Welcome back for another installment of my monthly feature, Behind the Camera. On the first of each month I use this opportunity to talk about things that are going on with my photography or to answer a question that has come up in the previous month which requires a bit more thought than a quick comment on social media. This month has been rather slow for me photographically as it has been for so many others thanks to the self quarantining that has been going on. I’ve still been getting out occasionally, but most of my destinations are closed, and I am trying to limit interaction with other people while I’m out. This leaves me in kind of a lurch with topics to discuss this month. The more I thought about it though, the more I started thinking about quarantining from a photographer’s standpoint. I could do an entry on cleaning your gear but I had actually already done that entry a while back. I did spend about an hour doing a deep clean on my gear about a month ago, so that is still pertinent for those looking for something to do during this time. There had to be something else that would make our rejoining of the world a little better than when we left it that I could talk about. It was just last night that I came up with a fitting topic to talk about which fit this idea.
For those of you that have cleaned your gear, you are probably looking at upgrading and buying that piece of equipment that you have been eyeing for quite some time. That is all well and good, but we as photographers tend to fall into the trap of always trying to purchase the latest and greatest. There are times when it is warranted, but there are so many small purchases that can be made that will make your life so much easier while you are out in the field. That is what I want to discuss with you today. Let’s look at five cheap tricks that you can utilize to make your life so much better with your camera. These are all things that I have been using for a while and they are quite simple and effective. They save me time as well as fumbling around which is always a good thing.
I will start off with the cheapest and go to the most expensive that can still be had for less than ten bucks. Go ahead and reach down into your couch cushions to fish out some change because I can almost guarantee that you will want to purchase some or all of these items. I will be providing links to a lot of these things which I would appreciate you using as it will send a few cents my way without costing you anything extra to purchase.
This is something that I have so many uses for in all aspects of my life, but there are two things that I use it for in photography that are worth mentioning. You can get a strip of Velcro just about anywhere these days. It is the simple hook and loop fastener that we have all used but with an adhesive back to stick onto a multitude of surfaces. You can pick up squares like these from Amazon for just a few dollars, but all of mine came from Velcro rolls that we have for other uses around the house so it actually cost me nothing to use.
My first use of Velcro was before I actually even used the tripod. I knew that I was going to need something to secure the shutter release remote since at the time I was using it with every picture. I have since started using the 2 second timer to make sure I have no camera shake during the exposure. I usually only use the remote now for bulb exposures. I needed something away from the camera to be able to mount the remote securely in between exposures while mounted to my Manfrotto Tripod. What I did was grab a few leftover bits of Velcro from the drawer and placed the softer side on the back of the remote with the adhesive backing. I used the soft side here because that was going to be what was in my hand and I didn’t want to have the rough side rubbing my skin like that. It is personal preference though. I then cut small strips that I mounted to the tops of the legs of the tripod just above the leg covers. I now had six different places that I could stick the remote when I wasn’t holding it to keep it from swinging around and falling to the ground when the tripod was down low. This is especially handy when shooting from within a stream or other body of water. I have never had the remote fall off, and I can find the mounting point quickly, even in the dark which is very handy. I know where the remote is no matter how the tripod is oriented because the legs are all the same, it just habit for me to mount it just to the right of center.
I have been using this current setup for seven years and the Velcro has not peeled up, or fallen off during any use. I have been out during 100 degree days, as well as in the teens. The tripod is stored in my tripod bag in the back of the 4Runner so it is exposed to the heat of a summer day regularly when I have the truck out of the garage. The adhesive has never quit on me yet and I haven’t had to replace the section on the remote either. This has been, by far, my favorite cheap trick that I have done and one that I would fully recommend anyone doing that uses a remote release on a tripod.
