Today I want to recommend a few items for photographers. I know most people never bother getting anything more than a spare battery for their camera, but some of you must have already made their first steps towards a physical photography toolbox.
Most of these are relevant for DSLR users, and a lot of stuff is useful for people getting into the off-camera flash business.
Some of your gear will obviously be expensive: camera bodies, lenses and flashes are never cheap. But some of the peripheral stuff doesn't have to cost so much. A lot of it can cost way less than it does buying it from a retailer.
Remember, these are only recommendations I make based on my experience. You may be disappointed with some of these gadgets while I thought they were awesome.
If you don't already know Deal Extreme, it is a Chinese gadget shop with lots of cheap and inexpensive stuff. Remember that items on DX, are hit and miss. Fifty percent are totally worth the money, the other fifty are a waste of time. But most of these things cost less than half of what you pay at home - so usually you break even!
To quote Zack Arias, some things are inexpensive, and some things are cheap. Inexpensive saves you money, cheap just means it will break and you end up paying for it over and over again. I will try to recommend the inexpensive (and useful) stuff while warning you of the cheap useless junk they also have...
Flash Gun Stand (hotshoe connector)
This is such a cool little gadget I already have three.
You slide the off-camera flash easily in, lock the little pin (at least that's the locking metohd for Nikon) and you're good to go.
Besides being a flash foot to set it up on level surfaces (i.e. the floor) it has a tripod screw on the bottom so your tripod (or even gorillapod) can be used as lightstand. Also attaches to all kinds of brackets and monopods.
I keep one in my camera bag at all times (helps to setup a wireless flash to stand on the ground or on a table) and one is attached to my lightstand umbrella bracket. I keep a spare one for when I want my flash on the gorrillapod or tripod and switch it around quickly between stands. Since it uses the Nikon locking pin I don't have to screw stuff on and off, just flip the lock switch and I'm good to go.
Also, it's that cheap. I guess every flash you buy should already come with one. I got another two at DX.
Flash diffuser Umbrella (white see-through)
YES! Buy this! Buy ten of these! These are sooo good. If you use off camera flash you will want these. Honestly I don't really know what the big difference is between this and soft boxes, and I guess you could find some minor differences between this and the reflector umbrella, but this cheap setup is really all you need.
It works, it's cheap, it is light and goes in the bag alongside your lightstand and it just works. I personally also put the little diffusion dome that came with my SB700 to get more of the surface of the umbrella lit. Buy it and buy the bracket that holds it and you won't regret it.
I never got a reflector umbrella because I just used my actual umbrella (the one you use when it rains) which had a silver lining and I could jerry-rig it on my tripod using a universal clamp (see next gadget post post). This really didn't look so professional (and appearances make a difference, especially when you want to be taken seriously!). Now I am using this umbrella and the next item:
Umbrella Holder / Swivel Stand
This goes well with the above umbrella. It does everything it is supposed to do and it is pretty well built.
The top part that holds the flash came apart after I played with it... and I can't fit it back properly. Doesn't matter, the top is attached with a tripod (1/4") screw so I fit a flash gun stand (see above) and now it is even easier to take the flash on and off.
Get this and a white diffuser umbrella. Start out with any tripod and move on to light stand. For a few bucks you can get the most out of your off-camera flash.
Sorry, I didn't find a good one on DX. Bought one at home for around 50$, with a tripod screw on top (I already used it as extra-height tripod). Particularly I couldn't find one that was over 150 cm tall. Maybe I just missed it.
Seriously, I don't know how I ever managed without this. If you have the opportunity to take a shot (inside with flash or outside in sunlight) with time enough to set up a reflector or even have someone hold it for you, then it makes a huge difference.
Try this: get a big piece of white cardboard and hold it up to someone's face under sunlight or even good fluorescent light. You will see the light, my friend.
This has some 5 in 1 nonsense because it has one gold, one silver (two which are marginally usefull) one black and one white (this is the one you use really) and also the center part is a diffuse material (partly transparent) .
It folds up really small (watch out when opening) and it does what it's supposed to do. No reason to buy an expensive reflector. No reason to keep shooting without one.
If you are serious about getting good light, a reflector is really basic stuff.
Constant Light LED Pack
This one is really too expensive for what it does, but you might find it useful.
Basically it throws a lot of light, constantly, so you can use it for video, and it only needs two AA batteries.
There are a few larger models of this, but I went with the small and cheap. This was before I got a real flash.
a) It is so much weaker than a flash. I took a test shot in a dark room and needed ISO400 with f/2.8 @ 1/25 to get a decent (but still a tad underexposed) image. So, not really strong.
b) It eats those baby AA's like there's no tomorrow.
a) It will work with any camera, the camera can see the light and expose for it, no need for metering or synching.
b) It works for video.
c) It doubles as a flashlight in an emergency and as a modeling light if you must.
d) It comes with a free aluminum bracket (which I will discuss in the next gadget post. It's useful).
Overall, nice gadget, a bit expensive for what little good it ever did me. Obviously, it is better than nothing. Since I got a flash I didn't use it once (not that I actually used it so often before that).
Small Electric Flash & Seagull Optic Remote COMBO
This is, as far as I know, the cheapest way to get off-camera flash. This little gadget, when attached to the Seagull remote, will see the light from your built-in flash and fire at the same time. It costs $15 together and has about the power of a Nikon SB700 at 1/4 power (which is pretty useful).
a) CHEAP as HELL;
b) Optical slave works with any camera that has manual power flash.
c) Pretty strong.
d) takes just 2 AA batteries.
e) Smaller and lighter by far than full sized hotshoe flash.
a) you will need to manually control your built-in flash so it fires but doesn't wash out you picture with direct light.
b) It has only one power setting so you gotta play with ISO and aperture to balance it.
c) If you use pre-flash (as in, TTL measuring) it will fire prematurely. We all hate it when that happens.
d) Don't use it directly on you DSLR because who knows what voltage it runs on.
e) not very fast to recharge (about 2.5 sec)
The point about the pre-flashes is important: if you can't use manual flash power this will be useless. If you are using another optical system (like Nikon Creative Lighting) then there are pre-flashes for measuring and communicating between your built-in and the other flashes, so you have to work in full manual on all other flashes. Also, when other photographers are around they will trigger this unit all the time.
Lightbulb (E27 connector) AC flash for studio work
This is also along the category of cheap off-camera flashes. This one has all the cons of the flash above, except it recycles much faster. It also has a little more power and doesn't use batteries. It is a good choice for blowing out backgrounds in your studio (you will need at least two lights for that) and you will need to improvise a softbox and cable for this thing (although a socket+switch+cable is available on DX) but once you fix these they can be quite effective.
Remember that you can't control the output power, so you will be limited to a certain aperture/ISO combination. Combined with a smart flash that can be set stronger or weaker it can still be effective.
In the next posts I will review more useful gadgets for low prices. These little trinkets can really make life easier, and sometimes can make a big difference in what you can do with the expensive gear you already have. Not all the tools in a photographer's toolbox need to cost hundreds of dollars... and these little things that accompany the lens, body and flash will sell for three, maybe four times their cost in DX when you buy them from a retailer.