There’s an old saying that the best camera is the one that you have in your hand. This statement is implying that the gear that you use to create the photo is much less important than the vision used during the photographic process. In other words, you do not need the latest and greatest camera to achieve incredible results. But……… There are some pieces of gear than can greatly enhance your photography experience by making certain tasks easier or more streamlined. In this article I will discuss some of the best game changing camera gear that I use in my everyday workflow.
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A Quality Tripod
While this first thing on this list might seem obvious, I have seen far too many people either choose not use one when they really should or try to wrestle with a poorly built tripod that is flimsy. We spend thousands of dollars on cameras and lenses. With that point in mind, why would we put that investment on top of a cheap tripod that could result in blurry shots or even worse, a broken camera? When it comes to tripods there are three factors to consider. Weight, durability and price. Out of these three factors you only get to choose two of them. Leaving you with the following options.
• Cheap & Light = Flimsy
• Cheap & Durable = Heavy
• Durable & Light = Expensive
The Best Value Tripods
Induro Tripods by Benro are some of the best value tripods on the market. These Chinese tripods are considerably cheaper than the best tripods mentioned below but still have a pretty decent build quality. While Induro tripods are indeed sturdy they will eventually begin to break down if you use them enough. This is especially true if you will be using your tripod in or near the ocean. What happens is the inner workings of the leg hinges begin to corrode and every time you open the tripod you’ll end up turning the hinge screw instead of the hinge causing the leg to go limp and need retightening. While the tripod will still be usable, it will be really frustrating to use once this happens. Given this information, it is best to purchase one of the high quality tripods below if your budget will allow for it.
Colorado Tripod Company also makes some great value tripods but unfortunately, they have been having supply chain issues since the beginning of the pandemic. It’s a good idea to check their website but they were completely out of stock as of the time of this writing.
The Best High-Quality Tripods
The Best tripods on the market are made by Really Right Stuff. They’re 100% American made and come with a five-year warranty. For most people, a RRS tripod will last them their entire lives. You buy it once and you never have to worry about buying a tripod again. Now, if you use your gear in extreme conditions on a monthly basis, you’ll probably have to replace your tripod at some point but a RRS tripod should last many years without a problem as long as you take decent care of it.
The Gitzo Systematic tripod is another excellent tripod choice. These tripods are made in Italy and have a great reputation. I’ve been a Gitzo user for years but my next tripod may be a Really Right Stuff due to a closing price gap and the fact that I think RRS tripods may be slightly better built. My current tripod is the Gitzo GT3543XLSUS. I love this tripod because it will go lower than 4” to the ground and as high as 79.5” without a center column. The downside of this tripod is that it is rather long (27.95” ) so it needs to go into a large suitcase when traveling on an airplane. The Gitzo GT3543LSUS is a more compact tripod (22.4”) for people who’d like a little more of a travel friendly tripod.
The Best Ball Heads
If you want a good ball head that will most likely last for the rest of your life, look no further than the Really Right Stuff BH-40 with quick release clamp. It's expensive but it's built really well and has hardly any drifting issues. If you use large prime telephoto lenses you may consider the BH-55 ball head. It weights about one pound more than the bh-40 though.
The Must Have L-Bracket
An L Bracket is one of the single most useful pieces of equipment a photographer can own. The bracket allows a photographer to mount their camera on their tripod vertically in addition to the horizontally. Owning an L-bracket can be the difference between missing a shot and nailing a shot. These clever devises cut down the time it takes to adjust your camera and lock in a composition. They also eliminates the need to wrestle with your ball head & tripod in order to get a level shot. Once you use an L-bracket, you’ll wonder how you ever shot without one.
L-brackets only work with specific ballheads though. Your ball head will need an Arca-Swiss style mounting plate in order to use the bracket. Gitzo and Manfrotto ball heads have proprietary mounting plates and will not work unless you switch out the mounting plate to a universal Arca-style plate. (I prefer quick release plate for quicker and more secure mounting)
Once you have confirmed that your ball head has an arca style plate you're ready to purchase an L-bracket. Most L-brackets are designed for a specific camera brand and model. A model specific bracket will fit the best and help ensure that all of your camera’s ports are accessible. Kirk and Really Right Stuff make the best L-brackets.
I suggest avoiding generic L-brackets unless you cannot find a bracket for your specific camera. You will most likely need a generic L-bracket if you are shooting a film camera. If you have to buy a generic bracket, try to buy one that is a single piece. “Pro Media Gear” makes a really nice general-purpose L-bracket.
