Besides your camera, there is a range of additional equipment that you may or may not need to help you get the photographs you want. DSLRs, being the most expandable system, naturally have a wider range of accessories available - but compact and bridge cameras can also benefit from various add-on items.
The information on this page is intended to help you choose the equipment you need - it suggests features that you may want to look out for, and possible compromises that you may need to make when selecting a product.
A tripod is a valuable, if not essential, addition to any enthusiastic photographer's collection. It allows the camera to be held absolutely steady when taking photographs that would otherwise be blurred by camera-shake, and it also allows hands-free photography where you want to take photos of yourself.
A huge variety of tripods are available, with a corresponding variety of price points. Cheap table-top tripods are suitable for small cameras, and can help when shooting close-up 'still life' photos, self-portraits, etc. They may not take the weight of a DSLR with its heavier lens, particularly an extended zoom lens - check the product description for a weight limit. If you have a DSLR with a separate wireless flash unit then a small tripod can be a handy way to mount the flash and position it where you want it. Some tripods are made with flexible rubberised legs that can grip onto railings, branches, etc - this can also be a very handy way to mount a flash.
Larger, full-sized tripods come at a range of prices - generally the more robust the tripod the more expensive it will be. They may come with a mounting point for your camera, but many require a separate head to be attached so that you can pan or tilt the camera. Features to check when buying a tripod include:
- Maximum height fully extended - if you are tall, it may be awkward to have to stoop to look through your DSLR's viewfinder when it is mounted on too short a tripod. Bear in mind that a fully extended tripod will be less stable, since the central column is unbraced and can flex or oscillate if it is not sturdy enough.
- Locking system - ideally the leg sections should be quick and easy to lock or unlock, but should be completely rigid when locked. The central column should similarly be able to lock firmly at a range of heights.
- Size when legs retracted - a more compact tripod may be easier to carry. But beware that increasing the number of leg sections means more possibility of flexing when extended if the locking mechanism is less than perfect.
- Weight - this is an important consideration. A heavier tripod will be much more stable than a lightweight one, particularly when supporting a DSLR with a heavy lens. However you will need to be able to comfortably carry the tripod and all your other equipment, so there is a trade-off of weight against portability. A heavy-duty tripod is also likely to be more expensive. Some tripods allow you to hang a weight (such as your camera bag) from the bottom of the central column to increase stability.
- Reversible central column - for taking low-level shots such as macro photographs of plants, it is useful to be able to mount the camera upside down on the bottom of the central column. Some tripods allow you to do this more easily than others. Some do not allow it, and some do not have a central column at all.
- Camera mounting device - does the tripod come with a tilt/pan or ball head, or will you have to purchase one separately?
Just as with tripods, there is a wide variety of tripod heads available. The head needs to be attached to the top of the tripod, and the camera attached to the head. Usually there will be a separate plate that is screwed to the mounting point at the base of the camera, and the plate then snaps into the head using a proprietary mechanism, allowing for quick mounting and dismounting of the camera. It is important to have a head that is rated for the weight of the camera and lens, otherwise it may not be able to lock the camera in position at certain angles.
Some tripod heads are designed more for video use, allowing tilt (up/down) and pan (left/right) positioning controlled with a single handle that can be twisted to lock or unlock the head. Greater flexibility is achieved with a ball head, which has a ball and socket arrangement that also allows the camera to be rotated between landscape and portrait modes, or anywhere in between. Initially it can seem awkward to use a ball head but the flexibility is often worth having.
Fitting a new lens to a DSLR can open up a new world of creative opportunities, or simply make it easier to get the shots you want. Buying a lens is always exciting, but in order to avoid disappointment it is important to research and understand what to expect from a lens before you make a purchase. The following is a checklist of features you should evaluate before making your decision. If the lens is a zoom lens, then you should try to check as many features as possible at various focal lengths, including both extremes.
- Focal length - naturally this is one of the major reasons for choosing a particular lens. Remember to take into consideration the crop factor of your camera's sensor.
- Widest aperture - a lens with a wide aperture (low f-number) will gather more light and so allow for shorter shutter times. It will also allow you to take photos with a shallower DOF. For zoom lenses, check how the widest aperture possible varies with focal length - usually it decreases fairly rapidly as the FL increases from its minimum value.
- Check whether the lens has stabilisation built in, for cameras that use it.
- Some camera bodies are capable of more than one method of adjusting the focus of a lens - either by turning a screw using a motor in the camera, or by powering motors built into the lens. Lenses using the former technique tend to be cheaper, but the latter can focus faster and more quietly.
