Don't worry, I'm not going to bombard anyone with long recitals about the virtues of Canon f2.8 L series 400mm lenses at around £9,000 each. No, the purpose of this post is to mention far more mundane but very important items which have helped me hugely over the years.
It's easy to find “expert reviews” of highly expensive cameras and lenses, with endless pages of boring graphs, enlargements and technical data, most of which doesn't count for much in real life.
Here, in no particular order, are some things which have my photographic life a lot easier.
Low self discharge batteries.
Before I went digital in 2007, batteries weren't much of an issue. But digital cameras are far more battery hungry, and they positively eat ordinary alkaline batteries. The answer is, of course, rechargeable batteries. These are usually of the NiMH type. But not all NiMH batteries are created equal. Have you ever noticed that rechargeables go flat very quickly even if you've not used them?
Before a photo trip, I'd charge them and when I came to use them, they'd rapidly go flat. Especially on cold days. In the end, I was taking 3 sets with me and still running out of power.
Rechargeable batteries are rated by their capacity. Typical “supermarket available” batteries may be 1200 Ah and whilst these may be fine for low power devices such as clocks, they're not powerful enough for a digital camera, and certainly not for a flash gun or similar. However, the higher the figure in Ah, the more capacity a battery has. A typical high powered battery may be 2700 Ah.
The only problem with “ordinary” rechargeable batteries is that their power drains away even when they're doing nothing. There's nothing more annoying than going out and finding that your camera's batteries are dead.
Then I discovered low self discharge batteries. These are entirely compatible with devices that use normal “throwaway” zinc carbon or alkaline batteries or normal NiMH rechargeables, but their rate of self discharge is very, very low. You can charge these up and they're fine 6 months later. They really are that good. Being able to rely on your batteries is very important when shooting digitally.
Whilst their power rating (Ah) is generally lower than conventional batteries, this really doesn't matter, because whilst the conventional batteries have less power by far in a day or two after charging, even without use, the low self discharge batteries are still more or less at full power capacity. One manufacturer claims that these batteries still have 90% of their charge a year after being charged and being in storage. I could well believe it. They also cope with low temperatures a lot better than normal rechargeable batteries.
Beware, there are a lot of fake low discharge batteries out there. The best makes are, I believe, the Panasonic (formerly Sanyo) Eneloop and Fujitsu Black batteries. You'll find the real deal here:
I am in no way affiliated with this company, but they're reliable and their prices are excellent. Here's the irony: these superb batteries can cost less than a pack of 4 Duracell rechargeables at the supermarket. Buy those with a rating at least 2000 Ah.
A decent battery charger.
So, you've got decent batteries now? But just as batteries are not created equal, neither are chargers. The standard charger most people use works on the principle of time. It allows a certain time for a battery to charge, and then stops charging, whether the battery is full or not. This can damage half charged batteries and can often “confuse” the batteries and negatively impact storage capacity. Plus, it might not fully charge the batteries.
Often, batteries become “tired” and don't hold their full charge. Many get thrown away prematurely. A good battery charger like the Technoline BL-700 is streets ahead of normal chargers. Each battery is charged and monitored separately. You can charge individual batteries this way. What's more, you can change the charging current to charge quickly or slowly (slowly is best) and you can set the charger to completely discharge a battery, or to cycle through discharge then charge until the best possible capacity for the battery is reached. This revives batteries and prevents “memory” problems caused by not being run down completely.
The BL-700 is available here:
A Ring Flash
These are only of use to those people with cameras capable of taking filters over the lens and connecting an external flash to the camera. Usually, an SLR type camera. A ring flash is a great piece of kit for when the light is less than wonderful and when you're doing extreme close-up Macro work. It's grey and miserable in Autumn, and you're lost for something to photograph? Stick a ring flash on your lens and go hunting for fungi or dead leaves or other Macro friendly subjects.
They're also useful for close-up portraits and photographing things like small items, jewellery and anything that needs even lighting at close range.
So, what is a ring flash? This is a flash gun that typically sits on the hot shoe of the camera, as normal, but has a lead that connects to a unit on the SLR's lens. This unit surrounds the lens at the end and when the flash fires, it produces light from all directions. This means little or no shadow or dark parts. Ring flashes were first invented for dental photography, because an even spread of shadowless light was what's needed. This is not suitable for extreme wide angle lenses, because the flash usually does not spread enough and often causes vignetting.
The other advantages are that macro work is difficult in low light and subjects such as fungi tend to be in murky places. This means that shutter speeds will be low, and the closer you get to a subject, the shallower the depth of field gets, meaning that it is very difficult to get close enough and hold the camera steady whilst keeping it all in focus. For fungi etc, a tripod is not often practical. But a ring flash will work at your camera's flash sync speed, which is often 1/60th of a second. Which gives you a fighting chance of getting the shot.
Most ring flashes are capable of adjusting their output to “blend” with the natural ambient light, allowing some shadow. Like most things photographic, it's a matter of getting to know your own gear well enough to get the results.
