"People will buy anything. You can nail two pieces of wood together in a way that's not been done before, and some schmuck will buy it." —George Carlin

Accessories to the Camera


So many gadgets! Photo catalogs, photo magazines and photo stores are full of all manner of "extra" things that are promoted to make photography easier or photographs better. Of all the accessories, there are four that I use and appreciate the most: a tripod, a light meter, a reflector, and an extension tube.

Under the Pier

Cameras and lenses with image stabilization are helpful in reducing blur from camera movement. However, there are still times when a tripod is needed to lock the camera down for longer exposures. With extension tubes or high magnification, tack-sharp images will require a tripod. The carbon fiber varieties remain over-priced (CF isn't nearly so expensive as when these were first introduced), but they're light and solid. Tripods are not always convenient but, for landscapes and controlled portraits, they can eliminate camera shake and they also encourage a more studied view of composition before releasing the shutter. Composition matters.

The Trail to Bisti

Most cameras have built in metering, and that metering is very sophisticated in top cameras. Internal metering has gotten so good that exposure bracketing is infrequently necessary. In fact, there's now less talk and fewer magazine articles about bracketing than a decade ago. However, there are still some situations that call for an external light meter, particularly one that measures incident light. An incident meter measures the amount of light falling onto the subject. Internal camera meters measure light reflected off of the subject. With high contrast situations or subjects with predominantly light or dark tones, an incident meter can help determine more accurate exposures. I use an incident meter most often with my medium format camera since its internal meter is fairly basic, but I've used it to determine correct exposures with 35mm also. There have been a few times when I didn't believe the exposures indicated by the external meter, and I made additional exposures that seemed more valid, especially when shooting into and including the sun. The incident light readings of the external meter have always proved to be correct.

Nightclub Blues

Another function that I like in an external meter is measuring flash output. Obtaining a measure of incident light from a flash and comparing that to the measure of incident ambient light allows me to set exposure for a pleasing balance between ambient and flash illumination. For example, setting exposure so that the flash provides one stop less light than full exposure will fill in shadows without overwhelming the contours and affects of the ambient light. At left, direct and bounced flash was used with just enough intensity to capture skin detail without losing the interest of ambient artificial lights.

Church Lights

Measuring reflected light is also useful with an external meter. By measuring reflected light from the darkest and lightest elements of a photograph, you can determine the total f-stop range of the photograph. From there, you may need to decide whether to give up detail in shadows (underexposure), give up detail in the highlights (overexposure), or add fill light from flash or reflector to reduce contrast. For the photograph at right, I measured reflected light from the dark pews and also from the stained glass window. Big difference. Exposure was set to put the pews at a Zone 1 exposure (very dark, very little detail). Low-contrast, wide latitude film (Fuji NPH) was used for its +3 tolerance to overexposure. The stained glass didn't wash out and the pews held their rich brown color and some texture.


Reflectors do just what the name implies: reflect. They come in many sizes and many surfaces. White, gold and silver are most popular. Light bounced from them can fill shadows and provide soft, even light that is more pleasing than the point-source light from a flash unit. They can be used to bounce light from a flash, rendering it less harsh. They are commonly used for outdoor portraits. Fashion photographers use huge ones, inside and outside the studio. They're also useful for nature photography. Small ones are lightweight and pack well, and can bring light onto close-ups of flowers and critters. Elements further away from the reflector get less intense light, resulting in brighter foreground elements that stand out well against the background. A reflector was used to balance strong backlight of the butterfly photograph, filling front shadows and kicking light under the wings.

Extension tubes move the lens further away from the film, thus permitting closer focusing. Depth of field gets very narrow and light intensity drops. Small apertures and long exposures are nearly always required. No wind, please. The butterfly was photographed on medium format film with a 150mm lens and extension tube which gets us "right in there." Tripod, incident light meter, and reflector were also used.

There are all kinds and manner of photo accessories. Some have limited and specific uses. Some are hardly useful at all and survive in the market only through the grace of Our Lady of Perpetual Consumption. Some are really cool gadgets, but not fundamental to creating a photograph. But the four accessories discussed above are, I believe, neither gadgetry nor marketing gimmicks. They are valid and essential tools toward creating successful photographic images. Using them takes time, and you will likely make fewer photographs. Will you slow down, be a photographer who makes a few images that really excel, or will you knock off dozens of frames and then be an editor who picks a few from the bunch that just work pretty well?

Images Copyright © Ed E. Powell
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