First of all, let me define the ground rules for choosing this accessory. The accessory cannot be a camera or a lens and it cannot have anything to do with the basic operation of the camera or lens. That means camera batteries and battery chargers do not qualify. Obviously the most important accessory is probably an extra battery or two as well as a good charger. Also, front and rear lens caps are non qualifying even though I consider them extremely important for maintaining your gear in the long term those are also non-qualifying.
So what is a qualifying accessory? Pretty much everything else you can imagine, flashes, strobes, transmitters, stands, tripods, ball heads, light modifiers, lens filters, filter holders, cleaning cloths, air blowers, camera straps… ok, I think you get the idea?
So what did I pick as the #1?
I did not pick a tripod for the simple fact that I usually do not use one. However, for many people a tripod could be the #1 accessory. Those people would include product photographers of any kind, macro photographers, and landscape photographers. I have used a tripod for all these purposes but if I absolutely had to I am 100% certain I could make do without a tripod. Now there are certain things you really need a tripod for like super long exposures but it is honestly pretty rare that I do that. So in the end, I think I could live without a tripod, it makes your life easier but is not an *absolute* necessity as there are ways to work around not having a tripod most of the time.
Having an on-camera flash may seem like an absolute must, especially for someone like me who shoots weddings, and frankly I would never shoot a wedding without some kind of artificial light, preferably a strobe, but I *still* don’t consider it an absolute must have. Why? Because the cameras are so good now. If you have a fast prime lens like the RF 50mm f/1.2 for example combined with today’s modern cameras like the Canon R5 or the Canon R6, the image quality is usable even at 12,800 ISO. You can pretty much shoot by candle light with one of those cameras and a fast lens. Plus, truth be told, some people like the artsy grainy look of high ISO images. The point being, it is doable and possible to live without a speedlite!
Camera Strap or Wrist Strap
I am the paranoid type so I always at least wear a wrist strap when I use my camera, I just feel a lot better about walking around with my $8,000 camera if it is attached to me somehow, but that does not make a camera strap an absolute necessity. Fact is, I have seen plenty of photographers who do not use a camera strap. They stick the camera in a bag and they take the camera out and use it, then when they are done they put the camera back in the bag. It is that simple. The wrist strap is a convenience that lets me relax a little when I am standing in a crowded room holding my camera and someone who is not paying attention walks into me and puts me in a situation where my gear could slip from my hand and go crashing on the ground. Out of an abundance of caution I use a wrist strap for those kinds of “just in case” scenarios but I *could* live without it.
Everyone once in awhile I put a finger print on my lens and I do not notice until I look at my photos and wonder what is going on with the weird blurry area on my photos… Low and behold the lens has a smudge on the front element. Some lenses are more sensitive than others it seems but it is impressive how much a smudge can mess up an image especially when it comes to specular highlights. That said, who has not been forced to give their lens a gentle wipe with a T-shirt before? Push comes to shove it is usually possible to find something to wipe the lens clean with, doing it with a little bit of water is usually best as that helps soften the fibers of whatever you are wiping the lens with. Ultimately a lens cloth is not a 100% necessary item, it is a nice to have. The same is true for a blower, they usually just do not remove whatever is stuck on your sensor anyway so they are kind of pointless. End of the day, these are not 100% necessary accessories! If you have them, great. I have tons of lens cloths, most of which have vanished into the cracks and crevices of my existence, but I am pretty sure they are out there…. somewhere.
Modifiers can give you interesting lighting but are they necessary? Even if you are someone who considers strobes or speedlites an absolute necessity I am pretty sure most of you will admit that modifiers are not an absolute necessity. For one, there are “modifiers” all around us, ceilings, walls, you name it, pretty much anything large, flat, and at least somewhat reflective can become a modifier. For that reason I will say that in a pinch most people who understand lighting could get away without using a modifier. Also true is that fact that perhaps soft boxes in particular are a little overused these days?
