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Holiday Gift Guide for Beginning Photographers

5 Dec

Since I teach photography, December is the month when students, parents, and colleagues all ask me the same question: “What camera should I buy?”

I usually answer their question with some of my own: “What’s your budget?” “What kind of photos are you going to take?” “What size camera are you willing to carry around?” “Will you mainly stay in Auto mode or do you want to learn the art of photography?” After deciding on a camera, I remind them about all the accessories: cases, memory cards, batteries, lenses, filters, tripods, etc.  It’s also important to think about, “What are going to do with the photos after you take them?  Email?  Website?  Prints?”  “Are you willing to spend the time to process the photos in a software program, like Adobe Photoshop, or will you be satisfied with the image on the back of the camera?”

From those conversations comes the idea for this Holiday Gift Guide.  If you want to buy something for yourself this holiday season or a budding photographer this holiday season, this guide will help you choose the perfect present.

For the Enthusiast who is just starting out

Canon Powershot SX120 IS (2009 model) $170/£120 or SX130 IS (2010 model) $199/£150 – My students use the Powershot SX120 IS in my beginning digital photography class.  It’s compact and allows students to experiment and learn about Aperture, Shutter Speed, and ISO.  The camera also has a good range.  The zoom lens is the 35mm equivalent of 28mm at its widest and zooms into 336mm.  The LCD screen on the back of the camera is also very large at 3 inches.  When shooting in the daylight, the image quality is good; however, it doesn’t perform as well indoors, without having to use flash.  While the design is sleek and functional, the body is medium-sized – too big for a pocket but small enough to fit nicely in your hands or purse.  The best part about this camera is that it only uses two AA batteries, and if you buy Lithium batteries, the charge lasts a long time. This is a great camera for someone who is young and brand new to photography.  Only buy this model if you can’t afford the S95 or you prefer to zoom in on far away subjects for sports or wildlife photography.

Canon PowerShot S95 $370/£295 – The most compact, pocketable digital camera on the market today.  The image quality of this point and shoot camera is absolutely stunning!  The Powershot S95 also shoots video and comes with a f2.0 lens, which makes it easier to shoot in low light.  Like the SX120, it comes with face recognition auto-focusing, but the S95 has a better ISO range.  You can shoot up to 3200 ISO on this little camera.  The Powershot S95 comes with a rechargeable Li-ion battery and battery charger.  (I would also buy an extra NB-6L battery for $20, just in case.)  If you want to treat someone to a great camera this holiday, this is the one to get.  A member of my family might find this in her stocking this Christmas.

A Gift Card for Prints: Ever go to the store to get your photos printed and the color doesn’t look like the back of your camera or computer monitor?  There are plenty of printing labs available to consumers, but the ones that do the best color corrections are Mpix (U.S.A.) and Photobox (UK).  Buy the photographer on your list a gift card at Mpix and Photobox, and they will love the prints.

For the Hobbyist who has taken a photography course or two

Nikon D90 $740/£619 (Body Only) OR Canon EOS Rebel T2i $700 /550D £580 (Body Only) – Which one do you choose?  Canon and Nikon are a lot like Adidas and Nike.  You’ve got to try them on.  While the features are largely the same, the feel of the handgrip is very different.  Putting your hands on one of these big boys will let you know right away if it’s for you or not.  I’ve often found that Canon grips are for a smaller hand size, so I’ve recommended them to females.  However, you’ve got to test drive them yourself.  Also, ask yourself what brand do your friends have?  If they have Nikon, then it’s easier to borrow their gear and lenses.  Same with Canon.  Both of these entry-level DSLR cameras are excellent cameras.  You’ll be able to blur the background and play around with the depth of field more than a point and shoot camera.  You’ll also feel like a “real” photographer.  There’s no better sound than the clicking of the shutter on a DSLR camera.  Resist the temptation to buy the “kit” lens that comes with the camera with all your might.  The lenses that usually come with these cameras are not very sharp.  Once you become a seasoned photographer, you’ll realize that it’s not the camera that makes or breaks the photo, it’s the lens.  Just buy the Body only!  If you can’t afford these models, Nikon’s bargain entry-level DSLRs are the D3000 (Body Only) $450 and the D5000 (Body Only) $510. Canon’s entry-level DSLR is the Canon EOS Digital XS $440 / 1000D £300

Nikon 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G AF-S ED VR II $710 / £480 OR Canon EF-S 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 IS $575 / £390 – Instead of buying the kit lens that usually comes with the camera (usually an 18-55mm) and then having to buy another telephoto lens (usually 55-200mm) later on to extend the range of your zoom , why not buy a better quality lens and have two lenses in one?  Both Nikon and Canon make an 18-200mm zoom lens.  Both lenses have vibration reduction/image stabilization technology to help you hand-hold the camera in low light.  For the person who likes to take photos during vacations or business trips, this is the one lens that will do everything.  That said, it is expensive.  It’s about the same price as the camera.  Nevertheless, this is a lens that will last and make sharp images time after time.  If you never have ambitions to be a semi-pro or professional photographer, this is the only zoom lens you’ll ever need.

