervalometer, also called a timer remote. They come in both wired and wireless versions.

An intervalometer is an electronic remote that you can program to do different things like take images at set intervals, time ultra long exposures, take images at specific times when you’re not near the camera, etc.

Intervalometers are fairly inexpensive and something you want to consider buying if you start doing a lot of complicated or extended tripod shoots. But for the average hobbyist they add an unnecessary level of complexity.

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Tripod Straps and Bags

If you’re looking for an easier way to carry your tripod than by toting it around in your hand there are straps and bags you can buy.

If you’re the minimalist type you can get a good quality strap for around $20-30. They have two small straps with quick release buckles that wrap around the legs and a cushy padded shoulder strap.

If you’re looking for a storage and carry solution that helps keep dust and dirt off you might prefer a zippered bag. Several bags are available for under $20, but most of them don’t have a shoulder pad, and sometimes the shoulder straps are uncomfortably short. You can find better quality bags in the $20-50 range. Padded bags that offer extra protection when traveling are also available, but they’re much bulkier.

The trick with bags is making sure you get one that fits your tripod legs and head without a struggle, but that isn’t too large. If it’s too big and you walk a long distance, the tripod shifting around inside the bag can get annoying.

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Part 20:  Buying a Tripod

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