Photographer’s Holiday Buying Guide: Giving Photos as Gifts

This time of year's always a blur...

At one time or another, we’ve all done the holidays on a shoestring. Sometimes it’s meant buying less stuff, or less expensive stuff. It can also mean making something, from a batch of oatmeal cookies to something else that’s handcrafted. But since we’re talking photography here, let’s just assume for the moment that you’re considering giving photos as gifts. Here are a few commonsense guidelines to save you a bit of time and trouble, while also letting your potential recipient off the hook for having to display something that might not be quite their type.

The first rule of thumb: know the recipient well. Well enough, in fact, that you know their tastes. If it’s someone in the habit of wearing sweatshirts emblazoned with glitter accented, weepy-looking kittens and your primary subject matter is urban exploration, you might want to rethink your approach a little. Yes, I know, it’s your art, and you do it primarily for yourself. And if you were making yourself a gift, that’d do just fine. But if you’re going to give your work to someone else – and you genuinely want that person to enjoy it – consider what they typically hang on their walls.

As a codicil to the advice above, it helps to know how sincere your recipient typically is in their appraisal of your work. If they genuinely enjoy it, you’ve got a situation with potential. If, on the other hand, you strongly suspect that they’re complimenting your work because they’re too kind not to, you may want to consider your alternatives.

The second rule of thumb: Give yourself plenty of time. Whether you’ve got a long list of people who’d practically knock each other over to have your photos hanging on their walls, or just a small handful, you still want to pick out photos best suited to those people, which takes time. Budget additional time for any tweaks you want to make to your photos. Allocate still more so you have time to do a series of test prints (your monitor and printer of choice may have different views of how the finished photo will look). Then allow for the finalized printing, framing and matting.

Third rule of thumb: Don’t cheap out on printing. If you’ve got an inexpensive (read: cheap) photo printer and a stack of cheap photo paper,* you’re very likely to end up with cheap-looking results. That doesn’t mean you need to do canvas or metallic prints, but use a reputable place that’s going to use good (heavy, acid-free) papers and a colorfast print process.

Fourth rule of thumb: Choose a nice frame and mat. Matting supplies can be found at most craft shops, not to mention places that specialize in custom framing, while frames can be found nearly anywhere. Choose a mat that’s either neutral (in the white/off-white family) or complements the colors in your photo, and pair it with a frame that’s appropriate to what it’s going to contain. A frame that has the look of weathered wood or driftwood, for instance, would set off a beach scene nicely. Use a little imagination, and if that fails, go with an unobtrusive, plain black frame.

Fifth rule of thumb: know when not to offer photos as gifts, but don’t be afraid to use your talents. Maybe your starving actor friend respects your photography even though the subject matter isn’t quite her bag. Maybe your cousin’s walls are so spartan they’d make a Quaker meeting house look like Mardi Gras. Offer your services as a photographer, whether it’s for a headshot, a family portrait, or a shot of her dog.

There’s something else to consider, as well. If your recipient takes photos – whether they self-identify as a photographer or not is beside the point – and you’ve got a few extra bucks, consider a digital photo frame. Not only can you pre-load it with a few of your shots that you think they might like, they’ll have the option to display their own work without being tethered to a computer.

*Incidentally, I’m not knocking either of those things, and have both; we can’t all have the top of the line stuff. But if you’re giving your photos as gifts, splurge a little.

Photographer’s Holiday Buying Guide: Gear

I'm with ftupide

If you’re already a photographer, you don’t need me to remind you that the costs for even a basic setup can add up quickly. The good news is, if you wanted to tack a few extras onto your holiday list — or even if you’re searching for a stocking stuffer for the photographer who has (nearly) everything — you can do it without breaking the bank. Here’s the “Hard Times” edition of the holiday gift guide:

  • Giottos Medium Rocket Air Blaster: These come in a number of sizes and prices. As camera equipment goes, they’re pretty cheap (the standard size usually retails for between ten and fifteen bucks), and they’re higher quality. I’ve heard that some of the off-brand versions have talcum powder or some other, similar, substance inside their blowers to keep the rubber from sticking to itself, which creates about as much of a mess as you’d expect. Given that this isn’t an expensive item to start with, pay the extra.
  • Nikon 7072 Lens Pen: Lens pens come in a few varieties. Some will have a soft felt tip, others a small brush with soft bristles; others still will have both, one at each end. The brushes are good for things that settle in crevices around your camera, in your eyepiece, or in your lense’s filter threads. The felt end, in the meantime, is handy for the stubborn stuff the brush won’t take care of. I recommend this particular one because I own it; if it had some other logo on it than the brand I currently shoot with, it’d still be as competent. If the lens pen by itself isn’t quite enough, consider a lens cleaning kit.
  • Microfiber Cleaning Cloth: Similar to the cloth used for glasses, this is a soft cloth that’s good if you have a larger area you want to clean. It’s good for your lenses and filters, and even works well in getting nose grease off your LCD.
  • FishBomb Lens Filter and Accessory Case is a smallish neoprene pouch with pockets on either side that close with velcro closures. There’s a loop at the top, so you can slip the bottom part of the case through the loop in order to secure it to a belt, camera strap, or camera bag. Its compactness is both good and bad; on one hand, it won’t fit a ton (it fits two 67mm filters comfortably), but on the other, it takes up a lot less room in my camera bag than the plastic cases the filters originally came in.
  • The Tamrac S.A.S. MXS536801 Memory and Battery Management Wallet"", like most things Tamrac, features competent, no-frills construction.  Mine currently holds  . It’s good for the times you want to travel light, taking little more than a backup battery and cards, and is also good for corraling your batteries if you’re using a speedlight.
  • The Promaster Xtrapower Traveler turned out to be a lot better than I expected, handling batteries from a few different SLRs. It also includes a USB power “out” jack, enabling you to stash a handful of cords for anything capable of charging through USB, meaning one charger instead of a pile of transformers taking up space in your bags.
  • Finally, something that’s not a piece of equipment, but that has the potential to be just as useful: if you have a camera shop in your area, see if they offer classes. Most do, in addition to single-day workshops and trips to local destinations for photo opportunities that the average person might not otherwise be able to get to on their own (one shop local to me recently did a shoot in an old penitentiery).

