Do-It-Yourself Part 4: Buy-it-Yourself
By Paul Nguyen
The BlueHour Do-It-Yourself blog series features handy and simple tips for photographers of all ability levels about getting the most out of your equipment.
So, you're improving as a photographer, maybe having graduated from the entry level D-SLR with one or two kit lenses that somebody told you was a good deal, and you've reached a point where your gear is getting good enough to let you grow as an artist and a hobbyist. You've got the right camera, enough lenses to keep you busy wherever you go, and you've even proven to yourself that a sturdy ball head tripod was a worthwhile investment. And perhaps you've even gotten a little bored with the basics, and are looking to "spice up" your relationship with your camera a little bit. So where do you go from here?
Here are my 5 favorite simple things that any improving photographer should consider adding to their kit. This is really less of a DIY and more of a BIY (Buy-it-Yourself) - because the one thing we photographers love almost as much as taking pictures is buying stuff!
1. A Neutral Density Filter (ND) set, or Variable ND:
If you've been trying to make your landscape images with flowing water look more artistic, then you might want to start experimenting with longer exposure times. Taking pictures of waterfalls or crashing ocean waves with shutter speeds over half a second will give you that "wispy" or "silky" or "cotton candy" (feel free to insert any modifier that conveys a soft, fluffy texture) look that is commonly seen in fine art natural landscape images. Your knowledge of the exposure triangle tells you that the way to force a longer shutter speed is to use a small aperture (high f-stop number) and a low ISO. Working in dim light conditions helps make shutter speeds slower, but sometimes the ambient light level is still just too high, and your shutter speed can't get long enough to give you the wispiness you want.
Enter the Filter. A neutral density, or ND, filter is like putting a pair of sunglasses on your lens - it screws onto the front threads of your lens and reduces the amount of light that enters your camera. Reducing incoming light has the same effect as shooting in dimmer conditions: shutter speeds are longer by necessity. ND filters can be purchased in different levels of density (in which case you should really own several different ones), or as a variable ND filter which allows you to choose the level of density.
2. A Shutter Release Cable:
When you're attempting these long exposure images, you should be aware that your camera needs to remain perfectly still and stable, or else your image will be blurry. That's right, not "silky," not "wispy." Just blurry. The only thing that should be moving is the water. So, in addition to that stable tripod you invested in, the next most important thing to maintaining stability is to take a shot without touching the camera at all (which would introduce camera shake). A remote shutter release allows you to do just that. And while shutter releases are available in both wired and wireless models, I would say that in 2018, wireless is still not to be trusted. It's great when it works, but then when it inexplicably stops working, as all wireless connections do, you'll be cursing yourself when your shots are lagging or worse, not firing at all. Get a trustworthy wired remote control.
3. An L-Bracket
This type of bracket, rightfully shaped like the letter "L," mounts to the bottom of your camera where your tripod socket is, and adds a quick release plate to both the bottom and left side of your camera (as you look at it from the back). What this means is that you can switch between taking pictures in the horizontal (landscape) orientation to the vertical (portrait) orientation while maintaining the same composition and without having to adjust your tripod head. You'd simply unclamp your camera from the horizontal position and re-clamp it in the vertical position. This way, all the hard work you did in leveling and composing your horizontal shot is preserved in the vertical shot, saving you time and annoyance. The caveat to using L-brackets is that they aren't compatible with all tripod clamps - only the Arca Swiss type, which are easy to find.
4. A Graduated Neutral Density Filter
Have you ever tried to take pictures of the sunset and found that it was almost impossible to get a shot that looks like what you see with your naked eye? Either the sky looked great, and the foreground was completely dark, or the ground looked fine and the sky was completely blown out. This is a result of your camera's inability to deal with high contrast situations. It'll be awhile before a consumer camera can handle extreme brights and darks in the same scene as well as our own eyes can - so until then, we need to either edit our sunset photos in Photoshop to make them look like what we saw, or we need to control the contrast using a graduated neutral density filter.
This is different from a regular neural density filter in that the graduated filter, or grad, is darkened only at the top, and gently fades to clear towards the middle. It is square, so you will not screw it onto your lens, but instead are free to position it as you wish, holding it in front of your lens with either your hand, or a dedicated filter holder apparatus. You would look through the viewfinder while positioning the darkest part of the filter over the brightest part of the scene (usually the bright sky where the sun is setting). This reduces the overall contrast of the scene as your camera sees it, creating an exposure that is easier for it to handle.
5. A Dedicated Video Head for your Tripod
Video features are included in literally every digital camera manufactured today, from entry level to professional, so it would be a shame not to at least dabble in video. Even if you don't have the intention or skills to crank out broadcast-quality footage, you can still have fun creating little clips that you can share on social media or compile into a three-minute film of your vacation.
Time to eat my words (just a little). As much as I've been harping on you to get a ball tripod head for your landscape photography, this type of head is actually terrible for video if you want to make any smooth, graceful movements with your camera like pans and tilts. Try it, and you'll see it what I mean. The footage will be so rocky you'll want to vomit. Ball heads excel at quickly being loosened and tightened into any position - not at transitioning smoothly between positions. For that, you need a video head. This looks a lot more like the tilt-swivel heads that crown the cheap-o camcorder tripods sitting in our parents' basements, but they are much better built and have a fluid capsule inside to create resistance, which is what allows you to perform those gradual, sweeping motions that are necessary for great video.
Feel free to comment or write us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions or would like further recommendations.