Life As An Itinerant Artist

Stories and anecdotes from fifteen years on the art show circuit. 

Five handy photographic tools

As photographers, there are certain tools that we all take for granted. A camera is necessary, but not necessarily a lens, for most photographs. Something to hold the camera: hands, or a tripod, perhaps. Some way to present the images captured, whether on paper or the ephemeral flickering light of the computer screen. And then there is the non-physical aspect of photography, the thinking part. The ability to see the picture, and compose a cohesive story out of seemingly inconsequential moments. Eyes to frame the scene. Ears to hear what is happening while the image is being photographed. A designer’s mind. These perhaps are more important than the camera and tripod.

But this post isn’t about all that. No, this is about the little things that make photographic life easier in the field. Like coffee in the morning and Lightroom in the digital darkroom. Every photographer has a few tools in the camera bag that make life in the field just a bit easier. My five favorites include

  1. My iPhone. Aside from allowing me access to email and internet browsing while away from the laptop, the iPhone has a number of enhancements that make fieldwork a lot easier. Built-in GPS on the 3GS version; mapping, trip routing and traffic for free, courtesy of Google Maps; a rudimentary compass; a rudimentary camera with many third-party apps such as BestCamera, Photoshop Mobile and others; the list goes on and on.
  2. Sun locating tools. Back in the day, I used to use a little circular slide-rule device called a Sundicator. Nowadays, thanks to GPS technology, the iPhone has several good electronic equivalents. My favorite is Focalware, by Spiral Development. With a built-in compass, and the ability to find the sun and moon at any latitude and longitude, FocalWare gives you the height of the celestial objects on any day and date. It also lets you calculate the length of the shadow. With the built-in compass, you can line up a shot with the sun in the position you want. You also have the ability to lookup many common geographic locations, as well as save custom locations that are not already in the database. Focalware is $9.99.
    A second desktop based application is Stephen Trainor’s The Photographer’s Ephemeris, or TPE. This app was originally built using Adobe Air, but now runs as a native app, or on the web. With an elegant interface, and maps enabled by Google Earth, TPE is a beautifully designed application that will do many of the same things that FocalWare and Darkness can. And it’s designed so that it can be run on a NetBook, so anywhere that you have internet connectivity, TPE will run. The main advantage to TPE is that you can see the angle of light superimposed over a map of the area you are photographing. For planning a shoot, TPE is indispensable. And best of all, it’s free. Development is funded by donations alone.
  3. A small level. Although tripod heads often have a built-in level, a small portable level is very handy to have in the bag of tricks. It doesn’t weigh much, it doesn’t cost much, and can be useful for setting up level or plumb on top of your camera. A small hot-shoe plate can be glued to the bottom of the level so that it can be affixed to your camera when using it handheld. Available at most hardware stores and home centers, a tiny three-way torpedo level costs less than $5.
  4. Lens-cleaning tools. I know this sounds obvious, but keeping a small bottle of lens cleaning fluid, a micro-fiber cloth and a small anti-static brush in the camera kit is a no-brainer. Other useful additions are a bubble blower, such as the Giottos Rocket Blower; a small sensor-cleaning kit, if you’re so inclined; and a package of pre-moistened lens-cleaning wipes. Visible Dust makes some very good sensor cleaning brushes, available directly and through photographic suppliers. I wouldn’t recommend cleaning the sensor out in the field, but it’s handy to have in the evening, especially if you change lenses often. An antistatic brush is also handy — Kinetronics makes a small StaticWisk brush on a lanyard that is quite nice.
  5. In-field backup systems. Although the proliferation of cheap CF cards in the 8, 16 and even 32Gb capacity has made portable hard-drives largely unnecessary, having a redundant copy of your media is a good idea. I’ve used Wolverine’s portable drives, as well as a laptop powered by an inverter off of the truck battery. I like to copy the contents of each card shot to an external drive before erasing the card. Ideally, I like to have two copies, one on the laptop and one on an external drive. Here’s where the Wolverine comes in handy. You can preview the images on a built-in LCD screen, and you can copy directly from the card to the device. Battery life is low, however, so carry spares, or a charger. Epson use to make backup units in 40G, 80G and 160G versions. Available through Amazon, and other retailers, many photographers utilized these devices. Most of them have gone the way of the dodo, however [May 89, 2020].

There are lots more tools that didn’t make the short list. For shooting models and small products outdoors, you can never have too many mirrors, reflectors and bounce cards. Grip supplies, from the lowly C-47 to Matthews C-stands, can be handy for larger shoots. Model and property releases. I’m positive that you have your own favorites, so don’t be shy about adding your comments!

December 23, 2009

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