At their heart, cameras are about recording light and color. Controlling how light interacts with a scene can mean, among other things, using a flash to get rid of shadows, reflecting a different shade of light to best illuminate a portrait, or tweaking the colors of a photo to make them more accurate. Some of these tasks involve tools that few people will need, but for other tasks certain tools are invaluable. And being able to take control of lighting and color can radically improve your photography.
Flashes (for lighting a subject)
After buying a camera, choosing the right lighting is one of the most complex challenges facing a photographer. We interviewed David Hobby—the man behind Strobist and a world-renowned expert on off-camera lighting and education in its use—and learned that the best beginner flash is the LumoPro LP180, a manually controlled flash that works with any camera. The flash’s excellent build quality, low price, multiple ways of control, long warranty, and wide compatibility make it our recommendation. And after you pick up that flash, we recommend that you dive into a good long read, Strobist’s Lighting 101.
Most camera brands require proprietary connections to adjust lighting strength automatically (a technology known as TTL, for “through the lens”) rather than manually, which makes flash choices complicated. That means that if you want your flash to automagically figure out how bright it should be, you’ll need to rely on expensive first-party options, third-party brands that are willing to pay high licensing fees, or still others that reverse-engineer the technology—and you’ll end up with a flash that will typically work with only one brand of camera, a problem if you’re a beginner and not totally committed to a particular system.
In our email interview, David Hobby called the LP180 “the best bet on basic flashes for people who want to get into lighting.” Hobby prefers this model over a first-party flash that offers automatic controls, because it costs less, it gives you a better understanding of what you’re doing, it has a longer warranty than most first-party flashes, and it offers better build quality than other third-party options. “The LP180 has the power and build quality of the Nikon and Canon flagships at ~⅓ the price,” Hobby wrote. “No TTL, but … arguably other (better) features that the flagships lack (in-line 1/4×20 sockets, gel-holders, gels included, and 4 ways to sync it.)” Those multiple triggering options let you use it on top of your camera, on a stand, or—as your skills grow—in a more complex lighting setup.
In Hobby’s review of the LP180 for his site, he writes, “The LP180 is rock-solid, with a near-perfect feature set for lighting photographers. It’s the first flash that I actually prefer over a Nikon SB-800.” He isn’t the only one to offer such praise. Dan Bracaglia of Popular Photography writes that “for $200, this unit might just be the perfect addition to your off-camera kit.” Chris Gampat of The Phoblographer declares: “Absolutely, positively, not a single complaint.” SLR Lounge rated it at 4½ out of five stars, writing that this model “is a reliable workhorse in the world of manual flashes” and that “incredible performance and reliability make it well worth the price you pay.” USA Today calls it “a real winner,” and FroKnowsPhoto writes that it’s “built like a tank” and “even better than you can imagine.” All told, that’s an incredible amount of praise for a flash that goes for less than $200.
An automatic flash
Learning how to shoot manually isn’t for everyone, especially if you want something that you can just slap on top of your camera to produce some extra illumination. In David Hobby’s words: “[I]f you just want a flash to shoot bounce photos from atop your camera, in that case it will make sense to go with your brand and TTL.”
If you fit that description, get a flash made by the company that makes your camera. Be sure to choose one that lets you angle the light to bounce off the ceiling for more diffuse illumination and ideally allows the bulb to rotate so that its illumination can bounce off different walls, too. —Tim Barribeau
Reflectors (for banishing shadows)
If you’ve ever had a great portrait ruined by unflattering shadows across your subject’s face, or had the perfect still life undone by uneven lighting through the frame, the solution is simple: Buy a reflector. We like the Westcott Basics 40″ 5-in-1 Reflector (model 301), though the brand you choose is far less important than the reflector’s size and feature set. In general, we recommend a 36- to 42-inch “5-in-1” reflector with white, gold, silver, black, and diffuser panels.
“Reflectors are an overlooked and underutilized photography tool,” New York–based portrait and wedding photographer Joshua Zuckerman told us. “They can help shape the light, turning an amateurish portrait into a stellar image.”
