5 Underrated Items in My Camera Bag

With all the discussion of the best camera on the planet or the most powerful lights, there’s a lot in a professional photographer's bag that goes overlooked. So today, I’m going to take a short look at what’s in my own camera bag.

Of course, before I start, the standard disclaimer. Just because these things are in my camera bag doesn’t mean they have to be in yours. We are all different as photographers, and thus, we use different tools. These are just a handful of things that help me get the job done.

So, with that out of the way, let’s get to the list.

Sekonic Litemaster Pro L-478

Yes, yes, I get it. Your camera can meter light for you. But, the thing is that if you know how the sausage is being made, then you are even in more control of the final product. Personally, I used to never use a light meter. I had a rough idea of my lighting ratios just by looking at a test frame. It was always close enough.

But then, I got the opportunity to assist a world-renowned celebrity photographer here in Los Angeles. The man is a lighting genius and has more brilliant rejected images in his archives than I have in my portfolio. He is an illumination wizard.  

I still remember the first day I went to set with him. I’m not sure what I was expecting. But, I surely wasn’t expecting the precision with which he would meter every single light before every single frame. To be sure, he could have relied on TTL or whatever fancy matrix metering was available, but instead, he paid obsessive attention to every single lighting ratio to make sure everything was just perfect before even snapping a test shot. So, I looked at this guy, who at the time had multiple national campaigns going and over a dozen global magazine covers on newsstands just that very week, and I realized that if someone that good isn’t too big to use a light meter, then I definitely wasn’t too big to use a light meter.

I dusted off my own Sekonic LiteMaster Pro L-478D and immediately started using it on every shot I took. And just as instantly, I saw a marked improvement in the images I was creating. It’s not that those images would be impossible without a light meter. It’s just that being more in control of my light led to more considered and ultimately better images. It sounds so simple because it is. Modern technology can do a lot for us. But sometimes, knowing how to do those same things for yourself can put you even more in control of your craft.

X-Rite ColorChecker Passport

I’ll be honest: this was an impulse buy a few years ago when I was feeling particularly financially flush. It sat in a drawer for a long time before it ultimately made it into my main camera bag. And even then, it only made it in because I was in the process of marveling at how much my new camera bag was able to hold and frantically snatching lesser-used items from my drawer and trying to fill every pocket.

Essentially, the X- Rite ColorChecker Passport is just a fancy version of a color card. This one happens to be particularly small and compact, which is why I like it. But there are several less expensive options, so one doesn’t need to necessarily get this exact one if doing so breaks the bank.

But the advantage of having the ColorChecker Passport or any color card is that once I have my lighting dialed in, I can have a model hold it in frame for reference when taking a test frame. Later, when you are going over your images, you can use that reference card to ensure 100% accuracy in the color of your images. If you are creating a heavily color-toned or altered image, this may be less useful. But, if, for example, you are hired to shoot a fashion lookbook and the shade of the red dress in the photograph needs to exactly match reality, having a color reference is essential.

Naturally, step one is to make sure you have your color temperature set correctly to begin with. And the color checker and the provided gray card can help with that. But, as insurance, or if you haven’t had time to do a custom white balance on set, having a reference frame to refer to in post is a great safety net. This comes even more in handy during video shoots, where making broad changes after the fact to video files can be a lot more demanding than the process would be for correcting slightly disparate still frames.

Nifty Fifty

The most unexciting lens in everyone’s camera bag is still my favorite. It’s not expensive. It’s not flashy. Very few new YouTube videos are dedicated to standard 50mm lenses. But, for me, if I could shoot every shot with the 50mm, I would jump at that setup in a heartbeat.

Why? It’s cheap. So, there’s no reason not to have it. Two, it’s super light. So, I can carry it around on my camera all day without causing me neck pain. Three, 50mm lenses generally have pretty fast apertures. My own Nikon 50mm goes to f/1.4. So, you can quickly dial in bokeh with the flick of an aperture dial or shoot in low-light situations. It’s wide enough in many situations to get a wide shot, but doesn’t really have significant distortion for a closeup. What’s not to like?

Tether Block

I love it. I hate it. I need it. Perhaps that last sentence is the most accurate. If you’ve ever shot tethered, there’s a very good chance that at some point, you’ve found yourself hopelessly tangled up in your tether cord, or at the very least, someone, perhaps you yourself, has rather clumsily tripped over said cord in the process of changing lights around. If you’re lucky, you didn’t take the camera with you during your stumble, and your brand new photographic baby was spared a harrowing trip to the hard studio floor. But even if you are fortunate enough to not overturn your tripod or your tether station, even the smallest of jerks on your cable will send shock waves through the cable and yank against the camera’s delicate tether port.  

