Buyer's Guide 2007: Digital Camera Accessories Matter!
The right selection of gear will make shooting easier and more successful
Support In the Field
If you want the sharpest possible photos, you need a good tripod. Besides holding the camera rock-steady so that camera shake doesn't affect image sharpness, a tripod will lock in your composition so you can carefully examine it and so you won't accidentally change it as you capture the shot. That's three great benefits in one device.
A tripod must be sturdy, or it's useless. A good test is to extend the legs full length, then press down on the tripod head. If the tripod sags or collapses, you don't want it.
But if a tripod is too heavy or unwieldy, you'll probably wind up leaving it at home. Fortunately, there are tripods that are both sturdy and lightweight. Carbon-fiber tripods meet both criteria, but cost more than other materials. Slik's AMT (aluminum-magnesium-titanium) tripods offer a good "middle ground" of strength, light weight and affordable price, as do Gitzo's basalt models. When weight is less of a factor (as when working in a studio or from your car trunk), standard aluminum tripods do the job and cost relatively little.
When choosing a tripod, consider your shooting needs. Make sure the tripod will allow you to position the camera as high and as low as you're likely to want it. Some tripods allow you to adjust the angle of each leg individually, which is convenient if you shoot frequently on rough terrain.
There are tripod alternatives. One is a mini-tripod, but make sure it can handle the weight of the camera/lens you're going to put on it. Another good alternative for many photographers is a monopod, which eliminates the weight (and some of the steadiness) of two of the tripod legs. There are also "soft" supports, such as THE Pod.
To attach the camera to a tripod, you need a tripod head. The two most popular types are the ballhead and the three-way pan-tilt head. The former offers the advantage of allowing you to move the camera to any position, then lock it in place with the twist of a single knob (but the camera is also free to move unexpectedly in all directions). The pan-tilt head lets you adjust each axis separately, but requires dealing with three locking knobs/handles. Whichever type of head you choose, get one with a quick-release mounting plate that attaches to the camera. This will allow you to remove the camera for handheld shots and attach it for tripod-mounted shooting quickly and easily.