Editor’s Choice Holiday Gift Guide 2014

Editors' Choice 2014All of us here at Improve Photography are photo nerds.  Sure, there is a lot more to good photography than the gear, but it is so much fun to talk about the latest stuff.  The Christmas holidays give us a chance to geek out over the things that are on our wish lists.  We hope you all enjoy it and maybe get a few ideas.  Here are the picks from our Editors for 2014 in a few different budget categories

Less than $25

Jim Harmer (Editor in Chief)

Triggertrap!  Triggertrap is an inexpensive wireless cable release with an insane number of features.  You can use it to connect your smartphone to your camera and give the camera a huge load of new features.

For example: bulb mode, locked bulb mode, time release, self-timer, timelapse, timewarp (timelapse with acceleration, distance lapse (takes pictures based on GPS), star trail, bulb ramping, sound sensor, vibration sensor, motion sensor, facial recognition, wifi remote triggering, and long exposure hdr modes.

WOW!  That's a load of features in a tiny little device.  Triggertrap is a steal at $23 on Amazon right now for Nikon or you can pick it up on their website.

Darin Mellor (Second in Command)

Wescott 2001 43-inch White Satin Collapsable Umbrella!  For those just beginning to dabble in off-camera flash photography this is a must to evenly diffuse light and take control of the light.  At about $21 on Amazon you cannot beat this powerful tool that is often overlooked.

5 in 1 reflectorMichael Miceli (Portraits Editor)

The very first thing that will enhance your images, especially in portraiture, is controlling light.  The sun is free, and windows and doorways are great modifiers all by themselves, but a 5-in-1 reflectors gives you worlds of options for bouncing and diffusing light.  Too many times these get left with the white or silver side out only, and the rest of the uses are forgotten.  Gold can be used sparingly to add a beautiful glowing warmth to the highlights of a couple's portrait, or perhaps a bride alone.  Use it as a hairlight to separate her from the blue skies or lush greens behind her.

The black side is a flag, use it to control light spill to keep your flash from hitting the wall behind your subject to change the scene completely.  Use two of them on either side of a subject's face with a strong backlight source and a bounce in front to create shadows on the sides of the face.

And don't forget to strip it out of it's jacket sometimes to use the inner disk as a diffuser for a strong light source (like the sun) to soften the shadows on your subject's face.

Pec Pad Digital Survival Kit
Pec Pad sensor cleaning kit

Jeff Harmon (Hobbyist Editor)

This is a really tough category for the holiday gift guide.  Not a lot of meaningful photography related items that are less than $25.  SD cards are always a great option in this price range, be sure to check out my recent post Beginner's Dilemma #2 – Which SD Card to Buy for more information.  But choosing that for the holiday gift guide is too easy since I just got done posting on the topic.  A decent UV, polarizing, or ND (variable or otherwise) can be in this price range, and if you got a single filter that might be true.  But cheap filters can really kill the image quality of your shots so I don't want that to be my recommendation.  I think this year I'll go with Darin's doodad of the week on the podcast a couple of weeks ago – Pec Pad sensor swabs “Digital Survival Kit” like the one for Canon crop sensor bodies here (make sure you know which size you need for your specific camera body).

Sensors get dirty pretty easily.  Even if you are super fast on lens changes and make sure to hold the camera body with the sensor down as you do the change, you are going to get dirt in there.  You can fix sensor dirt spots fairly easily in post, Lightroom has a super simple spot healing brush that takes care of it very quickly in most cases.  But that adds time to your workflow and in some cases the spot may end up somewhere in the photo that is really hard to fix in post.  So, occasionally that sensor is going to need to be cleaned and a hobbyist working on a tight budget will need to learn how to do that themselves.  It can be a little scary the first time or two since that sensor accounts for 2/3 or more of the cost of the camera, but it really isn't too bad after you have done it a couple of times.

