Know Your Camera: Accessories

Cameras in today’s world beg to have accessories … or at least that’s what the camera sellers want us to believe. After having worked through our previous articles, we now have an idea how a camera takes wonderful photographs. And, since we’ve finished all of the exercises that were suggested previously, it’s now possible for us to move on to discussing camera accessories.

When I began my photographic career, I could be talked into some of the “best stuff” in terms of accessories. It was always presented as additions I had to have to make me a “better” photographer. In time, I learned to be more prudent about my spending. In this discussion, as in all others, I’m offering definite ideas about what’s necessary in a camera bag and what’s only “necessary” if you want it. You may develop other ideas. Learn to think for yourself about accessories and understand that nothing has to be purchased immediately or without careful thought.


Tripods are wonderful accessories and important equipment for the more experienced photographer. They are absolutely essential when you’re photographing in low light situations and very helpful in almost all other situations. However, the question becomes not should you or shouldn’t you, but what kind and with what features. Most beginners purchase tripods that have several handles and frequently have bars that attach the center post to each of the legs. Budding photographers are told there’s more stability in tripods with that design. Those tripods do provide stability, but their stability means less flexibility in other important ways.

Set up the tripod to full leg extension and press down on the bottom or middle of the leg. Stable? Okay, now pretend you’re focusing on a flower six inches from the ground. Forget about reversing the center post on any tripod. In fact, if the camera can see out, you have a leg in front of the viewfinder. Or, perhaps you’re climbing some rocks, and you have room to settle only two legs down. You need another leg to brace at an awkward angle off another rock. Now what?

I use a tripod that has a round tube (like a pipe) for a leg. This is more stable than a tripod whose leg is shaped like a “u.” I also prefer a flip lever on the leg to one that loosens and tightens with a turning motion. It should be tall enough to be used comfortably without raising the center post, even when you’re standing at your full height. A tall person shouldn’t have to bend like a pretzel just to use a tripod. I also like legs that can spread out farther than one position.

I don’t like to get poked with a handle or take the chance of accidentally hitting one and watching my camera smash. I prefer a “ball head.” Why a ball head? By turning one knob, you can move the camera in any direction as well as move vertically or horizontally or simply tip. A ball head is also more flexible when you’re “tweaking” your composition or following the motion of an animal. Lots of photographers like a ball head that has a grip on it, allowing you to turn to your precise specifications with a twist of your wrist.

Good tripods can be purchased in two pieces–the legs and the head. With frustration, I discovered that I love the tripod legs used by one manufacturer, while I prefer the tripod head designed by another manufacturer. When you’re presented with a similar dilemma, I suggest going to the largest camera store you can find and looking over the selection. If your camera store doesn’t carry a large selection, check out photo magazines. Then, ask your dealer to show you the line of tripods made by each manufacturer. Most manufacturers permit you to order what you want.

Quick release device

A quick release device is an absolute necessity for anyone using a tripod, because it does just what it says. With one motion, you can snap the plate attached to the bottom of the camera into the device, and it will hold the camera firmly. The alternative is to screw the camera on the tripod, take a shot, unscrew the camera, and go to your next shot. By the end of a busy day, you will have become so tired of playing this game that you’ll never want to use a tripod again.

Now, everyone agrees that it’s good to have a gadget that makes life easier, but which one to choose? I like a quick release device in which you just drop the plate in (maybe hooking one edge under something) and move a lever to lock it securely. Some of the devices come in a “v” shape. You have to slide both edges under a rim. Sliding devices don’t work well, because if both sides don’t slide in exactly right, then the camera may fall off.

Work with the device you like in the store. Ask the clerk to set up a tripod and put a camera on the plate. Then, play with the contraption for a while. Pretend you need to get the camera on the tripod in a hurry, because a furry zebra is bounding through the store! Is the device quick, easy and safe? Don’t take a chance. Make sure. I have a large collection of quick release devices that don’t work (even though the salesperson assured me they would), and I don’t want to think of the money I wasted because I didn’t check each out with a tripod and a camera. The weight of a camera seems to change everything–especially the ease with which any particular quick release works. It’s your camera that will be at risk, so don’t allow yourself to be talked into buying any device without trying it first.

Flash units

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The Sigma EF-430ST.Features include an auto zoom head for use over 28 – 80mm ( with optional wide-angle panel for shorter lenses) and automatic TTL control system for bounce, diffusion and daylight sync. This flash features tilt head, built-in AF assist, and two step manual control

Sometimes flash units come with the camera, but frequently they don’t. There are several things you should know about flash units. First, those little built-in, pop-up flashes are great for a party situation or somewhere you don’t necessarily need to project the flash or take it off the camera. Red-eye is caused by the flash going straight into the eyes of the subject and then bouncing off the retina at the back of the eye. To avoid this, you need to move the flash up or off the camera. Then the light will strike the retina at a slight angle, and you’ll avoid “red eye.”

