My recent series on my “evolution” got me thinking a little more about “gear.” I have done this before, in perhaps a different way.
As photographers, we spend a fair amount of time on art and a fair amount of time on gear. But the gear tends to be heavily stilted toward cameras and sensors. And there certainly has been no shortage of new developments in camera and sensor technology to discuss. But there are some other “odds and ends” which I think are pretty essential toward our craft. There is a lot of shooting that I do these days with just a camera in hand – and in the end – that is the essence of photography: making images with a camera. But whenever possible, I use aids to assist in the craft. One item I have been pedantic about over the years has been tripods. I try to shoot from one when circumstances allow – or demand.
I have two tripods I regularly use these days. The primary tripod is a medium large, carbon fiber tripod. I use a Sirui 3023, but there are many affordable and similar models available. I also use a very small (also Sirui – 3021)) tripod, which works not only wonderfully well for travel and for my very small Sony RX100-4 camera, but also for the larger gear, in a pinch (especially during travel). The beauty of the small tripod is that it folds to around 12 inches, and is very light, while still being reasonably stiff. It can require some bracing technique though, particularly with heavier equipment mounted. There are other, more affordable small setups (notably the MeFoto aluminum model, which is slightly larger, heavier, and pound for pound, not a rigid a base as my carbon fiber setup). Here are some of the items I consider essential aids to shooting from a tripod.
As I noted recently, the tripod head de-rigueur, for many years now, is the ball head. Again there are various models of ball head available. The heads were popularized by action shooters, as it is much easier to move the camera around to stay with any moving target. The biggest problem with ballheads is that it is difficult to make them firm enough to avoid “creep” when setting up an image. Generally, it is a function of the size of the ball, and the construction of the clamping mechanism. The larger the ball, generally, the more rigid and stable the operation. Particularly if you are shooting large bodies/lens combinations, if you don’t use a fairly large ball, you will experience “creep,” which makes it difficult to compose a still scene in which you are being picky about composition. I learned I had to almost anticipate that it would creep downward a bit and tighten the ball head above where I wanted it to end up. My former, Induro tripod had a very large ball and it worked better. But none of them – in my view – work as precisely and surely as the old 3-way heads.
The biggest problem with ballheads is that it is difficult to make them firm enough to avoid “creep” when setting up an image
Even better, is a “geared” 3-way head, which essentially allows micro-adjustment in each direction. The problem has been – until recently, the available solutions were limited. Bogen/Manfrotto has made a nice, lightweight geared head – the Manfrotto 405. There are two major problems with it for me. First, it costs about $560 dollars. That is a budget issue. Second, and the real deal-buster, is that it has the clunky and insecure (in my opinion) Manfrotto quick-release system cast onto the head. For the more budget conscious, they do also offer the “Jr” model, (the 410) at $299 – but still with the QR system. I couldn’t make that work for me.
To solve the QR issue, I could have purchased the very nice, well-built and sturdy Arca-Swiss geared head, with the dovetail QR system I prefer. Now we are in a range from about $1,500 to $850! Still couldn’t justify that cost. I have been perplexed for some time why other manufacturers haven’t produced a dovetail QR system geared head. Finally, in 2018, Benro introduced a 3-way geared head, at a comparatively reasonable, $200. After some research, I bought one. While I haven’t thoroughly field tested it yet, I have it on my large Sirui legs, and have used it enough to know it is what I had been waiting for. To each his own, but for landscape and architectural shooting, this is really a winner for me. I kept the Sirui Ball Head in the bag in case I wanted it for some action shooting – but not really being my shooting style, I doubt it will see much use. For portability, I will keep the ball head on the small legs and live with it for travel.
The L-Bracket is an ingenious contraption that has become – for me – an indispensable item. It replaces the dovetail plate on all my cameras. The design is such that you can remove the camera from the tripod, rotate it 90 degrees, and re-attach it, keeping the image plane on the same axis. It makes shifting from landscape to portrait mode for the same scene very easy, with no adjustment necessary to the horizontal axis. I do that a lot, and wondered, after finally obtaining one, why I didn’t do so much sooner.
