Adafruit Holiday Gift Guide 2012 – Photography

Photography: bringing people together since the 19th century.

Today’s gift guide is all about photography. In this guide, I’m going to present a few handy tools that I’ve found useful as a working photographer. Any of these would make a great gift for the photographer in your life (or yourself!). Before we get to that stuff, though, let’s talk about cameras. I would point out that a camera is an item I think everyone should choose for themselves, because it’s a tool of self-expression. However, there are some general rules to keep in mind whether you’re buying for yourself or somebody else. If you’re looking for technical specs or reviews, there are literally hundreds of websites — my personal favorite is dpreview. As far as finding the camera that’s right, though, it’s really all a matter of personal preference. I find it useful to consider the following:

1. How intuitive is it? Are the controls easy to understand (or easily learnable)? Does it feel comfortable to use? If it’s impossible to figure out how to change the focus point or turn the flash off within 30 seconds of picking it up, put the camera down and look at another one. This is probably the most important thing. The only way to take better pictures is with practice, and the learning feedback loop is considerably smoother if the photographer is not constantly fumbling with awkward controls.

2. How comfortable is it? Can you imagine someone carrying it around for an entire day?

3. How durable is it? Will it be tossed into a bag without a second thought, or gingerly returned to the case after each use? Think about how it will be treated, and choose accordingly.

That’s it. Battery life is important (though you should always buy and carry spares), but megapixels don’t matter very much — all modern digital cameras are capable of producing film-quality 8×10 prints. Unless it’s expected that larger prints will be required, 8 megapixels is plenty. Lower Mpix counts also tend to have lower noise, so when shooting a lot in available light without flash, it can actually be an advantage.

Now that we’ve gotten the camera advice out of the way, let’s move on to the gear!

Datacolor Spyder4Pro Monitor Calibration Package ($169 – B&H Photo)

A calibrated monitor is indispensable when it comes to editing photos. On their own, most monitors have a very strong blue-to-green color cast along with poor tone and color rendition. A monitor calibrator analyzes the output of the monitor against a fixed standard, generates a corrected profile, and gives this information to your video card, where it is applied to the output.

The corrected color and tone mean that things look more like they’re supposed to, whether it’s photos you’re editing, movies you are watching, or whatever. If you spend a lot of time in front of the screen, you’ll find a calibrated display is easier to look at, because the greys and whites of the windows actually look grey and white.

Be warned: the first few times you use a calibrated monitor, the greys and whites will look reddish, because you’re used to a blue-tinted display. But eventually, you’ll wonder how you ever got on without one.

Adobe Lightroom 4 ($109.99 – B&H Photo)

For processing of RAW images, I use Adobe Lightroom. Now, to be fair, I have a PC, so I sorta have to use it. If I had a Mac (or a Hackintosh), I would seriously consider Aperture, because it’s an excellent program too. I used to use Photoshop to convert files from RAW, but since I started using Lightroom I find I do 90% of my work in half the time, and I only use PS for more involved editing and retouching. If I just have to color-correct, crop, and downsize, I can do all of that in LR. Lightroom 4 also features support for printing and tethered shooting (for certain cameras), and the ability to upload directly to Flickr, Picasa and other photo-hosting services.

Monolight Strobes (Alienbees 400, 800, 1600 – $225-360, Paul C. Buff, Inc.)

I love these little guys — they’re the only lights I use now. Ladyada uses them too! They’re well made, reliable, not too expensive. Granted, there are less expensive generic monolights out there, but I’ve never found any of them to be as durable as the Bees. And the customer service from Paul C. Buff, the manufacturer, is excellent. I also like that they offer a full line of accessories which are equally well made.

Another point to consider is that it’s very easy to make your own modifiers. Unlike many light systems, which use a custom flange/bayonet for mounting things to the light, the Bees use a a simple spring clamp, which fits inside a 3.5″ circle. If you want to attach your own modifiers, just cut the appropriately-sized hole in them with a hole saw and clamp them on.

There are three models of the classic AlienbBees light: the B400, the B800, and the B1600. The only difference between them is light output. The 400 puts out plenty of light for shooting things like products on a table or headshots, but consider upgrading to a B800 or B1600 if you plan to do large group portraits or use a large softbox (softboxes absorb a LOT of light).

