So that digital camera you’ve been eyeing since Halloween showed up under the tree this morning. Now what?
If you’re like most of us, you’re probably figuring out already that a few key accessories will make jumping into serious shooting with your new toy that much easier and more enjoyable. Thankfully, we’ve done the hard work of picking this year’s choicest essentials for you. If you wondering what to do with that pile of gift cards, we have five answers right here.
Unless your new camera came with a bag (and maybe even if it did), high quality protection for transport should be your first purchasing stop. There are several great bags currently on the market, and the best ones all share a few characteristics: they’re indestructible, inconspicuous, comfortable to hold/wear, and reasonably priced.
For everything from ultra-compacts to ultra-zooms, Crumpler’s “The Bundle” fits the bill. The most notable feature of this stout, amply padded holder is how much it doesn’t look like a traditional camera bag – a good thing stylistically, and from a theft prevention standpoint. The Bundle, which comes in three sizes, is constructed of water-resistant nylon and offers the perfect amount of accessory storage space for everyday shooting.
Transport options including a shoulder strap and quick-release belt loops complete the package. And if you’ve ever used other small bags, you’ll realize how significant it is that this one, with its flat bottom, sits upright on a table.
Best of all, The Bundle comes in under $30, even for the largest size, making this one of the best deals around.
Also Good: DSLR users should check out the Tamrac Adventure 7. This mini-backpack has a cool flip-top design that makes getting at your camera a snap, and has more than enough room for most DSLRs plus a couple of lenses and a flash unit.
All memory cards are not created equal, and while you may get adequate performance from any old card, premium memory has some benefits that make it stand out for demanding users. But the high price of class-leading cards makes them a hard sell, even for serious amateur shooters. Lexar’s Platinum II lineup of flash memory strikes a nice balance between performance and price, providing a 60x transfer speed rating (or roughly 9 MB per second) on the SD version and a solid reputation for reliability. Lexar’s included backup and card diagnostics tools are icing on the cake.
MSRP for the 2 GB SD version is $54.95. SDHC versions in higher capacities are also available.
Also Good: Want to get rid of the card reader all together? SanDisk’s Ultra II SD Plus USB is hinged in the middle, folding to form a USB adapter that allows you to plug the card directly into your PC. And the Eye-Fi SD card goes even a step farther: you don’t even have to remove the card from your camera to transfer images with its onboard WiFi radio.
A good tripod can be a real budget buster, and for many of us the expense is justified exactly twice a year, when the perfect sunrise or stargazing shot beckons. If you’ve ever had a flimsy, discount store tripod collapse during one of these infrequent but critical moments, however, you understand the importance of finding that point between extravagance and economy.
For under $100, the Bogen-Manfrotto 718SHB combines compact form with enough strength and rigidity to comfortably support a DSLR and a medium-sized lens. Folded down, the unit is small enough to tote easily. The three-way head is not a replaceable unit like those found on higher-end Bogen gear, but it’s more than smooth enough for amateur use and represents a huge step up over the sticky action of generic discount store tripods.
Also Good: For action shooting or a little extra stability in a pinch, a monopod (like a tripod with a single leg) can be a huge help. My favorite is the lightweight Cullmann Monofix, which features a silky smooth ball head, fits easily in a moderately sized bag and, at $45, won’t break the bank.
PORTABLE DIGITAL PHOTO STORAGE
If you don’t care for the hassle and expense of buying enough individual memory cards to support your growing shooting habit (or if you’re planning a three month expedition to Belize and not interested in lugging a laptop), portable digital photo storage is indispensable. There are a few differing interpretations of this idea on the market, but most couple some kind of multi-card reader to an external hard drive and power the whole setup with a rechargeable battery pack.
For the do-it-yourselfer, check out the nicely priced DigiMate II-plus. The DigiMate (which requires that you purchase and install a notebook-sized hard drive) is straightforward to use, providing fast data transfers and plenty of battery life for a week or more of field work. SD, CF, xD, and Memory Stick are all supported, and the backlit LCD provides plenty of information on what’s going on inside the box. The DigiMate can also serve as a conventional external hard drive when you’re not lugging it around, connecting via USB 2.0.
Users give the device generally high marks for reliability, though this depends heavily on choosing a quality hard drive for the unit. The DigiMate II-plus can be a little hard to find online, but at well under $50, many think it’s worth the hunt.
Also Good: At the other end of the financial spectrum, there’s the Epson P5000, with its gorgeous color LCD for not only storing, but also viewing and reviewing photos. Geared toward professional photographs and serious amateurs, the uber-expensive, uber-cool Epson provides a level of functionality and style not found anywhere else among devices of its kind. For nearly $600, it ought to.
PHOTO EDITING SOFTWARE
There has been a true explosion of good photo editing software lately, after a decade of dominance by a few major players. The best news: there are more free and cheap options for getting your pics ready for public viewing than ever.
In terms of features, usability, and broad support, however, the old standby is still a good way to go. Adobe’s Photoshop Elements 6.0 received a major overhaul this year, and the new interface has brought the intimidation factor of Photoshop Light down to a level quickly approaching zero. If anything, the package also gained some power in the process.
For a more nuanced overview of what Photoshop Elements can offer, check out our recent Photoshop Elements 6.0 review.
Adobe lists the latest full version of Photoshop Elements for $99.99.
Also Good: Though there are plenty of basic, user-friendly free editors out there, the 300 pound gorilla of free image software is unquestionably GIMP (or the GNU Image Manipulation Program). GIMP’s been around for awhile, offers a Photoshop-like experience, and as a result has proven itself as the tool of choice for plenty of users who know their stuff. Check out the website here.