6 Photography Tools That AREN'T Gimmicks (Plus One That Is)

As a photographer I've come across a lot of tools and programs purporting to help me improve my craft, and I have to admit there are several that I originally wrote off as gimmicks, but they turned out to be invaluable to me.  Here are six of those tools, plus one tool that I had high hopes for but I feel truly is a gimmick.

1.  In-Camera GPS
When I first purchased my Canon EOS 6D back in 2013, it was possibly the first full frame DSLR to feature in-camera GPS.  Since I usually know where my photos are taken and I can just manually geotag them, I sort of felt like the feature was a bit gimmicky, but it turned out to be quite useful.  For one thing, manually geotagging photos is time consuming.  For another, sometimes you just don't know where your photo was taken.  You could have been on a hiking trail or in an area that is not well marked and after you get back you're not really sure where you took the photo.

I knew this photo I took on my trip to Yellowstone National Park was taken in a geyser basin, but I couldn't identify which one.  If I wanted to license or sell a print of this photo it would be important to the end user to know more precisely where it was taken.  Now, of course I could have taken copious notes during my trip about the various locations I visited, but I want to maximize my time taking pictures.  Using the map mode in Lightroom, I was able to determine that it was taken in the Black Sand Basin.  (see below).

I took the above photo from the caboose of a train traveling along the Saratoga & North Creek Railroad in Upstate New York.  Here's an example of a location I would have a pretty hard time determining on my own.  The railroad covers enough ground that I might categorize photos taken at the south end, which is in the Saratoga area differently than I would those at the north end, which is part of the Adirondack region.  Again, a person licensing or purchasing a print of this photo would most likely want to know a location more precise than simply "somewhere along the Saratoga & North Creek Railroad."  Lightroom's GPS mode helped me identify it as being taken in the town of Hadley, which is in the Sacandaga area.

Finally, when a Civil War statue depicting a Union soldier in my hometown of Saratoga Springs, NY, was senselessly destroyed recently, I wanted to share a photo I had taken of it.  I knew I had one but I couldn't remember when I took it or what folder it was in.  Using Lightroom's map mode, I zoomed in on the location, and I was able to see the photo there.  It's one of those things I would have spent easily an hour searching for if I hadn't had the geo-coordinates embedded in the metadata.

One thing you have to keep in mind about GPS is that it's not 100% reliable.  For one thing, it only refreshes your location every 30 seconds or so (you can usually set the exact interval in your camera but the higher the frequency, the more it drains your battery), so most shots aren't going to be completely accurate.  If you're in a really remote location, as well, it may not be able to get a signal to record the GPS data, so you may come home surprised to find that field left blank.  Still, even with its limitations, I think it's a very helpful tool.

2.  In-Camera WiFi
The 6D, along with its early adoption of in-camera GPS, was possibly the first full frame DSLR to feature in-camera WiFi as well.  Basically, in-camera WiFi allows you to connect your camera to another device (often a phone) via WiFi to transfer photos or view or shoot photos remotely.  Once again, I imagined this would be a feature I didn't need and was unnecessarily driving up the price.  It turned out, however, to be quite useful.  Here are a few examples of how useful in camera WiFi has been for me:

Shortly after I purchased my 5D Mark IV (which also has built-in GPS and WiFi), I was on a trip to Newfoundland, and stopped to take this photo at Frenchman's Cove (which I never would have remembered if it hadn't been for the GPS), and I realized my remote shutter release wouldn't plug into my camera.  Apparently it only fit in the 6D and not the 5D Mark IV.  But because I had the EOS remote app on my phone, I was able to use that as the remote shutter release to take this long exposure.  If I hadn't had the built-in WiFi, I would have had to hold my finger down on the shutter during the exposure, possibly moving the camera and blurring the image.  With the built-in WiFi, I was able to adapt to the situation on the fly.  By the way, if you have a remote shutter release that plugs in, don't throw it out if you get a camera with built-in WiFi.  I find them quicker and easier to use than connecting to the app and using a touch screen.  If you don't have one though and your camera does have built-in WiFi, don't bother spending the money, because the app gives you far more features.

