Welcome to my “8th Annual Gonzo Holiday Gear Guide.” If you’ve been a faithful reader of this Gear Guide for the past seven years, this year’s name probably sounds familiar, and that’s because it is. It’s the original name for this Gear Guide, and I’m bringing it back with a vengeance (I’m not really sure how to make a Gear Guide vengeful but I’m working on it), with all of its original “Gonzoness” (yes, that’s a word, I’m pretty sure).
This is replacing last year’s “Awesome Gear Guide” name (awesome is way overused—mostly by me), and now here you are, reading it right now. How “in the moment” is that, right? Okay, this year, I’m breaking things into three distinct categories:
1: Stocking Stuffers (You can also use these as actual holiday gifts if you’re not that crazy about the person.)
2: Great Value Gear (Stuff that’s a really good deal for not a lot of money, but he or she will totally dig it.)
3: Cha-ching! (Stuff you buy for the doctor/lawyer/rap mogul on your holiday gift list. This is the stuff that makes them burst into spontaneous tears of joy. Well, at least I would.)
Anyway, the “Awesome” is out, the “Gonzo” is back, and this year’s Gear Guide is packed with some really cool stuff that we don’t need, but we really, really, really want because getting (ahem—I mean giving) is what it’s really all about. At least, that’s what I read in a Christmas card once.
These are my self-imposed guidelines for which products make it into the guide. It’s just two rules, actually. To be listed here the products have to be ones that I use myself, that I absolutely love, and now can’t live without (well, I could live without them, but I just wouldn’t want to). And if a product makes the guide, it has to be one I would recommend to a close friend without hesitation, especially if my friend were a rich doctor (kidding). Okay, folks, hang on to your Fruchtsaftgetränke, here we go!
20×24″ Rosco CTO Gel Sheet
If the photographer on your gift list has a flash, this is a perfect gift because it’s something he needs but probably doesn’t have, and it’s cheap as anything. Get him a big sheet of thin orange gel. He tapes it over his flash head and it warms up the color of the flash, creating a more flattering color for portraits. Get the Rosco CTO (Color Temperature Orange) 1/4 sheets for just $6.49 a sheet at B&H. Do you want to really splurge on him? Throw in the 1/2-cut and full-cut sheets, as well. If he doesn’t like cutting, get the Rosco precut Strobist pack for just $7.95 with gels in all sorts of colors. A fantastic deal.
PRICE: Starting at $6.49
Roll of Gaffer’s Tape
If he already has some gels, get him a roll over Gaffer’s tape. This is the handiest stuff on earth for photographers (I even give away a few rolls at my seminar—I’m not making this up). It looks like black duct tape, but it comes off clean with no residue or pulling off any paint. It rocks. $6.50 a roll. Buy two (and keep one for yourself).
30″ Westcott 5-in-1 Collapsible Reflector/Diffuser
He probably already has a reflector, but that’s okay—what you want is the diffuser inside the reflector (you zip it open and there it is). You use this outdoors to turn harsh, direct sun into beautiful, soft, flattering light (just put it between the sun and your subject). Around $30. Plus, you could keep the reflectors and just give him the diffuser. I’m just sayin’.
Does the photographer on your gift list use Lightroom? Of course she does! So get her a few issues of Lightroom Magazine. (I love this magazine because—because, well, I’m the publisher, but it’s an awesome, awesome magazine. This is a case where using the term awesome, and using it twice, is perfectly acceptable.) You can find it on the App Store on iTunes for $4.99 an issue. Cheap. If you really want to go all out, go ahead and buy her all the back issues.
PRICE: $4.99 per issue
Some Cool Books
Your photographer will love Zack Arias’s Photography Q&A book
(only $18.20 on Amazon
or Barnes & Noble
). Or how about the recent refresh of The Digital Photography Book, Part 2
by Scott Kelby
(I love everything he writes) for $18.23 on Amazon
or Barnes & Noble
(weird price; cool book)! If he’s into sports, get Peter Read Miller on Sports Photography
($31.86 on Amazon
or Barnes & Noble
for $35.77), or if you want to splurge a little, get Frank Doorhof’s Mastering the Model Shoot
for around $28.45 on Amazon
or Barnes & Noble
for $28.96(I worked on this book with Frank—he totally rocked it!). Note: Book prices on online change frequently. Just so ya know.
