9 accessories you need for your photography to go from good to great

iStockphoto by cheyennezj.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.

Recording - Camera gear with B&H's Henry Posner

Free Photo Webinars was a virtual seminar on cameras, lenses and accessories as we delved into all things photography with Henry Posner from B&H Photo Video. In this recording we talked about what's hot with compact cameras, mirrorless cameras, DSLRs, tripods, camera bags and more. Before you make your next purchase, you owe yourself a listen.

Henry says you can send your gear questions to them at askbh@bhphotovideo.com.

8 things you should learn about your camera over the holidays

iStockphoto by PinkTagIf you want to make the evolution from pointing and shooting to creating art, one of the things you must do is master your camera. I'm talking the kind of mastery where you can pick up your camera in most situations and begin firing quickly without too much fiddling around.

How do you do that? Practice when there's nothing at stake. Assuming you have some down time over the holiday break, here are 8 things you should learn about your camera. 

1. Where does unacceptable noise begin on your ISO range? - Your manufacturer says your camera can shoot a wide ISO range, but you won't always want to do that. As you select a higher ISO setting, your images show more noise - bigger pixels. At what point in your camera does the noise become unacceptable? Take a series of pictures at progressively higher ISO settings and compare. Find out before it really matters. 

2. Where's the sweet spot on your lens? - This is a similar concept. Your zoom lens has a smaller range that is sharper than the outer edges. Just because the camera says 70 mm - 300 mm doesn't mean it is sharp for that entire range. That inner limit where your lens performs best is generally referred to as your sweet spot. Do you know what that range is on your favorite lens? The only way to find out is to experiment.  

3. What's the fastest way to change your settings? In many cameras, there is more than one way to change your metering, focus type, or white balance. If you are shooting and need to make quick adjustments, what's the fastest way to do it? You never know when you might need to react without thinking. 

4. Should you calibrate exposure? - Is your camera consistently shooting over or under exposed? Are you always having to dial in exposure compensation? This might be a good time to grab a grey card and practice getting your exposure correctly. Your default might be 1/3 stop under or over exposed. 

5. How do you adjust your flash? Yes, sometimes you will actually have to use your (gasp) flash. With most DSLRs, you can adjust how the flash fires - normal, red eye, or rear curtain - or with what intensity. Do you know where to make those adjustments? It's possible when you need them, you could be in the dark. Always good to know where to begin fumbling.

6. Do you have a reset routine? When you finish shooting for the day, do you return the camera to any default settings? Do you check those settings when you pick up your camera for the day? You might come up with your own “start” settings that will work if you ever need to grab and go.

For instance, at the end of a shoot, you might return your camera to ISO 400, Aperture Priority f/9, Evaluative Metering, Exposure Compensation set to 0, and Auto White Balance. If you pick up the camera and run out in a hurry, you'll be set to get most basic shots. The last thing you want to do is start shooting and find that your camera is still in last night's extreme set up. Establish your own routine. Is it before the shoot, after, or both? When will you reset and what?

7. What’s your accessories routine? - When do you recharge your batteries? How frequently? What's the routine for the tripod plate? When do you empty your memory cards? Simple organization routines can help you from ending up on a shoot with a dead battery or full memory card...or worse yet, a tripod with no plate.

8. What's your workflow system? - What's your organization system for your pictures? It's been a while since we used a Dewey Decimal library system, but you will need your own version for your photos. As you collect more and more pictures, a good tagging and filing system will save hours of searching later. That's a good mindless exercise for a slow day.

Knowing your tools is often a skill that makes the difference in your photos. When I was in the Army, we had to practice taking apart and reassembling our weapons so much that we could do it in our sleep. The Army believed the point you needed your weapon most was not the time to start learning its nuances.

The same concept goes for your camera. Take the time to learn your camera when there is low pressure or expectations, like down time over the holiday break. When you’re shooting high impact events in 2012, everything should flow naturally.

12 photo exercises to keep you shooting

Negative space creatively uses a large empty area to frame your subject.We were near the end of our Abstracts in Adams Morgan photo tour when Katie asked for some homework.

"Do you know where I can find a book of projects to use for practice?"

I must admit I love the concept, but I am offering a blog post rather than a book. Often we need ideas to motivate us to improve our craft. Here are 12 photo exercises to keep you shooting. 

