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Accessorize Your Digital SLR

By 
Canon EOS Rebel T5i

Digital SLRs give you lots of ways to expand your shooting capability.

Along with the detailed images digital SLRs provide, photographers are also discovering another great aspect of these cameras — the impressive array of gear available to expand their camera's performance and capability. Of course, many items such as cases, batteries, and memory cards are "gotta haves" for all digital cams. Others, such as lenses, filters, and add-on flashes, are generally unique to SLRs and their close relatives, the mirrorless interchangeable-lens hybrids.

Whether you're looking to capture images of wildlife across great distances, freeze detailed close-ups of a hummingbird in mid-flight, or take professional-looking portraits of your family, there's SLR gear to help. In this article, we'll cover some important equipment basics.

Camera_backpack
The right carrying case will protect your camera and hold all of your gear.

A case or backpack for your camera

A good carrying case can extend the life of your camera by protecting it against bumps, scratches, dust, and weather. It also lets you stow and organize important items — such as your battery charger, cables, memory cards, and lens cleaner — so they'll be handy when you need them. And it provides safe storage when your camera is not in use.

If you're just starting out, you may find that a smaller case is sufficient to keep your stuff together. You can choose from simple padded cases with enough room for a spare battery and memory cards, or something a bit larger that's capable of accommodating an add-on flash and an additional lens or two. For long treks with lots of gear, backpack-style cases make an excellent choice — they help distribute the weight more evenly to provide greater comfort.

Some of the things to look for in a case are:

  • a carrying handle on top (or even a belt loop for smaller bags) for convenient toting

  • a padded, adjustable shoulder strap for comfort

  • adjustable interior compartment dividers that let you arrange and customize the case for your specific gear

  • zippered exterior pocket(s) to keep small, frequently used items handy

  • additional pockets for larger items and owner's manuals

  • enough room to comfortably accommodate your SLR with lens attached

SD_memory_card
CompactFlash_memory_card

SLRs can capture big detailed photos, so be sure to get plenty of memory for storing them.

Memory cards

Like most digital cameras, digital SLRs use removable flash memory cards, such as a CompactFlash™ or Secure Digital® card to store digital photos. Be sure to check your camera's manual to make certain you're buying the proper type.

Most digital SLRs don't come with any memory included, so that means you'll need to buy at least one card to get started. And you'll probably want to have at least a couple of spare high-capacity cards to ensure you don't run out of storage space while you're shooting.

Memory cards vary in how quickly they can record picture information. The measurement of this ability is known as write speed or image transfer rate. Manufacturers use numbers like 500X, 800X and so on with CompactFlash cards to describe this speed. The higher the numbers, or the more megabytes per second, the faster (and frequently the more expensive) the card. SDHC and SDXC memory cards are also rated by speed class, currently Class 2 through Class 10, which indicate their speed of operation.

Why is this important? A card's ability to write images quickly can affect the performance of your camera's continuous or "burst" shooting mode. If you plan on taking a lot of rapid-fire shots in burst mode, you should keep an eye on the cards write speed. Card speed is also important for shooting HD video. For SLRs that use SD memory, most manufacturer's recommend at least a Class 6 SDHC card for filming to avoid glitches or dropped frames in your movies.

How many memory cards do you need?

If you're covering important occasions, like weddings or family reunions, a single ultra high-capacity model (a 32GB for example) lets you avoid having to swap cards during critical moments. This also provides the comfort of knowing that you can keep shooting lots and lots of photos and video without worrying about running out of space. On the other hand, if you're on a vacation trip you may want to spread your photos out over several smaller cards, storing each card in a secure location apart from the camera. That way, if anything happens to your camera or one of your cards, you'll still have the photos on your backup cards.

camera gripVertical battery grips extend shooting time and provide better control of your SLR.

Batteries

All digital SLR cameras come with a proprietary rechargeable battery that's capable of taking hundreds of shots on a single charge. For general all-around shooting close to home, that's probably fine. But if you plan on long days of shooting without time for a recharge or access to electricity, or you're photographing a once-in-a-lifetime event, you'll want at least one extra battery charged and ready to go.

Some SLRs also have compatible "battery grips." These attach to the base of your SLR, and give you a more comfortable handhold when taking vertical shots. As the name implies, they also provide additional power to your cam, either using your cam's proprietary battery or multiple "AA"-size batteries.

Lenses

A big part of what makes SLRs so popular and versatile is the ability to switch lenses. You can swap your camera's lens with a different model to more accurately capture a scene or give your photos a more creative look, depending on what your subject is and your shooting environment. The lenses included with most SLR starter kits make a good basic choice for all-around photography. However, as your experience level grows, you may want to add specialized lenses with long-range telephoto, wide-angle, or close-up capabilities that suit your particular style of shooting.

  • Telephoto lenses let you capture distant action, and are well suited for sports and wildlife photography. Focal lengths for these types of lenses typically range up to 200mm, and some go even higher.

  • Wide-angle lenses are ideal for panoramas, interior shooting, and photographing big groups of people. You'll find wide-angle lenses starting at focal lengths between 10-18mm.

