So you just got a new DSLR Camera from Nikon, Canon, or Pentax as a gift (or as one of your more expensive impulse buys). Congratulations! Cameras are fun, can capture some great memories, and also give you an excuse to buy some incredibly cool accessories for them. That's where we come in. We have tried a lot of different gear, and we have a lot of gear sitting on shelves that we just don't like.
We wanted to tell you about our favorite products, so we decided to launch a new series called "Essentials" that showcases items that everyone should buy with their new tech purchases. The gear listed below combine great quality for the price, and we've only featured the items that we have used and love. You can also check out two videos we made that cover all of the accessories and bags that we go over in this article if you prefer watching a video over reading.
So in our first guide to technology, we're focusing on the world of photography. Let's start out with the first thing you should pick up with your new purchase: some protection for all of your expensive camera gear.
Let's start out by saying that there's an inherent problem with all camera bags out there, and you can't get around it: there is no such thing as a perfect bag. Yes, there are some great quality bags available (like the three below), but no bag is a "do everything" bag. Stop looking for the one bag that you can take everywhere in every situation, or else you'll be forever searching for your own white whale. Here are our choices for great bags that are high-quality, look great, and are reasonably priced. Oh, and one bag that is really cheap, but can get the job done in a pinch if you spent all of your money on a camera and forgot to leave any for the accessories.
Think Tank Retrospective 7 - The Everyday Bag
Editor's Choice - Let me start off by saying this: I love this bag. It's sleek, doesn't look like a camera bag (which in turn doesn't scream "steal me"), and has room for all of my essential gear. It also looks great and is very comfortable. I was able to fit a Canon 60D with battery grip and attached 18-135mm zoom lens, a "nifty" 50mm prime lens, a Canon 70-300mm lens, an external flash, and a bunch of accessories into the bag while staying in the comfortable carrying range. The Retrospective 7 kept a natural fit even with all that gear. Overall, this is the bag I find myself using most often, and if you're looking for a bag that will go (almost) anywhere this is the one. Here's the breakdown of Pros and Cons:
PROS: Comfortable, built in silencers help to quiet the Velcro when you need to be incognito, looks great, includes a handy rain cover, a good amount of space for a shoulder bag.
CONS: Not great for "rugged" outdoors use.
Think Tank Shape Shifter - The Traveling Bag
Sticking with the Think Tank brand, we move on to the Shape Shifter. This is the bag I use for any trips that involve an airplane, train, or bus ride. What's unique about this bag is that it doesn't allow you to fit a complete DSLR setup with lens in the pockets. How is that an advantage? Well, this bag fits all of my camera gear, my 17" laptop, my cellphone, and a ton of accessories and it still counts as a "personal item" instead of my carry-on since it fits under an airplane seat. Score! This was exactly the bag I needed for flights and travel. No, it's not ideal for walking around your local zoo, but if you need to transport your camera and don't want to have to check or stow any of your expensive gear, this is the bag for you.
PROS: Great quality bag, collapses to a very thin size if you only need to carry a laptop, fits under an airline seat while fully loaded, includes a handy rain cover, the padding on the bag is really comfortable and you'll probably want to sleep on it.
CONS: Not ideal if you need to remove your camera quickly for a shot since you'll need to attach a lens.
LowePro Flipside 20L - The Outdoor Bag
Put your hand up if you like the outdoors! Now put it back down, you look ridiculous. Hikers, walkers, climbers, and adventurers are the ideal buyers for this bag from LowePro. Like we said, there's not one bag that will go everywhere, but this bag will definitely go anywhere. The first thing you notice when you pick this bag up is how sturdy it is. And to be clear, it's sturdy but not heavy which is important. There is ample room for all of your gear and a hidden storage pocket on the bottom with an ingenious rain cover. There's also room for an iPad and a hydration pack (not included) so you can have some water while you hike. If you're hitting up the outdoors, this is the bag for you. Although it doesn't float like some of their bags, it's a durable and rugged bag that's a rock solid performer for rock climbers (see what we did there?) and more.
PROS: Very sturdy, pocket for hydration bag, two rain covers for bad weather, comfortable while wearing it, great tripod holster for larger tripods.
CONS: A little bulky for city use, does not come with hydration pack.
Purchase it here: Amazon
The first bag I ever bought was the AmazonBasics Sling Backpack. It's small, portable, and slides off your shoulder into a comfortable position for you to remove your camera and snap some shots. It's not going to rock your world like the other bags we reviewed, but if you're tight on cash you can find this one for about $25. In our experience, you'll be ready to upgrade to a bigger bag soon after this purchase, but it does come in handy for times when you just need a single lens and quick access to your camera. As long as you don't get stuck in the rain with it, it's a decent bag.