Have a look on a well known shopping website named after a South American river (yes, Orinoco!) and search for “ring flash”. These are specific to your camera's make and model, although many ring flashes do come with adapters. Whilst the big makers do have their own (highly expensive) ring flashes, I find it hard to justify that expense for something I don't use tremendously. Expect to pay from £15 upwards for a “non OEM” ring flash.
So why can't you use a normal flash? The answer is because the flash is always off the lens's axis, therefore at extreme close range, like with a Macro lens, the flash would simply miss the scene.
So get out there when the weather is not co-operating, go into the woods, wear waterproof trousers and use a macro lens. Just experiment!
A remote shutter release.
I often shoot in low light and using a long lens. Since I don't like pushing up the ISO (see ISO), the only option is a tripod. But even that is not enough. With such a weight, (the lens alone weighs around 3 lb), when you press the shutter, no matter how carefully, there's a chance that you'll move the camera slightly, even with the strongest tripod. The end result is a blurred photograph. You could, of course, use the camera's self timer, but this is tedious and can make you miss shots.
Most DSLR cameras and quite a few others can use an Infrared shutter controller, a small device you hold in your hand and aim at the camera. Press the button, and the camera takes the shot. Simple. No camera shake.
A basic one for Canon cameras is the Canon RC-6 and should work the the majority of Canon cameras. At the time of writing, this handy device costs around £13. Similar devices will be available for makes other than Canon.
However, there is much, much more these kinds of devices can do. Some are attached via a cable into the camera's external flash socket (if it has one), whilst others are wireless, and have a wireless unit which attaches to the camera's hot shoe and hence to the flash socket. Some claim ranges up to 100 metres and these also have the advantage that they don't just work in one direction. They often work behind the camera, too, unlike the RC-6, which must face the IR sensor at the front of the camera. I just put my hand over and point roughly at the IR sensor. It works.
Others are capable of being programmed to take a number of shots at a specified number of seconds. For instance, you could set it to take a shot every 3 seconds. Once back at your computer, this sequence of photographs can be loaded into a video editor and treated as if they were a movie. Because the frame rate is only a 10th or so of standard 720p video, you get wonderful time lapse movies, where clouds race across the sky, or fungi magically explode out of the ground. Your imagination is the limit.
An external audio recorder.
Most cameras now can also do video. Even “budget” compacts can manage 720p video, which is far better than DVD quality. But one of the things I discovered when shooting video, no matter what I use, is that whilst it's easy to get good video, good audio is an entirely different matter!
In fact, if you get easily annoyed, video shooting may not be a good idea. You'll soon discover, to an extraordinary degree, what a noisy country we live in. I live in a rural area, but even there, it is very hard to find pure, unpolluted, natural sound. Even a mile or two from the village, you can hear cars, aircraft, “Mr Fixit” hammering away, tractors, road drills, lawnmowers......
And, particularly, humans, who seem to go out of their way to make a noise. Many ask what it is you are filming. “Something with a bloody soundtrack!”.
And that's without unwanted natural noise, like wind, which howls down most microphones, particularly at the seaside.
Which renders most audio shot alongside video completely useless. Yes, you can trim and edit the audio using an audio editor such as the excellent (and free) Audacity. But you'll soon find that you've run out of audio.
So I have got into the habit of carrying a small audio recorder with me. Not just on photography trips, but when out walking the dog or especially in bad weather. Because you're not shooting video, you can hide an audio recorder from the wind and rain etc. and still get nice, clear recordings. Not long ago this year, I sat in my shed with a tremendous and violent thunderstorm overhead. I was recording the storm and it was superb. Of course, my neighbours probably thought I was mad, but they probably do anyway.
But take one of these little devices with you even when you don't have your camera. Record bird song, streams, even rain and roaring wind. Then, back in your video editor, delete the existing audio track and use one you've just recorded. Most video editors let you trim the audio to fit.
The one I use is the Zoom H1. This is a true stereo microphone. You'd never expect it to be, because of both microphones being so close together, but it is. It is roughly half the size of a TV remote (17.2 x 10.4 x 4.6 cm) and can easily fit in your pocket. It can be tripod mounted (buy one of these pocket tripods) and records to a Micro SD card in either .MP3 or uncompressed .WAV (this is better) format. Very, very simple to use, it can also connect to a PC to transfer files or can even act as a microphone for the computer. This typically costs about £75.
Establish a library and you'll never run out of good audio. Plus, it's something to do when walking about in photography unfriendly weather or locations. There may be a stream that sounds nice but looks horrible. No matter: just record it!
Love or hate them (and most people do both) a tripod is invaluable if you shoot in low light, as I often do. A tripod will also allow you to get shots you simply can't without. For example, the old “blurred water” trick, where running water becomes blurred into a silky stream of white water.
A good tripod should be strong and sturdy, but the only way to achieve this is to make the tripod heavy. Or make it out of expensive carbon fibre. Generally speaking, those with the fewest leg sections (for shortening the legs) are sturdier, but impact how small the tripod is when folded down.