  1. Panning - This is a technique used to show that your subject is moving. Pan with your moving object to freeze it and blur the background. For instance, if you are following someone riding a bicycle, keep the camera in sync with the rider while depressing the shutter. 
  2. Shallow depth of field/bokeh - This technique is popular with many photographers. Choose a low f-stop, zoom in to telephoto range and get close to your subject. Your depth of field drill is not just about creating soft backgrounds, use it as a tool to isolate your subject. You create a bokeh effect when you have soft plumes of out-of-focused lights in your background.
  3. Reflections - Here is a creative technique that's especially good for rainy days. Look for reflections in water, glass, metal or mirrors. How can you show the reflecting surface, the reflection, or both creatively?
  4. Negative space - Find photos where there is lots of empty space around your subject. Use that space creatively to balance against your subject. Make it part of the story.
  5. Emotion - One of the hallmarks of great photography is that it makes us 'feel'. Try to capture and portray an emotion -- happiness, love, anger, jealousy. Your pictures are strongest when you don't just show the emotion but make us empathize with your subject.
  6. Artificial light - Photography is all about manipulating light. One of our recent webinar speakers said that he starts with his subject in complete darkness and then adds artificial light to create the effect he wants. Try taking photographs where the major light source is artificial. Use your pop up or external flash, lamps, candles, or flashlights. Add single and multiple sources, and pay attention to the moods you create.
  7. A day in the life of... - Here is an opportunity to work on storytelling. Pick a person and follow him or her around, documenting the day. It might be interesting to try this concept with a pet.
  8. Textures - This is a great abstract photography technique. Take an extreme close up photo that showcases the texture of your subject. This works best when you get so close that there are no other distractions, and your viewer can focus primarily on the texture.
  9. Dominant color - Find a subject where a dominant color will be the star of the photo. Primary colors are usually bold enough to make this technique work. You can either fill the frame with your single color, or make your dominant color stand out by contrasting it against another muted tone.
  10. Weather - Rain, rain, don't go away. When everyone else is inside complaining about the weather, take your camera out and look for creative ways of capturing nature. How many ways can you communicate that it is raining, windy, snowing, etc. This is a great creativity drill.
  11. Create a client - Every try to shoot in a specific style? Find your favorite magazine or advertisement and study the style used in their photography. Pretend you are on assignment to create a photo for one of their stories or ads. How can you recreate the look and feel to maintain the style of your "client?"
  12. Mimic a master - Find a famous photo, and try to recreate it on your own. Maybe you even add your own interpretation. This is a good way to help master both the technical and creative aspects of photography.

Pick one or any of the photos on this list, and see how well you can create your own versions. When you do, either share your link in the comments of this blog post or add your photo to my PhotoTour DC Facebook page. I'd love to see what you created.

Get shooting, Katie.


If you enjoyed my photo tips, please pass them along using the Share button below. Thanks!

Let's create a modern thanksgiving gallery of gratitude

Create a gallery of gratitude showcase your photos of the people or things that inspire you.

What are you giving thanks for today? Let's continue our modern thanksgiving by including it in a gallery of gratitude. 

Last Thanksgiving, I shared with you Seth Godin's blog post suggesting we adopt a modern thanksgiving that celebrates "the people in our lives who give us the support and love we need to make a difference, and the opportunity to build something bigger than ourselves, something worth contributing." This year, I'd like to continue that celebration.

When I reflect on the things for which I am grateful, I put my family at the top of the list. I am truly blessed to be surrounded by parents, children, and friends who share their unconditional love and support with me. I hope they all know that it is completely mutual.

I am also thankful for the friends and fellow enthusiasts I meet every weekend on our photo tours. When I started this business, I had no idea how each interaction would nurture my spirit. In sharing my passion with you, I found myself. I'll always be grateful for that.

It's not enough to recite our thankfulness, however. I'd like to build galleries of gratitude. Let's take Seth's idea and use our photos to bring it to life. Build your own gallery for your loved ones, or share it with me on the PhotoTour DC Facebook page. Whether public or private, post your modern thanksgiving along with a few sentences on why it is special to you. Share your memories of the people who inspire you and what you've been able to create as a result. Start a gallery of your gratitude, and keep it open all year. A modern thanksgiving ought to last more than a day. 

Thanks for your friendship and patronage. Have a great Thanksgiving Day!

Click to read my first modern thanksgiving.

Three questions to help you pick the right shooting mode

Canon camera dialRight after learning how each of the shooting modes works on your camera, a natural question you might ask is “how do I know which mode to use?”

Here is a simple decision tree that can help you move your camera off of Auto and onto the right priority setting.

Question 1 - Is my subject moving?

If you know that Shutter Priority is used to show motion or movement and Aperture Priority is used to show depth of field, your first question should help you decide between the two. ‘Is my subject moving’ is a great first step.