PROS: Inexpensive, easy to remove the camera for quick shots.
CONS: Doesn't provide a rain cover or weather protection, not a lot of room inside, pretty plain.
Purchase it here: Amazon
Yes, when you buy your DSLR you get a basic strap, a tiny flash, and a wimpy battery charger. But do you really want wimpy when you can have awesome? Check out these upgrades that will make your camera the force that it's meant to be.
External Flash - ProMaster FL160
If you're planning on taking good quality indoor shots, you should consider adding an external flash to your arsenal. The built-in flash is fine in a pinch, but nothing brightens up a photo like a super powerful beam of light being shot at your photographic target. I'm usually a brand name guy, but if you're not a professional it's a good option to consider an off brand flash. The ProMaster FL160 is a great value, and has models that work with a large variety of manufacturers. We used the Canon model for this review, and it was a simple process to setup; we attached it to our hot shoe and it worked perfectly in automatic mode. Plus, if you're really into flash photography you can shoot in manual mode as well.
PROS: Bright, easy to use, works in automatic mode if you haven't spent years learning the idiosyncrasies of flash photography.
CONS: Not an OEM model and some people only buy OEM equipment.
Smart Battery Charger - PowerEx MH-C9000
The battery charger is one of the most under-rated and unappreciated pieces of electronic equipment known to man. People spend a ton of money on batteries and don't seem to mind replacing them way more often than they need to. Here's why "smart chargers" like the PowerEx MH-C900 are better:
In simple terms, smart chargers charge each individual battery you put in it separately, and they also know when to stop charging. Standard (dumb) battery chargers just charge for either a certain amount of time or until you take the batteries out of the unit. Dumb chargers can damage the batteries and the random charging cycles reduce their life-cycle so you have to buy those expensive batteries more often. Yes, there's a slightly bigger up-front cost involved, but you'll save a lot of money in the long-run with a "smart" charger. Plus, your batteries will last longer. Just buy it.
PROS: Great build quality, charges batteries independently, can set charging levels to either quickly or gently charge your devices, extends battery life, very easy to use in basic mode.
CONS: If you're not a techie you may need to read the manual to understand the advanced modes.
Purchase it here: Amazon
Upgraded Camera Neck Strap - Dream Strap
Let's be honest: the neck straps that come with DSLR's are terrible and they're very uncomfortable once you wear them for several hours. And they get especially bad when you start adding weight to your camera with a bigger lens, a battery grip, and that handy external flash. There are several different options for upgraded straps, but for this article we're looking at the Dream Strap - the only camera strap (that we know of) with a sheepskin neck liner. Plus, you can get it in camouflage (or zebra) print designs. The Dream Strap will help keep you comfortable after a long day of shooting, and if you're in cold weather it actually helps keep you warm.
PROS: Comfortable, high quality design, the sheepskin works well to ease neck pain and keep you warm, optional "quick release" straps are available.
CONS: A little on the expensive side.
A tripod is one of the most basic items every photographer should have. And for the purpose of this article, we're looking at two tripods that are marketed as travel tripods; light and effective. Oh, and if you're focusing on photography instead of video with your DSLR, make sure you get a ball head tripod (see our video for an explanation) instead of a pan head. Both of these units are ball heads.
Manfrotto is one of the best names in tripods, and when you buy a Manfrotto you know you're going to get a quality product. The Befree is no exception to this rule, and is sturdy for a "travel" tripod. A lot of times you sacrifice stability when buying a travel tripod since they're built to be lighter than a normal tripod, but the Befree balances portability with stability and usability very well. The attention to detail is great as well, and the unit folds up very nicely into the included travel bag when you're done creating your shake-free shots.
PROS: Includes a great ball head mount, the quick release works well, very solid for a travel tripod, includes a travel bag, reasonably priced for the quality, weighs only 49.44 ounces.
CONS: Doesn't include a level to balance your shots.
Purchase it here: Amazon
ProMaster doesn't have the same brand recognition as Manfrotto, but they've been making photography equipment for over 50 years and they put out a formidable travel tripod with the XC525. It's a very solidly built tripod, and has two great features that help make this a great choice for your first tripod. First, it includes a level in the tripod head so you can square up your shots, and second, you can remove one of the legs and use it as a monopod.
