Here's a quick look at a few of the less-heralded and far less expensive items in my daily camera kit.
As photographers and filmmakers, we love to obsess over cameras. Other times, it’s the amazing new breakthroughs in lighting technology that catch our eye. But every army needs both generals and foot soldiers. And while C-47s may not exactly have the technical complexity to qualify for an article of their own, it is small items like this that actually end up coming in and out of our camera bags on a daily basis.
So, for a bit of fun, I thought I would dig into my own camera bag to shine a bit of light onto nine items, all under 100 bucks, that may not get the spotlight, but do make my life far more efficient.
Okay. We will start with the smallest item and the least expensive. If you are anything like me, over the years, you have accumulated a small arsenal of little L-shaped hex keys, which likely arrived in the box with various pieces of photographic gear. Thankfully, manufacturers realized long ago that if their products were going to require assembly that customers would be far happier if they included the tools. Unfortunately, manufacturers never decided to settle on one standard size of hex tool, leaving us all with an assortment of sizes, shapes, and colors. Despite my obsessive organization in most areas of my life, keeping track of which hex key goes with which device has never been a high priority. So, despite my efforts to mark certain ones with tape or permanent ink, I was always having to do that little dance to try and figure out which size hex went into which hole. Some of my devices even use multiple-size hex wrenches for a single product. I consider this particularly cruel.
But, have no fear, this little multi-tool comes to the rescue. This is actually the only item on my list that I didn’t get from a camera store. But a quick walk down the street to my local hardware store to pick up one of these little folding hex key sets from the bargain bin allowed me to say goodbye to my collection of little plastic baggies with random pieces of metal. These things are so cheap that I bought several and tossed them into my different camera cases. Hex tools are a fact of life these days. Why not make that life easier?
Actually, I guess this is actually the most inexpensive item on the list. Or, well, I guess they could be depending on the size you prefer. But while there are few certainties in life, I think we can all agree that one such certainty is that you can pretty much never have too many A clamps. Whether I am using them to hold up a backdrop, clamp negative fill into place, or even using them as a makeshift paperweight, these things pretty much always come in handy.
If you read my previous article, where I recounted the fact that I once spent several months with a car bumper being literally held on by duct tape, you will likely know my fondness for adhesive tape. Well, gaffer tape is duct tape all grown up. And, much like A clamps, you can never have enough gaffer tape. Whether you're placing marks for actors, filling a hole in a well-trodden V-flat, positioning a gel in just the right spot, or any other task that needs to be done fast and efficiently, while doing the least amount of damage, a good roll of gaffer tape is a photographer’s best friend.
A tripod transformer. This mini tripod stand with bendable appendages allows you to mount your camera to pretty much anything. Need a high-angle shot from the perspective of a tree branch? No sweat, just wrap it around the tree. Want to put your speedlight in a hard-to-reach place that isn’t big enough for a light stand? This little tool will do the job. Or perhaps in the new normal, you, like me, have found yourself sitting at your desk attending what seems to be an endless marathon of zoom calls. And while you realize that using a real camera for your zoom calls is worth the trouble, perhaps it’s not worth the trouble of setting up a proper tripod and you simply want something stable to prop up your camera on the desk in front of you. Bingo. GorillaPod.
Honestly, I kind of wonder why all camera straps aren’t designed like this. I’ll admit, I am a newbie when it comes to Peak Design products. I’ve heard of them. I’ve heard they are good. But this Peak Design Slide Lite Camera Strap is the first of their products that I’ve owned.
It’s just a camera strap. I don’t want to get too excited. But it offers the minor tweak of being able to connect your camera via these little bungee cord doohickeys instead of the traditional metal keyrings that usually attach the ends of camera straps to the metallic mounts on cameras. My admittedly unexplainable inability to successfully connect my camera and camera strap all these years without either injuring myself trying to connect the two and/or doing such a poor job of it that my camera drops from around my neck within 20 minutes has always been a source of frustration. I realize this is something that is supposed to be easy. But just like my father is medically licensed to perform surgery, yet still finds himself incapable of solving the riddle of wrapping paper, these little metal coils are just a bridge too far for me.
It was enough of a pain when I only had to navigate the connection once. But these days when my camera is doing both still and video and constantly shapeshifting from handheld to gimbal, to cage, to other orientations that may or may not benefit from an attached neck strap it can become a problem.
With the new design, the Slide strap allows me to simply slide the strap on and off with soft plastic connectors that attach to the dohickeys. I’m sure those have official names, by the way. I think Peak Design calls them anchors. But I prefer dohickey, so I’m sticking with it. But, whatever you call them, they make me incredibly more efficient. No more having to choose between having my camera secure around my neck or having it easily adaptable to its video cage. Now, it’s just as easy as a quick click.