If the answer is ‘Yes, my subject is moving’ then you would likely shoot in Shutter Priority mode. That is the “S” on Nikon cameras and “TV” on Canon cameras.

If the answer is ‘No, my subject is not moving’ then you would select Aperture Priority mode, “A” on Nikon cameras and “AV” on Canon brands.

Once you’ve decided your priority shooting mode, the next questions on your decision tree help you decide what end of the dial to select.

Question 2 - (If you selected Shutter Priority) Do I want to freeze the action or use a blur to show motion or movement? 

If you want to stop action the way sports photographers do, then select a fast shutter speed. You can safely choose one that is faster than 1/1000 of a second.

If you want to show motion or movement, then you need a slower shutter speed. This is where it can get tricky. A slow shutter speed will depend on the focal length of your lens. The more you zoom in, the more your camera shows movement in your pictures. Generally speaking, you choose a shutter speed that equals your focal length to avoid camera shake.

That means, if I am zooming to 100 mm, I want to shoot at 1/100 of a second to hold the camera and avoid shake. I think that’s also a good place to begin experimenting with showing motion blur. If you use a tripod, you can go much slower with more dramatic results.

Question 3 - (If you selected Aperture Priority) Do I want to show everything in focus or just a shallow area around my subject?

We use Aperture Priority creatively to show depth of field. You will decide how much of the area around your subject you want in focus. If you just want your subject in focus, that’s called a shallow depth of field. It helps your viewer focus on your subject without any distractions from the background. For this effect, you select a lower number in your F-stop or aperture setting.

When everything is in focus, like a landscape scene, you are shooting a long depth of field. You select a higher number in your F-stop or aperture setting.

I’ve found this decision tree is a good starting point for photographers who struggle deciding which priority setting to use. Nothing is absolute, however. There are times when your subject isn’t moving, and you will want to still use Shutter Priority.

In some low light situations, I might select Shutter Priority to make absolutely sure I don’t end up with a slow shutter speed that gives me camera shake. At that point, the risk of a blurry photo is my primary concern and outweighs any depth of field considerations. I’m not likely to get enough light with a small aperture setting anyway.

Exceptions aside, the three questions in this decision tree can help you quickly decide which camera setting to use in most situations. Once you start in those settings, you can experiment and branch out, but at least you’ll start with confidence.

See a Slideshare example of the decision tree.

Download a PDF of the decision tree.

Free Photo Webinars - Focus on Wedding Photography

This month our Free Photo Webinars focuses on wedding photography with Susie Hadeed.

Susie Hadeed grew up in Central America and Missisippi. She's traveled all over the world doing photography and mission work, but just relocated to the Washington, D.C. area in the fall of 2010.

Before moving she was an office manager in her father’s HVAC business, where she played an integral role in growing the company. Besides working full time, she somehow managed to find the time to grow her photography business and also help mentor others along their photography journey. She's passionate about photography and loves teaching others to create beauty with their cameras.

She’s currently producing inspired wedding and portrait photography in the Washington D.C. area, and also writes articles and photography tips for her blog and other sites geared towards teaching photographers.http://www.photographybysusie.com.


Friendly Photo Critiques

Submit a photo for us to review during the webinar. Our host and guest will provide feedback on what works and what might be improved. Email your photo to us here. 


Open Q&A

Save your photography questions for our Q&A session. Tell us what's on your mind or ask those nagging questions.

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How to improve the sound in your digital camera video

Audio killed your video, Star. That’s the parody of the 1979 classic I hummed after shelving a video project I’d been working on for what felt like half the day. 

 I’d set up my Nikon D300s and studio lights to record a video. Nothing worked. The on board audio sounded crappy, and my microphone produced a wicked buzz. All my attempts to try and amplify the sound with computer software proved fruitless. I needed a new microphone. Without it, my video will always lack a main ingredient - quality sound.

Audio-Technica ATR6550 : Condenser Shotgun MicrophoneToday’s digital cameras now boast hi definition video capabilities, leading most consumers to think that they can now ditch their camcorders and produce award-winning multimedia projects just with their cameras. Not so fast.

The audio quality you get from most digital cameras will likely not match the same quality of the video. And nothing will kill a great video faster than bad sound.

I was reminded of this when I read two articles in DigitalPhoto Pro recently. One article reviewed external microphone options and another delved into a more sophisticated option - recording the sound with a separate recorder and syncing it to  your video.

Why would you need these options? When you record video with your camera’s on-board microphone, it is typically too far from your subject. If you are recording someone who is speaking, the microphone picks up all the noise between your lens and your speaker. Many times the volume of your speaker will sound too low, and if you are outside, you’ll likely hear too many distractions. 

