If I’ve said it once I’ve said it four or five times: Accessories aren’t sexy.
Chunky, fast glass is sexy. Focusing rings that glide like warm butter and aperture settings that click into place like the hammer of a Civil War revolver — now it’s getting warm in here. All-metal camera bodies, handcrafted by artisans who will never lose sleep over lifetime warranties — did someone put on a Bryan Ferry album?
You know what’s not sexy? Camera straps. Storage. Batteries. And by the way, how is it that I consider rechargeable batteries less sexy than single-use batteries? I know it’s crazy but I can’t shake the feeling. Anyway.
I’ve tried a lot of different accessories, and through trial and error have determined how much junk is out there. (A lot.) But it’s an underappreciated truth that finding the right accessories will take your photo game to a higher plane of consciousness.
The logic is simple: The less extraneous noise you have to think about during the process of taking photos, the more mental energy you can devote to the process of making photos. That’s a big win since everyone’s end game is (or should be) making photos.
Truth be told each of these items deserves its own article. But for as much as I preach the virtues of camera accessories, the thought of writing 2,000 words about a light meter makes my teeth itch. I commend my fellow writers who have survived the experience and I hope they remember me fondly for I won’t be joining them in Valhalla. The best I can do is a few paragraphs for each. I’ll also say the brand and model of each that I own and use, but the list itself is general and not necessarily a brand recommendation. The specific tools I use are perfect for me, but you likely have to figure out which works best for you.
So for your reading pleasure, I present five accessories that have had a hugely positive impact on my workflow. The supporting cast to my process that improve the entire production. Consider them the Shea Whighams, Thelma Schoonmakers and Waddy Wachtels of the camera gear world. Their names are never on the marquee, but they’re crucial components to my process and results.
A decent tripod (and L bracket)
I shoot a lot below the 1/125 of a second threshold for shooting handheld. That’s been the case even more this year working on a project where I’m generally shooting in cloudy weather with film rated at ISO 80. I also really enjoy shooting at dusk and night, long exposures and photographing waterfalls and rivers.
Rather than jack up the ISO to static levels and shooting wide open, I’m happy to take a little extra time to set up a tripod and click the shutter with a release cable. I’ve found that the final results look infinitely better by using the second method.
In the tripod marketplace, a photographer can have two of the following three things: affordability, capability and weight. Having all of those is a mirage we all chase and never possess. In some way we each have to find an acceptable balance of those three criteria.
Traveling internationally taught me that my tripod has to be as light as possible, but the heavy medium-format cameras that I use mean it can’t be flimsy. Logic then dictates that I would need to shell out the big bucks in order to get what I want. The trouble is, I’m also not rich. So I need to come down on another of the three criteria to make it affordable.
I ended up buying a tripod from the British company 3 Legged Thing. I chose their basic entry model, called Travis (I believe it’s the only tripod named after a member of Blink-182) because I was surprised that it seemingly met all three criteria: It’s only 180 euros, can support up to 40 pounds of weight and is relatively compact and light.
3 Legged Thing is an interesting company that seems to be taking a fresh approach to tripod manufacturing. I could likely write more about this tripod and the two years I’ve spent with it, but for the sake of brevity I can say that it’s portable enough to pack for international flights, easy to use and supports all the gear I put on it. I like it so much I even bought an accompanying L-bracket to make vertical compositions easier.
There’s no way I would be able to do the photography I do without a tripod. You may not need one for the types of photos you’re taking, but consider that it might open you up to the types of photos you’re currently not taking.
A reliable (and quite boring) backpack
If finding a perfect tripod is like climbing Mount McKinley, then finding long-term satisfaction with a camera bag is like building a spaceship out of spare washing-machine parts, blasting off to Saturn’s third-largest satellite, Lapetus, and climbing its twelve-mile high equatorial ridge. It’s hard to find a camera bag that meets all your wants and desires.
Take for instance the different categories of camera bags. From backpacks, hip bags, sling bags, rolling cases, hard cases, waist packs, totes and fashion bags, the trouble starts early for bag shoppers. That’s all before you answer even more important questions. How much does it need to carry? How protected will the gear be? Is it waterproof? Does it look chic? Can I attach my tripod and will it have space for a laptop?
I’m as guilty as the next person of jumping down the buyer’s rabbit hole of endless research and comparison. The amount of time I’ve spent staring at websites and watching paid “reviews” on YouTube can be measured in terms of hours. (God, I hope not in days.) And to this day, I continue to use the same bag I’ve had since receiving it as a gift in 2014 — the Streetwalker from Think Tank.
I place Think Tank in that class of camera bag manufacturers responsible for the modern iteration of the camera bag: Typically (but not always) a backpack, black and grey color schemes, designed with comfort and carrying capacity in mind, and, yes, boring.
I used to be someone that looked for a unique, attractive camera bag. Something that stood out in a crowd. But the more I found myself traveling to different countries and locations known for creative pickpockets (I’m thinking of the area around Barcelona’s La Sagrada Familia) the more I warmed to the concept of a boring bag being a safe bag. Something not easily noticeable by those with sticky fingers.