Like any equipment item, there are certainly disadvantages to L-Brackets. They add some bulk and weight to the outfit. These days, however, the extruded and cast aluminum and magnesium manufacturing and engineering processes have allowed for some very small and light pieces. I have a bracket on my Sony 7r that is barely noticeable.
Another major drawback to these brackets is that they tend to be expensive. They were, at first, produced as specialty items by companies like Kirk and Really Right Stuff. Both companies are small, U.S. based companies, and their costs – as well as the R&D for these items make them an expensive choice. Also, the majority of them are camera-specific, meaning each new body design begets another needed re-tooling and design of the brackets. Of course, this also means you have to add the cost of acquisition of one of these, each time you change camera bodies. And, for effective use, you really need to have one attached to each camera you carry. There are some universal brackets on the market, but in my experience (I have tried them) they are ineffective because they allow the camera to turn. An effective bracket must be physically married to the body in a way that it seems integral and doesn’t allow for even a fraction of movement.
All said and done, an L-bracket is an item I wouldn’t be without
Competition (and perhaps either the expiration of – or bypassing by unique design – of patents) means that today, there are dozens of these items available by different sellers (a quick Amazon search produced at least 20 pages of them there). While you have to do your research, many – if not most – of them are well made, lightweight, and much more reasonably priced. I have used the Sunway brand (I am sure, just an import name for a bracket line that is manufactured for many other sellers – most likely in China) and found them to be very good, effective and reasonably priced, for the most part. All said and done, this is an item I wouldn’t be without.
I began photography in 1976-77. For the next approximately 30 years, I shot landscape images and more often than not, as time went on, did so from a tripod. And my eye for level was pretty good. At least that’s what I thought. :-). Here is the reality. They weren’t, and nobody else’s are either! Our eyes-brain interaction compensates for so much. It tells us what a level horizon in our view is. But the camera is mechanical. And because our eyes are so good, we trick ourselves into thinking our camera is level. Just look at the millions of “sunset” (very few “sunrise” 🙂 ) images over water on Facebook and Instagram that have tilted horizons. See, The world is not Flat.
My good friend and gifted photographer, Al Utzig, in critique of some of my images a few years back, remarked that a few of my horizons were not level. I was inclined to disagree, but there are some mechanical tests that are brutally honest. I opened a couple of them in Photoshop and pulled a horizontal “guide” down to the horizon. Damn! Al was right (and not for the first time 🙂 ).
Before electronics became common in cameras, it was possible to change out the screen in the viewfinder of many of the higher-end cameras. I put an “architectural” screen in one of my cameras (cannot remember which one, but probably the N90s). It had horizontal and vertical lines etched onto it. When electronics did become common, “turning” these on became possible as an option – one I highly recommend for a number of reasons. But even with these aids, I frequently missed the boat with level horizons., more commonly with handheld images, but sometimes even with a tripod-mounted camera. It was usually minuscule, but again, our eyes are good enough to sense something being not quite right about the image. The experienced eye recognizes it quickly as a tilted-horizon. Even with guidelines, it is possible for our own eyes to fool us.
Shortly after our conversation, Al and I were shooting together, and he showed me an inexpensive little item that he religiously uses, and suggested I set up an image with my eyes and then we put it on my camera. It was a hotshoe-mounted bubble level. We did, and my eyes were wrong. The level is never wrong (assuming it has been manufactured to tight quality control). These plast gizmos should seem familiar to anyone who has ever used a carpenter’s level. The range in cost between about $4.00 and $15.00. My experience is that you may want to skip the $4.00 models, as they are often not manufactured to quality specs and may not – themselves – be level. Your mileage may vary. When I have purchased them, I have put them on a tripod on a level surface and actually done comparative testing with a carpenter’s level.