Giottos Rocket Blaster
Giottos Rocket Blaster

Along the lines of sensor and lens cleaning, another great idea in this price range is the Giottos Rocket Air Blaster.  I use this one before every client shoot I do (family portraits) to blow out dust particles in my body and on my lenses.  It can't get them all, especially if any moisture was added to the dust particles, but it usually improves things a lot in a very quick and safe way.




Less than $50

Screen Shot 2014-12-16 at 8.50.39 PMJim Harmer (Editor in Chief)

I admit it.  I'm cheating by a couple dollars, but having a decent size of an octabank can be really nice for portraits.  I use the Fotodiox octabank softbox for a lot of my portrait photography.

I like it because it's a controlled light that doesn't spill over everything, but is still quite soft.  It also doesn't catch the wind too much so it won't blow over too easily.

I attach my softboxes to the end of a monopod so it's easier to have an assistant hold, and less cumbersome than a lightstand.

Darin Mellor (Second in Command)

Like Jim's mine is a bit over $50 if you count all twelve payments of $9.99, but the Adobe Creative Cloud Photography Plan is a steal giving the budding or seasoned professional access to the very powerful and popular Lightroom and Photoshop tools.  It may be a subscription, but at least the days of paying almost a thousand dollars for Adobe's boxed software are behind us, I hope.  Jim has mentioned this one below, but I like to look at the monthly bill instead of the annual one!

Terence Fominaya (Features Editor)

51A-H5pZzrL._SL1000_A Rogue Flashbender – I like to use it to soften light on the fly.  Living in Arizona, there are a lot of beautiful day trips.  You can guarantee everyone wants their picture taken in front of the Grand Canyon.  The Flashbender works as a mini-softbox and helps cut down on harsh shadows.  I've also used it as a hair light.  I like it more than traditional on flash softeners because I can bend it and it can serve other purposes as well.  You can curl it into a snoot, or flip it around and use it as a flag.  There are multiple sizes, so larger is naturally more expensive.

Michael Miceli (Portraits Editor)gary fong

Similar to Terence's idea, the Gary Fong Lightsphere controls and modifies the light from a speedlight.  Where the Rogue is far more flexible, the Lightsphere is meant to do one job and do it well, soften and diffuse the lightsource for more pleasing portraits.  This one addition will elevate your flash photos to new levels and emulate a much larger light source.  The light will be much more even and soft, and you;ll have a lot less of the spurious highlights to deal with in editing.


Jeff Harmon (Hobbyist Editor)

Lowerpro Sling Shot backpack
Lowerpro Sling Shot 102AW backpack

Going to $50 opens up a few more options, but still not many in the photography world.  Batteries, higher capacity and performance memory cards, maybe a high quality filter if you found one on discount could end up in a recommendation here.  But I am going to recommend something still on my wish list that would make a big difference in my landscape photography – the Lowerpro Sling Shot 102AW backpack.

I have always enjoyed getting out and enjoying nature, but since I picked up my first DSLR in late 2011 this has changed entirely for me.  I love to try my hand at capturing and trying to reproduce the amazing beauty of nature with an electronic sensor and post processing software.  However, I am taking my very good but not hiking friendly Ape Case Pro camera bag as I head out, and I would love to have this instead.  I don't have experience with it myself, but a similar model has been recommended by Jim and I have read a number of other photographers who have said this is a good bag for the price, which is regularly $100 but was $40 at Amazon at the time of this post.

Less than $100

Screen Shot 2014-12-16 at 8.45.39 PMJim Harmer (Editor in Chief)

Not even a question–it's the YN560III.  It's just like Mike's TT850 flash recommended below… but better (just kidding, Mike!).  I don't pretend that the Yongnuo flash is the only inexpensive flash, but I personally prefer this brand because they have built a very powerful system around these little flashes.

I've owned flash systems 20 times more expensive than the YN560s, but these are still my favorite flashes.  They are dead simple to use, cheap enough to be nearly disposable (I have a reputation for being pretty rough on my gear…), and reliable.