A monopod is basically a single-legged tripod that provides more stability than when you hold your camera by hand, but more flexibility in following action than a tripod offers. A monopod is great for wildlife and sports, and it's built in to this unit...pretty fancy right?
PROS: Includes a level in the tripod head, great value for the money, includes a basic tool kit for tripod emergencies, can be used as a monopod, weighs only 44 ounces.
CONS: Doesn't include a travel bag.
Purchase it here: Amazon
Now that you have some of the basics out of the way, how about a couple of fun things to add to your arsenal?
Wi-Fi SD Card
A lot of newer cameras are coming with Wi-Fi built in, but if yours isn't among them you should check out the Eye-Fi mobi unit. The unit has a simple premise; stick it in your camera, setup an app on your iOS or Android device, and it will beam pictures to said unit as you snap away. Is it necessary? No. But it is fun to see your pictures on a big screen as you take them. It's up to you if that's worth the price of admission.
PROS: Adds Wi-Fi to your DSLR camera, beams shots to your iPad.
CONS: Costs considerably more than a standard SD card, limited real-world usage.
Purchase it here: Amazon
Metro Vacuum DataVac Air Blower
This is one of our favorite products ever for the fun factor alone. Have you ever bought a can of canned air for $10 or so? Those things don't last long at all, and they're not nearly as powerful as this beast of a toy. The DataVac from Metro Vacuum will replace that expensive canned air, and is a great tool in your electronic arsenal. Not only does it clean the sensor of a dirty DSLR camera, but it will clean out your keyboard, mouse, PC, Mac, Blu-ray, that old VCR that's collecting dust in your garage, and all of the rest of your electronic gear. It comes with a good selection of nozzles, and it's powerful enough that I've even used it in my wood-shop to clean off lumber. Yeah, it's awesome. This is one "fun" gadget that we think every tech-head should have.
PROS: Powerful, useful, much less expensive than buying canned air, made in the USA, keeps all of your electronics clean, saves money over time.
CONS: Your dog may hate it.
Purchase it here: Amazon
Photography Release Software - If you're taking pictures of someone (or something) you should get a release so you don't get sued later. Easy Release is the best software we've found for releases - it's easy to use, customizable, and both you and your subject get a copy emailed to you automatically. Nice. Plus, if you "like" our Facebook page you're entered into a drawing to win a free copy for yourself. Thanks to the Easy Release team for that offer.
Battery Grip (and extra batteries) - If you're planning on shooting for a full day, make sure you pick up some extra batteries for your camera. And if you really want to go all out, make sure you pick up a camera grip for your DSLR as well. They allow you to keep two batteries in your camera, and they give you extra vertical shooting controls and added weight that help keep your shots steady. We've found that off-brands don't tend to fit as well, but some camera makers don't make an OEM camera grip (cough...Nikon...cough), so you may have to go that route if your model isn't available.
Cleaning Kit - Every photographer should have a cleaning kit in their bags. A basic one will include a portable lens blower, cleaning pads, and tissue paper. They're cheap and essential, so be sure to pick one up.
Remote Release - These are basic cables that allow you to remotely trigger your camera to take a picture. This comes in handy if you're doing any long-range shooting that needs a minimal amount of camera shake, and you can pick one up here.
Filters - You can buy a ton of different filters for your camera, but the most basic is a UV filter. They won't add too much to your photo quality, but they are a very cheap way to protect your expensive lens. We have them one on all of our lenses. You can use other lenses as well, but that's a more advanced technique and we're focusing on the basics here.
AA Batteries - Don't get cheap batteries for your flash (or any other electronics items you own) when Eneloop and Imedion are making some great "smart" batteries. Batteries like this are rechargeable, but combines all the advantages of a standard dry-cell battery. Most rechargeable batteries lose power quickly as they sit on a shelf, but these batteries keep up to 85% of their charge so they're always ready for use. Plus, they can be recharged up to 1,800 times so you'll definitely get your money's worth. This is probably one of the best investments that you can make, especially if you pair the batteries with a good charger.
That's a pretty exhaustive list so we hope you're all set to go! If you need some more help, check out our videos that cover all of the accessories and bags that we went over in this article. You can view them by clicking on the links below.
Want a handy PDF that you can print out and use if you prefer shopping in-store over online? Then click here. We're giving away a few great prizes including a Retrospective 7 bag courtesy of Think Tank and two copies of Easy Release courtesy of Robert Giroux, all you need to do is (Contest Expired). We'll contact you if you're one of our winners.
Good luck shopping!