This is one of my many WiFi selfies (as is the photo in the title cart).  I set up my camera on a tripod and then took the photo using the EOS remote app on my phone.  Now you might be thinking, "Couldn't you just have someone else take the photo?" but as a photographer I consider myself somewhat of an artist, and it is important to have authorship of my work.  If someone else take the photo, I'm no longer the photographer, and thus I didn't truly create the work myself.  It's fun to set up selfies and family photos this way.  A wireless remote shutter release could accomplish this, but keep in mind that with the app you get to preview the composition and your position in the photo, then look at the finished product and retake the photo if needed without having to walk back over to your camera, so it's much more convenient and useful.  If you're interested in more of my unconventional selfies, read this post.

When I travel, I usually don't bring my laptop, because I'm already lugging around so much photography gear and I generally don't have a ton of time to edit.  That being said, it's fun to be able to share a sneak peek or two to my followers on social media or friends and family back home.  I mean come on, a cell phone capture of the LCD on the back of your camera doesn't really do it justice.  The WiFi allows me to transfer the photos to my phone to then edit if I choose and send out to those I want to share them with or with the general public.  Now that the EOS Remote app lets you transfer the actual raw file instead of a JPEG, you can do a lot with a photo now using Lightroom or a similar app that you could previously only do on a computer.  When I was visiting a friend in Florida last spring, I was able to edit and post the above photo of a screech owl to social media on the go.

The above photo was taken on the balcony of my suite at the Stephanie Inn in Cannon Beach, OR.  I had my camera set up on my tripod and was using the EOS remote app on my phone to trigger a long exposure.  It was getting pretty chilly so I decided to go back inside and work on taking the photo from there.  You can tweak the focus, aperture, shutter speed, and most other features right on the phone.  You can see your results, so you pretty much don't have to touch your camera once you've connected it to WiFi.  Now, in this case it was not the dead of winter, so the chilliness was more of an inconvenience than a barrier to being able to stay outside and shoot, but this could really come in handy if you're setting up shots in extreme or unpleasant weather and you have a nearby spot to take shelter.  Remember, with WiFi, you have to stay within range so you aren't going to be able to travel miles away, but it's a benefit that could definitely come in handy from time to time like it has for me.   Would this use alone push me to buy a camera with built-in WiFi?  No, but it's just a nice little benefit.

3. PhotoPills App
The PhotoPills app costs $9.99, so for an app, it's fairly pricey.  The app has an abundance of features to help photographers plan their photos, many of which, I will admit, I haven't even tried yet.  The main feature of the app I find most useful and worth the price of admission is the Night AR feature.  This feature will show you where the Milky Way is, which is really helpful in places with a lot of light pollution where it might not be visible to the naked eye.  The app helped me locate the Milky Way in the below photo taken at Lake Louise, so I could frame it in my photo when I couldn't see it myself.  If you want to learn more about what PhotoPills can do, read this detailed review.

4.  Luminar 4
There's been a lot of buzz about Skylum Software's new update to their Luminar software, especially in how effectively it can replace the sky in a photo.  Sky replacement is something that can be accomplished in Photoshop, but in a lot of situations, it would take a great deal of time, plus the scene has to often be relit to match the sky.  Luminar 4 does this quickly and easily, and after adjusting a few controls, often looks incredibly seamless and convincing.  Take the below example.  I was fond of this photo I took of Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay, but the sky was so boring.  In Luminar, I replaced with a more interesting sky (from another photo I took) and added some lightning to make the scene look more ominous.  Now, as a photographer, something like this heads more into the digital imagery field, so it's not really my specialty or something I'd do all the time, but it's fun to do every now and then.  I like that I can use my own sky, so it's really entirely my photo (except for the lightning but those are mainly streaks of light).

Besides sky replacement though, I've found that Luminar can add an extra pop to photos that I just can't quite achieve (at least not easily or quickly) in Lightroom or Photoshop.  One feature I really love is the sun rays feature.  Sun rays look ridiculous if they are introduced into a photo that is not already strongly sunlit, but when the photo already has an element of sunlight, this feature greatly enhances it in ways far beyond Photoshop's current capabilities in terms of how realistic it looks and how it interacts with the various elements in the photo.  Take the below photo I took of Saratoga Spa State Park in Upstate New York from a helicopter.  The first photo is with Lightroom edits only.  The second photo shows how the sun rays feature really enhanced the scene.  You have to be subtle about it and you have to place the sun where it would already be in the photo (sometimes out of the frame) or it looks really bizarre, but when you do it just right, the result is quite pleasing, in my opinion.

The software costs $80, but it is a one-time fee (unlike Adobe, which docks you monthly) and you can usually find a discount code if you Google it.  It also works as a plugin with Photoshop or Lightroom, or as a standalone application.