Protective Lens Filters
Man, I hate to break it to some of you but protective lens filters are literally at the bottom of my list of accessories. As much as I love some lens filters I actually tried some “protective” filters in a fit of paranoia and lo and behold they all introduced flare. The fact is nothing is going to beat the coatings they are putting on lenses these days. Bottom line is if you spend a load of money on a lens why are you putting crappy glass in front of it? For me this is an easy one, there is no need for protective lens filters. For me a lens filter has to do something tangible to the image for it to be worth the quality reduction filters impose on the image. Putting filters on that do nothing makes no sense to me. However, there are times when you may want to use a protective filter like if you are filming something that could splash or spray up on your camera lens. Putting a protective filter on makes it possible to wipe your lens off repeatedly without having to worry about scratching the sensitive glass on the front element.
I do place ND filters way above the protective filters, but they ultimately still fall in the expendable category. Video shooters are sure to disagree but the fact is unless you absolutely have to use a certain aperture the obvious solution to using an ND is to stop your lens down. Typically I have found I can get away with f/10 – f/11 when shooting video in daylight without an ND filter. If I have to stop down more than that I will usually throw an ND filter on but it really is not that often that I *have* to do that. Video guys often do not have the same philosophies around light that photographers have but there is no reason they shouldn’t. Typically you want to shoot in softer light whether it is video or stills. If you have to cover an event or something of course you may need to resort to using an ND filter but is that really the only option? No.
This is a tough one. I would hate to give up my camera bag but I could give up my camera bag if I had to. For one, I often do not use all the gear I bring with me. The question here is what is absolutely necessary? And I have to say that a camera bag is not absolutely necessary. It is certainly nice and I have a great camera bag that I have taken all over the country but if I had to I could wrap my camera in a plastic grocery bag and carry it through the rain, as long as it does not get wet who cares if I look like a homeless guy trying to find a dry place to drink his last 3 beers. At least my camera is not getting wet! So no, a dedicated camera bag is not 100% necessary, there are ways around not having them.
You are probably wondering by now just what is the one necessary accessory? Well, I am about to tell you.. *drum roll* please…
A High Quality Circular Polarizer
I can see your faces right now, the eye rolling, the smirking, the shaking of heads… a circular polarizer??? REALLY?? YES!!!
Here is why you need a circular polarizer.
With every other accessory on this list there is a work around. But there is no work around for a circular polarizer, and that may sound like a shock to you because you are not fully aware of what a circular polarizer can do for you. But a circular polarizer is absolutely essential, especially if you are a landscape photographer, but really anybody who takes pictures can benefit from a CPL filter if they understand when and how it can help them.
So what does a CPL filter do that is so special? Well, it is very simple, it blocks polarized light from entering your lens. What is polarized light and why do you want to get rid of it? Basically, light becomes polarized when it reflects off certain surfaces, especially water. This reflected light can be filtered out of the image kind of magically. For instance, it can be used to take a picture through the surface of the water where you would normally be unable to see because of the strong reflection that appears on the water. It also affects the light reflecting off of moisture and other molecules in the air which can make it useful for seeing through the sky. If you point a strong circular polarizing filter at the sky directly above you and dial in the maximum amount of light filtering on your polarizer, the sky will turn a very dark blue. In fact, what you are beginning to see there is outer space. Pretty crazy huh?
What is interesting is that almost any reflective surface can be affected by a polarizing filter, which basically means almost any surface lit by sunlight can have its look affected by a polarizing filter. The most useful thing is the fact that it is mostly in specular reflection that polarization of light occurs. For most objects the colored light is not filtered out. So if I point this at a tree in the sunlight the polarizer can dial down the bright and distracting reflections and let more of the actual color in the scene come into the camera. For this reason polarizers are thought to increase saturation but they do not actually do this directly, what they do is remove the effects of competing light waves that make colors appear washed out or hide colors completely.
