Written by John Kennerdell
Some years back I mentioned to Oren that I was buying a car.
"Ah," he said, "the ultimate photographic accessory."
It's an appealing image, cruising the highway like Robert Frank or Lee Friedlander, skidding to a halt at every photo op and then jumping out with cameras blazing. It just doesn't work for me. Once behind the wheel, I seem to fixate on driving, not shooting. Seriously, I can’t even do it on a bicycle. Walking pace seems to be the fastest I can move and still see and take decent photos.
So what is my essential accessory? Camera bags, then? Like everyone else I own dozens. Some even get used, mainly to transport gear. But I've never enjoyed working out of a bag and have come to avoid the kind of photography that demands it (which is generally, and unfortunately, the paying kind). One small body with lens in the hand, some extra batteries and memory cards in a pocket—now there's photographic paradise.
How about a good pair of shoes? That was the top tip when somebody recently asked the members of Magnum. Hard to argue with that, though to my mind proper shoes transcend photography. They're just a really good idea for any activity.
No, I think I have my answer, though it might not resonate with you unless you live somewhere like Glasgow or Seattle or Southeast Asia. For me, the key companion to a camera is...an umbrella.
Yes, I belong to that tribe of photographers who like to go looking for good light as near as possible to bad weather. (Make no mistake, there are plenty of us. As Carl Weese put it once here: "We've had terrible weather all week—clear bright sunlight, blue skies, puffy white clouds.") My perfect day is roiling dark clouds and strange shifting light, with little or no actual sun. While such days almost always bring some rain, it's seldom constant or heavy enough to tempt me into rainwear. It's sufficiently hot and humid here in the tropics without encasing yourself in plastic. And raincoats of course don't do much to protect your camera or, no matter how weatherproof it might be, keep water off its lens.
But the humble umbrella gets it just right: a marvel of lightweight construction perfectly designed to keep both your upper body and camera dry, even if doesn't do such a good job for the rest of you. I admit it, I am a man of slightly soggy trousers.
For all the umbrella's usefulness when deployed, it does even more when at rest. A neatly furled umbrella projects style, confidence, and quiet authority. Or perhaps it's just that it makes its owner look a bit quaint and harmless. All I know is that people seem to relax a little when I carry my umbrella. Maybe they think I'm a lost Englishman and feel sorry for me.
An umbrella can provide support, quite literally. These days I shoot mostly from the waist. Plant an umbrella firmly into the ground and that's exactly the level of the top of the handle. It's probably not as steady as a real monopod but sometimes it's just the ticket, never mind the entertainment value this technique might have for your subjects. Some photographers have actually attached camera mounts to their umbrella handles, though that may be taking it too far. Our role model here is the Parisian flaneur, not MacGyver.
Then, even for the most peace-loving among us, there is the umbrella as weapon. My fine English "solid stick" model has proven an effective deterrent to aggressive dogs, thieving monkeys, and, once, an angry goose rapidly inbound toward a delicate part of my body. Do not underestimate the territorial instincts of large domestic fowl, nor the self-defense value of a stout umbrella*.
We also shouldn't forget the more conventional uses of the umbrella in photography. I have one covered in bleached linen, bought in Tokyo, which functions nicely as either impromptu reflector or scrim. More than once I've shot a flash through it too, easy enough to do even with one hand. And yes, you can buy silvery rain umbrellas which I suppose could be rigged up as flash reflectors, though again that may be going a little over the top. A certain dignity is expected of a man with an umbrella, and fussing with bungee cords is no way to achieve it.
And finally, when we get old and creaky, a prospect that no longer feels entirely theoretical to me, an umbrella can of course double as a walking stick. Well, at least until it starts to rain.
So there it is, my unlikely but essential photo accessory. What's yours?
*The Japanese even have a martial art based around it: kasa-do ("the way of the umbrella"). If that's not enough for you, there are also umbrellas with knives or even swords hidden in the handle, though I certainly do not condone those. Should you insist on a concealed feature, I suggest the splendid Malacca Cane Flask Umbrella by Brigg, preferably filled with a tot of Talisker 18 Year Old.
John Kennerdell is a writer and photographer based in Southeast Asia. He tries to keep it mostly real at indochina-photoelectric.com, and maybe a little less so at 500px.com/indochinaphotoelectric. You can see more of his writings for TOP under his Category in the right-hand sidebar.
©2013 by John Kennerdell, all rights reserved
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Featured Comments from:
Benjamin Marks: "Ah. I am the choir to whom you are preaching. But, I am afraid after extolling its virtues, you are going to have to provide some brand plugs! I have gone through a seemingly endless series of umbrellas over the past 15 years. The only one even remotely robust enough was a no-name umbrella purchased in London that actually made it several of those aforementioned years before being lost by some wretch (me). Like a good kitchen knife, I would gladly pay four times the going rate for a bumbershoot that was robustly made. So give it up! What is the Leica of anti-rain gear, and where can I find one?"
bongo: "So how do you hold an umbrella and shoot with a camera at the same time? Any advice on technique would be appreciated."
Dave Levingston replies to bongo: "I first used an umbrella while shooting high school football games in the rain many, many years ago. The umbrella simply sits on the top of your head. The shaft goes down in front of you and can be held with the left arm pressed against your chest and you can still steady the camera with your left hand. Not elegant, but it keeps the downpour off the camera and lens."
Richard Tugwell: "I'm not so keen on the brolly as an accessory, but a quick scan of my Lightroom catalogue reveals 374 images tagged in some way with 'umbrella.' Obviously I appreciate it as a motif (or it rains a lot here)."