  • Close-up, or macro lenses are designed for capturing brilliantly detailed shots of flowers, insects, and other small objects. Many also work well for taking high-quality portraits. These lenses come in different focal lengths, often ranging from 60-105mm.

Lenses
Close up, far away, or somewhere in between — the right camera lens will let you capture your images exactly as you envision them.

Here are some sample shots to give you an idea of what to expect when using lenses of varying focal lengths with a typical digital SLR. Each image was taken from the exact same position with the camera mounted on a tripod.

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This scene was shot at an ultra-wide
10mm focal length.
 
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Taken from the same position, this image
uses an 18mm focal length, the widest
setting on most kit lenses.
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Here's the scene again using a 50mm
focal length.
 
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At a focal length of 135mm, you can clearly
begin to see the telephoto effect that helps
make your subjects appear closer.
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A focal length of 200mm really lets you
zero in on distant subjects.
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Macro lenses let you take detailed closeups.
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The same lens also captures portraits
with pleasantly blurred backgrounds.

Here are a few things to keep in mind when lens shopping:

Compatibility

Each camera company uses its own proprietary system to connect camera and lens together. You'll need to pay close attention to ensure that the lens you're considering is a match for your camera's lens mount. Also be aware that not all camera/lens combinations allow full functionality. You'll want to check your camera's manual to determine which features, such as autofocus or auto exposure and metering modes, might be affected.

Because SLR imaging sensors are usually smaller than a full frame of film, lenses made for film SLRs may have a different effective focal length when used with a digital SLR. Lens manufacturers usually give a "35mm equivalent" focal length in their specs. This helps 35mm film photographers, and owners of higher-end full-frame digital SLRs, get a better idea of just how wide-angle or telephoto a lens will be when used with their digital SLR. Using the images above as an example, a 10mm lens would list a 35mm equivalent of 15mm, while a 50mm lens would have a 35mm equivalent focal length of 75mm.

Image stabilization

Lots of lenses these days offer built-in optical image stabilization (IS) to counteract the blurring that can result from camera shake. This feature is especially helpful for taking hand-held shots with long telephoto lenses, which tend to magnify the affects of camera shake. Image stabilization also lets you shoot more crisply focused photos in low-light environments with less need for your camera's flash. Of course, if your SLR has image stabilization built in, any lens you use with it will give you the benefits of this feature.

Maximum aperture

A lens's aperture works like the iris of your eye, expanding and contracting to adjust the amount of light that passes through. Aperture is measured in "f-stops." A lower f-stop number corresponds to a larger opening, which admits more light. A lens with a larger maximum aperture of f/2.8, for example, will allow you to take photos in more dimly lit locations without a flash than a lens with a smaller maximum aperture of f/4 or f/5.6.

Lenses with a larger maximum aperture also allow you to snap photos of moving subjects using higher-shutter speeds, freezing the action more effectively. Because they typically employ larger, more costly glass elements, you can expect to pay more for these types of lenses.

To learn more about lenses, read our article on choosing and using a lens.

External flash

Better lighting can make for better digital photos.

Flashes

Experienced photographers know that good lighting is essential to getting the perfect shot. That's why most of them use add-on flashes to take pictures, even if their camera already comes with a flash built in. Most external flashes provide two to three times the effective range of your camera's built-in flash, delivering light over a broader area so that all the subjects in your frame are evenly illuminated. Many also allow you to tilt and swivel the flash head in order to bounce light off of walls and ceilings. This method produces smoother, more diffused lighting that makes for great-looking portraits.

Because of their increased power and speed, most outboard flashes can recycle quickly enough to provide multiple flashes in rapid succession. This capability lets you take better advantage of your camera's continuous shooting mode in situations that require more than just existing light. A few flashes also offer a "stroboscopic" mode that lets you fire a quick series of flashes to capture multiple images of a moving subject in a single photograph. You can use this mode to analyze your partner's golf swing or record the movement of a dancer crossing the stage.

Photo printer

Make sharp colorful prints of your photos, right at home.

Other good stuff you'll want to have

Photo printers — Photo printers come in a variety of shapes and sizes, but they all do one thing: they transform your brilliantly colored digital pictures into high-quality photo prints. Most photo printers are now surprisingly affordable and easy to use, and they can produce results that rival professional photo labs. In fact, most of them make prints that look much better than those you get from the drug store or big box chains. You can read this article to learn more about photo printers.

Backup hard drive — Because you'll likely be taking thousands of photos with your digital SLR, long-term storage and protection of all those images is a very important issue. We recommend using a backup hard drive to store photos from day to day. These devices are very reliable, relatively inexpensive, and most can be set to automatically backup your images on a regular basis. Check out our article on printing and storing digital photos to learn more.

Tripods — With features like image stabilization, lots of SLR owners are finding less and less need for these once ubiquitous items. However, certain types of photography — such as high-powered telephoto shooting, nighttime cityscapes or creative, slow-shutter effects — still benefit greatly from the use of a tripod. Plus, they come in really handy when using your camera's self timer to get into the picture for group portraits.

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