Holiday Gift Guide

It's that time of year again and time for my annual gift guide.  You'll find great gift ideas for photographers and videographers of all levels and I've worked to ensure that I cover different budget sizes since we aren't all millionaires.  Well maybe you are, me not at all.

Memory Cards - BUDGET $35 - $85

If the cards you are using, or your lucky giftee is using are more than 3 years old, it's time to replace them.  Flash memory only lasts so long and let's face it, an 8GB card in your new Nikon D810 is a complete waste of time.  In fact if the cards in use are LESS THAN 32GB capacity, this is the right gift.  New cameras need FAST cards, and if you are shooting video, especially 4K video you need really fast cards.  Look for cards rated at MINIMUM UHS1, preferably UHS1 U3 with a continuous guaranteed pipeline of at the very least 80Mbps.  Anything slower is just not going to keep up.  Ignore all the BS around nnnX cards, that means nothing anymore.  Forget Class 10 and Class 6 and look specifically at the pipeline throughput.  You want continuous throughput, not maximum, so stick with cards from Sandisk or Lexar.  Everything else is a risk.  32GB cards are the floor these days, but if you are going to be shooting 4K video, you want at the very MINIMUM to get 64GB cards.  Some new 4K cameras won't even kick into 4K or even XAVC S video modes if the capacity is less than 64GB.  Never run out of space and never spend time shooting juggling small cards.  The old story about lots of small cards being a better option is at best the personal choice of someone who doesn't have reasonably sized cards, and more likely a load of bull poop.  I paid $30 for Lexar 64GB SDXC 95Mbps cards today so you aren't going to go bankrupt with a card buy.

Magnifying Loupe - BUDGET $150 Including Magnifier

I've written before about the value of a loupe to view your LCD when the light is too bright to see it and the value of being able to zoom in to check focus.  I've been less clear, my bad, that a loupe that doesn't magnify while not useless, is working hard to underachieve.  You want a loupe that also magnifies.  A 3x magnification is a really good choice.  Fortunately you can get this sort of thing from folks like Zacuto and Hoodman.  Sometimes you may need to order a magnifying eyepiece for a general purpose loupe and you should do so.  It doesn't matter how much tenure your eyesight has, a good magnifying loupe with adjustable diopter will prevent you from leaving a shoot with soft images and all you have to do is use it.  Loupes are appropriate for photographers and videographers, so search the giftee's gadget bag and if there isn't a loupe there, you've found a perfect gift.  The Hoodman system is excellent and priced competitively

Speedlight Modifiers - BUDGET $250 for Complete Rogue Kit

On camera flash looks like crap.  On camera flash bounced off the ceiling looks better but uses a lot of power and loses a lot of creative control.  Your giftee needs a modifier kit.  Avoid the ones that look like a plastic food container, they spray light everywhere in a completely uncontrolled fashion wasting power and control.  Yes I know that they are popular with some folks.  Trust me, you can do better.  Rogue Flashbender kits are the perfect gift.  They come in Small and Large sizes, have attachable front scrims to turn them into little softboxes and the Extra Large one can even be converted into a very decent strip light.  Do your giftee a real good deed and get him or her the full kit that includes the biggest Flashbender, the softbox conversion, the strip light conversion, some flash gels and even the snoot/grid kit.  You will never get your giftee so much agility and flexibility for such little money.

Pro Level Off Camera Flash - BUDGET $6100 B1 Location Kit with AirTTL Remote

Strobes mean power.  Lots of power, compared to our traditional speedlights.  If your giftee is doing portrait work, or families or teams and needs to work fast and have plenty of depth of field, strobes are the way to go.  You just cannot throw enough speed lights at the problem.  My recommendation is not cheap, but they are killer lights.  The Profoto B1 Location Kit holds two 500ws strobes with full self contained battery packs in an easy to tote backpack.  You do not need AC power for this kit to function, only to charge the batteries.  Add the Air remote for manual power control or the AirTTL remote in Canon or Nikon flavours for TTL and Manual control, all from the camera.  The B1s have Air receivers built in and a fully integrated reflector and diffusion system.  Plus you now have access to the incredible selection of Profoto Light Shaping tools.  Go to any photo rental house, anywhere in the world and you will find Profoto gear.  It is absolutely the choice of pros worldwide and Profoto support is excellent.

