While compiling my list of Best Tools For Photographers That Are Actually Useful, I thought a lot about other similar lists I’ve seen. A lot of “best of” lists or buying guides tend to focus on the most recent fads and knick knacks (which describes most of the ill-conceived projects on Kickstarter), rather than stuff that working, everyday photographers find genuinely useful.
This guide focuses on small things and photographic accessories — you won’t find major pieces of equipment like cameras, lenses, or lights. The Best Tools For Photographers That Are Actually Useful is divided into three sections:
This buying guide focuses on tools and gadgets that are exceptionally useful for DSLR and mirrorless photographers — not mobile photographers. Mobile photography will be covered in a separate guide.
HOT SHOE BUBBLE LEVEL
Nothing bothers me more than seeing photos with crooked horizons. Many tripods now include a bubble level built in to help keep things straight. However, just because your tripod legs are level doesn’t mean your tripod head is, nor your camera. Some cameras, too, have an on-screen levelling tool but it’s not always practical to use and eats up battery power while engaged. The solution is to snag a hot shoe bubble level. Just insert it into your camera’s hot shoe and you’ll be able to instantly ensure everything is straight and level.
NOTE: Just because it goes in the hot shoe doesn’t mean the level is “hot”. It has no electronics and doesn’t communicate with the camera in any way. It’s strictly analog and considered to be a “cold” device despite using the “hot” shoe.
There are two different types of levels — 3-axis models and simpler traditional varieties. Use whichever one will be more useful for your type of photography.
RECOMMENDED MODELS [AMAZON AFFILIATE LINKS]:
- Neewer Three Axis Hot Shoe Bubble Level
- Polaroid Three Axis Hot Shoe Bubble Level
- Optix Pro Hot Shoe Bubble Level or get it in a 2-pack or a 12-pack (!!)
- Note that some cameras like Sony use a proprietary shoe design so you’ll need a slightly different bubble level like this one
Have you ever been prepping for photos or right in the middle of it and something small and silly completely grinds you to a halt? Say, the wrong tripod plate is stuck on the bottom of the camera, or the foot on your flash is loose, or one tripod leg seems to keep collapsing on its own. All of this and more can be fixed by having a multi tool in your bag.
Basic multi tools typically contain standard size hex keys (Allen wrenches) and screwdriver bits for the most common types of repairs like tightening up a loose screw or a flimsy tripod leg. They’re compact and fit in any camera bag or pocket. I never leave for a shoot without one in my bag.
More advanced tools like the Gerber Steady Tripod actually have a mini tripod (!) and cell phone mount (!!) built in, as well as cutting tools.
The Really Right Stuff MTX Multi-Tool is another solid option in addition to the ones listed below.
RECOMMENDED MODELS [AMAZON AFFILIATE LINKS]:
- Topeak Mini 9-Function Bicycle Tool (not just for bikes!)
- Novoflex 8-Function Multitool
- Gerber Steady Tripod Multitool
Speaking of things going terribly wrong, every photographer has had a filter stuck on the end of their lens at least once. With filters for wide angle lenses being made with an exceptionally thin profile, it can be near impossible to grip them with your fingers to remove them. Likewise, if you’ve ever had an accident where a filter gets dented or broken, it can be seemingly permanently wedged on to your lens forever. Enter the Neewer Filter Wrench.
Available in four different sizes, it’s basically the same as a common jar opener you’d find in a kitchen, but meant specifically for grabbing stuck filters and wrenching them off your lens easily without doing any damage. They’re rubber coated for a good grip and you can even use two at once to get two stuck filters apart from each other.
RECOMMENDED MODELS [AMAZON AFFILIATE LINKS]:
- Neewer Filter Remover Wrench Set (77-82mm)
- Neewer Filter Remover Wrench Set (67-72mm)
- Neewer Filter Remover Wrench Set (58-62mm)
- Neewer Filter Remover Wrench Set (49-55mm)
MANFROTTO SUPER CLAMP
So when thinking about useful photography tools, the Manfrotto Super Clamp might be the most useful one of all. Basically, it holds anything and clamps it to anything. What do I mean by anything? Anything! It can hold cameras, lights, umbrellas, hooks, shelves, plate glass, cross bars, and even other Super Clamps! It can clamp them to any flat or round surface, like a table or a light stand, as well as poles, posts, tripod legs, pipes, doors, stands, and beams. It’s legit the handiest thing ever in a studio environment. You need one.