A tripod is also essential for night time photography. Also, for portrait photography, it often helps to use a tripod simply to keep your subject at ease. Use a tripod and a remote release, and you won't just be a single eye glaring at your subject.
A pistol grip tripod head.
Whilst most landscape photographers use a normal “pan and tilt” tripod head, I prefer a pistol grip.
The head of a tripod is the part where the camera is attached and this swivels in various ways to let you point the camera as necessary. A pistol grip is a pistol like handle which steers a ball socket head, meaning that it can move in any direction. The one I use is the Vanguard GH-100. This has a large “trigger” which you can squeeze and which completely unlocks the head, allowing you to move the camera, then if you release it, the camera's position becomes locked again. A simple matter of squeeze, point, release.
The handle part of the grip is completely adjustable and the strength of the lock is also adjustable, as is the angle of the head. This is a very sturdy head with easily supports my Canon camera and 400mm lens. I find this head a pleasure to use and so much easier than fighting numerous levers and screws whilst also trying to aim the camera. If I have any criticism of this pistol grip, it is that its upwards range is not brilliant. However, I get around that by lowering the tripod's rearmost legs.
A tarpaulin and poles
I often photograph and/or shoot video is torrential rain. Hey, I like rain! But cameras don't. Nor do highly expensive lenses. Finding shelter is not always possible, and an umbrella is not practical because you soon run out of hands. So I bought a cheap plastic camouflage tarpaulin, of the kind hikers often use. This is around 2.4 x 3 metres and is completely waterproof. Also a set of adjustable poles and some para cord to use as improvised guy ropes. I already had some spare tent pegs.
Making use of trees or anything else strong enough, and using the para cord and poles, you can improvise a shelter almost anywhere. What's more, this can make a brilliant, cheap hide and will keep your gear dry and if you build it right, it will keep the wind off you. All of it rolled up is far smaller than my (admittedly huge) tripod and it's not too bad to carry.
People often ask me how on earth I got such beautiful shots of rainy weather, and I explain that it's simple: I go out to take photographs in the rain. It's what you've got to do. But there's no need to get soaked or ruin your camera whilst you're at it. This arrangement also makes a great bird or animal hide. Don't forget your flask!
A Macro lens
A Macro lens is a camera lens that allows you to get very, very close to a subject. Often, just a few inches away. This is great for close-ups or detailed shots of flora, fungi or anything else.
Many cameras and lenses claim to have a Macro setting. However, most are not true Macro lenses, they are just the closest they can get to the subject. Usually, this is in feet, not inches.
Macro lenses tend to be between 50 and 100mm. This is because the closer you get to the subject- with any lens- the shallower the depth of field gets. This means that only a very narrow band of the image is in focus, unless you use a really low aperture and hence shutter speeds drop. Hence my recommendation of a ring flash. A 200mm Macro lens would have unacceptably narrow depth of field at very close range. I use a Sigma 50mm EX DG Macro. This comes in Pentax, Nikon and Sony fit. However, I believe that Sigma are not making this lens for Canon any more.
Beware, there are lots of lenses which claim to be Macro! Read the reviews and look out for technical detail claiming that the resultant images are 1:1 (life size). Tamron do a relatively inexpensive 90mm Macro, the AF 90mm Di SP A/M 1:1 (according to a well known shopping website named after a south American river!).
I find Macro lenses useful for when the weather or seasons are not co-operating. They also make excellent “head and shoulders” portrait lenses and I've found them particularly useful for photographing cars. Because 50mm is roughly the same view as human eyesight, the results are natural looking and undistorted. And being a Macro, you can always get really close for detail.
OK, so this isn't strictly necessary, but when your enthusiasm is flagging because you've dragged yourself out of bed at 3:30 AM to photograph a sunrise in summer, a dog will help you get fired up. Dogs are almost always enthusiastic about walks of any kind. Mine have seen more than most people, and ice, frost, snow and rain certainly don't damped their enthusiasm: far from it. Although Sam the rottweiler cross wasn't fond of getting wet. He once tried to squeeze under an umbrella I brought along to keep my cameras dry. Not good: he was far too large to fit. This was before my tarpaulin idea! On the other hand, he loved frost and snow.
Dogs are simply great company. They don't complain, they're flexible and if you treat them right, they'll follow you anywhere. Plus, they make great photographic subjects. Another aspect of them is that they are much, much more alert than we are. Their senses are better. Many's the time I've seen a deer or otter simply because my dog saw it first. I can't recommend a make or model, but I'd be lost without mine! Plus they usually offer to share an early morning snack with you!
I hope this has been of use to you. Like in most fields, a few relatively inexpensive items can really make the job more fun and a lot easier.
Oh, and another bit of relatively inexpensive kit I can't recommend enough, if you use a camera that can accept filters: a UV filter. This is a circle of glass that helps to filter out UV light, which creates haze. But, most importantly, it can protect your lens from scratches and knocks. Better to replace a £25 filter than a £2000 lens!