Nikon 50mm f1.8D AF $120 / £100 OR Canon EF 50mm f1.8 II $108 / £80 – This lens has a fixed-focal length of 50mm.  In other words, it doesn’t zoom in or out.  It’s always 50mm.  If you have aspirations to learn more about photography and become a serious photographer, this should be your first lens, not the 18-200mm zoom.  This lens is a super sharp lens that allows you to easily blur the background at f1.8.  You’ll learn a lot about photography using this lens because you’ll have to zoom with your feet.  This is one of my favorite lenses, and when my students purchase this lens, they never want to use anything else.

Nikon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G ED IF AF-S VR $500 / £370 OR Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM $500 / £370 – If you’re serious about sports or wildlife photography and that’s about all you shoot, then the 70-300mm is the best lens for you.  You’ll be able to zoom into 300mm, which will bring the action up close and freeze subjects in their tracks.  This is an amazing value for a lens that extends to 300mm with vibration reduction/image stabilization technology. You’ll love the crisp images too.

Tiffen or Hoya UV Filters $16-40 / £8-30 – A UV filter is simply protection for your lens.  If you drop your camera and find that only your UV filter is shattered and not your expensive lens, you will thank me a hundred fold.  Anyone who doesn’t have this protective filter better have a darn good insurance policy on their lens.  Please Note: Make sure you get the right one by checking the thread size of the lens.  For instance, Nikon’s 70-300mm lens has a filter size of 67mm.

Cleaning Kit $20 – It doesn’t matter what brand you get, but every photographer needs a cleaning kit.  You want to protect your expensive gear from dust or else you’ll look at your images on the computer screen and see dots all over it.  And it won’t be on just one image; it’ll be on all of your photos.  After I use my camera, I clean my gear before putting it away.  This kit comes with all the essentials for cleaning your lens, but I would also purchase a Giotto blower for $10, which is the first line of defense against dust on your sensor.

Scott Kelby’s Digital Photography Book vol 1 $17 / £7 – If you want to learn the basics of travel, landscape, portraits, wildlife, and sports photography, this is the book for you.  Its layout is super easy to read.  Plus, there are tons of great tips and tricks of the trade.  Not only will you learn how to shoot like the pros, but you’ll laugh at Scott Kelby’s sense of humor.  The chapter on “How to Avoid Problems and Digital Headaches” will also save you time and money.  I highly recommend his book to get you started out in the right direction.  When you become more advanced, you’ll want to buy Scott Kelby’s Digital Photography Book Volume 2 and Volume 3.

Understanding Exposure by Bryan Peterson $15 / £10 – Without a doubt, this is the best book on the ins and outs of learning aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.  Many of the lessons that I teach to my middle school photography students come right out of this book.  Never again will you shoot in Auto mode. You’ll be using Aperture priority, Shutter Speed priority, and even Manual mode in no time.  Bryan Peterson’s accessible writing, fun exercises, and captivating images will inspire you to take your photography to the next level.

Lowepro Slingshot 202 AW $90 / £44 or Tamrac Aero Speedpack 85 (Photo/Laptop Backpack) $130 / £82 – Always get a bigger bag than you need.  Why?  Most likely you will add accessories over time, like extra batteries, extra memory cards, and more lenses.  While the Lowepro Slingshot is great for taking pictures around your neighborhood, the Tamrac Aero 85 is designed for airplane travel and shooting in distant places.  It also has room for a laptop.  This was my favorite bag for years.

SanDisk Extreme Class 10 High Performance Memory Cards – I have heard so many stories of people who buy cheap memory cards only to have these cards die on them.  If you want to protect your images, get better memory cards and keep them safe in a memory card holder/wallet.  These SD cards come in a variety of memory sizes – 2GB, 4GB, 8GB, 16GB, and even 32GB.  The most important aspect is how fast the data is written to the card and how long it takes to download the files to the computer.  At 30MB/s, these memory cards are extremely fast and affordable.  If you’re going on a trip, make sure to take more than one.

Adobe Photoshop Elements 9 $68 / £58 – Do you know how many times I’ve heard my students exclaim “Wow!” when they see the difference between an image right out of the camera versus a processed image in Photoshop?  Your images will look 10x better when they are processed using a photo editor.  And you don’t need the full version of Adobe Photoshop ($600) to make your photos look great.  Adobe Photoshop Elements is very powerful and a bargain that can’t be beat.  The time and energy you spend in front of the computer will definitely be worth it.

Joby GP3 Gorillapod SLR-Zoom Flexible Tripod for Digital SLR Cameras with Ballhead $55 / £60 – This flexible but strong tripod allows you to get the photos that no one else has.  The Gorillapod can wrap itself around almost anything – poles, bicycle handlebars, tree branches, etc.  I always tell my students to get their camera in a different place, and the Joby Gorillapod forces photographers to experiment and have fun while doing it.  This little tripod is perfect for low angle shoots, self-portraits, and night photography too.

Canon Lens Mug or Nikon Lens Mug – Last but not least is the ultimate present for the the photographer on your list.  It looks so much like a real camera lens that it fools everyone.  In recent months, there have been some very expensive versions of this mug online, but the place to go is Photojojo.com, where the Canon lens mug is only $24 and the Nikon lens mug is $30.  The lens cap is the lid!  What could be a better gift?  (Or you could play a dirty trick and make them think that you bought them a real lens.  They won’t be too happy with you, but it’s still an awesome prank!)

I hope this guide was helpful.  Please comment and let me know.  Happy Holidays!