It’s that time of year again. The stores are playing holiday music, trees are lit, decorations are going up, and visiting the local Wal-Mart requires protective gear and a bodyguard. For the budding photographer though, the holidays have a deeper, more special meaning, an importance unto itself, which most people could never understand ¾ the possibility of attaining more gear.
All photographers know that their tools are expensive. As a complete inventory, it can be prohibitively so. Because of this, most of us learned early on to ask for new gear every opportunity we get. This includes Christmas, birthdays, Father/Mother’s Day, National Potato Day, and every other holiday worthy of being printed on a calendar. So, what does one get for the emerging photographer who is building his/her kit? Below are 10 ideas of tools you can buy to support your future Ansel Adams or Annie Liebovitz.
As mentioned already, all of the gear that is required to evoke ooohs and ahhhs from our closest smartphone clicking photographer friends is expensive, and it needs to be protected. There are hundreds, if not thousands of options out there to encase, carry, store, and protect camera equipment. Proper protection as an absolute must; for without it, one’s goal of learning, growing, and perhaps eventually profiting from photography can be destroyed in an instant. It only takes one spilled coffee, one snag of a camera strap hanging off of the kitchen table, one rain shower, or one sharp set of keys in a purse to destroy any given piece of kit. Protective gear can be very personal though, so make sure you know what your photographer wants.
It comes in every shape, size, type in color, and the choices can be intimidating. A good camera bag, a camera backpack for hiking, a solid case for those SD memory cards are all good choices that photographers need soon after buying their first camera – and if any of these came with the camera in a kit they were complete garbage. Check out Jim's recommendation for camera bags here. Do some research and get something which will last for years, as well as something he/she can grow into with more gear. Also, make sure that it is designed for camera equipment. A suitcase or school backpack is not suitable (read “acceptable”) for toting around hundreds or thousands of dollars in gear.
Many of us have learned the hard way that our batteries will die when it is the absolute most inconvenient for them to do so. Some of us have learned to carry backups of every size and type required to keep clicking away. AA batteries are always a safe bet. Some gear takes AAA. Be careful with rechargeable ones though, for there is some camera gear that is not friendly to certain types of reusable batteries. In addition, if you are sneaky enough to learn the specific camera being used, extra camera batteries are always a nice backup to have. These can be a bit pricey, and early photographers may not have yet discovered the necessity of having a backup battery specific to his/her camera – but they will.
There are 3rd party camera batteries that are significantly cheaper, and that might not be a bad option for a beginner. In the Improve Photography podcast #92 Jim and Darin debated using 3rd party batteries (Jim likes them, Darin does not). Improve Photography hobbyist editor Jeff Harmon has had good luck with High Voltage and Wasabi branded 3rd party batteries and chargers for Canon cameras.
By definition, the art of photography is all about the light. A budding photographer is, or should be, learning all he/she can learn about finding the light, following it, manipulating it, and creating it. One of the most important pieces of kit any photographer needs, and needs to learn, is the flash. By this, I am not referring to the tiny little firecracker that pops up out of the top of a consumer variety camera. What I am referring to is the larger, more powerful, removable flash, sometimes called a speedlight, Every photographer should own at least one of what is called “off camera flash.” Without getting into too much detail, what this does is give the photographer much more control over the light. Like so many other pieces of gear though, the speedlight is specific to the particular camera, or at least the brand of camera, and depending on the model used, may not be compatible at all.
This is definitely a piece which will require some research before making the purchase. Lower priced speedlights can be found for around $50, and go up from there, sometimes into several hundreds of dollars. Jim has some recommendations on flash gear at different budget levels here.
4. Light Control
In addition to flash, there are many other methods and tools that photographers can use to create and manipulate the perfect light for their intended shot. Many of these can be purchased fairly inexpensively, and make perfect gifts. Diffusers, reflectors, and bounce cards are all great tools in a photographer’s bag of tricks. The ideal way to gift any of these would be to find a combo of some sort that includes any of the aforementioned tools as well as a stand to hold and support it. Just search on Amazon and you may even find a light modifier kit
Another of the most important tools in a photographer’s arsenal is a high quality, sturdy tripod. This is a purchase that should last for years and should not be taken lightly (read “cheaply”). The quality you should be looking for will probably not be found at a Target, Wal-Mart, or Best Buy. Now, unless your photographer has a specific brand or model in mind, you are (almost) always safe with the “you get what you pay for” mentality. That is, with tripods, the more you spend, typically the better the quality you will get. A decent beginner’s tripod with an included head can be found for slightly less than $200, but can easily range into the thousands. Again, your best bet would be to know what camera and lens are being used and head on over to your local camera store for advice. Be sure to check out Jim's advice on tripods for different budgets here. If he/she doesn’t own one already, you can’t go wrong with this gift.
6. Remote Shooting
This is a simple and cheap, though sometimes underused and unappreciated tool. Again very camera specific, this bit of gear is the remote shutter release. What this is is a wired or wireless remote that allows a picture to be taken without actually having to have hands on the camera. This means having the ability to take longer exposures without camera shake, and, with the wireless version, allows for easier self portraits or group shots without having to set a timer and run to get into the shot. These can run from $10-$50.