I have recently extended the versatility of Velcro to help with small items in the bag. For those that do daylight long exposure photography like I do, we need to make sure that light is not entering the camera through the viewfinder. This isn’t a problem with mirrorless cameras, but it does factor in with a DSLR. Nikon has a built in shade that is wonderful and I’ll admit to being just a little jealous of that feature. My Canon, and many other cameras don’t have that and you actually have to remove the eyecup from the camera and slide a rubber shade over the viewfinder hole. This cover is designed to be attached to the strap of the camera which is not a bad idea, but since I don’t use a strap (too much chance of wind adding vibrations), I am left holding this small cover loose in the bag. For years I kept it in my little ziplock bag that contained Allen wrenches and some spare parts. That was a pain to drag out and fish this little cover out of during my long exposure shoots. Since I was doing them more and more often, I wanted to make it easier to get to. My solution was to use more Velcro. After a good bit of consideration, I decided that my best bet was to utilize the section of my bag where I keep my remote release stored which is right next to the camera body. The bag material was a fuzzy fabric along the outer perimeter of the bag which was perfect for my idea. I took a small section of the rough side of the Velcro and used the supplied adhesive side to attach it to the outside of the cover. This allowed the fit of the cover not to change on the camera. With that rough side of the Velcro now on the cover, I could just stick it to the fuzzy side of the bag and there it stayed until needed. I could also move it to the back of the remote (remember that has the soft side of the Velcro attached) if I wanted to. Since I don’t always use the cover with the remote, I didn’t want it getting in the way, so I left it mounted to the bag.
Now, if your bag has material that will not hook to the Velcro, you can still use this trick by mounting an strip of the soft side to any section of the bag that works for you. The adhesive will hold it on the clear windows of some pockets, or the smooth fabric on the dividers. If you are concerned about it falling off, you can always put a few stitches in with a needle and thread to make sure that the Velcro stays attached, but this really shouldn’t be all that necessary. I have been using this arrangement as seen above for about a year now and have had absolutely no issues with it at all. It is a moot point for the new generation of cameras, but if you are like me and have an antique camera body this is the way to keep that cover from getting lost, or falling out of the bag. The trick can also be used for any number of other uses in your bag and with other small accessories.
2. Hotshoe Mounted Bubble Level
In my experience, this is also some very cheap insurance for straight horizons. That is actually something that I have a very hard time with thanks to a pretty bad astigmatism and I used to always have to fix the horizon in post which is not a great idea because you lose pixels when you crop after straightening and it can change your composition too. I learned early on that the best way for me to avoid this problem was to invest in a bubble level that mounts to the hotshoe. I did this long before cameras started to include that feature in live view, or in some cases through the optical viewfinder. When I first purchased one, I got it for about $3. Since that time the prices have gone up and I’ve seen several that are well over $20.00. There is no reason to spend that kind of money one though. I found this one through Amazon that is only $7.95 including shipping. B&H Photo has widely different prices but the cheapest ones are a single axis unit that you can leave in the hotshoe all the time. This works if you are always shooting horizontal, but is limited as it is designed to keep your sensor square to an imaginary wall. I much prefer the dual axis ones which are a bit expensive through B&H.
Here you can see how the level mounts to the camera. The lower bubble will tell me if the camera is canted in either direction from the horizon. This is how I will usually use the level. If I decide to shoot vertically, I don’t have to move it at all, as the top bubble will now tell me if the camera is square with the horizon. When shooting architecture or needing to watch for converging verticals, I can use the secondary mount on the front of the level and the top bubble will now tell me if the camera is tilted up or down in addition to left or right. In the flat position, it will do the same thing as the single bubble levels I mentioned before, but using two independent axes. It is all personal preference, but you can these relatively cheap individually. You can also get a six pack of them for less than eight bucks which makes them about a buck a piece. That would be the way I would go as I have broken one of the ears off of the level in the past and have had to replace it. By having several spares you will never have to worry about it, and you will get both kinds of levels for versatility.