Okay, you might be wondering why something as basic as gaffer tape is on this list. It’s not particularly unique or mind-blowing or brimming with the latest technology. But remember, this list is the best tools for photographers that are actually useful. And oh boy is gaffer tape ever useful.
- Tape down cords to prevent trips and falls
- Use it to stick a flash to just about any surface if you don’t have a light stand (a tree, a pole, anything)
- Black out the brand name of your equipment to deter theft
- Make minor repairs to loose or broken pieces of gear
- Mark places on the ground for stands, models, or anything else
- Fix gaps or holes in your light modifiers that are bleeding light
- Write on it to label your gear
…and so much more. The sky’s the limit. Don’t want to carry a giant roll of tape around with you everywhere you go? Wrap a few lengths of tape around the barrel of a pen instead, and tuck that into your camera bag. Shop for gaffer tape on Amazon.
HOLSTER / HAND STRAP
Finding effective ways to carry a camera (other than with the included neck strap) is something many photographers struggle with. For me, the combination of a Spider Pro Holster and Spider Pro Hand Strap have proven their usefulness over the last few years. Whether it’s a wedding or a location shoot, carrying my camera on my hip means it’s always available at a moment’s notice, and also alleviates the strain on my arm, back, and shoulders during downtime. They’re both built rock solid. It’s worth noting that the waist holster works better for female photographers than male photographers, owing to larger hips on women that help hold up the belt and camera.
Gaining popularity in recent years are over-the-shoulder multi-camera leather holster straps (that’s a mouthful) from manufacturers like Holdfast and RL Handcrafts. Many pro photographers swear by these and claim they’re the most useful and comfortable way to carry multiple cameras. I haven’t tried them yet but they’re definitely next on my list. I particularly like the RL Handcrafts Clydesdale Pro-DLX in a Black/Red colourway.
Although it’s intended for bicycles, this handy little gadget will connect to a tripod leg just fine and allow you to carry a small flashlight on it. Great for night shooting, and better than cramming the flashlight into your already full pockets or having to rummage through your camera bag. Best of all, it’s dirt cheap.
What’s a Platypod? It’s like a tripod but not. Platypod is a sturdy (holds up to 300 lbs.), flat piece of aluminum that acts like a tripod — you can mount a head on it, but there are no legs. It’s ideal for low angle shots, or anywhere a traditional tripod might not have enough space to be set up. It can be attached to cylindrical objects too, or mounted on top of ladders for high angle shots. Ever tried using an actual tripod on a ladder? Yeah. Good luck. Platypod is way, way handier than you might think at first glance. Highly recommended by myself and Amazon reviewers alike — it’s got 4.8 out of 5 stars!
CARBON FIBRE TRAVEL TRIPOD
When traveling, your number one concern should be packing light. When it comes to traveling with a tripod, carbon fibre is where it’s at. My picks for the best travel tripods are the AmazonBasics Carbon Fibre Travel Tripod if you’re on a budget, and the Mefoto C1350Q1T Roadtrip as an upgrade pick.
First, the AmazonBasics — it’s amazing to me how small and light tripods can be, and this is the prime example. All the more amazing that it’s an Amazon-branded product at an insanely reasonable price. Rumour has it that the AmazonBasics Carbon Fibre Travel Tripod is a rebadged tripod from a higher-end manufacturer, and the evidence is pretty clear. It’s sturdy, well-built, inexpensive as hell (Prime members save 20%), and everything you could ever want in a budget-friendly travel tripod. One drawback is that the tripod plate appears to be very nearly but not quite compatible with standard Arca Swiss plates, with no option to buy extras or replacements. You might be wise to replace the ball head with something like a Sirui K-10X, which costs more than the tripod, but it’s the best money you’ll ever spend on a small head.
Want something a little bigger and sturdier (at a price)? The Mefoto C1350Q1T Roadtrip is the next level up. It extends 10” taller than the AmazonBasics model and can support twice the weight, though at 3x to 4x the price, depending on whatever deals are currently available.
Another good alternative: MeFoto Backpacker Air Tripod & Selfie Stick.
CABLE & ACCESSORIES CASE
This is one of those things you never knew you needed until you do. Cables, batteries, chargers, dongles, and other electronic knick-knacks are tough to keep organized in any meaningful way while traveling. Enter the Skooba Cable Stable DLX, with its loops, pockets, and zippers to keep everything nicely organized and available when you need it. The Wirecutter highly recommends it and so do I.