The level is never wrong
The two models pictured here are the most common. I have both. I prefer the cube myself, for a couple reasons. It is slightly bigger and harder to lose (they are easy to lose and having an extra is a good idea). I also like the way it reads and looks. All wildly subjective and aesthetic considerations. But here is a key point. These are known as 3-axis levels. Do not rely on the spirit level that it often part of modern tripod legs. While the might be helpful for setting up, they are essentially useless for the purposes here. There is a spirit level available, also, that mounts in the camera hotshoe. Again, in my opinion, do not waste the money.
While a compass is not an item one would think of as a photographic accessory, it is a very useful item. I always carry one in the field. As a one-time mentor said to me once, “the compass doesn’t lie” (though it can “fib” if you aren’t careful about how you use it. Because they are driven by the earth’s magnetic pull, you must be careful not to use it very near any magnets, or ferrous material). I use a software program called The Photographer’s Ephemeris, to do my pre-scouting and research. This mapping program gives an overlay of sunrise, sunset, moonrise and moonset angles on the scene. When you arrive, it becomes pretty important to know at least the cardinal points (North, East, South and West) that the compass reading will give you. They are small, cheap, and an essential “carry” item.
There is a school of thought that after having spent $$$$ on expensive glass, you need to protect the front element by having a filter on the front of it. The most commonly used filter for this purpose is a UV or “Skylight” filter. Historically, these filters were designed to reduce the amount of ultra-violet light, rendering possibly better colors. Over the years, lens technology has included multi-coatings which integrally accomplish this purpose.
There is also a school that asks why you would spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on a highly engineered, quality optic for your camera, and then place another piece of – usually much cheaper and lower quality – glass in front of it. I am in that school. My gestalt view is that I never put anything in front of my expensive glass without a specific purpose. There are, of course some very good reasons. When I am around salt water and salt spray, I tend to have something on to protect my lens. If I am trying to achieve a particular effect, I use a filter. Usually, there are only two reasons I ever use a filter, and only two filters I use: a Polarizing Filter and a Neutral Density Filter.
I learned the virtue of a polarizing filter early on, probably because I had one and was able to play around with it. Polarizers mainly reduce “glare,” which is caused mostly by bright, blue light. Blue light rays are short and therefore often scattered. It is this scattering and omni-directional quality of the light that produces glare, and reduces the clarity of the image being captured. The polarizing effect creates a linear filter which only allows blue rays which are parallel to the filter to enter the lens.
There is also a school that asks why you would spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on a highly engineered, quality optic for your camera, and then place another piece of – usually much cheaper and lower quality – glass in front of it. I am in that school
There are some drawbacks to this filter, of course. The polarizer must be manipulated mechanically, by physically rotating it. This may be difficult in a handheld situation, and virtually impossible for “action” subjects. By its nature, it also reduces the light entering the lens, causing you to lose 1 to 2 effective stops of light. In tricky lighting conditions, this can be a handicap. However, with modern sensor technology, it is much easier to override this issue by bumping the ISO up with little penalty than it was back in my Kodachrome/25 ISO/ film days.
Another drawback is that they tend to be expensive. This is partly because of the technology needed to do them right. First, it requires dual rings in order allow the rotation. This can create a vignetting problem with wider angle lenses, and I always have purchased the thin ones, which are more expensive to manufacture. They also can create unnatural color casts, and the truly “neutral” polarizers just tend to be more costly.
To add to the issues, when auto-focus became more or less “the norm,” standard straight line polarizers interfered with the AF mechanism on most DSLR cameras, so circular polarizers, which were much more expensive, had to be purchased. The AF technology on the mirrorless cameras is different, and isn’t bothered by polarizers, and it was nice to be able to reduce my out-of-pocket for them once I shifted to my Sony mirrorless system. At the same time, some of this may be becoming moot. I shot with a polarizer on every lens probably 80% of the time for many years. However, with the software available today for post-processing, I use them significantly less than I did.
