Digital cameras are selling briskly this holiday season and prices have finally descended from the stratosphere. For $300 to $500, you can get a digicam with the same resolution and features that would have cost almost twice as much just over a year ago. A plethora of Web sites review almost every new model in excruciating detail; instead of picking out specific camera models this year, as I have for the last few years in TidBITS, I've chosen to look at some nifty digicam accessories and peripherals.
Get a Better View -- If you yearn to shoot wider, tighter, or closer than your camera will let you, add-on lenses can open up a whole new visual world. Wide angle add-ons let you include more in a scene, telephotos bring distant objects up close (and are great for portraits), and close-up lenses can pick out the most minuscule of details. Most cameras have threads on or at the base of the lens to allow auxiliary lenses (or adapters) to be screwed on. Tiffen and Kodak make adapters, lenses, and sets of lenses that fit most digicams at prices from $40 to $125.
These next three small items can make a big difference. To prevent your LCD monitor image from disappearing in bright sunlight, get a $20 Hoodman LCD Hood which is easily attached with supplied velcro. To keep your lens squeaky clean, the $17 LensPen MiniPro will clean lenses with diameters between 7 mm and 13 mm, getting right to the edges and lifting the dirt off rather than just pushing it around. There's also the standard LensPen at the same price for larger lenses. Finally, why crouch when you can sit? When you need to shoot at a low angle or get on the same level with kids, save your knees and spring for a $6 featherweight, folding camping stool that can be opened in seconds and provides stable, comfortable seating at 15 inches off the ground.
Shoot Steady, Travel Light -- A tripod can make a big difference when shooting under low light - it will steady your digicam when slow shutter speeds are required for proper exposure. But it's no fun dragging around a big, heavy tripod, so many good shots are lost. The answer? A 2.5 pound lightweight Cullmann Magic 2 ($120 at B & H Photo Video) that extends to full tripod size. The legs, ball head, and quick-release mechanism fold absolutely flat to about 13.5 by 5 by 1.5 inches, so it can be carried in a small camera bag; you can even unscrew one of its legs, join it to the center column and, presto, you have a full-sized unipod.
Speaking of camera bags, Tamrac makes a reasonably priced selection from $25 to $80 that are custom-tailored for different digicam models. Most can be worn on your belt or slung over your shoulder, and many models are virtually waterproof. They have custom pockets for batteries, memory cards, and manuals; larger ones can hold a full line of add-on lenses. One even comes in two sections so if you travel, you can unzip the part that holds chargers, small storage drives and other non-photo stuff and leave it in the hotel room while you take off for a photo shoot with the other part which holds your camera and accessories.
Extra batteries or a battery pack are also a good investment. If your camera uses AA batteries, the Quest Q2 Premium Gold Charger Kit is available for about $50 and comes with four NiMH rechargeable batteries which can be rejuvenated in less than three hours. Each battery is monitored by a separate charging circuit that applies periodic trickle current to keep it in top shape. Need more power? Try one of UnityDigital's ProPower Packs that sell for as low as $69. It weighs only a few ounces, plugs into your digicam's AC input, and lets you shoot almost forever before it needs a recharge.
From Camera to Mac -- You'll soon find that the meager memory card that came with your digicam does not have nearly enough capacity to hold all the images you'll be taking. You'll need a bigger card, but fight the urge to buy the biggest. Why? Because if it gets corrupted, you could lose all your pictures. It's better to break up memory storage into smaller cards, like 64 MB or 128 MB, depending on the resolution and image compression you usually use when shooting. Delkin and Lexar make good cards with strong warranties - prices are now about $1 per megabyte or less.
Although most all digicams transfer images to your computer via a USB cable, it's frequently a pain to hook it all up. A better solution is a memory card reader that stays permanently attached to your Mac's USB port. Then, all you have to do is remove the card from the camera and slip it into the reader. The $89 Addonics Pocket DigiDrive has slots for five different sized cards: Compact Flash I and II, SmartMedia, MultiMedia/Secure Digital, and Memory Stick. Why do you need all five when digicams usually take just one type? Because your next camera (or other devices) may use a different card. With a memory card reader this flexible, you'll be loaded for bear - at least until yet another card standard comes along.
As you accumulate more images, your hard disk will begin to fill up until it begins to bulge. Time for some extra storage. About $300 will get you Iomega's Predator USB or FireWire CD Burner to store images on CDs; with the included Roxio Toast software it's really a snap. Or spend about the same for Western Digital's 60 GB External FireWire Drive which provides a near-bottomless pit for picture storage. As a bonus, you can back up your entire hard disk to it and still have gobs of room for photos.
Some digicams come bundled with decent imaging programs, while others do not. Regardless, for $100 you can get what I unabashedly feel is now the world's greatest imaging program value: Adobe Photoshop Elements. Don't just take my word for it - go to Adobe's Web site, download it, and try it absolutely free for 30 days. My guess is that after using the built-in how-to's that can transform you into an instant imaging expert, you'll wonder why it isn't selling for three times the price - or even more.
Once you get hooked on imaging, you'll want to check out the latest versions of flat panel computer monitors - sharp, bright, cool-running, and thin. One of my favorites is Samsung's 17-inch SyncMaster 170T, which is compatible with both analog and digital video signals. It's a top-of-the-line monitor whose images don't fade away like old soldiers when you view it from various angles; that's why it fetches a hefty price of about $850. If that's a bit too high for your budget, KDS has two analog models, the 15-inch Rad-5 at $400 and the 17-inch Rad-7 at $800 that display superb images; you can check 'em out (no kidding) at your local Wal-Mart store.
Although your photos are taken digitally, there are bound to be times when you want printed copies. Hundreds of ink jet papers are being made today, but sampling them could cost a fortune. That's why Red River Paper puts out various sample packs. Their Photographer's Sample Kit includes two letter-sized sheets of each of the company's 22 paper samples (44 sheets in all) and costs only $8 (and until 31-Dec-01, Red River is offering a special price of $4). Included are different weights of glossy, matte, and exotic watercolor papers to try before you buy your favorites in larger quantities. Also included are instruction sheets that give you optimal settings for all popular printers.
Expand Your Exposure -- Finally, if knowledge is power, you'll want to learn more about digital photography so your pictures can pack a visual punch. Digital Camera Magazine costs $18 for a year's subscription and runs in-depth articles, columns, how-to's, showcases on digital photographers, and more. The magazine uses Macs, so reviews of hardware and software are always Mac-friendly.
Want to take a class? Enroll in my Digiphoto 101, a ten-week, online course ($350) for beginners and intermediates. Classes usually have a cosmopolitan make-up- students come from diverse locations such as the UK, France, Guatemala, the Canadian north, New Zealand, and Saipan. Ten students are given assignments, get their work individually critiqued for all to see, and benefit from personal mentoring. If you want to mix education with relaxation, consider a week-long Photodigital Workshop at Sea <firstname.lastname@example.org>.
[Arthur H. Bleich is a photographer, writer, and educator who lives in Miami. He is feature editor of Digital Camera Magazine, contributing editor and columnist for CNET, and appears worldwide on CNN-TV as a digital photography expert. He invites you to click in to his Digital PhotoCorner.]