You might think that this would only be useful at the beach where the horizon is very straight and you can easily tell in a photograph if the water is trying to spill out of a corner. That was where I started to see my problem at early on when I decided that I needed this. I also found it very helpful in the mountains as there are very few cues as to what is level when you are looking at rolling terrain. By using this level, I am sure that my horizon is correct and that the trees will stay looking correct even if I can’t make out distant detail. There are times that I will overrule the level though because a level horizon might make for an uneasy appearance in the image when I am focusing on an isolated segment of a hill or something. I can make an informed decision about what is level versus what might have a better appearance to the image.
I’m sure that somebody out there is wanting to know why this is still needed on a camera that has a built in level, or possibly using a tripod with a leveling plate for the camera to attach to. In so many cases the level takes up so much room in the view of the image it is hard to compose the shot and get it level when you can’t see the whole scene. By using the bubble level, you can have a clear view of the scene and get it set up the way you want and just glance at the bubble to check for level. I’ve got a level on the ballhead that is great, but it is a 360 degree level where I center the bubble which makes it very hard when the camera is tilted up or down which is a normal occurrence. There are also times when those levels are covered up by your camera or plate and they are not usable at that point. The hotshoe level is a perfect solution for the landscape photographer that doesn’t use a flash on the top of the camera.
3. Lee Filter Lens Caps
The next item on the list is a lens cap. yeah, I know your lens came with a lens cap. As long as you haven’t lost it down a waterfall, you are fine. You can even carry spare lens caps designed for your lens which is a fine solution. In fact, if you aren’t using the Lee Filter system for mounting filters you can skip this one. However, if you do use the original Lee Holder, or the new Lee 100 system, you might be interested in this cheap trick. The problem with those systems is that to use them, you have to have an adapter screwed onto the lens to mount the holder to. That can get annoying each time you want to use a filter. If you were going to go through all that trouble, why not just screw a filter on the lens to start with? I have streamlined my process by leaving all of the lenses mounted with their adapter rings so that I can mount the holder quickly. The problem there is that the lens caps will no longer work to keep the lens element safe. Lee has come up with a great solution. Since the adapter is a uniform diameter no matter the lens that it is mounted to, they have made a lens cap that fits on that adapter ring and protects the front element of the lens. You can get them very cheap with a three pack priced around $7 from either B&H Photo or Amazon.
Obviously, you are not getting the same quality material that you have with your original lens caps, but for what they are and do, these work great. They are a flimsy plastic that kind of stretches over the adapter ring with several ears which lock it into place. They do tend to pull off easy, so be careful putting them in your bag. They are white so that you can use a Sharpie to identify your lens for easy retrieval even in poor lighting. They protect your glass from bumps and abrasions just as any lens cap would. I like them because they allow me to leave my rings on all the time. The only time that I pull them off is if I need to use my lens hoods which has gotten to be quite infrequently since I have started to use one of my other cheap tricks.
4. 12″ Reflector
I have to give credit to somebody else for this one. I had never considered just how useful a 12″ reflector could be until I hosted my first Decay Workshop in 2019. While we were talking about doing isolation images of emblems one of the participants brought out this tiny reflector and used it to bounce light onto the emblem when it was in harsh shadows. It worked fantastically for that and it had a warm and a cool side to it so you could fine tune the light. When I saw it for around $7 at B&H Photo, I grabbed it up. There are similar ones on Amazon, but they are a bit pricier. I figured that it would benefit some of my isolations and it actually has helped quite a bit with those since I have started to use the reflector. I have even used it to fill in shadows when shooting overall images of my rusty cars and to add a pop of highlight to the images in the field.
That is not the only use that I have found for this cheap trick. In addition to bouncing light, it will also flag light away from the lens on those days I forget to bring a hat to wear. Using the filter system that I do with the Lee Holder, I find that my polarizer is usually exposed to the sunlight and will develop ghosting reflections all too easy. I will normally use my hat to shade the lens during the exposure, but I have found that using the 12″ reflector is just as efficient and has better coverage without having dangly bits coming into the frame. It is just a little more cumbersome to pull out than taking a cap off of my head, but it is nice to know that it is there when I need it.
