Holiday Photography Buyers Guide: 2013
The holidays are here and it's a time where many of us are considering new additions to our photography kit. Whether you're looking to add to your wishlist, need economical ideas for your photography friends or if you're just looking to spend your holiday bonus spoiling yourself, we've got a lot of great suggestions for you. We're going to go through some of our favorite products – some new, some more established – from all categories.
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Camera bodies are difficult to compare unless you've been at this for a while. It's very easy to get swept up in insignificant details such as the megapixels or the on-board editing (really, they are both equally as insignificant these days). So we're going to spend a little time going through why we like each of these cameras. You'll notice that we don't feature any Canon camera's this year. I don't want you to think that we dislike Canon; quite the contrary, they make some excellent cameras. Just that this year, they don't have any bodies that caught our eye. We often see Nikon and Canon trade off from year to year in terms of innovation. Maybe next year, Canon will shut out the other manufacturers.
Advanced Compact All-In-One: Fujifilm X20 ($450 USD) – The initial appeal of Fujifilm's X20 (and the entire X series) is the retro styling. But that's just the icing on the cake. We primarily like the X20 for its hybrid rangefinder interface which overlays information on top of an optical view, or you can easily switch to a digital through-the-lens view. It's easy to use with most of the control through knobs and wheels on the body (not just in menus). Unlike it's X-series bretheren, it has a built-in 4x zoom with an equivalent full-frame focal length of 28.4-112mm. And the image quality of its 12 megapixel sensor makes this camera a serious consideration for those wishing for good quality in a small, convenient package.
Advanced Compact Interchangeable Lens: Sony Alpha 7 ($1,698 USD or $1998 w/ 28-70mm lens) – The Alpha 7 is a beautiful new 24.3 megapixel addition to Sony's mirrorless camera lineup which is available for pre-order now (shipping December 1st). It is the smallest full-frame mirrorless interchangeable lens camera on the market (yes, full frame). We got our hands on it at PDN Photo Plus back in October: Shutter lag was almost non-existent (almost as fast as a pro-body SLR) and the digital viewfinder was responsive (read: no nausea). It's a perfect camera for those who want the convenience of a compact, but still want to change out the lens. For some, the Alpha 7 could even be a replacement for their D-SLRs with its 24.3 megapixel, full-frame sensor.
Cropped Sensor SLR: Nikon D7100 ($1,097) – The Nikon D7100 is cropped-sensor camera that acts like a full-framed model. While full-frame still has the edge, the low-light performance is unparalleled among other cropped-sensor cameras. Even at ISP 800, the noise is more than tolerable. At ISO 6400, a good noise-reduction process will clean up a photo quite easily. The omission of the optical low-pass filter results in sharper imagry, especially at 24.1 megapixels. The camera also boasts 51 point auto-focus (15 of which are cross-type) that covers a large area near the center of the frame. A unique 1.3x crop mode sacrifices a minimal amount of quality in exchange for a smaller frame (now entirely filled with focusing points), a viewable margin to help set up the shot an additional frame per second of continuous shooting (7 fps in 1.3x crop mode, 6 fps in DX mode). With an array of additional pro features like weather sealing, dual memory card slots and so on, this may very well be the choice camera for many pro and semi-pro photographers.
Full-Frame Sensor SLR: Nikon D800E ($2,997 USD) – Like it's brother, the D800, The D800E boasts a full-framed, 36.3 megapixel sensor which is probably more than anyone would ever want. As you would expect, it's low-light performance is top notch, rivaled only by Nikon's flagship D4. The D800 and D800E, on the other hand, are designed for for shooting under controlled environments where speed is not necessary (you're only going to get 4 frames per second with this beast). But you're going to be hard pressed to find a camera rivaling the D800 and D800E on the market in terms of image quality and features. A feature unique to Nikon's lineup is the ability to switch seemlessly between DX (cropped-sensor) and FX (full-frame) formats; a feature only available in the D800, D800E and D610 (also available in the D700 and D600, both retired). This opens up a wide range of supported lenses, but also gives you a few extra perks such as taking advantage of crop factor when you want it, or a slightly faster continuous shooting (5 fps in DX mode). But since we feel that everyone should shoot in RAW, it's the D800E that we like most because it eliminates the Optical Low Pass Filter (OLPF), which does eliminate false color bleed and moire effects at the cost of sharpness. False color and moire is more uncommon at these image sizes, but even so can easily be fixed in post. But we like the sharpest images we can get. So we love the D800E best.
