Our Ten Favorite Photo Accessories
FEBRUARY 13, 2012
By Dan Havlik
Here’s what you’ll find in our photo bag when we head out on a shoot (whether for still or video capture).
PocketWizard MiniTT1 & FlexTT5
Yes, this smaller version of the famed PocketWizard wireless triggering system for off-camera lighting has experienced some growing pains since it launched a few years ago, but these tiny devices are still our go-to radio slaves. Now available for both Canon and Nikon systems, these tiny “slide-n-shoot” PocketWizards let you wirelessly control off-camera flashes and some studio lights. The MiniTT1 transmitter, which attaches to the hot shoe of your camera, and the FlexTT5 transceiver, which connects to an off-camera flash, comprise PocketWizard’s Control TL system, giving you wireless TTL control over your remote strobes. For instance, you can mount several speedlights on stands and place them in an array of locations around your subject—such as behind backdrops, under tables or up on ladders—and get them to fire even if the strobes are not in the line of sight of your camera. PocketWizard’s radio-wave-driven TTL control lets you adjust settings such as ISO, aperture or shutter on your camera, and automatically sync them wirelessly to all your flashes. Never leave home without ’em!
Price: MiniTT1, $199; FlexTT5, $299 for Canon and $219 for Nikon
California Sunbounce Sun-Mover
There are lots of reflectors for outdoor portrait sessions but we prefer the Sun-Mover from California Sunbounce. Why? It’s both effective and highly portable. When open, the Sun-Mover is a 33.5 x 31-inch oval disk with handles that provides enough reflective surface area to bounce light for an individual portrait. When you’re on the move, it folds up to a third of its size and fits into a small bag (included) while keeping its rigidity thanks to a unique fabric/spring steel-frame system called PermaTense. The trade-off is that the always-ready Sun-Mover pops out like a jack-in-the-box when you pull it from the bag so keep it away from pets, small children and fragile objects. The rigidity helps the reflector throw a consistent amount of light onto your subject, even on windy days. The built-in handles also help keep it taut and since it’s oval shaped, not a circle, you get some extra surface area when you pull the handles apart. For a spot effect, bend the Sun-Mover inward; for neutral, keep it flat; and for soft light, flex it toward your subject.
Price: Silver/White version, $100; Zebra (gold-striped)/White version, $113
Sometimes our work requires us to get a bit nasty. When that happens we turn to Nasty Clamps. Though they might look like something used in an S&M movie, Nasty Clamps are actually quite practical. Designed by Portland, Oregon-based photographer Matthew Monroe, these clamp-like devices let you attach your off-camera strobes to trees, fences, signposts and other structures for additional illumination in a scene. Connected to the industrial strength clamp is a bendable arm with a standard, 1/4-inch screw mount on the end to fasten your flash to via a hot-shoe adapter. The clamps are compatible with just about every SLR flash out there right now and support up to a pound of weight when fully extended horizontally. Nasty Clamps are modular so segments in the arm can be added or taken out as needed. Try them with your PocketWizards to create some truly nasty lighting set-ups.
If you were getting the feeling that we stash a lot of lighting-related gear in our camera bag, you’d be right. Rogue FlashBenders are another great, portable solution for modifying light and bouncing flash to create more flattering portraits and natural-looking strobed photos. FlashBenders are small strap-on reflectors with coiled steel inserted in them, allowing them to be shaped in a variety of ways for different strobe lighting effects. The shapeable tactile design of these accessories make them versatile and highly addictive to play with. (Twist them in one position and the metal coils inside will help them hold their shape.) Along with giving you options on where to direct the light from your flash, the white, reflective surface inside the FlashBenders is made from durable, synthetic fabric that can be cleaned with a single wipe. The surface is designed to be neutral so it won’t affect the color temperature of the light from your strobe. They fit most any standard shoe-mount flash using an integrated belt.
Price: Starting at $30
If you’ve been enjoying shooting HD video with your DSLR as much as we have, Steadicam’s Merlin camera rig is an essential traveling companion. Weighing just 13 ounces, the Merlin is one of the lightest rigs on the market and ideal for “floating” your camera in tight shooting situations. Distributed by Tiffen, the all-aluminum Merlin uses a six-ball-bearing gimbal to isolate the camera from the shooter to create a smooth shot, even when you’re moving quickly over uneven ground. The device employs a dual extended weight system—the top mount where the camera goes and the curved section you see jutting out at the bottom—to increase stability. The counterbalancing weight can be adjusted to steady cameras weighing from a half an ounce up to five pounds. Since the Merlin folds up neatly using a well-designed hinge system, it’s easy to pack it in the included hard case and bring on an airplane. Few other similar rigs are as portable.
