Photo Accessory Buying Guide

Buying a new camera is exciting, but there’s a lot more to get than just the body and lens.There’s a whole collection of accessories out there just begging to consume the balances of your bank account. Which ones should you buy and which ones can wait? Here’s a handy guide to help you keep from going all in when it’s unnecessary.

Extra Lenses

Verdict: wait unless you really know what you want


This, for example, is too many lenses to start out

Most DSLRs or Interchangeable-lens cameras come with a stock kit lens. It’s usually something in the area of 18-55mm or 16-50mm and only adds about $100 (sometimes less) to the cost of the camera body alone. If you’re new to the system, then it’s usually a good buy. But before you jump on a bigger lens bundle, consider how much use that extra lens is going to get.

Typically, the second lens in a bundle is a telephoto lens. The 70-300mm is a common option and it sounds appealing. Some people think they’ll never need another lens if they have everything from 18-300mm covered. But that’s not entirely the case. Those cheap telephoto lenses typically have slow maximum apertures (they let in less light) so getting non-blurry photos in anything but bright lighting becomes an issue. At a high-school basketball game, for instance, you might have trouble getting sharp photos if you can only open to F/6.3.

So, while the initial kit lens is a good investment, you’re otherwise better off waiting to see what kind of lens you actually want and spending a little more money later on. When you start shooting, you’ll quickly learn the limitations that are preventing you from getting the shots you want, and that should guide your buying process.

There are some exceptions. For instance, some higher-level bodies can sometimes be had with a couple of higher-end lenses. If that’s the case and you can get a substantial discount, then feel free to jump on it. Just don’t spread yourself too thin. There’s always room for growth in photography. No need to make your accountant mad (well, madder) for the sake of more gear.

A Sturdy Camera Bag

Verdict: Buy it


Make sure you try a bag on before you commit to it

A camera bag is an absolutely crucial piece of your kit. If your camera isn’t big enough to fit in your pocket, the quality of your bag decides whether or not your camera comes with you. If it’s uncomfortable or ugly, you’re more likely to leave it at home and that means missed photos.

Fit is crucial for a camera bag, so definitely try it on before you buy or at least try to order from a place that will let you return it within a reasonable timeframe so if you hate it, you can trade up.

This also isn’t a great place to cheap out. Your camera bag will likely take a lot of abuse protecting the precious photographic goods inside. You want it to resist weather as well as bumps, so look for ample padding.

Throwing your new DSLR into your regular backpack may work for some people, but the added protection and convenience of a good camera bag shouldn’t be underestimated.


**Fast Memory Cards **

Verdict: Buy, but remember that bigger isn’t always better


Big memory cards are great for space, but tough on wallets

With memory card prices dropping all the time, it’s tempting to reach for the biggest, fastest one and assume you never have to think about it again. After all, with 64 GB of space, that’s a lot of shooting! But that also means all your photographic eggs go into one fallible basket. Many pros buy several smaller cards and switch as they shoot. That way, if one card should fail, the whole take isn’t totally lost. I prefer a mixture of bigger and smaller cards.

It’s also worth buying memory cards from reliable companies at reputable retailers. Believe it or not, there’s actually a thriving market out there for phony memory cards and the quality could literally be anything.

As for speed, you want fast, but likely don’t need to go crazy unless you’re a pro or you’re shooting a ton of video. For most people, the class 10 cards will be speedy enough to get the most out of a camera’s still photography potential and still handle HD video without stuttering.

ThinkTank Photo also makes fantastic memory card wallets that are easily worth the $20 or so that they cost.


A Reliable Backup Hard Drive

Verdict: Buy


Hard drives come in a variety of toughness rankings. This one is obviously pretty rugged

Just as memory cards fail, so too do hard drives. And if your hard drive is the only place you’re storing your photo files, a crash means they’re as gone as the moments they depict. The best way to avoid that is with a good backup drive.

Ideally, you can have something that offers redundancy. That means you have an enclosure with two or more drives inside of it. When you copy photo files to it, it stores them on both drives, so if one fails, you still have the other copy. The downside is that these are usually more expensive than single-drive solutions and require power from a wall-plug, so they’re not portable.

A truly portable drive is fine, too, especially if it allows you to backup your photos on location. However, you might want to consider buying a pair of them or keeping a plug-in drive at home just so losing your bag doesn’t mean the end of all your photos.

If you shoot a lot, it might make sense for you to buy one drive for each year’s worth of photos. That way, they’re easier to locate when you’re looking for them later.

Photo Editing Software

Verdict: Get the trial versions


Picking a photo editing software early can go a long way in making your photographic life easier. Most non-destructive photo editing suites don’t actually edit the photo files you feed them. Instead they use metadata to record adjustments that can only be seen and applied through that specific program. Because of that, switching down the road can be difficult.