Zen Shooting: Fujifilm X100S ($1,299 USD) – The photographer is always credited with creating the photo and her hardware only assists the photographer to realize her vision. I truly believe that. But sometimes, the hardware makes it so much easier to realize that vision. And so this category exists for that reason. When it comes to shooting in a zen-like manner – and by that we mean that the focus is on shooting great photos without having to worry about the process – we really have a lot of respect for what Fujifilm has done, particularly with the X100S. The lens is fixed on the camera with a fixed focal length of 23mm, which may take some getting used to. But having one less thing to worry about is only the beginning. There are so many settings that you can customize that you can dial it into your preferences and not worry about the technical details…even post-processing (or lack-thereof). The camera has some unique features, like the built-in 3-stop neutral density filter or the macro-quality lens that gets you as close as 10cm from the subject. But the real hero is it's hybrid viewfinder that can be used as a traditional rangefinder (see through the corner) or as a digital through-the-lens viewfinder. The camera is just easy to use that many photographers – including pros – have been carrying the X100S (or its predecessor, the X100) as a side-arm camera.
Honorable Mention: Sigma SD1 Merrill ($1,600 USD) – Sigma's flagship SLR has gone through a few iterations now and it's overall price has come down significantly over the years. But don't let the economical pricing fool you, this is a solid performer contending with the best of everyone else's lineup. The thing that sets the SD1 Merrill apart from its competition is the sensor: a 46 megapixel Foveon X3 sensor. It's actually three separate sensors, each with its own dedicated color sensitivity, sandwiched together. The result is a complete set of data for each color which ultimately means cleaner, more color accurate and sharper images. If 46 megapixels is too much for you, Sigma is unique in offering three different sized RAW files at your choosing. Unfortunately, the camera has two drawbacks: First, it is still a cropped sensor camera, which isn't what we expect from a flagship camera. It will push the effective view of your wide angle lenses too far for some photographers. Second, you will be limited to only Sigma lenses as third party lenses are quite rare. We love Sigma lenses, but we would like to see more options in this regard.
In terms of Lenses, everyone has their specific needs and there are many manufacturers that offer some great lenses in any case. In the big scheme of things, Shutter Photo has grown to like the more versatile third-part manufacturers because of their innovation as of late. The last few years in particular have been great years for third party manufacturers as they step up their game to compete with the robust offerings of Nikon, Canon and Sony. When it comes to a standard lens, like a 50mm or the 24-70mm zoom, everyone offers a great lens and you really can't go wrong. So we're going to focus on the stand-out lenses that are unique among its competitors.
Sigma 8-16mm F4.5-5.6 DC HSM ($650 USD): We reviewed the Sigma 8-16mm zoom last year and we fell in love. Our love affair continues as no one has yet to come out with a rival. It is not a fast lens, but it brings beautiful wide-angle images to the cropped-sensors of nearly all camera bodies, including Sigma, Nikon, Canon, Sony/Minolta and Pentax. As if 8mm isn't rare enough, Sigma put it into a zoom and handled the barrel distortion beautifully. Distortion is impossible to completely eliminate at this focal length, but the distortion is predictable and yields a uniform curvature (as opposed to that wave-like distortion often seen on lenses of this caliper). This is a must-have lens for any landscape or architecture photographer.
Sigma 18-35mm F1.8 DC HSM ($870 USD): Other manufacturers have tried it, but Sigma is the first to master the zoom with a fixed maximum aperture of F/1.8. That's not a typo, the maximum aperture is constant at F/1.8 through the entire zoom range. And to boot, it is among the sharpest zoom lenses on the market. Built under Sigma's new Global Vision directive, the lenses feature a clean and modern design, are individually tested and inspected before they leave the warehouse and supports the optional Lens Dock (which allows you to correct or tweak the lens's behavior). Some feel that the range of this zoom is a bit too short – hoping it would go up to at least 50mm – but we cannot overlook the sharpness and quality or the aperture capabilities of this lens. At a focal range where every millimeter makes a difference, we feel it's a good fit. Available for Nikon, Canon and Sony.