Worse yet, if you try to zoom in or out, the microphone will pick up the camera’s actions. Talk about distracting.

Many professional photographers will opt for an external shotgun microphone that they can plug into an external jack on the camera. Shotgun mics are a preferred option because they are designed to pick up sound that is far away. They are narrowly focused, so they don’t pick up extra sound to the left or right of your subject. DPP reviews three popular options: 

  • Sennheiser MKE 400
  • Audio-Technica ATR6550
  • RODE VideoMic Pro

No need for me to review them, since DPP has done all the work. 

If you’re looking for a more sophisticated alternative, consider using an external recorder that you can place closer to your speaker. You can pair this with a shotgun mic as well for better results. 

Once you’ve finished your recording, you can sync the audio to your video in your favorite video editing software. I know this sounds super technical, but if you are already handy with software like FinalCutPro, the technique won’t be that difficult to master. You likely already work with your sound channel separately.

DPP offers a look at three alternatives of external recording solutions that range from $300 to $1,800. This clearly isn’t a good solution for home movies, but if you want to create a professional looking and sounding product, it could be worth a try.

The bottom line is that while your camera can capture breathtaking video, if you want the audio to match, you’ll need to give it a boost from somewhere else.

If not, you might find yourself singing my ditty, Audio killed the video, Star... Trust me, there’s no joy there.

7 Musts of Great Composition in Photography

7 Musts of Great Composition published on PictureCorrect

Recently I read an article about the 7 Musts of Great Marketing and it got me thinking. What are the musts of great composition? We like to think of photography as somewhat subjective, but there are some things you must do if you want to make a great image. I've listed seven "musts" in my latest guest post in PictureCorrect. Check it out, and come on back and tell me what you think. Would you add any others? Delete any?

Sometimes the camera matters

Camp Carnivalia performance at Synetic Theater“The camera doesn’t matter.” That’s what I chuckled to myself as I plunked down thousands of dollars on a full frame sensor DSLR.

As photographers, we are all trained to sing the same refrain -- “The camera doesn’t matter. It’s the person taking the picture who matters.”

Then we throw in some analogies for good measure. “An expensive hammer won’t make you a better carpenter.” Or “A fancy oven won’t make your cookies taste any better.” And on and on.

Usually the person smugly reciting these lines has a $5,000 camera hanging on his shoulder. 

It might make us feel better to say that, but it’s not true. The camera does matter. If it didn’t, we could all shoot with pinholes and call it a day.

The problem, of course, happens when you rely solely on the camera. Your camera won’t know what’s your subject. It won’t know what mood you want to create or story you want to tell. It won’t know what lighting style is best or what depth of field creates the best effect.

Your camera won’t know anything - until you tell it. But once you’ve decided all those things - mood, subject, story, etc., the camera you choose can either help you create your vision or frustrate you to  no end.

I recently did a photo shoot at the Synetic Theater Kids Camp. At the end of the camp’s 2-week session, the students perform a a production for their parents and friends.

What’s the first thing they do in a theater before the act begins? Dim the lights. What’s the one thing photographers hate most? Not enough light.

Here’s why the camera matters. Some cameras could not photograph the show without using a flash, which changes the mood altogether and distracts the young thespians. 

A higher end camera will allow you to photograph in low light without a tripod or flash. Even better it will allow you to select a high ISO without the big pixels you see in consumer grade cameras.

There are lots more benefits to paying more for a camera, but this is the bottom line. You have to understand your tools, and when you do, it always matters which one you choose.

Discover Editorial, Travel Photography with Hannele Lahti

I'm very excited about this month's Free Photo Webinar. 

Photographer Hannele Lahti specializes in editorial, travel, and photojournalistic photography.  She is a contributor to the National Geographic Image Collection and has had her work published in a variety of national publications. Her photography has been exhibited in Maine, New York, Maryland, Virginia, and Washington DC.

Hannele is an active member of the photography community of Washington DC. She is the Co-President of the DC Chapter of the American Society of Media Photographers and is on the Advisory Board for FotoWeekDC Inc. She is also a member of the Women Photojournalists of Washington and the National Press Photographer's Association.

In her free time, she enjoys visiting with friends and family, exploring new places, and practicing yoga.

See Hanneles’ engaging work at  http://www.hannelelahti.com.


Free Photo Critique

Want feedback on one of your photos? Submit your image here by September 11 for consideration.

Q&A: Save your photography-related questions for our Q&A at the end of the webinar.

Register now.