Photography 101: Hardware essentials

Having a camera is just the first step to taking respectable photos.  Augmenting it with other goodies can transform it from a casual tool to a professional one.

(1) Put a UV filter on every lens
Every lens you have should be fitted with a UV filter (sometimes called a haze filter).  These filters work under all circumstances and increase light transmission while reducing flare.  By absorbing UV rays, they can make photos sharper while limiting the amount of haze passed to the sensor.

But there’s another use that makes them even more important: because UV filters work in all lighting conditions and environments, they can be left on the lens at all times.  This serves as physical protection for the exterior lens element.  Were you to bump or scrape the lens against something, scratching the UV filter means nothing more traumatic than replacing the filter; but without the filter, you’d scratch the lens element instead, and repairing that can be a costly endeavor up to and including replacing the entire lens.

So put a UV filter on every lens and leave the filters there.  All other filters can be attached to the UV filter.

(2) Keep circular polarizing filters at the ready
First be clear about this: Only purchase circular polarizing filters.  Linear polarizers do not work with dSLR cameras, but circular polarizes work with both dSLR and point-and-shoot cameras.

You should have a polarizer for each lens size (although it doesn’t hurt to have one for each individual lens so you don’t have to move the filter from lens to lens when you’re in the middle of shooting).

Polarizers have a default use: when shooting in direct sunlight.  Sunlight is overpowering and bounces off everything.  This causes reflections and washes out color.  This filter eliminates reflections from non-metallic surfaces (e.g., water and glass).  It also increases color saturation and contrast.

But don’t just think it’s for sunny days; a polarizer can help or enhance images under a variety of circumstances.

Keep in mind polarizing filters are a form of tint.  Using one means you have to compensate for the reduction of light reaching the sensor.

(3) Tripod or monopod or hand-held, oh my!
Everyone should have a tripod.  At least one.  Image stabilization technology and fast shutter speeds and high ISO settings can go a long way in assisting with hand-held photography, but dynamics and quality are best when the camera is held perfectly still with a tripod.  (In a pinch, any flat surface can be used, like a table or automobile or fence post.)

When using a tripod, it’s best to turn off image stabilizing technology.  (Ignore your documentation in this regard.  Trust me: the tripod becomes the image stabilizing technology and you don’t need another system adding more processing to the image than is necessary.)

Monopods offer some stabilization under circumstances that prohibit using a tripod (e.g., when moving around so much that stopping to setup the tripod means missing the shot).  They can also be useful when shooting in close quarters (e.g., crowded sports stadium or dense woodlands).  In essence, it’s a single leg of a tripod that can add a wee bit more stability to the camera than when shooting hand-held.

(4) And with that tripod, a remote shutter release
To make sure you don’t cause camera shake while using a tripod, invest in a remote shutter switch.  There are both wired and wireless solutions.  Using one of these while the camera is on a tripod ensures pushing the shutter release doesn’t cause any movement.

(5) A hooded lens is a happy lens
Camera lenses are made to suck in light for delivery to the sensor.  Unfortunately, that light doesn’t have to come from what’s in the frame (what’s in front of the lens).  Any light striking the lens element will be processed.  That can lead to washed out images, glare, lens flare, and all manner of frustration.

Every lens you use should have a lens hood on it.  These block and absorb angular light.  That allows the lens to pull light only from the view being photographed as opposed to pulling from the view and everywhere else.

And like UV filters, lens hoods provide a certain level of physical protection for the lens element since they extend beyond the glass.

The type of lens hoods used depends on preference and lens.  Longer lens hoods are better for telephoto lenses, whereas shorter lens hoods are better for smaller lenses that have a wider angle of view.  Also note tulip hoods are useful by limiting the vignetting caused by the hood, although likewise they offer less protection from angular light due to their shape.

(6) Flash me, baby
Let me start by saying I deplore using flash.  It’s just never been my thing.  I’m a big fan of natural light.  Still, you can’t always get away with using natural light (although I’ll teach you some tricks later in this series that will allow you to go much further in that regard than you thought possible).

Some cameras have on-board flash and some don’t.  For those that do: this is the most primitive flash you can use since it has limited variability in intensity and it has only one direction.

Ring flashes are expensive but offer the best way to take macro pictures.  They illuminate from all directions around the end of the lens.  If you don’t intend to do much macro photography, there’s no need to worry about a ring flash.

In all other cases, a pro flash (or more than one) offers versatility under all circumstances, including fill (illuminating shadows around an already well-lit subject), allowing faster shutter speeds without losing detail, and seeing in the dark.  Until you have a good idea about how and when you use flash, don’t consider buying one since you might well end up with something you can’t use.  That said, start reviewing what’s available so you begin to understand their uses, their functionality, and their costs.

(7) Bigger memory is better
Although I already pointed out the need to have spare memory, I want to stress the need for that memory to be sizable.  Digital cameras are great learning tools because you can take as many pictures as you want without paying for the film.  What you don’t like, you delete.

I personally keep two 16 GB cards with me at all times, if not more as circumstances warrant.  This gives me the ability to keep taking pictures without worrying about missing something.

In addition to the number of images you take, I’ll discuss in the next section the need for storing larger files (RAW) using the best quality the camera supports.  These files are larger than the standard JPG processed images cameras put out, so larger memory cards offer the best solution for taking the best photos.

And let me add this: I never delete an image directly with the camera.  The LCD viewer can’t do justice to an image.  Even if it looks terrible during initial review, more than once have I looked at those files later and discovered some hidden gem lurking in the corner or on the side of an otherwise blurry image.  Until you can be sure it has no aesthetic value, it’s best to be able to keep it on the memory card.

(8) Storage issues
This will be a case of personal preference…

I keep every photograph I’ve ever taken.  It’s been more times than I remember when I’ve suddenly realized something I shot a few years ago has taken on new meaning, or a picture I originally felt wasn’t presentable comes back to haunt me with more value than was clear when I first reviewed it.

Consider your options when it comes to extra storage, whether it be online storage services or external hard drives or whatever.  Even burning to DVD can be useful, although someone who takes a lot of pictures will soon realize how limited that medium is and how many DVDs will pile up before you get through your first year of photography.

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