All of those pictures we spend so much time and money trying to capture have to be kept somewhere. Assuming your growing photographer isn’t still shooting film (though many still do, and there’s nothing wrong with that) then we must be referring to digital storage. The first, and most important (read “can’t take a picture without it”) tool for digital photography is the camera card. There are several types of these, so like many of the other gift ideas in this list, you will need to know which specific camera is being used. Also, like tripods, camera cards are not a one size fits all purchase. There are different speeds and sizes (memory size, not physical size, though that varies too based on the card type). Check Jim's guide to SD cards for a little more information (stay tuned on this topic in another article coming soon!). A decent camera card can be purchased for around $15-30, and ideally, a photographer should have several.
Another tool in this area is the external hard drive. Photographers should always keep backups of their work, and these backups should be apart from their camera card and computer. A small, portable external hard drive is the perfect tool for this, and can be found fairly inexpensively with a ton of memory.
Perhaps the greatest thing about photography these days is the ability to edit and manipulate the image once it is in the computer. However, the only way to do this is with some sort of image editing software. You have probably heard of Photoshop, which is pretty much the standard software for photographers, as well as Lightroom; both of which are made by Adobe. These can be very pricy though, particularly in the case of a gift for someone. There are alternatives though, such as Photoshop Elements, which includes many of the basic tools that are used in the full-blown Photoshop, but it runs about $100 as opposed to the thousand-dollar price tag of Photoshop.
An excellent alternative would be a subscription to Adobe for Photoshop and Lightroom. This is a pay by month use of the software, which is the full version and allows use of all of the tools included therein. This method is very affordable as opposed to purchasing the software outright. If these options don’t appeal to you, there are many other imaging programs available, with prices ranging from a $10 app to $100 program. If you are planning to spend on the higher end of this range, you may want to check with the person for whom you are buying and get a feel for what he/she is wanting to do with it.
9. Camera Care
With all the use that a camera and its accessories get, there is always going to be the inevitable fingerprint or dust on the lens, dirt around buttons, or spots on the camera’s light sensor. Now, most in-depth cleaning and care of a camera should be performed by a certified technician, but simple housekeeping on the camera’s external parts can be done by the photographer. A lens cleaning cloth is a must. A photographer should always be discouraged from wiping his/her lens with a shirttail or other “available” cloth. Another cheap cleaning tool is an air blower like this. This is a simple bulb which emits a soft, gentle, and often filtered puff of air to clean out the camera’s internal parts. With this though, you must be sure to only purchase something which is designed for this purpose. Employing the use of any other method or tool such as a mechanized air compressor canned air is not advised and could permanently damage interior camera components.
Many budding photographers are eager to learn all they can about the art, process, method, and techniques of photography. With this, photography books make great gifts. There are many well-known authors/photographers who have written excellent books on various photographic subjects. Some of them are: Scott Kelby, Joe McNally, Bruce Barnbaum, and Ibarionex Perello, just to name a few. Jim's hands on courses over at photoclasses.com are a great way to help that beginning photographer learn a lot in 30 days. Another excellent gift idea is a magazine subscription to one which is geared toward tips, tricks, and education of photographic subject matter.
Bonus Gift Idea
One of the most expensive tools for a photographer, besides the camera, is the lens. There are hundreds of lens types, sizes, focal lengths, and speeds available. The purchase of a new lens has been the topic of many articles preceding this one, as deciding which lens to purchase can be quite daunting. However, if your photographer has a camera that will accept different lenses, and he/she is fortunate enough to have this gift fall within your budget, then a new lens could be the most important purchase of all.
Often it takes many years of work to be able to afford quality glass (photographer speak for “lens”). To have this given as a gift would give ultimate bragging rights, as well as open up new possibilities to learning different methods and capturing varying types of images. This purchase can range from several hundreds to several thousands (even tens of thousands) of dollars. Unless you are a photographer yourself, it is not a gift to make blindly (pun intended, for a gift you would look through) and you should certainly enlist the expertise of an experienced photographer and/or professional salesperson. If your beginning photographer only has the lens that came with the camera (called a kit lens), then the “nifty fifty” lens like from Canon and Nikon are a great bang for the buck while still offering a lot more quality that what they may already have.
This gift list is not by any means all-encompassing. There are hundreds of tools which photographers use to capture that perfect image, and often it can take years for acquire everything necessary to be a well-rounded photographer. Some tools are cheap. Some tools require a second mortgage or one of those elusive black credit cards to be able to purchase them. However, anything photography related that you could gift to a photographer is always appreciated, and you can count on him/her getting many years of use out of it. Sometimes though, the absolute most important gift you can give to a photographer is your support. Encourage their education, dedication, and enthusiasm toward this wonderful expression of art. Most of all, though don’t force it, make sure they keep those cameras shooting!
This article was guest contributed by Donny Ward.