While having an unlimited photography budget would be nice, there are quite a few essential camera accessories that will make a dramatic impact on images without a dramatic impact on the wallet.
Here are 11 accessories under $250 that make a big enough difference in your photos to justify the cost.
A landscape photographer’s favourite accessory isn’t going to be the same as a food photographer’s favourite accessory, so along with each item, I’ve noted what type of photography it’s best for.
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50mm Prime Lens
Perhaps the most essential DSLR accessories are camera lenses themselves. My favourite lens is ironically the cheapest in my bag: a 50mm f/1.8.
Why is this cheap lens so great? The wide, f/1.8 aperture creates beautiful soft backgrounds and amazing bokeh, plus it’s also a great tool for shooting in low light.
If you are still shooting with a kit lens, hands down, an f/1.8 lens is going to make a big difference in your photography, unless of course you shoot only landscapes with narrow apertures anyways. Prime lenses don’t have zoom, which limits the flexibility, but also makes them affordable.
Why the 50mm focal length? It’s a great length for photographing people. For most cameras, you can pick up a name brand 50mm f/1.8 for less than $250, with Canon’s as low as $125.
Best for: Shooting with a soft background
We recommend: Canon 50mm f/1.8
If you don’t have the budget for a flash, a reflector still offers quite a bit of flexibility for under $50. Reflectors don’t add new light to the scene, but they bounce light that’s already there back onto the subject.
Reflectors are great for filling in odd shadows on portrait work or really anything that’s not moving quickly (since they do take a bit longer to use). Try using a reflector held parallel to the ground at waist level for a more flattering headshot, or place it parallel to a window for a food or product shot.
Larger reflectors will create a soft light, but they’re also harder to handle, so you won’t want to wrangle anything more than 36″ by yourself.
Best for: Taking portraits, product shots, food photos or any still life with greater lighting control
We recommend: Neewer 43 Inch Hand Held
Filters used to be essential camera accessories to carry around, but now there are quite a few filters that are now obsolete because they can be added digitally. However, a polarizer isn’t one of them.
I initially picked up a polarizing filter to enhance or reduce reflections in my images, and it does a great job at that. But the way that circular polarizing filters (CPLs) control reflected light makes them valuable for more than just one application.
Since the blue in the sky is created by reflected light, CPLs will actually allow you to control the intensity of that blue.
Take a look at the image above. The photo on the right was taken using a polarizing filter; the photo on the left was not. See how much more pronounced that blue is?
By far, CPLs are my favourite filters to use. Just be careful not to use them with a wide angle lens, or the effect won’t be uniform across the sky.
Also, remember to take them off when you head indoors, since they actually block quite a bit of light.
Best for: Landscapes (and pretty much any kind of photo outdoors during the day)
We recommend: Altura Photo CPL Polarizer Glass Filter
Using a neutral density (ND) filter is like giving your camera a pair of shades. ND filters allow you to limit the amount of light coming into your camera.
The biggest reason to pick up a set of neutral density filters is to create long exposures during the day.
If you want to shoot a waterfall and blur the water, you’ll need a good ND, or your slow shutter speeds will overexpose the image.
ND filters are also helpful camera accessories to have when using a wide aperture to blur out the background when shooting in bright light. This again helps you avoid overexposure while giving you greater control over your exposure settings.
Best for: Long exposure photography
We recommend: Altura Neutral Density Filters
Graduated ND Filter
A graduated ND filter, on the other hand, will only darken a portion of the image. Graduated NDs allow you to shoot without overexposing the sky, which means you can keep the details in those puffy white clouds while still getting a good exposure on the subject.
Graduated NDs allow you to photograph a wider range of light, without the over-processed colours that you sometimes get from HDR.
Grads are best used when the horizon is even though, so shooting a mountain landscape, HDR will be the better option.
Best for: Landscape photography
We recommend: Tiffen Graduated ND Filters
Ok, so a camera bag isn’t going to help you take better pictures. But, it could help you take more pictures. When you are on a hike and your back and shoulders are aching, you’re not going to go another mile, you’re going to turn around and go back to your car.
Never underestimate the power of shooting comfortably, it could mean the difference to hiking out to where you find your favourite picture waiting. The last camera backpack I bought has a waist strap, and that makes a big difference in comfort when you’re carrying a lot of gear by distributing the weight on your hips, not your back.
Best for: Everyone, but the more gear you have, the more important it is to find a comfortable way to carry it all
I don’t use my tripod very often, but when I do, I could not have gotten that shot without it. Tripods are essential camera accessories to have in your kit if you’re using slow shutter speeds for long exposures or simply for shooting in limited light.
I use mine for shooting waterfalls, fireworks and night scenes and I just got some great shots of my son playing with sparklers. Tripods don’t have to be pricey, but avoid the $20 special that’s going to tip and break your gear.
Best for: Landscapes, long exposure and low light
We recommend: Dolica AX620B100 62-Inch Proline Tripod and Ball Head
Wireless Flash Receiver
Granted, a wireless flash receiver won’t do you much good without a hot shoe flash already in your bag, but if you happen to have one (or the budget for one), adding wireless capability dramatically increases the ways you can use that flash.
Even if you shoot only on-scene, a wireless transceiver will allow you to mimic the effects of studio lights.
While bigger brands will cost you several hundred, I picked up a set for less than $100. It may not be as fancy, but it does the trick. Even using wireless flash with a small stand, the set still makes for fairly portable lighting solution.
Best for: Advanced photographers
We recommend: Vello FreeWave Wireless Flash Trigger LR and Receiver
Most new photographers don’t use flash much because, well, it ruins photos — or at least they think it does.
Simply popping up your flash is going to give you that “flash look” with harsh shadows, but if you use a diffuser along with manual flash modes, you can take flash photos without that “flash look.”
There are many different types of diffusers out there, but some of them don’t work any better than putting your flash inside of a milk jug. My favorite diffuser is a softbox that fits over my hot shoe flash. It’s a bit weird since it’s rather large, but it creates some nice soft light.
Best for: Any type of flash photography
We recommend: Fotga Series Professional Portable Softbox
Photo Editing Software
Getting great photos is only part of the equation (though arguably the largest part). The camera doesn’t capture things exactly as we see them, sometimes there’s less contrast in the image or the sky isn’t as dark or the colour is a bit off.
Editing is often that last step between your photo and the image you were imaging you’d capture. Just like when choosing a camera, there’s a number of different options when it comes to editing software.
Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom are arguably the most popular (and the programs I use) and cost $10 a month, but there are several solid programs at different price points.
Best for: Beginners, enthusiasts and professional photographers
We recommend: Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom
External Hard Drive
Digital photographers don’t have to pay for film, but they do need to find storage solutions for all their files. If you take a lot of photos with a high resolution camera, your hard drive will fill up pretty quick. An external hard drive is an affordable way to store lots of images.
Shoot a little longer without worrying where you’re going to put all your photos, or keep all your RAW files. With a large external hard drive, you won’t have to worry about running out of space any time soon. A portable 1 terabyte drive will only set you back around $50, while larger-capacity desktop models (5 TB or higher) still come in well under $200.
Best for: Avid photographers
We recommend: WD 1TB Black My Passport Portable External Hard Drive
Camera accessories won’t make you a better photographer, but the right tools mixed with the right know-how and a bit of inspiration can improve your images. And you don’t have to spend hundreds on your essential camera accessories. While options like prime lenses will cost a little bit more, filters, reflectors and softboxes are affordable ways to expand your gear while giving you valuable versatility in your image making.
[We hope this article helped you in building up your photography kit! For even more recommended DSLR accessories, check out our article here. —Ed.]