A word to the non-photographers among you: Most photographers are a picky lot when it comes to their gear. Buying decisions usually come after considerable research, reading, and debate. When all else fails, a gift certificate to the local camera shop may be your best bet.

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Photographer’s Holiday Buying Guide: Books

Photo Icons: The Story Behind the Pictures, by Hans-Michael Koetzle

Whether you’re a photographer looking for reading material, or a non-photographer trying to figure out what you can buy your photographer friend/spouse/coworker that won’t break the bank, books on photography — be it history, technique, or philosophy — are a pretty safe bet. Below are a few personal favorites, some of which have been reviewed in this space, and others of which we haven’t gotten to yet.


Fundamentals of Photography: The Essential Handbook for Both Digital and Film Cameras (Tom Ang): At some point, nearly anyone who’s serious about photography will want to give themselves an overview of the basics. Ang’s book is best suited to novices and amateurs, though it’s a useful reference for the more forgetful among us, as well. It’s all here — the technology, the technique, postproduction, et cetera. Since there are at least half a dozen books by the same author covering similar subject matter, I’d strongly suggest browsing the books before buying to make sure you’re getting one that fits your personal style.

Jim Krause’s Photo Idea Index could be termed a how-to for the self-motivated. There’s less in the way of explicit instruction here than a series of short exercises with examples, designed to act as prompts to creativity (the same formula followed in most of Krause’s other work). While he’s enamored with creativity, he doesn’t have any particular affection for one type or brand of gear. That ethos, and the approach of the book as a whole, makes it useful if you’re in a mood to experiment and see where it might take your photography.

If you or someone you know is going to be finding a new DSLR under the tree, consider the Magic Lantern Guide series. These guides are written by, and for, photographers (Simon Stafford covers most of the Nikon gear, Michael Guncheon covers Canon, and other guides are available for those of you using Sony, Pentax, et al.). David Busch’s exhaustive reference books for various camera systems, and somewhat more compact field guides, are likewise well worth the time and money.


The Photographer’s Vision: Understanding and Appreciating Great Photography follows in the footsteps of earlier Michael Freeman works The Photographer’s Eye: Composition and Design for Better Digital Photos and The Photographer’s Mind: Creative Thinking for Better Digital Photos, presenting sound practical advice with history, theory, and philosophy. Here, Freeman explores the importance of visual literacy in understanding the “reading” of a photo, but also how that practice extends to how we make photos.

The Practice of Contemplative Photography: Seeing the World with Fresh Eyes (Andy Karr and Michael Wood) is a book-length treatment of the ways of seeing. The authors’ intent is to have us check conception at the door, in favor of perception. The advantage, they argue, is that you learn to see in detail, and in depth. In other words, you stop just looking at things, and start to pay closer attention, being present with the subject nearly to the point that your photograph is a means of bearing witness to it, rather than simply getting the cold facts of an image onto your memory card.

 Visual Poetry: A Creative Guide for Making Engaging Digital Photographs, by Chris Orwig, is as helpful to the beginning photographer as to one who’s more advanced. The former will find plenty that helps them develop habits and ways of seeing that will serve them well, while the latter will find much to rejuvinate their approach to their craft, not least because of the insistance on first principles that can help kindle, or re-awaken, the joy to be found in simplifying one’s gear, approach, and process. 

Within the Frame: The Journey of Photographic Vision. put David duChemin on the map, and for good reason; it’s page after page of wisdom perhaps best summed up in the author’s maxim, “Gear is good. Vision is better.” Most of us are more likely to go ’round the bend than around the world for a photo, but the advice given here applies equally well regardless of where you happen to find yourself.

History/Photo Books:

Photo Icons: The Story Behind the Pictures (Hans-Michael Koetzle) provides the backstories on several legendary images, from the dawn of photography (Niepce’s “View From the Study Window,” made in 1827) to the early 1990’s (Salgado’s 1991 photos from Kuwait). Unlike many other books, which simply provide a title, date, and photographer’s name, this one gives you a sense of history, and often also shows other shots from the same session, giving further insight into the photographer’s creative and editorial processes.

Pillars of the Almighty: A Celebration of Cathedrals (Ken Follett and F-stop Fitzgerald) is currently out of print, but if you’re at all interested in photography, cathedrals, or historical fiction (or some combination thereof), take the time to seek it out; the writing, adapted from Follett’s Pillars of the Earth, is thought provoking, and it’s perfectly complemented by Fitzgerald’s gorgeous photography from cathedrals around the world.

Unforgettable: Images That Have Changed Our Lives is a small book, both in size and number of pages, but that belies the big idea that underpins it. Author Peter Davenport, through nothing more than a series of captions on blank pages, argues that certain images have the power to transcend their time and even their original purpose.

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