Power cords and batteries don't do a thing to help your pictures look better, but they allow you to keep shooting anywhere there's electricity. The next group of essential photographic items, however, will help you take better pictures. With few exceptions, these things should find their way into almost any camera travel bag, regardless of a trip's duration.
Tripods: A tripod is indispensable. Skip the electronics store for your travel tripod (where poor construction and shoddy craftsmanship prevail) and head to a professional photographic store. The perfect home tripod can be heavy and bulky, but for traveling you'll want to look for something compact yet solid enough to stabilize your shots.
Tripods from electronics stores are made from cheap metals and plastics, while high-quality tripods are made of materials like magnesium, carbon fiber, and aluminum. Play around with tripods to see what you like. Look for one that folds into a compact, lightweight size, but still unfolds quickly, and is solid enough to prevent toppling in wind or on an uneven surface.
Flashes: Your camera might come with a built-in strobe, and while in-camera flash units are better than nothing, your best bet is to pick up an accessory strobe from your camera manufacturer. These units slide into the metal bracket, known as a "hot shoe," on the top of your SLR and communicate directly with your camera to properly expose your image in a wider range of lighting situations.
Manuals: Even though you've read all your manuals, bring them with you. Travel photography is the perfect opportunity to try out new things, and it's the time you're most likely to forget which button on your camera gives you a depth-of-field preview.
Filters: By simply putting a piece of glass in front of your lens you can drastically change what your camera sees (Figures 2.42.6). Some people swear by special-effects filters designed to produce starbursts or rainbows. Forget about filters that make your subjects look like they are in an '80s music video and stick to a few key filters.
Figure 2.4. Two filters were used to create this photo: a graduated neutral density to darken the bright sunset sky, and a graduated yellow to add more color to it.
Figure 2.5a. This picture was made without any filtration.
Figure 2.5b. This image was shot with a circular polarizer on the front of the lens, darkening the sky and making the yellow shoots of foliage more visible.
Figure 2.6. A variety of filters can expand your ability to work in unusual lighting conditions, as well as let you be more creative. At left is a circular polarizer, while in the center and at right are graduated filters. (Photo by Reed Hoffmann)
The glass on the front of your lens can get scratched easily, so pros put a high-quality screw-on filter in front of that surface and leave it there, both for protection and to eliminate distortions caused by some lighting conditions. The two most commonly used choices are called UV filter and Skylight. Both block stray light rays that our eyes can't detect but that detract from picture quality.
Another often-used filter is a circular polarizer, which helps improve the photograph when shooting scenes in very high-contrast areas with a lot of sky (like a desert). Polarized glass is used in good-quality sunglass lenses and can make the colors in a dull, washed out landscape seem more rich and vibrant.
Finally, there's a neutral-density (ND) filter, a high-quality piece of glass that's tinted (also like sunglasses) so that you can shoot at a low ISO even in bright light. This filter is more important when using a lens that has a maximum aperture around f/1.4-f/2.8. Those lenses let in a lot of light, so it's not always possible to take a photo in very bright light without overexposing your image. Placing a ND filter over the lens doesn't change the balance of any colors, but it blocks some of the incoming light. Without an ND filter, you also won't be able to take a slow exposure shot (to make a waterfall look blurry for example) in bright daylight.
In the last chapter I discussed lenses, and how a cheap lens can ruin an image and how important it is to look for good construction and optical quality. The same is true with filters because they alter the light that strikes your digital sensor. Companies like Tiffen, Hoya, Conkin, and B+W have been making excellent filters for decades.
Tools: There are a few tools that can help you fix problems and keep your gear working. Pack a multitool (like a Leatherman) and a small flashlight. I'm a big fan of Mini MagLites though lots of photographers I know prefer campingstyle headlamps (Figure 2.7). And nothing saves the day like a small roll of duct tape, or even a nice long strip of it wrapped around the handle of your small flashlight or the leg of your tripod (or both).
Figure 2.7. Having a flashlight handy, or even better, a headlamp, will allow you to see what you're doing where there's no power. (Photo by Reed Hoffmann)
Remember to pack tools in your checked luggage, not in your carryon bags, or else the nice people at TSA will confiscate them.