Lensbaby Composer Pro w/ Sweet 35 Optic ($380 USD): If you aren't familiar with the Lensbaby product line, they specialize in variable focus lenses that allow you to create some cool effects by limiting the focusing area within the frame (not to be confused with a tilt/shift lens that shifts the entire focus plane). The Lensbabys have always been fun little lenses to play and create with. But they might have been a little off-putting for some photographers who shun the idea of adjusting the aperture by literally putting washers inside the magnetic lens. The Sweet 35 Optic gives you aperture control just like your classic aperture ringed lenses; much easier to control and you don't run the risk of literally losing F/8 while making adjustments.
Holga (Plastic) Lens ($20-$25 USD for Nikon or Canon): It's a cheap, plastic lens. Made popular by the world of Lomography, plastic lenses are known for their soft focusing and ethereal image qualities. The results are a matter of taste – at least in your own works – but many admit that there's just something about plastic lenses. However, serious photographers sometimes have difficulty with the concept of using a cheap plastic camera body to get it, or they just don't wish to use film. Now Holga offers its cheap lenses that can be mounted on any more robust (and significantly more expensive) Nikon or Canon bodies.
A tripod is a photographer's best friend. It opens up a number of doors to a wide array of photographic techniques, from landscape to long exposure and even self portraiture. So it's worth it to get a tripod that will outlast even your camera body. Most high quality tripods have interchangeable heads. In many cases, you would buy the legs and the head separately. Most are also sold in the form of kits containing both the legs and a head. For the purpose of our recommendations here, we're going to focus on those kits. But if you prefer a different style head, there is likely a kit that would accommodate, or at least you could buy the legs and head separately to meet your needs. Here's a few of our favorite tripods:
Bare-Bones Work-Horse: Manfrotto 293 Aluminum Tripod with Ball Head ($150) – Among the semi-pro and pro grade tripods, Manfrotto is a household name. Many people like carbon fiber tripods, but when it comes to stability, aluminum gives you the biggest bang for the buck. With that in mind, we love the Manfrotto 293 legs. Each leg has three sections with quick-locking flaps so you can open it up in a hurry. The legs can open up beyond their normal open position so you can get really low or setup in unusual situations without sacrificing stability. Additionally, the center column can be reversed and the heads are interchangeable. The kit we like most comes with a mini ball-head, which is a popular head. The kit can hold up to 8.82 pounds (4 kg), or you can get the 294 Aluminum which holds a little over 11 pounds (5 kg).
Versatile and Easily Portable: MePhoto RoadTrip Tripod ($189) – MePhoto is an eye-catching tripod because it is available in a wide range of colors. The color palette has some photographers questioning whether it's a serious brand or not, but we aren't concerned with that: They are solid tripods. Of their lineup, the tripod we love most is the MePhoto RoadTrip tripod. It's name, which stems from it's small 3.6 pound, 15.4″ collapsed stature, is a bit deceiving. In use, the tiny tripod can support up to 17.6 pounds, so this is a contender in the professional world. What's unique about MePhoto's lineup is that their legs collapse around the head and center column, eliminating much of the length of a traditional tripod design. Of course this also means that you have a wide range of leg angles for those uncomfortable scenarios. And you can even remove one of the legs and attach it to the center column as a monopod. Included is a color-coordinated mini ball-head with an Arca-Swiss style camera plate (slide-on, screw to tighten). Because of the way the tripod folds, an after-market head is likely not an option. But the head is well made, so we don't think that will be a serious problem for most. So you'll want this tripod for it's versatility and its support. But while you're at it, you might as well get a color you like.
Professional Quality: Vanguard Alta Pro 284CB Carbon Fiber Tripod w/ SBH-100 Ball Head ($330 USD) – Carbon Fiber allows you to pack a lot of features into a tripod without adding a lot of weight. The Vanguard Alta Pro 284CB is a full-sized tripod capable of extending up to 67″ tall while holding 15.4 pounds, yet it only weighs 3.8 pounds. The tripod legs are a durable carbon fiber with four sections, each with a dependable twist-locks and spiked rubber feet. The legs can be extended out to 25, 50 and 80 degree angles. And the center column can rotate, at the flip of a switch, a full 180 degrees to place the camera upright, upside-down or anywhere in between – a must-have feature for close-up photographers. Included in this kit is Vanguard's coveted SBH-100 Ball Head that has smooth operation and a quick-release mechanism.