Gaffer’s tape is one of those “no-brainer” things you bring on every shoot. But did you ever wonder why rolls of it have to be so big? A company called Visual Departures did, and that’s why it created microGAFFER, which is just an inch wide, as opposed to the standard two-inch width of traditional gaffer’s tape. It also starts out at a diameter of less than 2.5 inches rather the typical 6.5 inches. Now you can slip a roll of microGAFFER into your pocket or stuff it in a photo backpack or bag, and bring it to your next shoot. Though it’s smaller in size, microGAFFER is the same cloth tape you know and depend on for lashing lighting equipment together, securing backdrops and tying down cables, wires and other assorted nuisances so models and clients don’t trip on them. It’s available in packs of four with two color options: one that includes two rolls of black, one gray and one white; and a fluorescent pack, which includes rolls in bright orange, magenta, green and yellow.
Price: $21.50 per pack
Manfrotto Maxima-84LED Panel
Speaking of shooting video, one of our favorite portable light sources for capturing HD with our DSLR is the Manfrotto LED Panel. Very similar to another product we reviewed a few years ago called Litepanels (also recommended), Manfrotto LED panels attach to the top of your camera via a cold-shoe mount and use a grid-like pattern of LEDs (light emitting diodes) to produce soft, 6000°K light. The flagship model, the dual-purpose Maxima-84LED Panel, offers both continuous LED light and a flash option for still photography, which produces a burst four times the output of the continuous light. As its name suggests, the Maxima-84 is an 84 LED panel that’s powered by a built-in lithium rechargeable battery. It ships with a ball-head mount that lets you attach the light either on the hot shoe of your camera, a photo head or a light stand. It also offers a “Duo” position, letting you mount it either horizontally or vertically. If you want more light for your big movie shoot, you can stack several Manfrotto LED panels together. If you want less light, turn down the dimmer or add the included diffuser or gels to soften the light or change the color temperature.
GorillaPod Focus with Ballhead X
We rarely go anywhere without our GorillaPod Focus and Ballhead X from Joby. While most situations require a full-length tripod with more support, bendable GorillaPods with their flexible, wrappable legs let you set up in tricky settings. (We love them for on-location food and libations shoots.) The Focus is the largest GorillaPod in the line and the first one designed specifically with the pro in mind. It can support up to 11 pounds of pro gear, so if you want to use a long telephoto or zoom with your DSLR, you’re covered. Pair it with the lightweight and compact Ballhead X and you’ve opened a range of possibilities, such as fluidly panning, tilting and rotating your camera while shooting HD video. Meanwhile, the bubble level helps you keep your shots straight; while the head itself provides 360-degree panning and up to 90-degree tilt. The Ballhead X is made from precision-machined anodized aluminum with a weight of over nine ounces and a height of 3.3 inches. It has both a universal 1/4-inch and 3/8-inch threads.
Price: GorillaPod Focus, $70; Ballhead X, $50
Clarity Defog It
Whenever we go on a shoot in tropical, humid or foggy conditions, we bring along some Clarity Defog It. The anti-fogging solution, made by Nanofilm, is available in moist towlettes or in liquid form, which you gently wipe on the front of your lens—or eyewear—to prevent it from fogging while moving between temperature-changing environments. One wipe/squirt of Defog It will keep your lenses from fogging for the whole day. The product has been extensively tested on optical lenses, eyeglasses and safety goggles and, along with preventing fogging, it’s a pretty decent lens cleaner. Just wipe and shoot.
Price: $7.49 for three reusable anti-fog cloths in a plastic carrying case; $5.99 for kit with 5ml bottle of anti-fog liquid and microfiber cloth
Induro Carbon CM34 Monopod
We ask for only a few things when it comes to a monopod: It needs to be
strong, it needs to be stable and it needs to be portable. Induro’s line
of Carbon CM 8X monopods fit the bill for us. Our choice is the CM34,
which is the heftiest in Induro’s carbon fiber line but still remarkably
lightweight at just over a pound. CM-series monopods are made of a
combination of magnesium alloy parts and eight-layer (8X) carbon fiber
tubing that’s estimated to be 60 percent stronger than standard carbon
fiber tubing. CM-series monopods have twice the load capacity of
previous models and the CM34 can support nearly 40 pounds of weight,
making it ideal for sports photographers using DSLRs with long telephoto
lenses. It’s also solid enough to support chunky medium-format camera
systems with their heavy digital backs. While tripods offer a lot more
versatility, give us a monopod any day for crowded situations, such as
the sidelines of the big game. Setting up the CM34 is a snap: Just twist
the dust- and moisture-resistant rubber leg locks, extend the monopod
(it pulls out to over 62 inches) and you’re ready to shoot. When you’re
done for the day, fold it down, stash it in your bag and skedaddle.
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