The Best (Non-Photographic) Tools For Photographers

Get a group of shooters together, and talk will soon turn to the various accessories inside our camera bags. Because we all like to take better photos with less effort, we spend a lot of time discussing the accessories we use to improve our photography. I’ve spent countless hours debating the best flash trigger or circular polarizer, and I’ve hunted endlessly for the perfect camera strap.

What often gets overlooked in these conversations about gadgets and gizmos are the various products that improve our workflow but don’t necessarily attach to a camera or a lens. There’s little talk about the best WiFi hotspot or the perfect portable surge suppressor. As a working photographer—and one who spends a lot of time on the road—I often find these non-photographic- (or semi-photographic-) related products to be the most important because they save me time and solve problems, whether I’m shooting or not.

The following list includes some of my favorite tools for the photographer. Many of them are designed for the business traveler, but all come in handy at some point in the life of a busy working pro.

Autonomous SmartDesk 2
Twelve South Stands

Office Space

The modern desk and chair are killers (really, sitting in a chair keeps getting linked to all kinds of health problems), but most of the solutions to this are very expensive or annoying. The folks from newcomer Autonomous (autonomous.ai) aim to change that by providing affordable and easy to adjust products. The home edition of the SmartDesk 2 starts at $349, and the office edition starts at $449. Both provide powered control of height and the ability to hold several hundred pounds. The company also offers bicycle pedal chairs and wobbly stools, for extra exercise during the day.

You could also pick up an under-desk treadmill for around $1,000 from LifeSpan, or an under-desk elliptical or star climber for around $150. I use a stair climber to exercise during long conference calls.

To hold a laptop and phone you need stands, and few stands are as stable and attractive as those from TwelveSouth (twelvesouth.com). Its $50 laptop stand doesn’t let the laptop slip, and the HiRise 2 phone stand is heavy enough not to tip over and places the phone at a perfect angle to queue up music or make video calls.

Amazon Echo

Offices and studios are perfect places to take advantage of the stream of home automation now that Apple’s HomeKit, Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Home are gaining popularity. Connect lights, sensors, outlet locks, thermostats, cameras and more to one centrally managed system. Many great products abound, and they all can talk together now over the major automation platforms. Even IKEA is getting into the act with affordable LED bulbs for home automation setups. Program your home or office to turn down the temperature, turn off the lights and lock all the doors when you leave, and you’ll save on electric bills and not worry if you left your camera gear open to burglars.

To start your day, you could go with one of those environmentally unfriendly K-Cup coffee pots, but why not have a great cup of coffee. Pair the OXO On grinder with built-in dosing scale and the Moccamaster coffee brewer—one of the few home coffee makers suggested by the Specialty Coffee Association.

Epson FastFoto FF-640

While you’re drinking that great coffee, why not scan those piles of old photographic prints you have in a storeroom using the Epson FastFoto FF-640. This batch-fed scanner takes prints up to 8.5 by 120 inches and scans them at up to 60ppm to turn your old photo archives into new digital collections.

Power

Spend a lot of time on conference calls? Get a cordless headset like the Jabra Cordless Headset, which comes in different configurations for different VoIP or standard telephone systems.

If you have a lot of mobile devices to charge, especially if you spend a lot of time on the road or in a hotel room, a multi-port USB charger with high-amp outlets can be a life-saver. Anker makes a variety of great USB chargers with multiple powered 2.4A connectors and even a model with a USB-C port capable of providing 30W of power to a MacBook or similar compact notebook. Pair this with a two-outlet 2.4A charger from companies like Aukey, and you’re able to power phones or tablets anywhere in the world.

Belkin Mini Surge Protector
Goal Zero Yeti 1250

The Belkin Mini Surge Protector with USB charger provides three outlets protected from spikes and surges, plus two 1A or 2.1 amp USB outlets, depending on the model, which will keep problematic AC power from trashing expensive electronic circuits.

To keep running if power fails or when you’re shooting away from AC power, I like the rugged gear from Goal Zero (goalzero.com). From small solar recharging kits to larger systems with integrated batteries and USB ports, its gear can keep you running, instead of running on fumes. Its Yeti line of portable power stations range from the Yeti 150 Portable Power Station ($184 for 150Wh) to the Yeti 1250 ($1,500 for 1200Wh) and provides DC and AC power, plus USB ports.

To keep smartphones running, the most reliable name is Mophie, and its battery packs are available for any phone on the market. Its newer Charge Force wireless charging standard allows for phones to charge while just sitting on the company’s charge pad.

If you’re looking for long-lasting AA and AAA batteries for your electronic gear, Energizer Lithium batteries are hard to beat and now are available at just about any pharmacy.

I’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the benefits of a good quality battery backup system. There are tons to choose from, but the key is to buy a model that’s rated high enough to power all of your connected gear. Many people forget about the power requirements of monitors, and that juice can quickly suck the life out of a UPS system. I like to run one UPS for my computer, one for my drives and one for my display.