GREAT VALUE GEAR
Vanguard Quovio 49T Rolling Bag
If you want a rolling camera bag with Think Tank Photo quality, but can’t quite swing it, then check out the Vanguard Quovio 49T. It holds a lot of gear (and your laptop), and it holds it all well. I’ve taken it on a few trips now and I really like how it’s made and its usability. Lots of clever little features and great overall design.
DxO FilmPack 4
This is probably the best plug-in for Photoshop or Lightroom out there for faithfully reproducing classic film effects, and it totally nails these effects. It has a great interface with a smart design, and you can’t argue with the realistic looks it effortlessly creates, but you can still tweak each look big time. Plus, it does everything from contrast effects to borders and custom frames. I don’t use a whole bunch of plug-ins, but when I want a realistic film look, this is the only plug-in I reach for (and by reach, I mean I just go under a menu).
PRICE: $79 for the Essential Edition; $129 for the Expert Edition
Imagenomic’s Portraiture Skin Retouching Plug-in
The incredible Frank Doorhof turned me on to this plug-in when I asked him how he was retouching skin in his portraits, because his stuff was really looking good. I had to pry it out of him a bit (LOL!), but as soon as he told me, I went straight to Imagenomic’s site and picked up a copy. Pretty darn amazing; pretty darn fast. It’s $199.95, which ain’t cheap, but the wedding or portrait photographer on your list will hug you and not let go for a good long while.
Westcott’s Rapid Box 20″ Octa Mini and Deflector Plate
This is, hands-down, the best beauty dish for hot-shoe flash I’ve ever seen. Plus, it pops up and you’re ready to go, so it fits with the whole run-and-gun portability behind hot-shoe flashes. Very well made and thought out. I use the 20″ Octa Mini ($169.90), but you’ll need the Rapid Box Deflector Plate for another $19.90 (that’s what gives you the beauty dish look). She will be super-diggin’ this.
PRICE: $169.90 for the 20″ Octa Mini; $19.90 for the Deflector Plate
Kata LPS-216 DL Laptop Backpack
I generally don’t like backpacks (I use rolling bags instead), but what I love about this one is that it’s not big and bulky, yet it still holds a lot of gear and my laptop. Plus, the interior is bright yellow, so you can actually find stuff. It’s really well made and only $109.99, which makes it my favorite photo gear backpack ever!
Every photographer, designer, and illustrator needs a portfolio, and Squarespace.com has a killer deal on them with very slick professional templates. With Squarespace, you can have a very cool-looking online portfolio up and running in about 15 minutes with absolutely no Web design experience necessary. I use Squarespace for my sports photography portfolio and absolutely love them! They start at around $10 a month (but you’ll get your photographer a full year for $96). You’ll be a hero.
PRICE: Starting at $8 a month with an annual subscription
Lexar Professional Workflow HR1 (Four-Bay USB 3 Reader Hub)
You know what photographers hate? They hate waiting for their cards to download to their computer. That’s why this baby was born. Well that, and the fact that a lot of cameras these days have more than one memory card slot, and often those are two different types (like an SD card and a CompactFlash, or a CompactFlash and an XQD card). With this, you buy the docking bay ($99.99) and then up to four readers that pop right in, in any format you want (SD, CF, or XQD) starting at $36.99 each. I love this. Big time.
PRICE: HR1 Hub: $99.99; SD reader: $36.99; CompactFlash reader: $36.99; XQD reader: $44.99
Yongnuo YN560-III Hot-Shoe Flash
If you want her to think you spent a bundle, which will lead to you getting “Most Favored Friend” status for all of 2014, get her a Yongnuo hot-shoe flash. It’s only $70 but looks like it cost $600. It creates a bright flash of light (just like every other flash), but without the high price of about every other flash.
Impact Quickbox Softbox Kit
B&H Photo put this kit together and for the money, I don’t know how you can beat it. It’s a 24×24″ collapsible pop-up softbox, a tilt-swivel bracket, a bracket that holds your flash and the softbox, and a 8′ light stand, all for $149. It’s hero time.
