As photographers, we have needs. We need good light and good subject matter, of course. But we also need precise, well-engineered optical instruments to capture our chosen subject matter under that good light. Most importantly, we need a constant influx of new hardware to buttress our hopes that it’s only gear that stands between us and a huge portfolio of jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring photos.
Obviously, this last need can be pretty expensive if you satisfy it with continual camera body and lens upgrades. Fortunately, there’s another way: cool accessories! There are many handy add-ons for your photography kit that offer all sorts of new features, usually at a lower price than a new lens or camera upgrade. Here are a few things you might want to consider adding to your camera bag, not just because they’ll keep hope alive, but because they’re actually solid, useful accessories.
A good tripod and head is always a worthy add-on to any photographer’s kit. However, a quality head and set of legs can be very pricey, and it’s not always practical to carry a full-blown tripod into every shooting situation. Tabletop tripods offer a nice alternative for times when you might need a little stability, but don’t want to (or can’t) carry a full-size tripod.
While any decent camera store should have a selection of small, tabletop tripods (I like the $59 Bogen 3007 Tabletop tripod with Manfrotto 482 micro ball head), there are choices other than the traditional tabletop tripod.
The Joby Gorrilapod (Figure 1) is a camera stabilizer with three legs, just like a tripod, but each leg is heavily articulated, which allows it to wrap securely around just about any small object, or bend, flex, and twist to provide stable, level camera mounting on uneven surfaces.
Figure 1. One type of Gorillapod.
Gorillapods come in several different sizes, each rated to bear different weights, so you can find one that’s right for tiny point-and-shoots, or professional SLRs. The prices range from $25 to $55. One of the nicest things about the Gorillapod is that it’s small and very lightweight, so if you’re carrying just about any kind of camera bag, you’ll probably be able to find a place to put the Gorillapod.
The Gorillapod also has one up on the traditional tabletop tripod in that it doesn’t require a table. Because you can almost always find something to attach it to, you can usually position a Gorillapod-mounted camera at just about any height. And, for those times when you have brought a table with you, it still works fine as a table-top device.
If you want a different perspective on a scene, a perspective that features you prominently displayed in the foreground, consider the QuikPod, a telescoping camera stabilizer that effectively makes your arm about two feet longer, so that you can more easily shoot self-portraits, or take shots from overhead or way down low (Figure 2).
Figure 2. The QuickPod can hold a camera or flash lighting.
The QuikPod has a standard tripod mount at the end, and a tiny ball head, so you can attach just about any camera or camcorder to the end of the device. Then you simply set your camera’s self-timer and extend the QuikPod. One very nice touch is the parabolic mirror mounted just below the camera mount, which gives you a reference for ensuring that you’ve properly framed your shot.
The QuikPod comes in several different sizes, each designed to support different weights, and is very light, thanks to its polycarbonate plastic construction. Its prices ranges from $25 to $50.
Shooting video with the QuikPod is also great fun because you can easily move around, but keep yourself in-frame. The results can look like sophisticated Steadicam, or tracking shots.
I don’t spend a lot of time shooting self-portraits, but the QuikPod is small and light enough that I can easily stick it in my bag anyway. What’s more, a small tripod attachment fixes to the bottom of the QuikPod and lets you turn it into a tall, but fairly stable, tabletop tripod.
No matter what storage format your camera takes, you’ve probably noticed that flash storage cards are getting cheaper by the week. However, while memory prices fall, so do hard drive prices, which means a portable hard drive still offers the lowest price-per-megabyte for image storage. If you plan on traveling for a while, you’ll probably want some place to offload images as you fill up your storage cards.
A laptop computer with enough free space on its hard drive is an ideal image repository. However, if you want to back up the laptop or aren’t traveling with one, think about a battery-powered, self-contained backup drive.
The $699 Epson P-5000 is a small device that can automatically copy images from your media cards, allowing you to clear off and re-use your media card. And with the large LCD screen, you can review your shots while still on the road (Figure 3).
Figure 3. The Epson P-5000.
But what about the times when you don’t need an LCD screen, or the size and expense of a device like the P-5000? I like the $169 Digital Focii Photo Safe, a battery-powered device with no screen but all the functionality you need to offload images from your camera’s media cards. I’ve used these drives in South Africa and Death Valley and never lost an image.
Figure 4. Digital Focii’s Photo Safe.
HyperDrive sells similar devices that have a few advantages over the Digital Focii products. First, HyperDrive’s transfer rates are very speedy: You can copy a 1GB card in about a minute. If you’re an event shooter who needs to quickly dump cards, Hyperdrive’s speed may seal the deal for you.
HyperDrive’s units have some other cool features, including built-in data recovery software that can attempt to recover lost images from corrupted media cards, as well as a S.M.A.R.T. system for monitoring the health of the internal hard drive. Finally, battery life on all of the units is exceptional. Like the Epson models, HyperDrive units that have LCD screens can display raw images from most popular raw-capable cameras (Figure 5).
Figure 5. The Colorspace from HyperDrive.
That said, you don’t get this functionality for cheap. At $279 to $459, HyperDrive units are much more expensive than Digital Focii’s Photo Safe. However, if you already have a 2.5” hard drive — perhaps because you upgraded a drive in your laptop — you can buy a $149 or $199 HyperDrive enclosure, install the extra drive yourself, and enjoy the same functionality as the complete models for a lot less money.
Fabric Store in a Box
Not all photography gadgets are hardware. A software program can change your photo workflow or capabilities.
If you’re a studio photographer who regularly shoots portraits or products in front of a cloth backdrop, you can now abandon your current backdrops in favor of virtual ones.
Backdrop Designer from Digital Anarchy is a $199 Photoshop plug-in that can automatically generate an unlimited number of background textures, from muslin drapes to lit pastel or organic textures. The included texture presets provide a wealth of background options, which you can customize with shadows and lighting effects that create the look of folds and drapes (Figure 6).
Figure 6. Just a few of the options you can customize while creating virtual backdrops in Backdrop Designer.
In addition to creating backgrounds that complement your foreground colors, Background Designer will unclutter your studio. Rather than storing lots of background material, you need only a green or blue screen shooting setup. Shoot your images in front of the blue or green screen, then composite them with texture you create in Backdrop Designer.
For performing the composite, take a look at the $299 Primatte Chromakey, also from Digital Anarchy. Another Photoshop plug-in, Primatte creates professional-quality extractions and includes powerful controls for refining your mattes (Figure 7).
Figure 7. This before (left) and after (right) courtesy of Primatte Chromakey.
Getting good green or blue screen results requires you to properly light and position your greenscreen elements. Digital Anarchy provides very good video tutorials for shooting and working with Primatte.
Any of these products will give you new shooting options and any one of them might lead you to a stunning new portfolio. If not, don’t worry; I’m sure we’ll cover more accessories soon.