It's easy to forget about the smaller accessories. But some of the items that will have the greatest impact on your photography are the simplest – and often most economical – add on accessories. Here's a list of our favorites:
Expodisc Neutral White Balance Filter ($99-149 USD): Most current cameras are pretty good with white balance, capturing colors pretty accurately. But not perfectly, and certainly not under certain conditions. If you want to make sure that color is perfect every time, you need to use preset white balance. The Expodisc is a simple and easy tool that quickly and easily helps you preset a white balance, saving you a lot of time in post. It acts like a lens filter. We recommend the largest (77mm) version to accommodate all lenses, even ones you may not have yet.
Datacolor Spyder4 Pro ($129 USD): Datacolor's monitor calibration tool has been a system we've depended on for years. Now in its fourth iteration – which we reviewed a few months ago – it's faster, smaller and more dependable than ever. Your monitor is biased, so you and your work would benefit greatly from a properly calibrated monitor. The Spyder4 Pro helps you do just that.
Photoshop Lightroom 5 ($110 USD as of this writing): You need to edit and archive your photos. Why not software that does both? Photoshop Lightroom has quickly become the industry standard, and for good reason. It streamlines your workflow with so many easy-to-use non-destructive functions. It also helps you keep your library of completed works organized. Note: The price of Photoshop Lightroom 5 fluctuates as it is on sale often, so we've included a price tracker here.
Promaster HGX Variable ND Filter ($75 USD): Neutral Density Filters are a must-have for landscape photographers as they give you the ability to have longer exposures in broad daylight. They also open up a world of possibilities for street and urban photographers as well. You can buy and stack a number of ND filters, but that increases the chance of vignetting and it's a lot to carry. So we like the Promaster Variable ND Filter which gives you a range of ND 3 (cutting roughly 1 stops) to ND 400 (cutting roughly 9 stops) in a single filter. It works by rotating the bezel to get the desired amount of light-cutting (exposure lengthening) beauty. We recommend using a 77mm filter to accommodate all of your lenses with the appropriate step-up spacer rings, even ones you may not have yet.
LumoPro LP180 Manual Flash ($199 USD): Regardless of your preferred genre, you will eventually wish to get into the world of off-camera flash photography. Don't be fooled by the “automated” systems that the big manufacturers offer for your camera – they aren't as easy to use as you might think, not to mention you give up all control. So you will eventually start working with manual flash to get the desired effects that you want. So you might as well start off in manual (and save some money) by getting an all-manual flash. The LumoPro LP180 offers a number of excellent features, including mini-jack sync cable ports, optical slave (even a delayed mode to work seamlessly with those automatic flash systems), built-in side-mount light-stand socket, a simple interface and all the power of everyone else's flagship flash. You really can't go wrong with this flash.
Rogue Flashbender – Large ($40 USD): Speaking of flash, you will want to have some way to control the light pouring out of your off-camera flash. There are a lot of modifiers to choose from, particularly if you're working in a studio. But if you're out at an event, or if you're working with any mobile setup, you want something that's small and easy to carry. When working under such conditions – like when I'm working inside of dilapidated buildings – I use the Large Rogue Flashbender. It's a large bounce card, of sorts, that can be bent and shaped in a number of ways to control and modify the light. You can curl it to create a small strip, flatten it to fill the room or cup it to narrow the throw of the light. It's not going to rival the larger light modifiers – like umbrellas and soft-boxes – but on the run, you can't match it. Side note: Rogue offers Flashbender reflectors in a number of sizes, but we feel the large reflector is the only one you'll need.
Triggertrap Dongle & Cable Kit (about $32, depending on your setup) – You may be interested in exploring time-lapse photography or sound-triggered photography. And if you are, you might want to pick up an intervalometer which controls your camera for just that very reason. Except that intervalometers are quite complex and can be quite expensive. Alternatively, you could pick up a Triggertrap Dongle & Cable Kit to connect your smart phone (iPhone and Android) to your camera. Triggertrap's free app can then control your camera for time-lapse, GPS based shooting, sound triggered and much more. If you're interested, I highly recommend visiting the Triggertrap website as it will help you to get the correct cable and dongle pair that will match your phone and your camera.
