If you're like me, the sad shape of the economy has you on an austerity program these days. But your tax refund is almost like found money and we all need a little cheering up, so why not at least fantasize about ways to treat yourself with a splurge? With that in mind, I've put together a list of must-have items for shooters who are looking to make the leap from compact cameras to a digital SLR--all of which can be had for less than $2,429--the average tax refund for 2008. (Besides, if you find yourself having to sell off your other belongings on eBay, you'll need to shoot some decent photos of them!)
Canon EOS Rebel XS Back in August of last year, Canon slipped this aggressively priced 10-megapixel model in below the higher-end 12-megapixel Rebel XSi (it launched with a $699.99 list price, and is now available for $599.99). Though it doesn’t beat all of the specs of its predecessor, the 10-megapixel Rebel XTi (with only 7-point autofocus rather than 9-point, for example), it offers the best photo quality among similarly priced competitors and it doesn’t scrimp on the features that will be important to new SLR users (adding a LiveView mode, the newer Digic III processor, as well as features borrowed from its higher-end siblings like the customizable My Menu and the Auto Lighting Optimizer). Plus, Canon's switch from CompactFlash to SD memory in this camera means you can probably use the cards you bought for your old point-and-shoot rather than coughing up the cash for new ones.
Canon EF-S 55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS Lens The Canon EOS Rebel XS comes with an EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS kit lens, so for a full setup, you'll want to add a good telephoto zoom lens to complement your package. The Canon EF-S 55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS lens is a versatile and well-priced (about $300) option that extends your zoom range to 84mm to 400mm equivalent. It's a great option for the entry-level dSLR user, serving up optical image stabilization as well as automatic panning detection, which automatically turns off the image stabilization when you're tracking moving subjects (either horizontally or vertically). Though its plastic build feels a little cheap, it also makes the lens nice and lightweight--a big plus in my book--and of course is a lot easier on the budget than higher-end metal alternatives.
Gitzo Mountaineer A good tripod can be an invaluable addition to your dSLR setup and Gitzo models are among the best. The Mountaineer line (originally launched in 1994) comprised the first carbon-fiber tripods, delivering durability in a lightweight package. The current line uses a 6x carbon fiber tube made of six crossed layers, which the company says maximizes rigidity and vibration absorption while maintaining the light weight. The compact Series 1 versions can accommodate dSLRs with 135mm lenses (up to a maximum of 200mm). The Series 2 versions can support dSLRs with 200mm lenses (up to a 300mm maximum).
This great photo accessory isn't a very budget-conscious addition to the list (at $749.99 after an instant rebate from Epson), but it's such a useful tool that I'm slipping it in (besides, I'm still well under our tax-refund budget so far). Essentially a portable video player, the P-7000 (and its predecessors, the P-3000 and P-6000) was designed specifically to cater to digital photo enthusiasts. It's bulkier than other portable photo storage solutions, but sports a beautiful 4-inch LCD (with over 16.7 million colors) for previewing your photos on the fly. The device includes CompactFlash and SD card slots so you can download photos directly onto its 160GB hard drive and comes with a travel pack that includes a travel case, dual battery charger, viewing stand, car adapter, a microfiber cleaning cloth, and protective film for the LCD.
Crumpler Sinking Barge Backpack You won't get very far without a good camera bag to stow all your goodies, so let's round out our Tax Refund wishlist with one of my favorites: The Sinking Barge Backpack from Australia-based Crumpler will hold your compact dSLR (like the Canon EOS Rebel XS) with kit lens attached, plus an additional lens up to 15cm long (say, the Canon EF-S 55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS), along with other camera accessories, PLUS a 15-inch laptop. The shell is water resistant and durable, and the compartments are fully padded. The removable laptop sleeve is a nice touch, and the brushed nylon camera compartment includes two configurable dividers as well as a ton of pockets and other cleverly designed features.