I actually keep mine in the included carry case that you can see to the right of the disk above. that shows you how small this gets when collapsed. The case is mounted to the side of my camera bag so I don’t even have to open it up to get to the disk. It is right there should I need it, but it takes up so little room that I could easily have it inside of the bag and it not take up too much room. I highly recommend this little trick especially if you are into macro photography as it can provide shade, or modified light bounced back onto your subject. For less than ten bucks, you really can’t go wrong with this at all!
5. A Small Flashlight
This one goes without saying for a number of reasons, but every photographer should have a flashlight with them. We all end up being out either before or after the sun is up to get that magic light. While it is nice to have a good light for hiking so you don’t get lost, you also need just a small dim flashlight in the bag to help see things without ruining your night vision. I keep this small light in my bag with a red filter on the lens so that I can maintain my ability to see what I am doing in the dark and to compose the images in little to no light. It was just a cheap light that came as a freebie with another purchase and I just happened to have the red filter that fit it.
You just need to find a low power flashlight such as this 90 lumen one from B&H Photo that is just under ten bucks. Amazon has one with a red filtered light for a little less, so you see you have all sorts of choices for cheap. Just find the one that fits your needs, but you don’t need high power here. Low lumens are key for this one. You are just needing to find things in your bag, or get the camera set up in the dark. You aren’t out trying to trail blaze. The important thing is after you are done you should be able to go right to the viewfinder and find your composition and focus without having to readjust your eyes to the ambient light.
A headlamp is also a viable choice here but are generally brighter than small flashlights since they are designed for hiking and remaining on to see. I like the hands-free convenience of them, but I am not willing to sacrifice my night vision to use one. The choice is all up to you, but this is a great cheap trick to keep in your camera bag that will make you work more efficiently in the dark which we always seem to find ourselves in when we are least prepared. A small light can just stay tucked into your bag at all times.
6. A Bonus Free Trick!!
Any time you get new products whether clothing, electronics, or accessories, you will find these nifty little packets tucked inside. They are Silica Packets or Desiccant Packets. They say right on the package to throw away and don’t eat. I can’t argue the don’t eat part of the instructions and doubt that they would taste good anyway. The first part I would like to challenge though. Don’t throw these away. They are actually quite valuable for your camera and I have used them for years. Just like during shipping, they are great for keeping moisture out of your gear. Toss a few of them in your bag and just leave them in there. Whether the moisture is from sweat coming through your bag, or you get caught in a rain storm, these packets are there to help keep your valuable equipment dry, even in humid conditions. For general use, they can last for a year easily before they should be replaced. They will reduce the chances of mold forming on your glass, and corrosion forming on the electronic connections. On the off chance that you are caught in the rain, they will help for that last little bit of moisture that is left on your gear after you wipe it off with a dry towel. You are wiping the water off right? Of course, after being caught in the rain, it is a good idea to replace the packets after leaving everything out of the bag to properly dry overnight…or longer if needed. If these packets get wet you will be able to tell that they don’t feel the same. It is time to replace them at that point. I will usually keep between six and ten of these packets in my bag at all time depending on the sizes I have. The one in this picture is quite large and will do the job of quite a few of the smaller packets. I will be keeping this one next to the camera body while smaller ones are near the lenses. Keep an eye on them as well for holes or wear in the covering. Some are paper, and some are more like a fabric which is more durable. Just make sure that you don’t have any that rupture in the bag as that will be problematic to clean up.
I hope that you have enjoyed my five cheap tricks for the photographer. They range from free, up to ten bucks. For me, each of these items has become a valuable addition to my kit and has allowed me to capture the images much easier than I would have without them. I fully recommend using items similar to these if you are an outside photographer. If you are looking to purchase any of them, I would like to remind you to use the links provided. You don’t have to purchase the exact item mentioned, but if you go to either Amazon or B&H through these links it will help me out and won’t cost you anything extra at all.
Join me again next month for another installment of Behind the Camera when we discuss something else that has popped up during this month. Until next time…