Reflectors “bounce” or reflect light onto an area in shadow. Simply adjust the angle of the reflector until it fills the darker area with light. White, the most common option, offers the softest, most muted light. Silver and gold reflective panels, the two most common add-ons, produce a higher-intensity light, and the gold in particular adds warmth. A black panel blocks light instead of reflecting it, allowing you to add dramatic shadows to your scene, while a translucent diffusion panel can help to soften harsh sunlight.
A 40-inch circular reflector like the Westcott Basics model 301 is big enough to use for a small family portrait, but it collapses to a 15-inch-diameter package when you store it in its carry bag, so it’s compact enough for you to carry it around all day. Larger reflectors, particularly those with oval shapes, can be much more difficult to collapse to storage size—hence the large number of YouTube videos explaining just how to do so.
Photo tent (for soft light and product photos)
The subject of using or not using protective lenses can invoke heated debates among photographers, with both sides often fiercely defending their choices. I am not going to debate whether it is right or wrong to use protective filters – that’s certainly a personal choice. I have been using them for a number of years now to protect my higher-end lenses and make it easier to clean lenses with recessed front elements (such as on Nikon 50mm f/1.4G / f/1.8G). Having had bad experience with purchasing a low-quality no-name brand filter when I just started photography (it was sold to me as a “must-have” at a local photo store), I learned what such a filter can do to my photos the hard way. Since then, I have only been purchasing multi-coated B+W filters that use high-quality Schott glass. I have been very happy with these filters and have been telling our readers to either use the best they can find, or not use filters at all.
A couple of weeks ago, I received a bunch of filters from a new filter manufacturer in Europe. The company wanted me to test their filters and see what I think of them. I asked them if they would be comfortable with me comparing their filters to B+W and they told me that they did not mind. As I was testing a lens in my Imatest lab a couple of days ago, I first shot a test chart without filters at f/5.6, then stacked 4 of my 77mm B+W XS-Pro MRC filters and took another shot, then finally mounted 4 filters from the new manufacturer and took the last shot. Here are the numbers that were produced by Imatest:
As you can see, the B+W filters had no impact on image quality. The differences in numbers between “No Filter” and “B+W” you see above are within the margin of error. However, if you look at the third graph, it is pretty clear that the filters that I was testing were of low quality. There is a rather significant drop of approximately 5% in the center frame, a drop of 7% in the mid-frame and a pretty significant drop of close to 15% in the corners. To make sure that I was not making any errors, I re-ran the test several times and used completely different sets of filters from the same manufacturer (I had a total of about 20 77mm filters that manufacturer regarded as “high quality”). Other batches yielded similar reduced numbers, some worse than others.
I wanted to see what a 15% difference in score represents visually, so I took extreme corner image crops from an image that was shot with 4x B+W filters and the same with 4x lower quality filters. Here is what the comparison looks like:
As you can see, the difference in sharpness is pretty clear – lower quality filters certainly result in visible image degradation. Details are blurred and the straight lines are no longer sharp. And this is just sharpness alone. If I shot with the two in a high contrast situation (say shooting against the sun), I bet the low-quality filters would introduce all kinds of artifacts to my photos.
Yes, this is a rather extreme example and I know that nobody would stack 4 filters like I did above. If one were to look at images with a single filter, the differences would be very minimal. However, that’s not what I am trying to show here. The point of the article is to show that high quality filters have no effect on sharpness and do not necessarily reduce image quality, as some photographers claim. It is certainly the case with lower quality filters though. The only thing that filters might introduce to images, is more flare and ghosting when shooting against a bright light source. In those situations, it might be best to remove filters altogether.
Lastly, keep in mind that the filters I tested were regarded as “pro” filters. If you are curious to know what a single cheap / bad quality filter can do to an image, see this article that I posted last year.
Moral of the above research: not all lens filters are made the same, even from the same “high-quality / pro” category…