Most people will agree, with out a solid foundation for your camera, it can be all the more difficult to get a sharp picture. I started out with a Manfrotto 785B. Its not a bad tripod, but it’s too small for a Canon 1 series body and any lens bigger than an EF 50mm f/1.4. Most of the time I couldn’t shoot with out holding on to the camera.
After doing a bunch of research I learned about many differences including aluminum vs. carbon fiber, twist vs. lever, 5 vs. 4 vs. 3 section, what a center column is, and even what the different kinds of heads are (there are many). I also took time to watch forums to see what other people liked (and didn’t like) which helped me think about different situations I might be in and how I would want things to work. The whole process took about 6 mo., at the end of which, I decided to get a Giottos MT9360. It cost a little less than $200. I knew that I would not be doing any hiking with it any time soon, so the extra weight of aluminum was not an issue, and the cost was ~ half that of carbon fiber. I decided that a center column, while it would be technically less stable, afforded me an opportunity to use the tripod for macro work.
I did similar research on the kind of head I wanted for my tripod. There are many different kinds of heads, some for different purposes, some for similar purposes (such as video, or birding). I knew that I would need a head which was capable of supporting at least 12lbs. This would allow me to use my 1 series body (3.4lbs) with up to a 400mm lens (~8lbs). I don’t have a 400mm lens, but this gives me the option to grow in the future, or even rent one now for a weekend with out having to get additional gear. I chose an Acratech GP ball head. It has a number of features I like, including: no oil or grease (and there are holes on the bottom for debris to fall out instead of getting stuck and damaging the ball), Arca compatible quick release (everything I have is on QR, so this is important), and turns upside down to act like a leveling base for pano shots.
I also picked up a Giottos MM9780 monopod. I didn’t do as much direct research on the monopod as I had with the tripod; many aspects are the same, and some don’t necessarily apply (aluminum vs. carbon fiber, height, twist-lock vs. lever, whether to use a head). The MM9780 will hold 33lbs and extends to 6ft. This is several inches taller than I can use, which is a refreshing change. It has 5 sections of twist-lock, so it is moderately compact (< 2' long when compressed) which is nice because that means it doesn’t stick up above the top of my camera backpack. The foot is a combination hard rubber and metal spike. Twist one way and the spike comes out, the other way makes it go away. I picked up a second Acratech QR clamp. Now I don’t have to screw anything on or off the camera, tripod, or monopod (I added another QR clamp to my Black Rapid RS-7).