Manfrotto 055XB Tripod with Quick-release Ball Head ($232 – B&H Photo)

You can buy one good tripod for $230 and keep it for life, or you can buy a $99 tripod every 12 months when your old one breaks. Aside from providing a camera platform for self-portraits, a solid tripod is very useful for landscapes and cityscapes. It’s also absolutely critical for macro shooting, where shutter speeds are rather long and vibration can be a significant problem. Speaking of macro…

Dedicated Macro Lens ($300-900, depending on focal length and manufacturer)

For folks looking to take close-up photos to the next level, you should consider buying a dedicated macro lens. Most zoom-telephoto lenses have some macro capability, but it’s limited, and the quality is often less than ideal. Dedicated macro lenses are available for nearly all SLR brands, often in several different performance tiers and focal lengths. Nikon, for example, offers a 40mm macro for cropped sensor (DX) cameras ($276), a 60mm midrange ($550) and their top-of-the-line 105mm with vibration reduction ($900). Likewise, Canon offers a 60mm ($500) and two versions of their 100mm lens — the standard version ($600) and an L version ($900), as well as some specialty lenses. Macro lenses are optimized for performance at close focusing distances and larger magnifications, which means they tend to have greater resolving power. This translates to a much sharper lens in general use.

If you plan to take pictures of subjects like flowers, lenses in the 60mm range (or the Nikon 40mm) are a good choice because they have a wider field of view. They also tend to lighter and be more compact, which is nice if you’re walking around with them all day. The downside is that you have to get closer to small subjects in order to fill the frame, which can be uncomfortable and interfere with lighting (you + your camera block the light).

For subjects which are smaller or further away, the 100mm range is useful because it gives you a greater working distance between the camera and the subject — that is, you don’t have to be right on top of the subject to take a picture of it. These lenses are also wonderful as portrait lenses, due to their large aperture (f/2.8), which allows you to throw the background completely out of focus — many of them have image stabilization too.

A nice compromise between 60 and 100mm is the highly-regarded Tamron 90mm/2.8 ($500), which is available for Nikon, Canon, Sony/Minolta and Pentax cameras, and also has image stabilization.

LowePro SlingShot 202 AW Backpack ($62 – B&H Photo)

A nice, lightweight back for day tripping and hiking. Enough room for three or four lenses, a speedlight, memory cards, and a pocket on top for all your other stuff. It also has a built-in ‘raincoat’ you can deploy to keep your gear nice and dry.

Dedicated Hard Drive for Photos (prices vary by size — numerous vendors)

It’s a wise idea to keep all personal photos on a dedicated hard drive, physically separate from your OS and applications. Store all originals and edits on this drive, and don’t use it for anything else. At least once a year, it’s a good idea to buy a new one, copy the most recent photos onto it, then remove and store the original in a secure place (like a safe or safe-deposit box at a bank). These are your original photos, so you should take care of them.

If you’re going the safe deposit box route, consider buying a smaller 2.5″ laptop harddrive, which takes up less space. Remember that this drive is only used for storing and loading photos, and not for constant use, so you can get away with a 5400RPM model and/or a 16MB cache.

Boom Lightstand with 22-inch Reflector ($85 – B&H Photo)

Great for shooting small stuff on a tabletop, and particularly useful for shooting video. The reflectors can be used to bounce light back into a scene and to provide fill light. You can use the disc without a reflective covering as a diffuser, or use it with a cover to cast a shadow. You can also mount a speedlight on the boom arm to put a light source in an otherwise difficult spot, or use the clips to mount a small acrylic mirror, for a focused fill effect.


Here are your 2012 shipping deadlines for ordering from Adafruit. Please review our shipping section if you have specific questions on how and where we ship worldwide for this holiday season.

UPS ground (USA orders): Place orders by Friday 11am ET – December 14, 2012 – Arrive by 12/24/2012 or sooner.

UPS 3-day (USA orders): Place orders by Wednesday 11am ET – December 19, 2012 – Arrive on 12/24/2012.

UPS 2-day (USA orders): Place orders by Thursday 11am ET – December 20, 2012 – Arrive on 12/24/2012.

UPS overnight (USA orders): Place orders by Friday 11am ET – December 21, 2012 – Arrive on 12/24/2012.

UPS International: Place orders by Monday 11am ET – December 17, 2012. Can take up extra time due to worldwide delays and customs. Should arrive by 12/24/2012 or sooner.

Please note: We do not offer Saturday service for UPS.
Tuesday, Dec. 25, 2012, Christmas, no UPS pickup or delivery service.
Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2013, New Year’s Day, no UPS pickup or delivery service.

United States Postal Service, First Class and Priority (USA orders): Place orders by Friday – December 14, 2012 – Arrive by 12/24/2012 or sooner.

USPS First class mail international (International orders): Place orders by Friday – November 23, 2012. Can take up to 30 days ore more with worldwide delays and customs. Should arrive by 12/24/2012 or sooner, but not a trackable service cannot be guaranteed to arrive by 12/24/12.

USPS Express mail international(International orders): Place orders by Friday – December 14, 2012. Can take up to 15 days or more with worldwide delays and customs. Should arrive by 12/24/2012 or sooner.

Gift Certificates are always available at any time.

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1 Comment

  1. Extension tubes are excellent alternatives to dedicated macro lenses if you know how to use them, for a fraction of the price.

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