A slightly less expensive, less versatile option is the AmazonBasics Universal Travel Case — cheap and gets the job done, but not as fancy as the Skooba.
VAGABOND LITHIUM BATTERY
So you know those USB power packs that are so popular? Brands like Anker rely heavily on sales of these devices to consumers who have charging/battery anxiety about their electronics. Well the Paul C. Buff Vagabond Lithium portable power system is a USB power pack on steroids. The Vagabond’s main purpose is to power Paul C. Buff strobe lights like the economical Alien Bees and Einstein series of lights. But it’s also great for charging and powering all your electronic devices, thanks to its two standard three-prong power outlets and one USB port. Be warned, it’s big and heavy, so this isn’t the device for you if you’re traveling light. But for more intense travel sessions where you may have limited access to power for long periods, it’s a miracle.
The Vagabond battery is what allows me to capture great beach shots like this at sunrise when there are no power outlets available.
Quite honestly, I’ve used this more often in recent months as backup power during power outages than I have for powering lights at photo shoots. It easily charges multiple devices and runs my laptop for many hours with no problems. It’s a great tool to have in the closet for emergencies, never mind photo shoots, and heavy traveling.
NOISE CANCELLING BLUETOOTH HEADPHONES
I can’t say enough about how beneficial it is to be able to edit and retouch photos in peace, without any distractions. If you have kids, pets, noisy neighbours, or you just want to shut out the world, then an excellent pair of wireless noise cancelling headphones are what you need. The best tools for photographers that are actually useful are ones that will allow you to work better — in peace and quiet, and without wires getting in the way.
- Bose QC35 II — Bose has been the gold standard for noise reduction products for some time now, and their latest QC35 II headphones push the standard even higher. They’re comfortable, block out noise, offer great sound quality, they have a solid Bluetooth connection that never drops, and firmware upgrades come often to add new features and fix bugs. I use them all the time. Plus, you can find good deals on the previous Series I model which is nearly identical.
- Sony MDR-1000X — Sony’s been quietly improving their efforts with noise canceling products, and the MDR-1000X is a worthy competitor to Bose’s throne.
LOGITECH MX MASTER MOUSE
There’s mouse people and there’s tablet people. I’m a mouse person. And I really truly don’t understand anyone who can use a stock Apple mouse for any longer than a few minutes. To me, they’re uncomfortable, imprecise, and lacking in customizability. Whether you’re a macOS or Windows person, the Logitech MX Master is the holy grail of comfortable, customizable mice that just work. I’ve previously used the Performance MX for many years now and I likely would have gone mad without it.
USB 3.0 HARD DRIVE ADAPTER
If you’re anything like me and other photographers, you’ve probably got dozens of spare OEM hard drives lying around your office from previous upgrade cycles. Often I find myself needing to inspect the contents of the drives or try to rescue failed drives, but I don’t want to go through the pain in the ass of mounting them in an enclosure. That’s why these hard drive adapters are so handy — there’s no enclosure needed. Just attach the adapter to the hard drive and suddenly you have a standard USB3 storage device that can be quickly accessed, inspected, or formatted on any computer. Genius.
RECOMMENDED MODELS [AMAZON AFFILIATE LINKS]:
- Anker USB 3.0 to SATA Adapter
- StarTech USB 3.0 to SATA Adapter
- Inateck USB 3.0 to SATA Powered Adapter
HARDWARE LIGHTROOM CONTROLLERS
As mentioned above, I’m a “mouse person”, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate other forms of computer input. Having tactile feedback in the form of physical knobs, buttons, and sliders will speed up anyone’s Lightroom workflow more than you think. I’ve been using the crazy-customizable Palette system (they’re fellow Canadians!) for a while to make and reject picks, and dial in quick Lightroom adjustments. Plus, Palette is nicely designed and pretty to look at on your desk!
Alternatively, did you know you can use some standard MIDI controllers with Lightroom? Combined with software like MIDI 2 Lightroom, every conceivable Lightroom option can be at your fingertips at once. Go with Lightroom-specific devices like Loupedeck or generic MIDI options like the Behringer X-Touch Mini or the Numark Orbit.
Best Tools For Photographers That Are Actually Useful: What Do You Love?
Which photography tools are your favourite? What did I miss? What should be avoided at all costs? Let me know below in the comments!