- Image quality - there are many factors to look for here. Checking the lens on your camera before purchasing in a shop is highly adviseable. If you are buying online you should generally be able to find online sample images. Check these images at a 100% view (i.e. a portion of the image displayed so one image pixel equates to one screen pixel.) Look for any softness, check for curvature in lines that ought to be straight, and see if the lens shows chromatic aberration (purple or green coloured fringes on high-contrast edges such as branches against white cloud.) Also you should evaluate the general contrast of the image (are shadows properly dark?), and whether the lens has given it an overall colour cast. All the above should be checked at a range of aperture settings, and focal lengths for a zoom lens. Most lenses have a 'sweet spot' in terms of sharpness, usually at around f/8.
If you are buying a used lens, there are a few additional things you should check for:
- Scratches on the front or rear element of the lens. These will cause a general reduction in image contrast, and possibly flare in bright conditions.
- Dust inside the lens. If you can manually open the lens aperture, look through the lens in both directions at light and dark surfaces to check for dust or other particles inside the lens. Zoom lenses are more prone to dust contamination.
- Fungus. This has the appearance of small filaments, often in a branching tree-like pattern, on the surface or in between two bonded elements of a lens. The fungus grows slowly, absorbing nutrients from the lens coating and irreversibly damaging it in the process. A lens with fungus will infect other lenses in your collection, and should be avoided unless you have a very good reason to buy it and can get it properly cleaned and disinfected.
- Aperture blades. Look into the lens from both directions and check the surface of the aperture blades. If there is a hint of oil on the surface then the blades may stick together slightly instead of snapping into position - this will cause frustrating problems with exposure settings, typically leading to underexposed or black images. If you can manually open the aperture then do so and check that it snaps back instantly, with no stickiness, when you allow it to do so.
- Lens barrel. Look for signs of the lens having had a hard life. A few small scratches or scuffs on the barrel are probably not a problem, but dents or deep scratches may indicate that the lens has been dropped, which can cause internal elements to go out of alignment.
- Autofocus gears. Lenses which have a screw-driven focus mechanism have internal gears to couple the screw to the moving lens elements. It is possible for these gears to become worn or stripped, particularly when used on a camera with a powerful frive motor. Check the lens on your camera, focusing as close-up and as far away as possible, to ensure the mechanism sounds clean.
Most DSLRs and some bridge or compact cameras have a 'hotshoe' on top of the body, enabling you to mount an external flash unit. An external flash has many advantages over using the built-in flash, including:
- a greater illumination range
- faster recharging
- less likely to cause red-eye
- can usually be set to 'bounce' for softer lighting
- less drain on the camera's battery
Unfortunately different camera manufacturers use different standards for flashgun attachments, so it is important to check compatibility with your camera before making a purchase. Features to check for when choosing a flashgun include:
- Can the head swivel upwards or left/right? Bouncing light off a ceiling can make it much softer-looking.
- The Guide Number (GN) gives an indication of how powerful the flash is - the higher the GN the further it will be able to illuminate.
- Some flashguns have a built-in focus-assist light, allowing the camera to autofocus more easily in dimly lit conditions.
- TTL metering - the camera fires a short flash just before the main one, in order to calculate how bright the main pulse should be to give a good exposure.
- Can the flash be operated remotely? Some cameras implement a wireless flash system, triggering the flashgun using the camera's onboard flash. Some allow the flash to be tethered to the camera using a cable.
When out taking photographs you need to ensure you have with you all the equipment you require. Of course you can just put everything into a cheap backpack, but there are a range of purpose-made bags for carrying your gear which will provide better protection against knocks, and easier access to your equipment when you need it in a hurry.
Perhaps the first thing to consider is size - how many lenses will you want with you (allowing for future purchases)? Will you be carrying a flashgun? Spare batteries? Filters? Spare camera body? It is always tempting to put everything in the bag when you go out on a shoot, but the weight soon adds up and sometimes taking a smaller bag can force you to think more carefully about what you really need with you.
There are many styles of equipment bag on the market, including:
- Small cases for compact/bridge cameras, which can be carried on your hip attached to a belt.
- Medium sized cases with a shoulder strap, for a camera plus one or two lenses, or lens plus flash, and a few accessories.
- Aluminium brief cases with foam padding inside, capable of carrying large amounts of equipment and protecting it from rough handling.
- Simple backpacks with two shoulder straps, having various compartments for easy access to different pieces of equipment.
- Backpacks with special straps that allow the whole pack to be swung from your back to your front without removing it, allowing you to quickly reach the item you need without having to take off the pack.