Monday, October 8, 2007

Buyer's Guide 2008: Digital Camera Accessories

Gear and gadgets to make your photography more productive, rewarding and creative

While virtually all compact digital cameras and a large selection of lenses offer image stabilization, you should also have a solid platform at your disposal. If you want to do motion blur or night photography, or want to use apertures like ƒ/22 for greater depth of field, you'll often need shutter speeds beyond the handheld range, even with stabilization.

Advances in materials like carbon-fiber, titanium alloys, aluminum and basalt have given tripods an improved weight-to-strength ratio, as well as improved dampening qualities. You no longer have to lug around a 10-pound tripod to ensure adequate stability for the sharpest possible images. A two- to five-pound tripod easily holds four to five times that much. Gitzo's GT2530 6X carbon-fiber tripod holds 26.5 pounds-over seven times its 3.5-pound weight.

When purchasing, make sure that the tripod can extend to the height that you need, be it high or low. Tripods like the Manfrotto 190XPROB offer unique center columns that can be adjusted to a horizontal position, ideal for macro and low-angle shooting.

While stability is provided by the tripod, mobility is provided by the tripod's head. Tripod heads come in a variety of forms, each with advantages and disadvantages. Pan-and-tilt heads, as the name suggests, offer panning and tilting capability, but can require time-consuming configuration. Ballheads, on the other hand, offer a combination of support, speed and maneuverability.

The primary advantage of a ballhead is that you can quickly adjust and lock your camera in any possible direction, as the circular alignment of the ball lets you move your camera to any and every angle. Acratech, Induro, Kirk Enterprises, Really Right Stuff and others have basic to advanced ballheads. The simplest, like the Ball 30 and Ball 40 from Novoflex, have a lock for the ball and that's it. More advanced ballheads like the Giottos MH 1300-657 have an incremental panning base and a quick-release camera mount with bubble levels for horizontal and vertical positioning.

The size and strength of your ballhead should be dictated by the combined weight of your camera and any attached lenses that you're likely to use. If you're shooting with pro-level D-SLR tele-zoom lenses, then you need a heavy-duty head capable of supporting your biggest lens. With advances in metal compounds, the weight-to-strength ratio is outstanding nowadays. Ballheads weighing less than two pounds aren't unusual, and some can support more than 35 pounds.




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