You can pick up a YN560III flash for $70 and still have the budget to get a wireless transmitter (click here for the Canon and click here for the Nikon) and stay under $100.  Simply attach the trigger to your hotshoe on the camera and turn on the flash and it fires.  No special camera settings required.

Darin Mellor (Second in Command)

Cotton Carrier Strap-Shot Backpack Add-On!  This little device has helped both my father and I when traveling and needing to keep our camera ready, but not tie up our hands or neck.  Check out this nifty device at $79.99 on Amazon for a really convenient way to access your camera from your gear bag's strap on the go.

Terrence Fominaya (Features Editor)

At $125, slightly over budget, but the Canon Nifty Fifty 1.8 II.  You might be able to find a sale though.  I've known plenty of people who spent over $1000 on a camera to get better low light performance.  With a maximum aperture of 1.8, it let's in 2 stops more light than almost every Canon zoom lens.  Because it is a prime lens, it is amazingly sharp as you stop down. Many people argue that the 50mm 1.8 is the best value for your money lens out there.  I don't disagree.

Michael Miceli (Portraits Editor)TT850

At just over the hundred buck mark is the Newwer TT850 (Godox TT850) manual flash with Lithium Ion battery pack.

This is a fully manual flash, no TTL here, so why am I such a fan?  Most established event and portrait photographers shoot with full manual control over the flash.  There are plenty of times when a high quality TTL flash works brilliantly, and just as many where it fails to deliver your intended results.  Often we are making choices not based on the “correct” exposure as the camera may read it, but are crafting complete looks with the knowledge of how much light we are putting where.  At a hundred bucks, this is an easy way into full manual flash photography, and it has the added benefit of having a super recycle time and a rechargeable battery pack that lasts all day shooting, or even over multiple days.  Once you take full control of your flash and master it, you'll appreciate the simplicity of the large knob on the back of the flash for controlling power at the touch of a finger.

Jeff Harmon (Hobbyist Editor)

Adobe Create Cloud Photography Plan
Adobe Create Cloud Photography Plan

Aaah, now we're talking.  Seems to me a $100 gift is just about the sweet spot for hobbyist photographers since this is most likely still within a real budget for a holiday gift and can actually be meaningful.  So the pressure is on to make sure I have a good pick here.  At $120 the Adobe Creative Cloud Photography plan that includes a years access to the latest version of Lightroom and Photoshop is just barely out of budget and if you our the photographer on your list doesn't have this then see if you can stretch a bit and make that happen.  Watch for a hobbyist centered article on this topic soon, but to sum it up Lightroom is a very important tool for every photographer to have.  Unfortunately there doesn't seem to be a way to pay for only 10 months of a subscription to get it down to $100 so this can't be my pick.

I wish another item on my wish list, a Tiffen Variable ND Filter, was in this price range, but alas at about $150 it is slightly over the budget.  If you can go the $50 extra then this would make a great addition to a hobbyist camera bag to help get those silky water landscapes and help with video in the harsh sunlight (since your shutter speed is constrained and aperture only takes you so far).

Photo training at $98!
Photo training at $98!

So, my pick here is going to feel a little self-serving, but I am going to recommend one of Jim and Darin's classes over at photoclasses.com.  At $98 this really is a steal for what you get.  30 days worth of personalized training.  You watch a video every day, learn some technique, then have the ability to work through things with Jim and Darin – including sending them shots and asking for help on what to do to improve throughout the month.  There are courses for beginners, portrait, Photoshop, and Lightroom among others.  Any of these will do a lot to helping you improve your photography, especially if you are just getting started.


Less than $500

Screen Shot 2014-12-16 at 8.44.32 PMJim Harmer (Editor in Chief)

For me, it's the Feisol CT3442 tripod.  I've searched long and hard for the perfect tripod, and this Spring I found it in the Feisol.

It's lightweight, tiny enough to fit on my photo bag, extends tall enough so I don't have to scrunch down, doesn't have a center column so you can go really low, allows you to reverse the legs over the head, etc.  I sleep next to it every night and cuddle it gently as I fall asleep.