Peak Design Quick Release Camera Strap
As a landscape photographer I mostly shoot without a camera strap but there are times that I like to have one attached to my camera. Conventional camera straps are very time consuming to take off and put back on. Luckily the folks at Peak Design came up with the Slide Lite Camera Strap. This quick release strap is highly durable and can easily be taken off or put on in about three seconds. The strap is also easily adjusted for a customized strap length with the flip of a latch. For folks who’d like a little thicker strap, the original slide strap is a great option.
Double Camera Harness
If you like to shoot with two cameras, there are two good harness options to choose from. The specific conditions that you’ll be shooting in will help determine which item is best for you.
The first option is Black Rapid’s Double Breathe Harness. This is a harness/sling combo that allows easy access to your cameras as they dangle by your side. The harness can also be adjusted to act as a single camera sling when only one camera is needed for the job. The Double Breathe harness is a great option for wedding and event photographers who need regular access to a long and short lens consistently. It’s also a great option for wildlife photographers when their lens or camera is coupled with a Fusion Plate or Quick Disconnect Swivel and Release Plate. These options allow the camera to be easily attached to the harness or an Arca-Swiss style ball head.
The other option for folks who need access to two cameras is the Cotton Carrier G3 Dual Camera Harness This harness keeps two cameras secured close to your body. One on your chest and one on your hip. This harness is a little more streamlined than the Black Rapid since there are no straps but the quick release harness attachments mean that you will not be able to easily use a tripod like you could with the Black Rapid and Fusion Plate combo. However, if you’re going to be shooting in a situation where you might be kneeling in water, this system might be the best option for you as it will keep your cameras higher.
Neutral Density & Polarizer Hybrid Filters
In the old days it used to be that you’d have to stack a neutral density and polarizing filter on top of one another in order to achieve a polarized ND effect. In recent years filter companies have begun to build ND/PL combo filters that are no thicker than a traditional thread on filter. These filters can eliminate the need for bulky square filter systems that are time consuming and expensive. Polar Pro has a great variety of combo filters ranging from three to ten stops. Breakthrough also makes some high quality color neutral hybrid filters.
A Comfortable and Highly Functional Camera Bag
A good camera bag is one of the most important pieces of gear you will buy because it will be home for your precious camera and lens selection. When it comes to camera backpacks there are two brands that have well thought out designs.
The first is f-stop bags. I personally use the Tilopa by f-stop. It comes in Black, Cypress Green, Sand (Aloe Green), and Orange. For folks who have less gear, the smaller Anja backpack might be a good option.
There are two reasons that I love f-stop bags. The first is rear opening zipper. This mean that your gear will never fall out of your bag in the event of a zipper failure since the opening is secure against your back. It also means that you will not have a wet back after placing your bag on damp ground or snow. The second reason I love my f-stop bag is the fact that the internal camera unit that holds my cameras and lenses is removable and will fit under the seat of any commercial flight. This mean that I do not have to panic when I hear the limited overhead bin space announcement at the airport. I can simply pull out the camera unit and gate check the shell of the bag. Additionally, the Tilopa will fit into the overhead bin of most airplanes with the exception of some commuter flights.
The other camera backpack that I would recommend is Mindshift BackLight. While I have not personally owned one of these packs, I have seen quite a few of them on my workshops and people seem to like them. The pack comes in three sizes including 36 liters, 26 liters and 18 liters. Like the f-stop bags, the BackLight bags open from the back keeping your gear secure and your back dry. The Backlight does not have a removable compartment though so it is not quite as travel friendly as the f-stop bags.
Extension tubes allow you to focus closer to a subject than you normally could with a traditional lens. They effectively turn an everyday lens into a macro lens for a fraction of the price and without the added weight. Extension tubes are a perfect item to leave in your camera bag at all times, that way when you happen upon a great macro-opportunity, you’ll be ready. There are two types of extension tubes. Manual focus and auto focus. I recommend getting manual focus tubes so you can still utilize your camera's auto focus system. Extension tubes are camera brand and mount specific so pay attention to what you are buying. I have listed the most popular brands and mounts below.
If you own a telephoto lens, you owe it to yourself to get a 1.4x teleconverter. Teleconverters are small optical adapters that fit between a telephoto lens and your camera in order to give your lens added focal length. Teleconverters typically come in two sizes 1.4x and 2x. While it might be tempting to buy the 2x converter because it effectively doubles the focal length of your lens, I’d recommend the 1.4x instead. The reason being is the 2x degrades the quality of the image quality quite a bit while the degradation of the 1.4x extender is much less noticeable. I have listed the extenders for the most popular brands below.