Light Stands - BUDGET $180 Manfrotto 1005BAC Ranker Stand

A good light stand is awesome.  A cheap light stand is a full speed trip to hell.  Whether your stands will hold speedlights, reflectors, strobes or continuous lights, good stands last decades and don't fall over with your expensive kit on them.  If you are looking for lighter weight straight stands, get the Manfrotto 1005BAC stands.  They clip together for easy transport and have great capacity.  If your giftee has no light stands at all, their first should be the Manfrotto 420B stand kit which includes a heavy duty stand, extendable boom arm and sandbag counterweight.  Everything in one place that will last for years and that isn't made out of cheap white metal that will bend and fall in a mild breeze.  If for strobes like Profotos or Elinchroms or Bowens or bigger continuous lights like Spiderlite TD6s or KinoFlos get proper C Stands.  A C Stand consists of a base, a riser pole, a pair of knuckles and a boom.  The Avengers are superb.  I personally like the lineup from KUPO.  They are as solid as the Avengers but substantially less expensive.  A good C stand set will last decades.  Don't forget an assortment of sandbags whichever stand you choose.

Colour Checker Passport - BUDGET $130

A grey card is still a very useful item to have in the gadget bag, but what about the other colours?  The ColorChecker Passport is available in a photo and in a video version to ensure that not only your white balance is set correctly but that all your colour captures are capable of being right as well.  Both devices also include general white balance targets, the video unit also offers white and black point sections.  The software that comes with the devices allows the user to make camera / lens specific profiles to use in all kinds of editing software that will save hours of editing time working to get the colour right.

Display Calibration - BUDGET $190

If the photographer in your life is using editing software and is not calibrating the computer display, that person is frustrated because all their editing work looks good only on their computer and looks like cat-yak everywhere else.  A calibrated display is a MUST HAVE for any kind of editing workstation, whether photos or video are being worked on.  A Spyder5 Pro or Color Munki Display will not only get the colours right, they will also measure the ambient light and fix displays that come from the factory set WAY TOO BRIGHT.  Calibrated displays make for better images.  Don't edit without a calibrated display.

Carbon Fibre Tripod with Ball Head - BUDGET $1280 USD

Buy the last tripod first.  Great tripods last for decades and after shooting for over four decades, I have certainly accumulated more than my fair share of tripods.  I standardized a few years ago on products from Really Right Stuff.  The photographer in your life will drool when he or she unpacks a Really Right Stuff TVC-24 or TVC-24L tripod with a BH-40 ball head.  In my opinion, this is the best builder of tripods out there and I swear by their gear.  So do a great many pros.  If video is the prime mover, get the FH-350 Fluid Head instead of the ball head.  Pro grade video heads cost a LOT more than the general retail units so if that head is way outside the budget (that's quite possible) allow me to suggest either of the Manfrotto 502AH Fluid Head or the 055M8 Video Head.  I use Manfrotto video heads frequently including the pro grade 509HD as well as the 055M8 and they are excellent products for quite a bit less than the RRS FH-350.  I'd still like the RRS head though in case Santa was listening and had extra cash in his bag.

Monopod with Monopod Head - BUDGET $670 USD

A monopod without a monopod head is a stick.  Carbon fibre is the way to go for light weight and the best level of vibration dampening.  My recommendation is not inexpensive but will last for decades.  The Really Right Stuff MH-02 LR package is the one to buy.  It includes an MC-34 carbon fibre monopod and an MH-02 Lever Lock tilting monopod head.  A proper monopod head only moves in the tilt direction, you rotate the monopod to pan.  If you need vertical orientation, flip the head over or use an L plate on your camera.  Don't forget to get Arca Swiss compatible plates for your camera and lenses that have tripod feet.