At $400 it's not a cheap tripod when compared to the Manfrottos and the MeFotos of the world, but when you compare it to the high end tripods like the Gitzos, you'll see that it's just as good for half the cost.  Check it out on Amazon.

Darin Mellor (Second in Command)

For me I worry about losing data and we are looking at a $500 budget.  $500 will not get you too far in the world of RAID drives, but for less than $500 (at about $160 each), you can start redundant backups straight away!  There are going to be people who will argue Western Digital or Seagate until both of you are blue in the face, but both companies are solid in my honest opinion.  So for about $320 on Amazon you can pick up two 5TB Seagate Backup Drives to get you started in protecting your work.

Terrence Fominaya (Features Editor)

Right at $500 is the Canon 600EX-RT Speedlite.  You can save a lot by buying a Yongnou Speedlite and hotshoe radio trigger ($90 – Jim uses them).  Or if you want to stick with your camera manufacturer you can do that too.  My first Speedlite was the Canon 430 EXII ($250), and it changed my photography forever.  The ability to control light allowed me to start looking at light (including natural light).  It also allowed me to work more creatively on photography indoors during our long Phoenix summers.  The reverse will be true for those of you who are in your months of suffering right now.  Flash photography is a whole new learning curve, there are many articles on Improve Photography on the subject, and many more to come.

Michael Miceli (Portraits Editor)Sigma 50mm

I've got two choices for you in this range, a flash and a lens.  First the lens, a Sigma 50mm f1.4.  Half the price of the Art line of lenses which are phenominal, this is still an EX lens with excellent performance.  Why a 50mm?  It's a great focal range on both full frame cameras as well as being closer to the 85mm field of view on crop frame cameras.  This makes it a two-fer if you happen to have one of each kind of body.  The wide aperture allows for far faster shutter speeds and narrower depth of field than kit lenses, and being a prime will help most photographers evolve to the next step in their growth.

And now for my second flash recommendation, the Newwer AD-360 portable bare bulb 360 watt second flash and battery comboAD360This little gem is a full 360 watt second bare bulb flash with a huge battery pack.  Coupled with a wireless trigger system like the Newwer FT16, and it's a powerful, portable single unit that can do a ton of work.  It's small enough to be camera mounted, but get it onto it's own stand, put a softbox or umbrella on it, and it really shines as a single source portable portrait setup.  You can also get a receiver for the TT850 flash I talked about in the sub $100 category, and link them all together, remotely controlling the power for up to 16 units from the camera.

Jeff Harmon (Hobbyist Editor)

30" IPS LED monitor
30″ IPS LED monitor

$500 is a pretty good stretch to my holiday gift budget, but if that isn't a challenge for you then you can really get something pretty good.  Although this still isn't quite enough to get something great like a new camera body or a great lens (which are more like $700 to $2500), you could combine a few of the suggestions just over budget in other categories and bring in a lot of holiday cheer.  But that would be a really boring pick.  So I am going to go a little above the budget to $550 on this one and recommend something that has no business even being close to this budget – a 30″ IPS LED monitor that supports a resolution of 2560×1600.  Unlike a lot of the other items I have recommended that are coming from my wish list, I bought this monitor from Monoprice.com in September of 2014 and I absolutely love it.

I am going to be writing a hobbyist centered article about my experience here soon, but just as Jim has mentioned a number of times in recent podcasts, a big screen with high resolution really helps in post processing.  HP, Dell, and a few other more niche manufacturers may offer better features in their monitors, but the quality of the screen itself here is second to none.  Combine that with the price tag that is nearly half the cost of comparable monitors makes this an incredible deal.  If the $50 over budget kills the deal for you, then this 27″ IPS monitor that also supports the awesome 2560×1600 resolution is only $360.

That said, you do need to understand that I am a PC user, and have read that Mac users have had troubles getting these Monoprice monitors to work even though they have DisplayPort ports that should work with thunderbolt.  So, if you are a Mac user, this pick is not for you.