FP-1 Floor Plate for Using Remote Cameras
If you’ve ever thought about using a remote camera (like a camera set up behind the bride or on the balcony, or for sports), this floor plate is fantastic! I use these for sports and absolutely love ’em. They’re very strong, yet surprisingly lightweight, and they’re designed to work with just about any ballhead and PocketWizard remote. Incredibly handy for only $65.
B&H Gift Cards
Not sure exactly what to get her? Yes you do. Get her a B&H Gift Card. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t want something from the greatest photo store on earth, plus this way she can get whatever she wants (within the limit of how much you put on the card, of course). You can order them direct from the B&H site. They send a card and a catalog so it looks pretty substantial.
PRICE: Starting at $20
PocketWizard PlusX Wireless Transceiver
PocketWizard has always been the gold standard in wireless triggers for flash or even for firing remote cameras, but the best is always expensive. But this year, they came out with a new budget-priced model for only $99 each (you need two—one for your camera and one for your flash), called the PlusX, and it has the ruggedness, range, and quality without the high price. They’re simple and they work. If you can’t swing the $198, try Cactus triggers instead (two for $60). Not the same quality, build, design, or range, but it’s not the same price either.
Canon Close-up Lens Filter (for Canon or NIKKOR)
Get him this screw-on lens filter that turns most any Canon or NIKKOR lens into a Macro lens for close-up photography. It’s small (only about 1″ thick), screws on just like a filter, and violá, you have a macro lens that you can toss into any camera bag (perfect for wedding photographers). They start at around $72 and go up to around $150, based on how wide his lens is (in millimeters).
Westcott SkyLux LED
What’s the next big wave in lighting? LED continuous lighting (it’s not a flash, so what you see is what you get). Video creatives have long-embraced LEDs but now they’re finally (finally!) making their way to still photography. Westcott’s SkyLux is really fantastic, and even though it’s here in “Cha-ching Land” at around $1,200, it’s one of the cheapest LED solutions out there. Plus, Westcott makes a ton of softboxes that fit right on it. This is where lighting is going. You can take someone special there now, this holiday season, and he will love you like a puppy without all the yipping (well, some yipping but it ends after a few weeks).
Canon EOS 70D
I got a chance to use the Canon EOS 70D on a few studio shoots and events, and I have to say this camera body may be the best deal of anything on the list, value-wise (well, maybe beside the $6.49 sheets of Rosco gel). It has features way beyond its price, and if the photographer on your gift list has any ideas about shooting DSLR video, he’ll lose his mind over this puppy! Did I mention it has a touchscreen, and that you can pinch to zoom and flick to scroll through your photos, and it’s responsive like a smartphone touchscreen. I remember when Nikon released the D700 a few years back and we all thought, “What was Nikon thinking? It’s too good a deal.” I feel the same way about the 70D. Pro-quality images with many pro features, but they pretend it’s for consumers.
PrioLite MBX500 500 W/s Monolight
This is a serious studio strobe that lets you use studio strobes on location. That’s not new; there are a bunch of strobes that you can take out in the field using a battery pack that slings over your shoulder. The difference here is that there’s no battery pack to sling over your shoulder. The pack is built right into the strobe itself. There’s no cable. There’s no battery pack. It’s just the light. It’s awesome! But it ain’t cheap. They’re $1,479 each. Definitely for pros or for the Wall Street crony on your holiday gift list.
AF-S NIKKOR 28–300mm f/3.5–5.6G ED VR or Tamron 28–300mm f/3.5–6.3 XR Di VC
The AF-S NIKKOR 28–300mm f/3.5–5.6G ED VR is my all-time favorite travel photography lens because it’s one lens that does it all—from wide-angle to portrait lengths to a tight zoom. Plus, this particular lens is amazingly sharp, lightweight, and very well built. It’s not cheap at $1,049.95, but it’s worth it. Give her this as a holiday gift and you may not be able to get rid of her. A perfect gift for someone you’re stalking.
If the photographer on your list is a Canon shooter, unfortunately Canon doesn’t make a compact 28–300mm like this Nikon model. (The Canon version is full size, quite heavy, and expensive at an MSRP of $2,689.) Tamron makes a 28–300mm f/3.5–6.3 XR Di VC that will do the trick. It’s not as sharp as the Nikon 28–300mm or the Canon for that matter, but it’s not nearly as expensive either at around $630.
Well, that’s it everybody
Here’s wishing you lots of fun Holiday gear shopping! :)