Variable Neutral Density Filter - BUDGET $400 77MM

Both stills and video will benefit from a high quality variable neutral density filter.  Whether you need to cut the light for a wider aperture in bright sun, or you want to pull down your shutter speed to make moving water creamy, a neutral density filter is key.  A variable helps you avoid carrying a stack of ND filters, but stay away from the cheap stuff.  Heliopan Variables are superb.  They are not inexpensive but are truly excellent.  If budget is an issue, you can trust the Tiffen variables as they are used on film sets around the world and deliver excellent value.  Other offerings may give a really bad colour cast and will definitely create moire.  Since many modern cameras no longer have anti-aliasing filters built in, this moire will become very evident and is nearly impossible to remove in post processing.  Save time and buy the best you can get.

Circular Polarizer - BUDGET $270 B+W 77MM MRC

If the photographer in your life shoots outdoors, he or she needs a good polarizing filter to cut glare and reflections.  This is the most important filter a photographer can own.  Buy the largest diameter needed for the largest lens filter size you have and then just get stepping rings for the lenses with smaller filter sizes.  Don't cheap out on the circular polarizer.  Poor quality units will introduce an ugly colour cast and may even create moire.  Stick with B+W or Heliopan for reliable and consistent results.

Canon CP-910 Portable Printer - BUDGET $110

If you or your giftee are making images at special events, there's nothing like the gift of a print right there.  You can put your SD card with JPEG files directly into the printer, or connect to the printer via USB or WiFi from your laptop and quickly print beautiful 4x6 prints.  The Canon system is dye transfer and has beautiful rich colour that is instantly dry.  When you buy a package of paper, it includes the dye transfer roller system needed to make the prints.  It could not be simpler to give prints out at your next family or business event.

Fuji Instax - BUDGET $150

If you or your giftee travel and like making photographs of the local folks, show them some respect by having an Instax camera with you so you can give them their own photo right there and then.  In many parts of the world, a personal photograph is not a common thing and the gift of a photo immediately means a lot more than a promise to email the person an image at sometime in the future.  The Instax comes in Mini, Square and Wide formats.  The Mini produces smaller pictures but is a smaller camera.  The Wide gives the classic 3x4 instant print but is a larger albeit still lightweight product.  Square gives you, you guessed it, square prints.

Atomos Ninja Blade - BUDGET $670

If video is your thing and recording to cards is proving to be the proverbial pain in the backside and especially if you are shooting video from your DSLR or ILC with any level of seriousness, you need a proper recorder with built in display.  Atomos is the go to winner in this space.  The Ninja Blade is the ideal recorder for 1080p Full HD content.  Simply add an SSD drive from your computer store to the tray and you are good to go.  No 29:59 minute recording limit, record right off the camera sensor using standard HDMI out.  If you have a pure video camera, you can also push your Full HD content out to the Ninja Blade over HDMI.  Atomos gear is tough and the Ninja Blade includes a proper LCD display with all the needed functionality for reliable video capture.  Need 4K?  No problem, the brand new Ninja Assassin has you covered for 4K recording over HDMI.  Both units support up to 10 bit recording at 4:2:2 if your camera can drive that, but also drop back to 8 bit if needed.  Both Apple ProRes and AVID DNxHD formats are available at multiple quality levels so you get the quality you need for your project without filling up the drives.

The Adobe Photographer's Bundle $10.99 MONTHLY 

Some people hate the idea of subscription software but most have figured out that at $10 a month USD, this offer from Adobe that includes Lightroom CC and Photoshop CC, along with a variety of Creative Cloud tools is a killer deal.  This is the only way to get the current edition of Photoshop and will be the only way to get Lightroom in the future.  There have been some challenges with some releases, and I've hammered Adobe for them, but for the money, you cannot beat the combo of the top two photographic applications in use today.  Creative Cloud works with both Windows and Macintosh systems and your subscription allows for active installations on two different machines at the same time.