Neutral density filters are something I very seldom use, but almost always have with me. I generally use them in situations where I have too much light and am trying for a longer exposure – most notably water, and waterfalls. I use the square ones designed for a holder, and generally hand-hold them. There was a day when we used split-neutral density filters to try to bring high contrast scenes under control. The best example was a landscape in early light, where there was a bright sky, but shadows in the foreground. There was a line (it could be hard, or a gradient) halfway up the filter, with 1/2 being the ND filter and the other being clear. Because nature is rarely in perfectly straight lines, I found I had very little success with this technique, and once I learned how to blend images in Photoshop, stopped trying altogether.
Popular wisdom has always had it that if you are going to go to the trouble of mounting your camera on a stock-still tripod, you should trip the shutter remotely. The theory is to avoid camera shake caused by our touching it. In fact there are many variables at play. There are times (e.g., a very windy day) when we must touch the tripod to brace it. Other times, I will admit to laziness, and have often triggered my camera with my hand resting on the tripod. Except in touchy situations such as, perhaps, a macro shot, I am not sure that – once everything is at rest – it truly makes that much difference. Though generally, it is good advice, many shooters live life happily never having owned one.
There are various methods, from a mechanical cable release, to wireless, to using the self-timer on the camera. I don’t care for this latter method, mainly because of the degree of control you give up over the precise moment you want to trip the shutter. Most pre-electronic cameras had a mechanical, plunger wire type cable which screwed into the release on the camera, or around the housing of the release. Even my vintage Ashahiflex had one. Electronics in cameras, and particularly AF, changed all that. On most modern cameras, one or more electronic functions are actuated by a partial press of the release. This meant we had to go to electronic cable releases. Another cost, and something to screw into the camera body somewhere. I had the MC 30 release for my Nikons and they are still $65.00 at B&H. Of course, they were proprietary, though fortunately, the MC30 worked on all my cameras from the N6006 through the F800.
As great as their cameras are, Sony lags behind Nikon and Canon on accessories (especially flash). They just don’t have any elegant remote cable solution. At some point, cameras began to be able to be remotely triggered wirelessly. Unfortunately, the built-in systems are just not very good. The wireless signal is not particularly strong and is very directional, meaning that you normally have to hold the wireless trigger close to either the front or back of the camera. In short, I have found wireless cables frustrating, and that wired cables interfere with my L-bracket. Plus, I like the idea of wondering away from the setup at times, while shooting.
Having an affinity for gadgets, I recently purchased a Pixel Pro wireless remote apparatus that I am really enjoying. Part of what drove me to it was my flash setup. I needed to be able to trigger the camera and a flash setup with multiple flashes, and wanted to do it at night. The existing remotes weren’t up to the task. This unit only triggers the camera, but that sets the whole chain-reaction moving. This unit works even when I am a substantial distance away from the camera.
There is a downside, of course. It takes more batteries, more setup, and a learning curve to make sure everything will be working as expected when you are in the shooting situation. They work on channels and it is pretty important to make sure the sender and receiver are “married” at the same channel. And its just more moving parts to cart around. I will probably continue to play with it. But it may be more trouble than its worth. I will need to keep the focus on making good images and not having cool equipment.
My Asahiflex outfit had a large, bowl-shaped reflector which attached to a bakelite housing (holding 2 D cell batteries), which in turn attached to the side of the camera. When attached and turned on, triggering the shutter would also ignite a flash bulb. Some of us are old enough to have grown up with incandescent light bulbs and have experienced the pop when we turn on the light, and it burns out. Flash bulbs were light bulbs designed to do just that and to emit a certain color and intensity of light when they did. They were, unfortunately, one-time use, and relatively costly. They were also very hot to handle immediately after use. For those reasons, I seldom used flash.
In the ensuing years, electronic flash units became widely available, and were much easier (and perhaps safer) to use. They are generally referred to as “Speedlights.” They only expended batteries. They were, in most cases, at least partially adjustable. And as camera manufacturers became more advanced, the electronics in the cameras controlled the flash, with properly dedicated units. None was better than Nikon, and it was pretty easy to set things more or less automatic and let the Nikon system do the work. Nikon’s TTL (“through-the-lens”) worked by reading the light measured at the film surface.
