Whether you're buying someone a gift or taking the plunge into photography yourself, it's easy to get suckered into spending your hard-earned cash on useless camera gadgets. Online electronics stores—even generally reputable ones—love to package cameras with seemingly attractive arrays of accessories. You've probably seen them advertised as "accessory kits" or "value packages." But what you get is far from a real value.
Just because something is bargain-priced, it's not necessarily a good deal.
So here's a handy guide of which cheap accessories you should avoid like the plague. Some of these are merely a waste of money, while others are potentially dangerous to your expensive camera.
Advertised use: A cheap way to stabilize your camera
What it actually does: Jeopardizes your shots, not to mention your camera and lens
If you've got an expensive camera, the absolute last thing you want to do is trust it to something not properly built for the task. You wouldn't entrust your DSLR to a toddler, would you? These cheap pieces of junk are the tripod equivalent, underdeveloped musculature and all.
The pitfalls here are many. Cheap, flimsy tripods typically aren't rated to hold a DSLR and lens, though of course the advertising materials don't point this out. Each tripod has a weight rating, and if you exceed it, you run the risk of the whole thing collapsing. A strong wind can also blow many lightweight tripods right over, sending your gear tumbling to the ground. And they're usually made from subpar materials (lots of plastic), meaning the tripod itself will likely fall apart quicker than a quality unit.
Before plunking down cash on a tripod, first ask yourself whether you really need one. Many tripods end up sitting unused in closets year after year. If your answer is yes, do the responsible thing and get some support that's worth the money. If you're on a budget and can't afford the prices new tripods command, keep an eye on Craigslist and eBay—many of those unused tripods end up there.
Advertised use: Increase magnification of your existing lenses
What it actually does: Makes your shots uglier
Teleconverters from companies like Vivitar and Kenko were popular accessories in the 1970s and early 1980s. They went between the camera body and lens, using extra lenses to magnify images by 1.4x, 1.7x, 2x, or even 3x. Because they were a cheap, quick way to extend the reach of the cheap prime lenses prevalent at the time, they sold like hotcakes.
But with today's lenses, they're a total waste of time. For one thing, they don't play well with modern kit zooms, negatively affecting autofocus and darkening your shots to an unacceptable degree. And since the extra lenses in a teleconverter magnify the image your lens is projecting, they enhance any optical flaws already present in the lens design. This wasn't a big deal on film, but with today's high-resolution sensors it can lead to serious image quality headaches.
Some first-party teleconverters are excellent devices, but they're typically designed to work with very expensive, very specific professional telephoto prime lenses. The average user would be better served by forgetting about teleconverters all together.
Telephoto, Wide-Angle, and Macro Adapters
Advertised use: Provide more flexibility for your compact camera
What it actually does: Degrades image quality
Like film-era teleconverters, these lenses are meant to enhance the range of your modern compact digital camera's lens. Instead of fitting between the lens and camera body, they screw onto the front of the lens, either by screwing directly onto the lens's filter threads or by using an adapter tube. They're typically very cheap, made from plastic, and plastered with the logo of some Chinese company you've never heard of. Don't buy them. Your image quality will only suffer.
There are a few exceptions, like the superb Raynox DCR-250 macro adapter, but even the best are inferior to a proper telephoto, wide-angle, or macro lens design.
Cheap Lens Filters
Advertised use: Protect your lens, control common optical defects
What it actually does: Most often? Sits on your shelf for years
In the digital age, most physical filters are a waste of time. That said, there are a few key exceptions—filters that do things you can't replicate in Photoshop. While you may find you need these filters for the kind of shooting you want to do, you should be careful not to skimp out and get cheap glass.
There's a whole galaxy of filter manufacturers out there, and it's difficult to know which brands to trust. Even trusted brands like B+W, Heliopan, and Hoya can vary in quality from filter to filter, so we recommend reading up on top performers before putting cash on the barrel.
And remember that a UV filter is not good protection for your lens or camera in the case of a fall.
Advertised use: Provide power on the cheap
What it actually does: Usually works, but could turn into a brick
This one can get pretty contentious.
Most cameras these days run on custom-designed lithium-ion battery packs that aren't interchangeable between different manufacturers. That means Canon, Nikon, and the like can gouge you when it comes time to buy extra packs. Plenty of photographers swear by cheap third-party battery packs as a good way to avoid the high cost of OEM replacements.
In most cases, these off-brand batteries work just as well as their OEM equivalents, and can be a cost-effective way to get some extras in your bag. We've heard some scattered reports that particularly poorly made third-party cells have damaged cameras, but most of the evidence seems to indicate that batteries from reputable third-party sellers are a safe bet.
That said, there's one thing you should be aware of: Manufacturers don't like you using third-party cells, and sometimes they'll go so far as to block their use. A good case in point is a recent Nikon firmware update that rendered aftermarket batteries totally useless for five models. That won't necessarily happen to you, but it could. Caveat emptor.
iPhone Lens Mount
Advertised use: Lets you mount SLR lenses on your iPhone
What it actually does: Adds a ton of bulk to your phone for not much gain
Say what you will about mobile photography, but it's here to stay. Like it or not, smartphones are killing point and shoots, and more and more photographers are joining the fold with their iPhones, PureView cameras, and Android shooters.
But using an iPhone with SLR lenses? Well, it sounds enticing, but it's really a pretty silly idea. Let's get real: No matter how good your lens is, or how much zoom it gets you, it's still feeding through to a tiny smartphone image sensor, and it's being filtered through the iPhone's own lens. As with teleconverters and wide-angle adapters, that's just too many layers of glass to get superb image quality.
Other issues? Sure, we can list a few. To begin with, shooting with an adapted SLR lens will be entirely manual. That means manual focus and manual aperture control—and many modern lenses don't even offer aperture rings. It's also a recipe for a really unwieldy shooting setup. Imagine a 70-200mm f/2.8 zoom lens strapped to your iPhone. Yep, you'll be holding it by the lens barrel, even while you're trying to focus the darn thing.
Enthusiasts will have fun playing around with this thing for a day or two and then put it back on the shelf where it belongs. At an asking price of $180, that works out to about $90 a day. Does that sound worth it to you?
A Selfie Stick
Advertised use: Taking self-portraits and above-crowd pictures
What it actually does: Makes you look like a buffoon
As you're probably already aware, this product lets you take selfies from further away—you know, as if you had a friend who cared enough to take your photo.
Aside from the existential sadness of using a stick to replace a human friend, holding your camera out on a stick will render even the most amazing stabilization completely ineffective. Think about it: How often do you get blurry selfies when shooting normally? Wait, why are you even taking selfies at all?
Ok, selfies are the new hotness in global culture, but this is really taking things too far. The selfie stick is a perfect trifecta of terrible: It's cheaply made, it's incredibly vain, and it's a just a really bad idea.
If you're really that vain, you'd be better off using the timer function and something to set the camera on. Or, better yet, make a new friend and have them take the picture—use the $10 you saved to buy them a drink.