Friday, May 09, 2008

You've Bought A Camera... Now Buy These

photographySixth in a series that gently explains digital photography and makes helpful recommendations.

It would be nice if buying a Pentax camera gave you everything you need to start shooting. But no, the camera kit is only the beginning. In this article I present a checklist of accessories you might need -- or absolutely must have. This article will be oriented towards the K100D Super I've discussed previously. But most of the points apply to most cameras.

Batteries: The underpowered AA batteries that come with the K100D Super are for testing only, as the manual tells us. You'll be lucky to get half a dozen shots from them. Unless you are terribly into waste, buy the highest current flow rechargeables you can. I got a set of four Duracell Supreme batteries (2650 mAh) and a second set of Uniross (2700 mAh). I will invest in a third set soon.

TIP: Buy different sets you can distinguish visually. This helps to keep the batteries matched by age and charge.

TIP: Sometimes you can buy a charger plus batteries for the same price as the batteries alone. Having a second charger never hurts.

TIP: If you are using a camera with a proprietary battery, don't be afraid of buying high-quality clones. The only thing special about the name brand battery is its price.

Memory cards: The camera doesn't even come with a small card, which is annoying. Each RAW image from the 6MP K100D Super takes up about 10MB of space. Though you may be tempted to buy the biggest cards possible, I find that 2GB is a good amount. These cards are cheaper per GB than larger cards, and I find it convenient to swap out images in batches of 200. I bought only two cards to get started, but for a long trip I'd want more.

TIP: If you've got several cards, managing them on a shoot can get annoying. After you've filled and removed a card, set the tab to write-protect. That way if you accidentally insert the same card later in the shoot, there's no way you can zap your images.

TIP: Buy a holder that has enough room for all your cards. When you return a card to the holder, insert it upside down so you can tell you've used it.

TIP: Buy only cards from major manufacturers that are rated 150x speed or higher. Cheap cards, eBay knock-offs and slow memory are not worth your wasted time.

TIP: Eventually you will erase images you really wanted to keep. There are dozens of programmes that will get your erased data back for you, but PhotoRec is free, cross-platform and open source. It works even if the disk has been erased and recovers more than just image files. Plus it works on any type of disk. It's pretty amazing so long as you're not put off by a command-line interface.

Card Reader: If you do not have an SD card reader, get a couple. It's much handier to use a reader than to use the cable that came with the camera. Plus you can be using the camera while downloading images, and it saves on battery power.

TIP: Buy two readers. Keep one with the computer and carry the other with you. It's handy for getting images off your cards on location. Most places you can find someone with a laptop or drop into an internet cafe to burn files to a DVD. But sometimes they won't have (working) SD card readers.

Screen Protector: It's easy to scratch the LCD screen and even easier to get nose grease all over it. A screen protector is just a piece of clear adhesive film, but it can preserve the value of your camera.

Lens cleaning tools: Camera lenses get dirty, so you'll want to have a blower of some kind. You can find expensive ones designed just for cameras, or cheaper generic blowers that might do the trick. But don't blow with your mouth onto a lens. You'll gunk it up with crap from your mouth -- yuck! Lens cloths are the second line of defense.

TIP: Be careful that a blower does not scatter particulates from its manufacturing process onto your lens. Try it out several times onto a surface (eg. glass) so you can examine the effect.

Sensor cleaning tools: Sensors get dust on them as well, especially if you change lenses a lot. You can use a blower on the sensor so long as you do not touch it. Specialised tools are also available. Read the ShutterFreaks site for great info.

TIP: Turn on the Dust Removal start-up action in the camera menu. This shakes the sensor every time you turn on the camera. It really works!

TIP: When changing lenses have the second lens ready with mount cap loosened. Turn off the camera, invert it so the lens is facing downwards and take the lens off. Immediately put the new lens on and set down the camera. Cap the old lens and put it away carefully with the mount cap from the second lens. Choose the safest place possible for this process.

Tripod: Eventually you'll need to take low light shots. A decent tripod is a godsend here. I am not going to advise you which one to buy, since that is a topic that can spawn a million responses. But I will say that you will no doubt need more than one: something lighter that's easily portable, something very heavy duty for inclement conditions, a monopod for hiking... you get the idea. So far I've got two. The first was a tiny flexible-legged desktop model. It costs €5-10 depending on where you shop, but I got it free with a point'n'shoot camera. It shouldn't be sturdy enough for an SLR but it is.

I also bought a Hama Tripod Star 42 for €19. On paper this has all the features of a tripod ten times it's price, but of course it is made very cheaply and cannot compare to something like a Manfrotto. It's useless outside in a wind but does OK for studio use. Better than nothing!

Next I will be getting a monopod to help stabilize macro shots and so on. For the type of photography I do, a heavy-duty tripod is more a hindrance than a boon.

TIP: Cheap tripods like those I've mentioned may not be great for your camera, but are perfect for off-camera flash pots.

Camera Bag: Another topic that could launch a small book. I'll just say that most bags are dead ugly, so I got one of the Crumpler line, from a very strange Australian company. Their website will wreck your head, but the bags are water resistant, well padded and relatively comfortable. Just try to figure out the product line, however!

To make things as confusing as possible, the UK branch offers different bags from the Australian/US sites. So most of the advice you'll find on the net about which model to buy will mean nothing to you if you are in Europe. Start your search with the Pretty Boy XXXL. It's the largest of the line but is not that big for a camera bag -- don't be fooled by the XXXL hyperbole. Still, it fits my body with lens attached, plus up to three other lenses. It's priced at €80 but sells cheaper if you look. Outside the UK start your search with the 5 Million Dollar Home.

TIP: Carry only what you need. Be light and highly mobile. I use my Crumpler only when I know I need three lenses. Pentax users shun bags, since you can fit pancake lenses in your pockets.

Remote Control: There are two types that are useful. A shutter release cable allows you to hold down the button for timed exposures, but keeps you tethered to the camera. An IR remote allows you to wander around, even into the picture. I sourced both from a Hong Kong firm. They are tiny and only five bucks each, unlike Pentax's own offerings.

TIP: The K100D has an IR sensor only on the front of the body; the K10D conveniently has one on the back as well. However, I have found the K100D can detect the remote from more than 90 degrees off axis, which means I can still be comfortably behind the camera and trigger the remote.

Other: Besides these accessories there's a fantastic world of filters, macro couplers, step-up and step-down adapters, extension tubes, teleconverters, slash pots, remote triggers and umbrellas of various descriptions. Yes, the camera is only the first thing you'll need. Before long you'll be converting your garage into a studio and wondering where the rest of the family went.

One last idea for those of you who photograph children: a most novel hotshoe accessory.



Yann said...

Some great advice there. That shutter freaks site is really helpful, I've been meaning to clean my sensor for about 2 years! And I don't even have dust removal...
Isn't digital photography such a wonderful way of ensuring that we're in constant poverty?

robin said...

I got an Arctic Butterfly, which gets rave reviews as the best sensor cleaner around. I was shipped two by mistake, so I guess I should sell one. :-)

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