Books For Inspiration and Learning
Scott Kelby's Digital Photography Box Set by Scott Kelby ($58 for the complete set, or each book separately for $20) – If you're new to photography, Scott Kelby's book series is the definitive learning guide. Kelby's approach is like a recipe book consisting of a given scenario and an approach to handling such a shot. He doesn't get into the physics or technical details behind the methods; rather he takes a simple procedural approach to each shot. This is considered by many to be a fresh and simple approach for the beginning photographer as it doesn't confuse or weigh you down with such details. After all, it is Kelby's thought that if you really want to know the technical details, you can look it up later. Also available for Kindle at a discounted price.
Bryan Peterson's Understanding Photography Field Guide by Bryan Peterson ($20 USD) – For the more intermediate photographer, Bryan Peterson compiled all of the best wisdom from his large selection of books into this one small field guide. Peterson is a master of blending the technical details, methodology and general wisdom in his writing. Though his books can be a bit overwhelming for the absolute beginner, there is no one that will be able to explain the proper approach to photography better than Peterson. That said, if you're not familiar with Peterson, be aware that much of his wisdom (including his thought process and fun anecdotal stories) are contained within the photo captions…so be sure to read those. Also available for Kindle at a discounted price.
The Moment It Clicks by Joe McNally ($35 USD) - In the world of photography, Joe McNally is one of the modern greats. With an illustrative career shooting for such high-profile magazines like LIFE, National Geographic and Sports Illustrated (to name a select few), there's no doubt that McNally is a talented photographer. But what is more important is that he is more than willing to share his experiences and wisdom with you through this book. The book is a cross between a coffee table book and an instructional guide, bridging the gap between some fantastic portraits and a behind-the-scenes look at each shot. Even if you aren't a portrait photogrpaher, there is much to be garnered from his candid wisdom. This is a must-have for any photographer's library. Also available for Kindle at a discounted price.
Gifts Under $25 USD
Lenspen ($6 USD) – One use of the Lenspen and you'll brush aside those tiny, useless blower bulbs and brushes. On one end is a thick brush that retracts back into the body when not in use. On the other, behind the cap, is a polishing disk imbibed with a graphite powder. It wipes the dust away and polishes the lens quickly and easily. It's a perfect tool for out in the field.
Holga (Plastic) Lens ($20-$25 USD for Nikon or Canon): We spoke about this above, but to reiterate: It's a cheap, plastic lens that creates soft focused, ethereal images. Even the most regimented photographers will have fun playing with one.
Spirit Level ($8.25 USD) - This is a simple little bubble level that slides into your flash hot-shoe. When setting up on a tripod, this is a great way to make sure your camera is level. It's even easier to use than the bulls-eye levels on your tripod (if your tripod even has one).
Sundroid Pro ($3 USD, available from Google Play) – Sundroid is an easy-to-use tool that helps you figure out the rise and set of the sun and the moon. It also helps you track the phases of the moon and special astrological events such as eclipses. It's simple, but quite effective and an essential tool for any outdoor photographer.
Photographer's Ephemeris ($5 USD, available from Google Play or the iPhone App Store) – The Ephemeris is an app that does everything that Sundroid does, and then some. Not only does it tell you the time of sunset and sunrise, but it will give you an idea of the position of the sun and the direction of the sunlight at any given moment throughout the day. It gives you 3D maps of your location based on GPS or your own input, and it will tell when the moon or sun will appear above certain natural obstructions – like a mountain or compensation for atmospheric refraction. Basically, if you're planning an outdoor excursion, this is the tool that will help you plan for everything except the weather. But there's an app for that too.
Bryan Peterson's Understanding Photography Field Guide by Bryan Peterson ($20 USD) – We mentioned this book above, but here's a brief summary: This book is a field guide filled with all the technical details, methodology and wisdom you could want. It's not necessarily the ideal book for a beginner, but anyone with a year or two experience behind the camera will love it. Also available for Kindle at a discounted price.