The camera manufacturer usually offers a flash unit that works well with the specific camera you own. I like to buy from the same brand manufacturer that created my camera under most circumstances. However, there are some independents who make wonderful flash units that are compatible with specific brands of camera. The big test is whether the flash unit can be moved off the camera and whether you can control the amount of light the flash puts out.


A good–no, an essential rule of thumb is to buy the best filters you can afford. Cheap glass covering an expensive lens is never good. Generally, filters should be to photographers what seasoning is to a fine chef. For most “normal” photography, they should enhance and bring out the essence of the photograph. However, if you’re doing wild and crazy things, filters may become an “art accessory.” I learned this fact the hard way. I once had a very special student, a really outstanding landscape photographer. His passion lay in great landscapes with tobacco skies and magenta lakes. He stacked and layered them, and, with colored film, the result was dramatic. I used to beg him to put away the filters, although he had every combination of filter known to man. I finally realized that using filters was the way he expressed his creativity, and for me to try to change his technique was sheer arrogance. After a while, I came to enjoy his images. I’ve never forgotten the lesson he taught me about creativity.

For those of us who don’t do wild and crazy things, the filter most commonly recommended is a daylight filter. This filter is suggested primarily as a protection for your lens–a good idea but, rather than the daylight filter, I prefer using an UV filter. This filter cuts the haze in high altitudes. Again, I prefer a useful filter rather than just a protective one.

My most useful filter in most landscape situations is the graduated half-neutral density filter. Rather than having a screw-on type, I prefer a square design. You can get holders that fit on the front of the lens, but I prefer holding the filter in place. The primary function of this filter is similar to sunglasses. For example, suppose I’m at the beach, and the sky is a brilliant blue, but the sand is very white and reflective. I might choose to use this filter upside down (with the clear part on the sky and the neutral density part on the bright sand) to close the gap between mid-tones and very bright tones. Or, if I’m photographing a reflective lake and want the color of both the lake and the sky to remain vivid, I would use the half-neutral density filter with the dark part on top–to bring the sky into a compatible range of light with the lake reflections.

A polarizer is great to use on a variety of occasions. If you have bright reflective surfaces, such as bright cliffs or leaves with sun reflected off of them, it tones down reflection by polarizing the light. One of the most effective places I’ve used this lens is in the rain forest on a sunny day. When the shiny reflections are removed from the vegetation, the camera can capture the true vivid greens of the scene. However, one danger you should note about polarizers: more is not necessarily better. Remember, black skies aren’t really effective for most “normal” landscapes.

There are many other filters that may be essential for the specific kind of photography you’re doing. For example, when you’re using black-and-white film, red, yellow, and green filters make a difference. Wedding photographers routinely carry some wonderfully specialized filters such as soft focus or star burst. Again, as a photographer, you must choose for the specific job you plan to do.

Cable releases

I wish I could say I use the two electronic cable releases I carry in my camera bag more often than I do. In fact, I use them so rarely that I’m not even sure if they still work. Some photographers use theirs all the time. The use of cable releases is probably a good habit, but it’s a personal option as well as a reflection of the way a person photographs.

Film retriever

An economy film leader retriever that takes a little more time and patience but at about US$6 the price is right. Available at many camera stores.

A film retriever is one of my “secret weapons.” I honestly wouldn’t be without one. I don’t use mine that often, but when I need it, it’s vital. A film retriever is a little device that allows you to fish inside of a film canister to bring out the leader of the film. When do you use it? When you aren’t paying attention and somehow rewind the film all the way back into the canister. Most commonly, the problem happens to the last roll of film you have in your pocket. Let’s say you’re shooting late at night with a high-speed film. The roll is only half-finished. The next morning (a bright sunny day), you don’t want to finish or waste that roll of film, but you really want to shoot slower film. Check to see the last frame number you used, rewind the film, take a Sharpie ® pen and mark the number + 2 on the canister and pull the lead back out with the film retriever. Then, when you’re ready to finish the original roll, you reload, advancing the camera to the frame number marked on the canister, and you’re ready to go.

Repair “kit”

A soft brush, a lens cloth, small screwdrivers, a lens wrench, and a small bit of electrician’s tape are all small items that come in handy for cleaning and occasional quick field repairs.

In summary, think carefully about what accessories you purchase and why. Ask for the opinions of several colleagues and try prospective purchases before you buy. Remember, you’ll create better photographs when you see better and understand more–not simply because you hang the latest bell, whistle, or trinket on your camera. Accessories can be vital and useful in your creative endeavors; however, be thoughtful as you acquire them.

by Noella Ballenger

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