So I’m now a firm believer in carrying something that doesn’t catch the eye while it nonetheless protects and organizes a variety of gear.
A dedicated light meter
I’m speaking from experience when I say I don’t want to write 2,000 words about a light meter. I made the attempt a few years ago when I reviewed the Sekonic L-308S. That little meter taught me that simple things often require simple descriptions.
Are you considering buying a mechanical camera but hold off because you’re not an exposure master? Have you seen an unusually cheap camera for sale online only to be put off by the words “light meter broken”? Then an external light meter will be your new best friend. I learned early that shooting film costs too much time and money for me to waste any with the Sunny 16 method. For $100 I bought a light meter and opened up a world of new old cameras. It also sharpened my brain when it comes to calculating exposure. After a few months of taking readings I no longer had to perform mental gymnastics to know what two stops of over-exposure translated to in settings.
In the four years that I’ve used my Sekonic it’s paid for itself multiple times over. And if I had to pick one piece of gear I absolutely couldn’t live without, it’s a dedicated light meter. These days I’m on the lookout for a more sophisticated meter like the classic Minolta Spotmeter F or even Sekonic’s beastly Speedmaster, but the L-308S is a flawless workhorse that will always have a spot in my bag.
120 film holders
I adore the phrase “you don’t know what you don’t know.” Maybe it’s the folksy and obvious dumbness of the phrase; a half step above “it is what it is,” but still below anything considered wisdom. Then there’s the 21st century modification to the concept: that there are “known knowns and known unknowns.” And Cinderella taught us you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.
Hopefully by now you can feel a ringing in your frontal lobe. That’s close to how I felt after seeing that there are specially made cases in which to hold your film rolls. You know, beyond the ones that come from the manufacturer. I thought: “Is this actually necessary?” And for a long time I resolved in the negative. But I kept looking at them, and as I shot more and more of the comparatively fragile medium format film, I started to change my tune.
The deal was sealed when I saw that Bellamy at Japan Camera Hunter sold holders for both medium format and 35mm film. (More on the second later.) I bought two of each, and was happy that the five-roll 120 holders came in British Petroleum green — adding a splash of color in my otherwise black and silver gear bag. At $15 each, these tough plastic cases have proven to be stellar companions on my travels. Not only do they keep the film safe, but they also help me ration my film for projects where I only have a finite amount of a particular film stock.
A grown up camera strap
First let me mention that I abhor gatekeepers in the photo community. There’s plenty of evidence that good photographers can take great pictures with crappy gear and an even greater evidential pool to prove that bad photographers can take boring photos with top-of-the-line equipment. Good gear doesn’t make you any better of a photographer if you don’t know how to make a good photo. Period.
But in some scenarios a higher-tier piece of kit makes life easier. Take camera straps for example. I think we all know that at some point you’ll need to graduate from whatever branded piece of nylon came in your camera’s box. And while you love that crusty strap that came attached to your Canon AE-1 — with its vague odor of Nag Chumba and Camels and fabric cut from the seat of a van in the parking lot of a Doobie Brothers concert — the scratches on your neck remind you how much it sucks.
I suffered in the muck of crappy camera straps for years — walking through a wilderness so miserable that I actually started to think I preferred not having a strap at all. That was until I bought my first Peak Design strap. It was their “Leash” model, designed for small cameras and basically just a narrow piece of seat belting, the true genius of the product is their proprietary anchor locking system. Attaching sets of the anchors to different cameras makes switching the strap between cameras almost effortless. No more annoying attachment systems that tear up your fingers or manufacturer straps that have to be woven to the camera like a traditional straw basket.
Soon the weight of my cameras was exceeding the comfort level and I upgraded to the big boy “Slide” model. This one is more substantial and supportive, but at a cost. I paid 60 euros for mine, an amount of money I never thought I would spend on something like a strap. But lugging around a Pentacon Six, or a Nikon F4 with a zoom lens quickly made it a worthy investment. The act of carrying the camera, which was always a hassle in some shape or form, now doesn’t even register in my mind. Which is exactly the type of benefit we should expect from our camera accessories.
And now for the regrets…
There’s a specific and personal thread running through the items on this list. I do a lot of landscape work with slow film. And in the rare instance that I shoot digital it’s almost always for long exposures. Items like tripods and shutter releases are crucial for that. I mostly use a mechanical Pentacon Six camera, so that’s why I need a good light meter and medium format film holders. The motivation for the selection of the items on my list are because they’ve been critical to my type of photography. But I also think they are universally necessary items for most photographers.
We don’t always give enough credit to our accessories, but it’s hard to imagine being a photographer without the five I’ve just mentioned. Unfortunately, there are more things I’ve bought and never used more than once that we could consider letdowns. Here are a few of the most regrettable:
35mm film holders
Unlike the 120 film holders, I’ve never found a lot of practicality for the 35mm holders. My version holds ten rolls of film, which is always either too much or not enough. (Almost always it’s too much, though smaller capacity holders are also available). But the biggest struggle is that every time I would actually find a use for the film I’m also going through an airport.