The Killer Point and Shoot - BUDGET $800 - $1000

The photographer in your life may have a good investment in a DSLR or ILC camera with lenses and accessories.  That person probably also has a smartphone capable of decent snapshots.  But what if that person wants something a lot better than a smartphone but a lot smaller than the camera he or she is using today.  Easy-peasy.  The Sony RX100 Mk III or RX100 Mk IV would be ideal.  Both are still in market and the big difference is that the Mk IV will do 4K video.  If your lucky giftee isn't big into video or is very happy with 1080p FullHD, then the Mk III is the route to take.  Small enough to fit in a pocket, but with Sony's industry leading 1 inch BSI CMOS sensor, the photographer in your life will be blown away by the quality.  The cameras shoot in both RAW and JPEG and Sony's innovative Supra-Intelligent Auto is the route to go when all you want is lovely images without thinking about exposure or backlighting or any other photo stuff.  Perfect when you are travelling and a great always with you camera.

AA Rechargeable Batteries - BUDGET $35 4AA and Charger Kit

Batteries are a blessing and a curse.  They give us portability but die at the worst times.  Using alkalines in a speedlight only makes sense if you own either the Duracell or Eveready companies.  The only answer that makes sense are Nickel Metal Hydride (NiMH) rechargeables but even all those are not created equal.  You want batteries with a power capability of AT LEAST 2400mAh and that means most of the rechargeables you encounter in the value aisle will not do the job.  I highly recommend the Eneloop Pro series from Panasonic.  They charge quickly and are rated at 2550mAh.  I use them in speedlights and anything else that has a high power drain.  Note that rechargeables only put out 1.2V on average so if the gear demands the 1.5V of regular alkalines, like some flash triggers, stick with alkalines in those.  For everything else go rechargeable.  Eneloops come precharged so they are ready to go and the charge holds for a good long time.  NiMH batteries do not develop "memory" so can be fully recharged even if only partially drained.

Flash / Umbrella Brackets, Justin Clamps and Super Clamps - BUDGET $35 - $70

Photographers need to put stuff in different places.  Every light stand should have a tilter clamp that can take a spud for a strobe or a cold shoe for a speedlight and also hold an umbrella.  Justin clamps (from just in case) are heavy duty spring clamps with either cold shoes or spuds.  Super clamps can hold an extension arm, a spud, a strobe post and can clamp to pipes, rails, just about anything.  These clamps are indispensable to committed photographers.  Originally the vendor to go to was always Manfrotto for superb quality at fair prices.  We are now starting to see very high quality clone products come out of China for considerably less.  Be sure to check the product out before buying, there are some really horrible units made of very flimsy metals that will break on first go.  

Hot Photo Video ILC - Sony'sA7R Mark II - BUDGET $4000 BODY ONLY

Yes it's a lot of cash, but if the photographer / videographer is looking for a single body with killer still resolution, awesome low light performance, 4K in camera video, tiltable LCD, OLED EVF, access to Zeiss glass and myriad other functions, the A7R Mark II is the hot offering this year.  There are now enough lenses to make Sony ILCs viable and the only real downside is the battery life which is not awesome, so spare batteries are a must for video shooting of any kind of duration.  The camera will do incredible stills, now at 14 bit uncompressed RAW, as well as beautiful 4K video including true Super 35 sensor implementation as well as S-LOG2 Gamma to deliver the proper output for serious colour grading in post.  If there are already lenses from Canon or Nikon, a Metabones Speedbooster will allow mounting with pretty decent performance.  Sony is leading the marketplace with their sensor technology this year with both Nikon (DSLR) and Canon (G9X) using Sony sensors.  The EVF is absolutely brilliant and while there is a learning curve, as with any sophisticated product, the results are worth the time.  Sony FE lenses deliver a full frame image circle on the sensor so there is no compromise in image quality or depth of field control.

Best Starter / Consumer DSLR Nikon D5500 - BUDGET $1100 Body and Two Lens Kit

Readers can look back a month or so and find my detailed review on Nikon's D5500.  For the person starting out with DSLRs or moving up from a D90 or older D3XXX or D5XXX body, this is the camera to go with this year.  The sensor has more pixels and significantly more dynamic range than the major competitors and the camera is very easy to shoot well right out of the box.  The holiday season often sees the body and two lens kit including the 18-55 and 55-200 for a single bundle price that is superb.  Don't forget to get a couple of large fast cards and perhaps a spare battery as part of the package.