The right tool is often the difference between a good result and a great result -- in life as well as photography.
This is one of the truths we encountered as we evaluated this month's Mentoring Club assignments. We were working on action and sports photography, and it was quickly apparent that having the right lenses made the difference in many situations.
It's not just lenses. You can get better results with a wide variety of camera accessories. Ranked in order from necessary to nice to have, here are tools every serious photographer should have. How many of these do you own or still "need"?
1. Fast prime lens - I put this in the 'every camera bag should have one' category. You need a lens that has a maximum aperture that lets in a lot of light. That's usually f/2.8 or wider. Unless you are prepared to part with a pile of cash, the most cost effective way to get that light is with a prime lens -- one that does not have zoom capability. You will zoom with your feet, but you will capture the most important ingredient, light. If you find yourself shooting indoors without a flash or needing to capture fast moving subjects in low light, this tool will be absolutely essential.
2. Sturdy tripod - A sturdy tripod is one of the best tools to ensure a sharper image. We typically use our tripods if we are in low light and trying to avoid camera shake. Even in situations where you might have more light available, a tripod can help you improve the quality of your photo.
3. Cable release or remote control - It's not enough to have the camera on a tripod because depressing the shutter is what creates camera shake. To help avoid that result, use a cable release or remote control when you take a photo. You can use your time delay, but if you want to have the ultimate control over when your camera takes the photo, you'll want to depress the shutter yourself.
4. White card - Once you have enough light, you will want to make sure you accurately capture the temperature of light - with white balance. Using a white card to create a custom white balance reading is the best way to capture the color of light accurately. Fill the frame with your white card and let the camera use that reference point to determine all the other colors.
For this tool, I prefer a disc that fits snugly over my lens. Expodisc is a great option to create custom white balance settings.
5. External flash - At some point, you will be in a shooting scenario where you will need more light to get your best shot. When that happens, I hope you don't have to rely on your pop-up flash. If red eye, harsh light, or distracting shadows aren't enough of a deterrent for you, consider this...almost nothing in nature will blast light directly onto your subject in that manner. It will be tough to get your subject to look natural with a built-in flash. Your light will look best when it is off of your camera, bounced or diffused. Sometimes you'll want all three. To best control your light, start with an external flash.
6. Spare batteries and memory cards - Once upon a time, I went on a photo shoot with two batteries and drained them both. There is no worse feeling than holding a camera with no juice, explaining to your subject that you have to end the shoot prematurely. Awkward! I vowed that would never happen to me again. I never leave home without three to four batteries. That's overkill for most situations -- unless you need them. Then you're a genius.
7. Circular polarizing and neutral density filters - You could make the argument that you can use software to recreate most filter effects except two, circular poloraizing and neutral density.
A circular polarizing filter will allow you to cut the reflection and glare from glass and water. As a bonus, it also increases the blue in sky and water. A neutral density filter will block the volume of light coming into the camera, so you can get longer shutter speeds. If you have ever tried to get the milky effect from waterfalls during a bright part of the day, you quickly realized it was hard to accomplish without over exposing your shot. Pack those two filters to help you create great effects you can only get in camera.
8. Battery pack - vertical grip - So this is a convenience issue... kinda. If you are shooting in the vertical format for an extended time -- a portrait shoot, for instance -- you will quickly appreciate the ability to hold the camera without having to wrap your arm awkwardly over the top. I will confess that I thought this was an overpriced convenience before using it. Now I can't imagine going back. Sort of like an iPhone or iPad, I guess.
9. Loupe - Add this to the list of things you didn't think you would need until you used it. The loupe blocks the extra light when you are viewing images on the back of your camera. The result, you can get a good look at your pictures even when you are outdoors in the sun.
The bottom line
Any tradesperson will tell you that the difference between them and an amateur is not just found in the skill but in their ability to quickly find and use the right tool for the right job.
Your photography will improve when you can reach into your toolbox and find the right tool with the same certainty.
Note: You can find a great discussion on camera gear in our December 2011 Free Photo Webinars discussion with B&H Photo Video's Henry Posner.