5.   Topaz Sharpen AI
Topaz Labs has been around for years.  I used to use their Adjust software that enhances color and contrast in photos, but in recent years I rarely use it because I can accomplish the look I want in Lightroom most of the time.  Recently, however, I saw an ad for their new AI sharpening software, and I downloaded a fully functional free trial.  Where it really shines is in correcting motion blur.  It helps a little in correcting lens blur, but when viewed up close, the result can be sort of odd looking, especially if there are people in the photo.  In the photo below that I took of Saratoga Performing Arts Center from a helicopter, the image is just blurry enough that it's pretty much unusable for professional purposes, but not so blurry that you can't tell what it is.  With Topaz Sharpen AI, it looks great.  Oh, and I spruced it up with Luminar too:

6.  Lightroom Creative Cloud
When I purchased my 5D Mark IV, I was "forced" to upgrade my "archaic" Adobe Lightroom 4 and Photoshop CS6 to Adobe's Creative Cloud subscription versions.  The problem was that Lightroom 4 was so old that it couldn't support the 5D Mark IV's raw files.  I was aware of this before I bought it and it was a factor that gave me hesitation.  Paying $10 a month for Lightroom and Photoshop is a lot more expensive than buying it once and not needing to upgrade for years.  Once I got to see the Creative Cloud features, though, I found them quite useful.  By being able to sync photos from my computer to my phone, it is now so easy to post photos to social media, especially Instagram, that I have edited on my computer.  I could be traveling, without my laptop, and still post to social media.  I put my photos into synced collections according to which account I plan to post them to.  Then from Lightroom Mobile, I can make final edits if I choose, add a watermark, and export to the social media platform of my choosing.  It's also helpful to share photos with friends.  Since I don't take very many photos on my phone, I can just call up a synced collection on Lightroom to show photos to friends and family.  If they have an Apple TV, I can AirPlay them, without having to send them to anyone or even have my computer handy.

I edited the above photo of Moraine Lake on my laptop but then I synced it with Lightroom Mobile and uploaded it to Instagram on my phone.

The Gimmick:  Canon Dual Pixel Raw
When Canon released the 5D Mark IV, one of the new features it was marketed with was dual pixel raw.  I don't know the technology behind it, but basically it allows you to very slightly adjust the focus of a photo using Canon's software.  And when I say very slightly, I mean very slightly.  In my experience using the software, the amount of focus adjustment that could be achieved was so minute, it would be virtually undetectable at most resolutions.  Canon was claiming this was perfect for wedding and portrait photographers who may have just missed focus on a crucial shot.  But in my experience, the sharpening tools in Lightroom and Photoshop, and especially Topaz Sharpen AI, do a far better job at creating an illusion of sharpness than correcting a dual pixel raw can.  Take the example below.  Ugh, I just missed the focus on my cat Franny's eyes as she carries her stuffed cat Marie across the room.  It's also got a bit of motion blur because my shutter speed wasn't set fast enough to freeze Fran's fast motion.  Dual pixel can't do anything about motion blur, and as we established, it definitely would not be able to fix the lens blur on this photo enough to make it usable. I used Topaz Sharpen AI (see the bottom photo) and I think it did a pretty good job of tackling both.

The nice thing about dual pixel raw is that you can turn it off.  If you turn it off, you won't have a chance to correct the focus later on, but as I established, it really isn't worth it anyways.  If you leave it turned on though, your file size for each raw photo just about doubles.  Wow.  Raw files for 30 megapixel cameras are already huge as it is.  With dual pixel raw on the 5D Mark IV, you're looking at about 60 MB per photo, which also makes the buffer fill up faster.  So, in my opinion, this technology isn't developed enough to be worth using yet and at this point is mostly a marketing gimmick.  That being said, I didn't purchase the 5D Mark IV for the dual pixel technology, so I wasn't terribly disappointed when it didn't work as well as I hoped it would, especially when I saw the size of my raw files.

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All photos in this post © Samantha Decker and may not be reused without permission.

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  1. I need to look at Luminar some more, as I haven't used it all that much. The sky replacement feature looks pretty impressive. I do use one of their other products, Aurora HDR, quite regularly, however!

    1. I haven’t used Aurora but I’ve heard good things about it. I like how Luminar can be bought outright. I’m not a big fan of subscriptions...they end up costing me a lot more over time!


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