Luckily, most of the major software titles offer free trial downloads, so you can get a feel for which one makes the most sense for you. Here are links to some of the most popular trials. The time you spend now figuring out which one best suits you may save you a lot of time in the long run.

If you’re going to be shooting raw, this is a particularly essential step. The editing potential of the raw format is great and you want to make sure you have the ability to capitalize on it. While free programs like Google’s Picasa do an OK job, they still leave some of that potential on the table.

Of course, using the free processing software that comes with your computer is a totally viable option, but since the software trials are usually free, weighing options can’t really hurt.


A Printer

Verdict: Depends on the deal


An all-in-one printer can come in handy, but it’s usually not practical as a dedicated photo printer

Printing photos at home can be great. You have lots of control over your work and you don’t have to wait for a lab to spit the prints out for you only to have them come out wrong. But, they also have their drawbacks. Ink is expensive and paper can be even pricier.

Printers are one of the most commonly bundled items to come with a camera. Sometimes, they’re too cheap to pass up, in which case, go ahead and jump on it. Some people, though, buy the printer bundle and assume they’ll be able to sell it to offset the cost of their new camera. However, you probably won’t be getting close to retail for that printer, so if that’s your plan, proceed with caution.

Ultimately, though, if you do decide to buy a printer, make it a good one. You’re going to be paying a lot for paper and ink, you might as well make the prints look as good as they can. That Fax/Copy/Print/Scan thing you’re eyeing probably isn’t going to cut it.


Verdict: Pick and choose the ones you need


A polarizing filter has effects that can’t easily be duplicated with post-production

A circular polarizing filter should find a place in just about every camera bag. It can help you control reflections, add drama to otherwise-washed-out skies, and even cut down the amount of light coming in should you feel like using a wide aperture or long shutter speed on a bright day. Get one and use it.

The rest of the filters out there are up to you. Some shops recommend a UV or protection filter for the front of your lens, but that’s a point of argument for many folks in the photography community. Lenses are more durably than many people imagine and some people can’t stand the thought of adding more glass for light to travel through. For most people, a simple lens hood is more than enough protection, but it’s ultimately a personal choice.

Other filters like neutral density can come in handy, but if you’re just getting going, your money can probably be better spent elsewhere.



Verdict: Depends on what you shoot


There’s a wide variety of tripods out there, so it’s worth putting some thought into which one best fits your needs

Some photographers consider a tripod an essential part of the photographic process. Others, even veterans, have almost never used them. Here are some indicators that you should buy a tripod right away:

  • You shoot a lot of landscape photography
  • You plan on taking family portraits that include yourself
  • You want to make those cool photos where the night sky is filled with star trails or the Milky Way
  • You have really shaky hands
  • You’re a spaz who needs to slow down to take better photos
  • You have a very long telephoto lens that you want to use without camera shake
  • You plan on shooting a decent amount of video

If none of those things apply to you, you might not need a tripod right off the rip. Image stabilization has gotten to be impressively good and if you’re planning on chasing a toddler with your camera, lugging a tripod might just slow you down.


An External Flash

Verdict: Wait


Until you learn how to use it, a dedicated flash is a lot like a more powerful pop-up flash

The first step in composing a photo that uses strobe lighting is to get the background exposure correct first. You want to have all the natural light in check before you start introducing a flash, and that’s true on a longer timeline as well.

Most cameras up to the intermediate level actually have a built-in flash, so if you need to pop it up to get a night shot, you can do so. Sticking a monster speedlite on top of your camera will only succeed in getting you more power. It won’t necessarily look much “better” until you get it off your camera or at least start bouncing it.

A flash is a useful tool, but I believe it’s good to have a firm hold on how your camera works before you start adding even more variables. Then, when you’re feeling comfortable, you can start adding flash and getting it off your camera, which takes things to a whole other level.

If you happen to have a lamp or other light sources around your house, though, definitely experiment with them.


An Extra Battery

Verdict: Buy it

One of the nice things about bundles is that they often throw in an extra on-brand battery for free. Some people are surprised when they find out that DSLR batteries are so expensive, often eclipsing the $50 mark. But, having a backup battery is a very nice thing to have if you’re going to be out doing any serious shooting. If you’re on a trip and run out of memory card space, buying a new one is usually cheap. Finding a specific battery for your camera, however, will be tricky and expensive.

Some people will recommend you buy a third-party battery as a cheaper alternative to on-brand batteries, but that’s an “at your own risk” proposition. There are plenty of third party batteries that work just fine and will for the duration of their life. There are others that can overheat or worse. If you’re going to go the third party route, be sure to check out the user reviews on the site from which you’re getting it. And know that if that battery should flip out and smoke your camera, it’s not going to be covered by your warranty.