I have always thought and said that digital changed everything for the better. Well, it was not really everything. Digital really messed up electronic flash for a period. It could no longer read the light off the film plane and, at least in the beginning, unable to read it correctly off the sensor. Eventually, it has been resolved and, true to its reputation, Nikon probably did it best first. Today, they have their i-TTL system. The drawback is that it only really works well with certain newer cameras and flash units. And they are relatively expensive. The SB600 (guide number of 98/30) was $350. The SB600 is now discontinued, but it can be found used for around $100, which is a bargain. The upgraded model is the SB700 and is about $330. I am not sure it is worth buying against the 1/3 of the cost, used 600. It has a slightly higher guide number, slightly faster recycle, and built-in remote control (for what its worth, I have a third-party setup for this that works pretty well, on virtually any flash – more below). The SB600 worked perfectly well for my purposes, and I found it basically as good as I had experienced with my film based system. The SB800, was larger and over $500 new. It was eventually upgraded (replaced) by the SB900, which was upgraded to the SB910. All of these are now discontinued but can be found used at some pretty good bargains. The current big flash is the SB5000, at $600. Too rich for my blood. Again, these are tools, and if you make a living with flash, the $600 may well be worth it.
Nobody has really made a third-party flash that works as well as Nikon’s own system for Nikon. Once again, my switch to Sony threw me out of the “good flash” loop again. I have been a rare user of flash over the years. I have always carried a speedlight in the field when on a dedicated photography excursion. I have mostly done so because I will occasionally find a scene I wish to photograph where there are some deep shadows in daylight conditions. I use the flash to “fill” those shadows without blowing out the brighter parts of an image. Occasionally, I will use it for portraits in very sunny conditions, but I don’t do much with those. Part of the reason is that without a really good automatic system, proper use and understanding of flash involves math. “I was told there would be no math.” The very thought of math makes me quake with fear. I am one of those persons who cannot add double digit numbers without a calculator. :-).
Sony offers 6 dedicated flash units. One of them is small enough that I don’t consider it useful. One, the F60m, is still on Sony’s website, but it appears to be discontinued, as I only find it used on site like B&H. With a guide number of 60, it would work for me, but is a bit on the low power size for its $300 price tag. It also is reputed to have overheating issues, which shuts it down, apparently even during moderate use. The other 4 units range from $300 – $600. Sony also seems to have had some disorientation when it comes to their electronic shoe system. This means there are compatibility issues, and a given flash may only fit a given range of cameras – at least without an adaptor (another item, another cost). And none of them, frankly, are close to as good, or as turn-key, as the Nikon system.
My current solution has been to buy a book, and try to learn the basic math (ugh), and go with third-party units. I bought a Godox (made in China and found and purchased on Amazon) unite compatible with my Sony A7. It has enough “automatic” features to work for my needs. I also wanted to experiment with multiple lighting and some night shooting, along with the ability to trigger the flash independently. So I later purchased a second, manual Voking branded light and a Godox TTL wireless flash trigger. Total cost to me for all of this stuff was under $200. The downside is it is more gear to lug, and more learning curve and setup and practice prior to going into the field.
Odds & Ends
It seems suitable to end with a connection to the blog title. There are a few items I keep in my bag, which (depending on the nature of the trip), I try to always consider:
- Extra batteries and a couple chargers (you never know when one might fail)
- Extra memory cards
- Flashlight (and batteries) – (I also carry a headlamp with a red option, as red supposedly messes less with our night vision)
- Proper clothing – especially rain gear (and covers for the camera and lens)
- Towels and garbage bags (an assortment of large and small towels and large and kitchen size bags will be of great assistance in wet conditions)
- Tools (small [jewelers] and medium phillips and regular screwdrivers, allen key/wrenches, small adjustable wrench, electrical and duct tape)
- I keep a small spiral notebook and pen with me
- First Aid Kit