While we are on the topic of cages, here is one more little device that was well worth the money. The lovely thing about still photography is that you can really break your gear down to the bare essentials and travel light. The one thing you learn when doing cinematography, on the other hand, is that the further you progress, the heavier your rig tends to get. Even if you are just shooting with a mirrorless camera, it’s hard to get the best quality without at least attaching an external monitor or some other device to your camera.
Attaching a monitor sounds easy enough. Get a cold shoe mount and screw on the monitor. Bingo. But the number of times I’ve gone the extra mile to secure my Atmos to my camera with one of these mounts only to have it somehow loosen and come falling off the camera midway through a take has always had me shooting in a state of paranoia. I’ve tried cheap Amazon cold shoe mounts and more expensive ones. They all make me nervous. This becomes even more nerve-wracking when I try to attach external EVFs when needing to shoot from a shoulder-mounted position. Sure, I’ve got enough clamps and magic arms to give me the reach. But what I really wanted was stability. That’s where this little articulating arm from SmallRig has really come in handy. I find it to be the perfect reach and strength for attaching my EVF/monitor to a cage in a secure enough fashion that I have confidence that I can press against it without anything falling off. A small comfort, but an important one.
SmallRig makes a lot of useful products at an affordable price point, so it’s no surprise that they fill up much of the tail end of his article. That includes the Mini Follow Focus system they produce that comes in just under $100. When shooting stills, I love autofocus just like the next man. But, when it comes to video, I want far more control over where and when I focus. This leads me to usually opt for manual focus lenses purpose-built for cinematography rather than to rely on my still lenses.
And while you can, and I often do, choose to focus your cinema glass with your hand rotating the barrel, it can lead to a much smoother result to attach a follow focus system. The gears of the follow focus lock into the gears on the side of your cinema glass and focus the lens. This helps to avoid accidentally shifting the lens by making contact with it. But, more importantly, when working with a dedicated focus puller, it allows them to adjust your focus for you without there being an overabundance of hands needing to physically touch the camera.
Follow focuses come in all shapes and sizes, and this one from SmallRig is not at all the most robust or top of the line. I have other systems with more stability and functionality. And there are others well beyond my price range that provide the ultimate performance. But, the advantage of this SmallRig system is that it is small, portable, and well suited to smaller mirrorless rigs. I use it often with my Canon R5 mounted in its cage. The kit comes with a standard 6-inch rod and clamps which makes it easy to connect the follow focus to the camera without needing to build the entire system out with a more involved set of rails. This allows you to maintain some of the benefits of the smaller mirrorless form factor while still giving you the benefits of using a follow focus. Incredibly useful and very efficient when switching back and forth between stills and video.
Let’s go ahead and round out the SmallRig trio with this lightweight matte box. Why would you want to make your camera rig bigger by attaching this matte box to the front of the lens? Is it just to make you look cool? Well, yes, it does look cool. But using a matte box has a number of practical benefits as well.
For me, the primary benefit is that it allows me to use slide-in glass filters instead of screw-in-mounted filters. I still have a bunch of screw-in filters. So, I have nothing against them. But because many of my lenses have varying thread sizes, using a screw-in filter often means either purchasing multiple sizes of ND filters to match each lens or constantly attaching or detaching various step-up rings whenever I make a lens change. A matte box allows you to slide the ND filter in once, then swap lenses as much as you like without having to screw anything in or out. Because I am often shifting from smaller photo-centric lenses to larger cinema lenses, it just makes life easier to separate the filters from the lenses as it allows me to operate faster. The attached lens shade that attaches to the matte box also makes it a cinch to flag off unwanted flares that may be caused by the sun or an errant beam of light. Speed is the name of the game with these things. And I’ve found them to improve efficiency so much that I bought a second one.
Oh, and they look cool.
I’ve mentioned this one in a previous article, and no matter what you say, I’m still going to think this thing is somewhat overpriced, but dagnabit, it has become a necessity. If you shoot tethered, it’s likely that at some point you will have tripped over your own tether cord. If you have my level of questionable coordination, you likely trip over your cord at least once per shoot. Well, aside from the mental exertion it takes to play off the embarrassment, the constant tugging of your tether cable can also cause serious damage to your camera. Very expensive damage. Despite being small in stature, your camera's tether port can be a very high-priced fix. To solve that problem, Tether Tools created the TetherBLOCK. It’s basically a piece of molded metal that fits the bottom of your camera which you run your cable through prior to putting it in the camera. Bypassing the cable through the TetherBLOCK design provides tension and a buffer point so that your camera’s delicate connection won’t bear the brunt of the force when you go tumbling over the cord. There are less expensive solutions, but as much as I complain about the price, I have found this to be an essential piece of insurance.
These are just a few of my favorite sub-$100 tools in my kit. What are the low-cost tools that you just can’t live without?