BlueLounge CableClips

Cables And Organization

To hold your cables, which probably cover your desk, a great solution is CableClips. I like the ones from BlueLounge, as they come in different sizes for different types of cables, and the company also makes earbud holders that wind cables (so they don’t tangle), cable ties, stands for tablets and more. For iMac users, they make an adapter called the Jimi that extends the rearward-facing USB ports on the back of the computer so you can connect something to the front of it.

To edit videos, I have a pair of reference headphones (Sony’s MDR7506), which always just lay around my desk when not in use. Now, I use The Anchor, an under-desk headphone holder that attaches by tape to your desk, and holds up to two sets of headphones out of the way but in arm’s reach.

As someone who used to work in IT departments, I can tell you the spilled cup of coffee is one of biggest causes of destroyed electronics and computers in an office.  That’s why a clip-on cup holder is such a great idea. There are dozens of versions on sites like Amazon, for around $10.

For laptop users on systems with USB-C, don’t forget to stock up on dongles and adapters. You’ll want converters from USB-C to USB 3.1, Ethernet, HDMI and Thunderbolt 2 so you’re ready to connect with any system you encounter, no matter where you go.

 

Grid-It Organization System

Travel

If you need power for your tablet or phone in the car, pick up a two-port charger for the lighter jack that has two high-power 2.4A outlets. The one in my car is from Aukey and costs less than $10. The company also makes a 110-volt 150W inverter that fits in a cup holder.

If you want to protect your suitcase and airplane carry-on bags from intrusion but don’t want to have your lock cut off by an overzealous baggage screener, pick up a TSA-approved combination lock, which has a TSA-style key lock on the bottom. Models range from $6 and up.

To keep a bag of cables from ending up as a big tangled mess, go with the Grid-It organization system. A flat board with various sized elastic straps, it allows you to take anything with you and have it always at your fingertips.

Anyone who has spent any time in a crowded plane knows the value of a good set of noise-canceling headphones, but the Beats Studio 3 headphones use Adaptive Noise Canceling to block out sounds from noisy offices or other work environments as well. They run up to 22 hours on a single charge, and a 10-minute charge results in three hours of playback time.

OWC USB-C Hub

Accessories

If you’d like to get a wireless keyboard but are sick of having to recharge it (because what’s the point of a wireless keyboard that needs to be plugged in), the Logitech Wireless Solar Keyboard is a great, and cheaper, alterative to many other wireless keyboards. The Mac version even has a row of keys designed for Mac-based functions like volume, Mission Control and more.

If you spend any time doing web conferencing, the Logitech 4K Pro Webcam is a great choice and costs around $200. I’ve used the mic in the webcam to do voiceovers for videos I’m recording and have shot some B-roll footage of camera gear around the office for projects I’m working on.

Many photographers already know the benefit of a drawing tablet, but if you’re one of those who hasn’t tried to retouch using a pen instead of a mouse, it’s time to give a tablet a try. Wacom is the defacto standard in tablets, and it has models in sizes ranging from ultra-portable to ultra-wide, perfect for whatever you’re working on.

If you’re working on a laptop that has USB-C connections, one of the best features is that the new USB peripheral standard can provide power to your laptop and displays while also offering blazingly fast speeds. A USB-C hub from OWC (owcdigital.com), Kensington and Cal Digit allow you to connect to all of your devices and accessories with one single cable.

Tenba Roadie Roller

Security

If you’d like to keep your sensitive information out of the view of coworkers in your office or your seatmate on a plane, the best tool you can get is a 3M privacy screen. These cling-adhesive sheets go over a display and prevent the monitor from being viewed from angles other than directly in front of the display. These screens do make it harder to edit photos, due to the changes in color and tone, but they also make it harder for the person in the cubicle behind you to see your fantasy football picks.

To protect your checked luggage and computer bags from invasion, a TSA-approved lock will do the trick. These small combination locks have a keyhole for a special TSA key, which allows the baggage handlers to open the bags to inspect them as needed without cutting off the lock. Some camera bags, like the Tenba Roadie Roller, even have these locks built in.

Travel Services

While not in the category of “gadgets,” some must-have services exist for the frequent traveler. TSA Pre, which gives members access to expedited security screenings at U.S. airports without needing to unpack bags or remove shoes, is one of the best travel shortcuts ever. But most people don’t know that Global Entry, the program that expedites clearance through U.S. Customs, provides a known-traveler-number, just as TSA Pre does, so getting Global Entry gives you more services for the same money.

Mobile Passport

Many U.S. airports are now accepting passports stored electronically on an app called Mobile Passport (mobilepassport.us). A few of the airports have dedicated lanes for Mobile Passport users, and while it’s not as handy as Global Entry, it’s a free app and can help on entry to the country where there’s no Global Entry line.

Finally, if you use a credit card (and you should be using one that earns you mileage if you travel at all), the app Sift will help you figure out all the hidden benefits made available by the cards you use while tracking your spending.

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