Now, is there a work around for removing polarized light in an image? Sometimes yes and sometimes no. In the case of reflections on water, the answer is usually no, there is no way to photoshop out the reflection and reveal what is beneath the water’s surface. However, if you are trying to use a polarizer filter to remove atmospheric haze, that effect is usually subtle enough that it can be photoshopped by increasing contrast in the hazy areas.
However if you are someone who likes to photograph nature the polarization effect is something you should be very interested in, and there really is no replacement for a good polarizer, not even Photoshop. Besides, why waste time with Photoshop when you can pre-photoshop every image you take with a polarizer?
There are more technicalities on how to use a polarizer. Simply speaking most of them operate on the principle of being used at a specific angle to the light source where the polarizing effect is greatest. Generally speaking this tends to occur at 90 degrees to the sun. So if you are shooting directly at, or directly away from the sun the light will tend to not be as polarized and thus the effect of the filter will not be as great. However, a lot of this is complicated by the fact that as a general rule light is hitting things from all kinds of different angles all the time, so usually the filter will do something to the image even if the effect is not what you are looking for exactly.
One hack for checking the effect of your polarizer aside from observing the effect through the viewfinder of your camera, is to use the in camera histogram. By looking at the histogram in the live view you can observe how the histogram changes as you rotate the polarizer. In particular you will see that the the highlights are strongly affected when the polarization effect is at its maximum.
One side effect of using a polarizer is its effect on the color blue in the sky. As I mentioned before a polarizer can be used to see through the sky into space, that is because the blue color of the sky is highly polarized at certain angles to the sun. Because of this maximum polarization can make the sky appear kind of grey and washed out. It is just something to watch out for when using a polarizer.
So the surprise “winning” accessory is the lowly polarizer. Despite being largely ignored by many in the photographic community, polarizers are one of the most useful and difficult to replace accessories a photographer or videographer can have in their bag. They are also easily one of the most magical, as the ability to selectively filter out annoying specular highlights almost seems like a fantasy when you really think about it. None of that means that I *always* use a polarizer, in fact they sometimes produce a slightly unrealistic look, but when they work, they WORK.
Do you have a different opinion? What is you #1 must have photographic accessory? Let us know in the comments below.
Below are some sample before and after images using the polarizer that I shot just for this blog post. While they are not the exact situations I would typically want to use a polarizer in you can see the effects of the polarizer pretty well with these images.
The above image showcases a pretty extreme example of how a polarizer can enhance distant objects by massively increasing the clarity to the opposite shoreline. Notice how the distant shore appears much brighter and more saturated with the polarizer turned up to maximum.
In the image of the statue above you can see how different materials can be affected by the polarizer. Here we see that the concrete base of the statue is relatively unaffected while the statue itself is hugely darkened, as is the sky in the background. Of course we know that polarizers are naturally very strong against the sky. That is why the polarizer I own is called the “sky eye”.
The image above is pretty interesting as the sky is now shifting hard towards black. Like I said earlier, with proper positioning the polarizer can see through the blue of the sky into space. That is what you see when you look at the sky and it is black. Other interesting effects here are the apparent increase in saturation on the bricks and the removal of the glare on the windows that are in direct sunlight.
Grass and plant life are also affected by polarizers which is why they are so useful for landscape photographers. In fact that is the #1 reason I use a polarizer but knowing when it is helping and when it is hurting are important considerations for amateurs.
In this last image the effect is a little more subtle but the sky and horizon are definitely a little more clear, in fact that whole image has that extra saturated look that polarizers tend to produce. Now, another interesting effect of polarizers is that the whole scene tends to shift warmer. There are reasons for this of course, for one, the world is warm, the coolness of daylight tends to come from the sky itself which is obviously quite blue. And the sun itself is yellow which is a warm color. Often times surfaces appear blue shifted because they are reflecting the blue sky.
Here are a couple images taken with polarizers attached that show a little bit of how color and clarity are improved and make editing to a “magical” look just that much easier.
I use the 100mm Kase Skyeye CPL for both these shots, it is excellent and has a very strong effect when used properly.