Great Photography Gifts: Tripods, Camera Bags, Stocking Stuffers

Season's greetings! With the gift-giving season upon us, I've once again donned my Santa hat and made a few gift suggestions for the digital photographer in the family (even if that's actually you). Last week I offered some recommendations for photo editors, books, and other digital camera accessories. This week, I'll finish off my list of goodies. Grab a glass of warm milk and a few cookies--let's see what cool stuff might be under the tree this year.

Awesome Camera Bags

A camera bag is a camera bag, right? Not really. You can find any carrying case at the local camera shop, but if you want one that's ergonomic, thoughtfully designed, and protects your gear from bumps, you'll want to look around a bit.

Consider Crumpler's 8 Million Dollar Home, for example. This is the sort of bag I recommend if you are looking for something that can haul a lot of stuff, including a digital SLR, multiple lenses, flash, accessories, and even a 13-inch laptop and power adapter. It has a funky name and a high price ($170), but it's great if you like to carry the equivalent of an entire photo studio around with you. And it has cool extras, like "super stealth" quiet Velcro.

At the other end of the size spectrum is one of my favorite bags: the Kata Digital Torso Pack. This compact $60 bag works slung around your torso or on your back. It holds a digital SLR, external flash, and an extra lens, and has a few configurable dividers so you can arrange the internals to taste. I like the easy-to-reach media and cable pockets, which is where I happen to stash my iPhone.

Tripods

If you enjoy shooting in low-light conditions, or capturing subjects like waterfalls and wildlife, then you should definitely use a tripod. Adding a tripod to your toolkit is the single fastest way to improve your photos. There are a lot of options to consider when you shop for a tripod. Be sure to read my tripod shopping guide and my explanation of ball heads and pan heads. Those articles should equip you to go to a camera shop and find a tripod that feels right for you.

If you're looking for something to help stabilize your camera, but you still think of a tripod as some sort of three-legged albatross, then I have some other options for you. For example, you might want to start with just one leg. A monopod offers some of the stability of a tripod but is much easier to tote around, and it doesn't get in other peoples' way when you're ready to shoot. I am enamored with the Sunpak Pro 724M; it's an $80 carbon-fiber monopod that is extremely sturdy and rigid, but lightweight and easy to extend and retract.

Another option is the Joby Gorlliapod. It's a flexible tripod that you can wrap around poles, trees, and fences, or flex the legs to stand flat on stairs or other surfaces. It comes in a variety of configurations for different cameras, but the Gorillpod starts at a very affordable $21.

Or how about a bean bag support? In years past I've recommended The Pod, but this year I am intrigued by the Fat Bag ($40), which is a tough fabric bag filled with crushed walnuts. The bottom forms a V-shape that you can rest on the ground, on top of a fence, or even on the open window of a car door. The top is curved to receive your camera lens. It's a great way to easily support your camera, and it's ideal for taking safari-style wildlife photos without leaving your vehicle.

Rain Protection

While we're outdoors, consider a raincoat for your camera. More than once I've found myself shooting outdoors, only to be been surprised by a rainstorm. I always wanted some sort of rain protection for my camera, and finally someone gave me a Rainsleeve as a gift. You can think of the Rainsleeve as a sort of plastic bag that covers your camera without obscuring the lens or viewfinder. This is a true stocking stuffer; you can get a pair for $5.

Other Photo Goodies

I've got more stocking stuffers to consider. Take the Lally Cap, for example. What is a Lally Cap, you ask? It's a device that gives a fast way to set your camera's white balance: Just slip the $29 shower cap-like widget over your lens, point the camera towards your subject, and set the camera's white balance. The result is a more accurate color balance than you can get with the automatic white balance setting, and it's a heck of a lot more convenient than using a white card. And it takes up virtually no room at all in your camera bag.

And finally, I've saved perhaps the coolest for last. If you have a digital SLR, you probably worry about dust and dirt accumulating on your sensor when you change lenses. After all, cleaning the sensor is a delicate affair. Well, I've got a clever solution for you: the Dust-Shield. This $20 accessory is currently available for several Canon models, with more coming. It's a plastic barrier that you semi-permanently affix over the sensor, which prevents contaminants from getting inside your camera when you change lenses. It's easily replaced, and it doesn't appear to have any visible effect on image quality.

Oh, and I know you're all wondering what I want for Christmas. It's nice of you to ask, really, but I don't want much. Perhaps you all could chip in and get me the digitally remastered The Beatles Mono Box Set. Or perhaps a Chumby. Happy holidays to you and your family.

Hot Pic of the Week

Get published, get famous! Each week, we select our favorite reader-submitted photo based on creativity, originality, and technique.

Here's how to enter: Send us your photograph in JPEG format, at a resolution no higher than 640 by 480 pixels. Entries at higher resolutions will be immediately disqualified. If necessary, use an image editing program to reduce the file size of your image before e-mailing it to us. Include the title of your photo along with a short description and how you photographed it. Don't forget to send your name, e-mail address, and postal address. Before entering, please read the full description of the contest rules and regulations.

This Week's Hot Pic: "Working Hard," by Wendy Hays, Sparta, Illinois

Wendy writes: "This moonflower bush has taken over a corner of my garage, and is full of bees until late morning. I shot this with my Canon 20D and then drained all of the color except the bee in a photo editor."

This Week's Runner-Up: "Her Favourite Toy" by Omar Trigantara Arbie, Australia

Omar took this photo of his daughter's favorite toy with a Canon EOS 30D and a 20mm wide-angle lens.

To see last month's winners, visit our November Hot Pics slide show. Visit the Hot Pics Flickr gallery to browse past winners.

Have a digital photo question? E-mail me your comments, questions, and suggestions about the newsletter itself. And be sure to sign up to have Digital Focus e-mailed to you each week.

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