Unlimited Budget

Screen Shot 2014-12-16 at 8.43.07 PMJim Harmer (Editor in Chief)

The 70-200mm f/2.8 is the ultimate lens.  I've never met a professional photographer who doesn't own one.   Canon and Nikon both make fantastic 70-200s at over $2,000, but I don't think that price is justified for most photographers who are on a budget.

For most, I recommend the Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8, which is 95% as good for $1,000 less.

There are a lot of great portrait lenses, but the 70-200 is irreplaceable in a lens lineup.  On top of that, it doubles as a great sports lens for closer indoor sports like basketball.

Darin Mellor (Second in Command)

Jim might give me a hard time about this one, but I really loved shooting pretty heavily in the studio recently and this is when I fell in love with the Paul C. Buff – Einstein E640 Flash Unit price in at $499.99 with his Giant Foldable Softbox at around $160.  Jim has shot these before and cautions users these are for in-studio use unless you have a couple assistants to help you lug this around on location.  Either way, I think this is really cool and is a fair price.

Terrence Fominaya (Features Editor)

Tokina 11-16 IIA new lens.  You have to know what your photographer likes here.  Get a wide angle lens for landscapes, a Prime for Low Light photography and shallow depth of field, a mid range zoom for a good walk around lens, or telephoto for action and wildlife.  Jim has a few lens guides here.  I picked up one off the list for my birthday in August, the Canon 85mm 1.8.  Its a great portrait lens, and many believe it has the fastest focus in the Canon lineup so I will be using it for indoor sports as well.  I wrote my letter to Santa while the Turkey was still hot and asked for  the Tokina 11-16 II, also on Jim's list.  The good news, the price recently dropped below $500 at Amazon, check it out here.  This is an ultra wide landscape lens which can give amazing depth of field.  I rented the original version of this lens for a weekend a couple of months ago and took one of my favorite shots of all time with it.  There are many other options depending on your photographer's needs and how truly “unlimited” the budget is.

Michael Miceli (Portraits Editor)

I love dreaming, and dreaming big, so to pull out all the stops, or at least most of them, then for portraits we can't help but talk about names like Hasselblad and Phase One cameras, Broncolor lighting, and a dedicated huge shooting studio with room to drive the Ferrari into for the shoot.  When I'm slightly more realistic, I look at things like the Pentax 645D medium format digital camera at slightly over $4k for the body, it's in a slightly more affordable range for most.  Coupled with a great light source and modifier like the Fotodiox 88″ Parabolic reflector, amazing images are only a click, and some time, away.

Happy Holidays, and Happy Shooting!

Jeff Harmon (Hobbyist Editor)

Canon 7D MII camera body
Canon 7D MII camera body

Now to the dream pick where we get to pretend that we have no budget and dream about some expensive piece of gear or maybe an exotic trip.  I could opt for some expensive piece of glass here, I have my eye on a couple of them.  Or it could go for that leap from crop sensor to full frame.  Or I could really go beyond the realm of possibility for me and recommend a new decked out 5K iMac (hang on while I clean up the drool).  But trying to stay a little bit realistic there is no question what my 2014 pick is here for a hobbyist photographer.  It is the thing I am most excited about right now and the gear I am saving all of my pennies towards next.  I think it will really help me improve my photography better than anything else at this point in my photography journey.  If you have been a reader of the website you have already seen my argument about it being the Ultimate Hobbyist Body – the Canon 7D MII.

At $1,800 for the late 2014 updated camera body alone, it isn't cheap.  You could get a full frame Canon 6D for that cost (have already seen a few deals for less than this price).  Or there are a lot of very cool mirrorless camera bodies that come in well below this cost with some arguably better features.  But for me I am very excited with the prospect of more professional level performance (weather proofing, 20 megapixels, very good ISO, speed, speed, speed) while still being able to use my EF-S lenses until I save up enough to get some better EF mount glass (not necessarily Canon).  Seeing a 7D MII under my tree for Christmas would bring lots of holiday joy to the Harmon household.

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