There are a number of solutions to this problem at varying price points and levels of effectiveness. But, for a Grade A klutz like me, I’ve found the best solution to be the Tether Block by Tether Tools. It is essentially a metal plate that fastens to the bottom of your camera while leaving a slot through which your tether cable can pass. Those cables are then secured against the bottom of the camera and come out the other end where only a small, non-trippable amount of cable comes out and curls around so you can attach it to your camera’s port. It doesn’t stop you from stumbling over your cable, but it does prevent you from doing excessive damage to the tether port when you do. 

While there isn’t much to love about what is essentially just a molded piece of metal, I do find it a necessary tool for most of my shoots. I joked earlier that I hate it, and that’s not completely untrue. Well, half untrue. It’s not that I hate the device, but I do hate that it, for some reason, costs almost $100. I have never been able to fully get my head around the price point. But unfortunately, like I said, I need it. I have two, actually, so that my second camera can be set up with one prior to the shoot as well. It just seems expensive for what it is.

Then again, while you can shoot without it, if you’ve ever destroyed one of your camera’s tether ports and gotten an estimate on how much it will cost to fix, you will quickly look into buying one for yourself.

Backup Camera

Okay, I’m not sure if this counts as an overrated item, since it is photography we’re talking about, so I’m pretty sure we can all agree that a camera is important. But, just as important as your most cherished possession is making sure you always have a plan B. If you’re out shooting for a day of fun and your camera craps out, it sucks, but it’s not the end of the world. If you’re doing a commercial shoot with dozens of clients watching your every move and hundreds of thousands of dollars on the line, where every second costs money and your camera goes down, you don’t have the option of just calling it a day.

Perhaps your backup camera doesn’t have to be identical to your main body, but you need to have a somewhat equal backup option so that you can keep shooting without any disruption to your client just in case. Hopefully, you’ll never actually use it, but that one time you do, you’ll be extremely happy it was there.

Obviously, there is a heck of a lot more in my camera bag than these five items. But these are a handful I can’t live without. So, what makes your list? What don’t you leave home without when heading to a shoot?

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Christopher Malcolm is a Los Angeles-based lifestyle, fitness, and advertising photographer, director, and cinematographer shooting for clients such as Nike, lululemon, ASICS, and Verizon.

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can you explain whats underrated about it? i think every pro has this thing here in japan and more. my assistants meter the whole set even before i take camera in hands. its a difference in education?

why dont you share your hacks and solutions with this things... i had assistant who gaffer-taped a bluetooth speaker(which is my most underrated piece for location shooting btw) to a tripod in such a way that not a single glue-side touched a speaker yet it was tightly attached.

another underrated piece for me is always a binder clip(i have a set of them in different shapes), they can be used for so many things (roll a diffuser cloth half way inside octa? for different spill. clip it), slippery usb-c - clip it on (but recently we just tape it on mac side) .

a second remote trigger made my life so much easier also. i have 2 cameras on set - one with zoom, other with prime, both with a remote trigger on them, so i can change em without any hassle and continue shooting on fly.

oh and how about a shopping folding cart? greatest hack... cheaper than pro solutions and good enough to do the job.

Exactly - all of this. All of these items are what I would EXPECT you to have being as you are a "Commercial Advertising Photographer". I mean, HONESTLY, what else? A second SD card? Batteries?

the title is underrated right?

Instead of that insanely priced Tether Tools block, I've purchased a couple of these: They do the same thing, although they don't conceal the bit of cable loop. But they cost less than USD $10.00

Thanks for the info !

The Sekonic L-478 is an incident meter, whereas your camera uses reflected metering. So you don't learn much about how your camera meters by using an incident meter. But, it IS a very good idea to fist learn about what incident metering is all about, and then start using a meter to measure it. For some situations, reflected meter is all you need, for other situations incident metering is all you you, and for others still, both can be used effectively.

You missed it Tim. He cites, and it IS the most important, the issue of light ratios. A reflected light meter is near useless for that. An incident meter (preferably with a flat disc) is the preferred, and quickest tool for determining ratios.

Don't leave home without it.

As for reflected meters in camera, well if you are good with a spot meter and can rough out tone conversion (is that red 18%, is that dark green 9%, is that yellow 82%), they can and will give you approximate results. Matrix metering, no matter what any manufacturer wants to tell you is STILL a shoot and hope for the best method . . . more refined, but nowhere near as precise as accurate metering which even today is the domain of an antiquated hand-held meter.

you instead learn a heck of a lot about how your in camera meter can miss..you stick an incident meter in the light...THAT IS the exposure..you point your camera different places in the scene..the exposure could be all over the place

The question simply is: Underrated by whom?

The big advantage of the ColorChecker over a generic gray card is the ability to use X-rite's software to generate a .dcp custom camera profile, which is especially useful when shooting under problematic artificial light. I use this in my event work to ensure that skin tones are good even under the often-nasty fluorescent light in hotel conference rooms.

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