It takes a lot to create a beautiful photograph.
“I treat the photograph as a work of great complexity in which you can find drama,” Ken Burns once said. “Add to that a careful composition of landscapes, live photography, the right music, and interviews with people, and it becomes a style.”
Photography is not just about a pretty subject, but instead rests on your perspective, framing, lighting, and yes, to some degree, your equipment. Photography can be an expensive hobby, but we searched for moderately priced, quality gear that can make a world of difference in your end product. Here are our nine top picks for improving your shots without breaking the bank.
The GorillaPod will go wherever you want to shoot. There’s no reason not to bring it along. Unlike conventional tripods, the GorillaPod is compact and light. There are several models that are suited for SLRs: the Hybrid, which is sturdy enough for smaller SLR cameras, such as the Nikon D40; the SLR-Zoom, which can hold up to 6.6 pounds; and the Focus, ideal for cameras with heavy telephoto lenses. The SLR-Zoom is a good compromise between price and the load it can take. Unlike the Hybrid, the SLR-Zoom doesn’t come with magnetic feet, which means you can toss it in your bags filled with electronics without worrying about possible damage. The SLR-Zoom costs $49.95, and the optional ballhead, which I’d highly recommend getting as well, costs $39.95. Bundled together, they are available for $79.95. While it doesn’t serve as a complete substitution over a good sturdy tripod, the best tripod is one you’d bring everywhere, and that likely is the GorillaPod.
While getting a steady shot is important, adding a bit of movement can give your videos a bit of panache. Track dollies can easily run you four figures, but the Camera Table Dolly is an affordable alternative. Photojojo says it’s the smallest dolly system you can find, but its industrial-grade aluminum base is sturdy enough to hold full-frame SLR cameras. The wheels glide across surfaces smoothly, giving videos a professional Hollywood look. An included arm has joints that can be adjusted to shoot varying angles and perspectives. The dolly is available on Photojojo for $90.
Also available at Photojojo (a favorite of ours here at Discovery), there’s the very affordable Cam Caddie Video Stabilizer. It’s quite simple in how it works: The camera sits on the caddie, which uses the weight to stabilize shots for smooth video. The shape of the caddie resembles a scorpion, with a handle shaped like a scorpian tail. The curved handle has about 6 inches of clearance and makes it easy to get low-angle pans.
Eye-Fi‘s wireless memory cards mean a streamlined workflow, since you never have to fuss with card readers and wires. Once its cards are configured to recognize a wireless network, they start transferring files to your computer and photo-sharing websites, such as Flickr and SmugMug. The new Eye-Fi Mobile X2 can also send photos and videos to iOS and Android devices, even when you’re not connected to a WiFi network. Even though the card comes with 8 gigabytes of storage, with Eye-Fi, it’s more like unlimited storage, since it can free up space once pictures have been transferred. The big drawback to this is there’s no CF equivalent (CompactFlash cards are often more commonly used in full-frame SLR cameras), but some people have reported using the Eye-Fi card with a CF adapter with few issues. The 8GB Eye-Fi Mobile X2 costs $79.99, but the entry-level 4GB Connect X2 is sold for $49.99.
If money were no object, I’d drop tens of thousands on camera lenses. The cold hard reality is I’m a hobby photographer, and at the moment, rent supersedes new glass. Lensbaby, however, is an affordable way to spice up your collection.
The company has a number of creative lenses and optics that give your photos new flair. The Muse lens begins at $150, and you can swap in a number of optics, varying from $40 to $180, for different effects, such as soft focus, fisheye and selective focus. Photos taken with Lensbaby accessories never come out as sharp as they would with prime lenses, but they offer a soft, dreamy and nostalgic effect. Don’t expect to shoot fast or sharp. (It’s hard to get a sense of what quality you get judging by sized-down, compressed snapshots, so I’d recommend checking out Lensbaby’s gallery.) Using Lensbaby’s accessories is a good exercise in shooting manually — there is no such thing as auto focus. You compose a photo by physically moving the composer part of the lens to find the right frame; then you manually focus until you find what Lensbaby calls “the sweet spot.” With the fisheye optic, there’s even more coordination, since the only way to change aperture is to physically insert aperture discs with varying hole sizes between the optic and composer. Lensbaby offers a lot of creativity but also requires patience.
Every lens in your collection should don a filter. Not only does it add an extra layer of protection against scratches on the glass, but depending on the types of filters, it can improve colors, balance exposures and much more. Tiffen, for instance, is widely regarded for its products, having won awards and accolades for its filter technology. Handy ones to have on your lenses include a UV protection filter, which in addition to reducing rays also helps eliminate a bluish cast in images, and a neutral density filter, which helps blend colors smoothly and drop exposure—to capture a long-exposure waterfall, for instance. Neutral density is also popular for black-and-white photography. Overall, filters can vary in price from sub-$10 to a couple hundred. It might be worthwhile to start with a kit to learn the different effects individual filters can have on your end product.
Photographers love Lowepro’s Fast Packs, for their quick-access side compartment. Not to mention that they’re lightweight, can store a whole lot of photo gear (and a laptop), and keep everything organized. The $129.99 Fastpack 250, one of the cheaper models from the Fastpack line, has enough space for a couple bodies, flashes and lenses (even a hefty L-series Canon lens if you arrange it properly) and a lot of miscellaneous equipment, such as a lavaliere microphone, extra batteries, additional camera cards and wires. Overall, this is a solid bag that can carry most anything you need for a shoot. One thing it’s sorely lacking is a strap to hold on to a full-sized tripod. Holding onto one can be such a hassle.
Want that Instagram look and feel for photos taken with something more sophisticated than a smartphone? Then turn to Adobe Revel, formerly Adobe Carousel, a desktop application with sets of Instagram-like filters and other editing capabilities. The pre-set filters are an easy way to give photos that extra oomph, but there’s also levels of control for white balance, exposure, contrast, crop and rotation. While the app is fun to play with, it annoyingly is subscription-based: There’s a free 30-day trial, but after it’ll cost $5.99 per month or $59.99 for the year. If you’re looking for more comprehensive software to organize, edit, and process hundreds of photos, Adobe Lightroom, ordinarily $299, has a public beta version, available for free until the next version comes out.
Of everything on this list, my No. 1 pick is this service. Before I tried SmugMug, I was a Flickr user and kept a casual photo blog. I never had a reason to pay for a photo hosting website, but now I can’t see any other way to showcase my work. There are no upload limits and plenty of options. If you want to sell your photos, SmugMug helps you do that. If you want flexible privacy options, it’ll give you that too. The degree of customization lets you create a portfolio site to your finest specification. Using various photo editing and managing software plug-ins, it’s easy to choose and upload large batches of files at a time. I have few complaints about SmugMug. The down sides I can name are that the interface can be slightly puzzling to navigate and I’m not fond of the way albums are categorized and organized. But at the end of the day, the service’s many features make these cons negligible.
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