Street Photography Tutorial #4: All the Small Things

Photography is an expensive hobby; besides the big stuff like cameras and lenses there’s an endless hoard of little gadgets and gizmos we’re told we can’t possibly live without. I’m usually a bit fan of buying local, but for some things I just can’t justify the ridiculous mark up. At some point someone decided that since we’re willing to shell out a thousand dollars for a lens, we won’t shirk at the $80 price tag on an official lens hood for it (which should be included on all lenses anyways, but don’t get me started on that). Take the example of the Canon ET-65B lens hood for my 70-300mm: eBay from Hong Kong is $4.23 and the price at the local photo store… wait for it… $74.95 for what amount to three cents worth of moulded plastic! Like I said, I like to shop local and official but come on, a price difference like that is just insulting. Here’re a few indispensible accessories you can get on the cheap on eBay that every street photographer should add to their bag.

First thing you should pick up for each one of your cameras is a flash shoe bubble level, they’re a dollar or two each and money well spent. Not only do they keep dust and dirt from gumming up the contact of your flash shoe, they’re indispensible for anyone shooting from the hip. If your camera doesn’t have a flash shoe, you can always stick it somewhere on the top of the camera with double sided tape or epoxy, depending on how permanent you want it on there. When shooting wide angle lenses keeping all the parallels and perpendicular lines your shot from looking wonky can be a real pain, keeping your camera level is the only way to keep everything straight. It’s hard enough to do it by eye through a viewfinder, but shooting from the hip it’s almost impossible to judge if your camera is level. These little bubble levels are too small to be pin-point accurate, but they’re good enough keep you approximately there. Sure, newer versions of Photoshop will let you correct for perspective distortion, but you’ll always be losing image detail when you use software to stretch or compress pixels, after which you’re left with a trapezoidal image you have to crop back to square, and you’d be surprise how much image you lose around the edges of the frame. It’s always easier to get it right in camera in the first place.

If you’re shooting digital, another item that’s always a good idea to invest in is spare batteries. A long day of walking the streets can eat through batteries fast, especially in the cold weather. Again, I’d love to buy official, but some companies are charging up to $120 for an official replacement battery, that’s between 10% and a whopping 70% of the cost of the actual cameras in my case. Buying replacement batteries on eBay can be a bit of crap shoot unfortunately. Just because a 3rd party battery is the same shape as your original doesn’t mean it has the same life in the field. Take a look at the milliamp hour (mAh) rating of the prospective battery and make sure it’s near the rating on your original; a good battery is going to be roughly 20% more or less than a factory one. Some are less than half that, so be careful, it may not be clearly advertised. Some camera companies are even adding proprietary circuitry in their batteries so that 3rd party ones won’t be recognized as viable. My best advice is to avoid the absolutely cheapest batteries you can find (the $5-$10 ones) and look for the ones starting in the ($10-$20) range; they’ll usually have a decent mAh rating and should be compatible. Order one to test out the brand and then order more once you’re sure they work.

My third irreplaceable gizmo is the soft release. It’s just a little metal disk that either screws in or sticks on to your shutter release. It doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it’s the cheapest way to boost your low light photography performance. So what does it do? Usually when you press the shutter, you jab down with the tip of your finger, especially on many digital cameras where the shutter button is almost flush with the body. That jabbing motion is transferred to the rest of the camera right at the worst moment, exactly as the shot is being taken, causing motion blur in the image. In order to counter that, you have to gently squeeze the button instead of jabbing at it, but without the extra surface area a soft release gives you, that’s very hard to do. The soft release fits nicely between your first and second knuckle, allowing you much more control for a gentle squeeze. It’s really amazing how much of a difference it makes. With a soft release and good bracing technique, I can shoot as low as 1/15th or even 1/8th of a second, hand held, which makes previously impossible shots possible at night or in low light.

Lastly, every photographer should invest in a couple sets of the standard lens accessories: front caps, end caps and lens hoods. Besides keeping out stray light, lens hood are really important for any photographer walking busy streets. You’re constantly surrounded by moving people, not paying attention to much else than where they’re going or their cell phone. A lens hood will save your lens from most bumps or scratches that could damage the front element of your lens. Many street photographers work with prime lenses as well, which could mean a lot of lens changes. Caps for both ends of your lens is a no brainer to keep them safe in your bag, but those caps usually get taken for granted until you lose one. And I lose them… a lot. You don’t want to spend too much time without your lens cap, but it’s another one of those overpriced accessories. I like to keep a replacement set at home so I’m not forced to pay up to $30 for one locally, if they even have one in the odd sizes many of my rangefinder lenses take. For the cost of one official lens cap, you can pick up spare hoods and caps for all your lenses in one eBay order.

I don’t have any single eBay shop to recommend, if you sort by lowest price searching for any of these items, you’ll find the cheap overseas shops pretty quickly. There are some disadvantages to buying overseas; the shipping time is usually about a month, but on the other hand it’s usually free or very close to. I’ve also had a few shipments lost in transit as they usually don’t provide tracking number shipping for a package that’s worth a couple bucks. Most of the shops though are very interested in keeping 100% feedback ratings and I’ve never had a problem getting a refund for lost shipments, even if I didn’t I’m still only out a couple bucks. Leave a comment if you’ve got your own cheap little gadget you’ve found online, I’m always on the lookout for something new to try out.

<- Street Photography Tutorial #3: Visualizing The Shot
Street Photography Tutorial #5: Shooting From The Hip ->

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