Going through an airport is always frustrating, but I would posit that it’s even more of a hassle for photographers, and then even more of a hassle for photographers using film. There’s probably enough for an entire article just on traveling with film. But the king of the hassles is the x-ray machine. I do a lot of praying in airport terminals hoping to encounter a security employee willing to hand check my film. I know from experience that if I show up with a huge ziplock bag filled with film out of packaging, they are much more likely to accommodate me.
So to use a 35mm film holder, I’d have to unpack all the film I ordered from its store packaging, put it in the film holder, then transfer it to the ziplock bag, replace it into the holder after my arrival and repeat the process coming home. The other option is to just use the ziplock bag and make sure I don’t throw the bag of film against a wall or run it over with a lawnmower. Between those two choices I think the choice is obvious, so if anyone wants a few ten-roll 35mm film holders, I have a few in mint condition.
Battery grips for manual film advance cameras
I know, this one is pretty specific. It’s not just battery grips, but battery grips for manual-advance film cameras. But my experience in this topic is extensive. I’m not sure if that’s because I’m a completist, or if I really thought this tool would be useful, but I have a drawer full of battery grips from the 1970s and ’80s full enough to make a Duracell executive gleeful.
The important component of that last sentiment is this: They all live in a drawer that is rarely flooded with sunlight. Don’t get me wrong, my neglect isn’t malicious. At various points I deemed it a critical expense to acquire a battery grip that would turn my inconspicuous Minolta XD or X-570 into a creaking AA-powered oaf.
There’s an undeniable advantage to battery grips. They increase power, shooting speed and (maybe most importantly) give additional balance and control for using telephoto lenses. And when it comes to more substantial cameras like the Nikon F4, a beefy grip comes standard out of necessity. But spending money on grips for svelte manual-focus bodies quickly emphasized how some of the best aspects of these cameras is their small size and the tactile experience of advancing the film with a lever and a thumb. Almost no one (except maybe Chris Cushing) shoots super fast objects with a film camera in a way that would make buying a grip a good investment. So the “advantages” you’re left with is a heavier camera that makes more noise.
Cokin filter system
Digital photography has made it both acceptable and relatively easy to take more photos with the goal of combining them later in post production. This is the hubris that begat the nemesis of HDR photography. Call me old fashioned, but I’m someone that believes in spending more time to take fewer pictures by getting it right “in camera.” If you’re shooting film I assume we generally align on that principle.
As someone that enjoys shooting landscapes, filters play a central role in getting the right image in as few exposures as possible. And there are all kinds of filters for all kinds of situations. To shoot through glass, to see through water, to make the scene darker, to change contrast and a whole host of options if you’re shooting black-and-white. There are a lot of lenses out there and the amount of lens filter sizes is big enough to make filter companies smile like a butcher’s dog.
Then comes along Cokin, the French company that designed a modular filter system that allows photographers to buy one set of filters and use them across all sizes of lenses just by adding the appropriate adapter ring. It’s easy to use, just twist on the correct filter ring, slide on the filter holder and attach whatever filter you want to use. Switching the filter between lenses with differently-sized filter rings is quick and easy.
I love the idea behind the Cokin system, and while I don’t specifically love the cost of the filters, I’ve had positive experiences while using it.
So why is it on this list and not the other? I just don’t use it enough to have justified the few hundred dollars I’ve invested in them. Chalk that up to equal parts laziness on my part, and the inconvenience that is the year 2020.
Flashes and the cords that come with them
Every photographer should aspire to be a master of light — all kinds of light. That includes the intimidating world of flash photography. And if you’re someone with a flash, you’d better be getting it off camera to punch your work into a higher quality bracket.
These things I know. These things I understand. And these things I recommend to everyone.
But these things I preach I don’t always practice.
Working in a photographic production hall means flash is an ever-present spectre in my workday. Literally, I’ll often be in a meeting with flash pinging my eyes through glass walls. We couldn’t do our jobs without flash — and we have the best, most beautiful flashes. Powered by strong power generators.
For a while I lived under the assumption that I needed to be prepared to shoot any type of photography in any situation. I’ve come to accept the wrongness of that assumption through the experience of buying stuff I never use. Flashes are at the top of that list, because 99 percent of what I shoot is done with natural lighting and rarely includes people.
It could be that these flashes become useful in future days, but for now they’re a reminder of the ills of impulsive gear shopping.
What are some of your most treasured camera accessories? What are some of the ones you’re ashamed to talk about? We would love to hear about it, so leave a comment below.
[Some of the links in this article will direct users to our affiliates at B&H Photo, Amazon, and eBay. By purchasing anything using these links, Casual Photophile may receive a small commission at no additional charge to you. This helps Casual Photophile produce the content we produce. Many thanks for your support.]