Christmas Gifts for Photographers

Buying christmas gifts for photographers can be a tricky business, in particular, if you are not technically inclined and discard kitschy nonsense like lens-shaped coffee mugs. So here are some proposals for equipment that will not end up on the bottom of the gear closet.


My Christmas gift: A 16 MP, 17 MB image from the Hpo Win Daung Caves in Monywa, Myanmar. For ultimate viewing experience on the iMac 5K Retina. Click to enlarge, then zoom to full size.

Hama USB card reader, 10 $. I hate the propriatary camera software for downloading RAW files. The card reader is compatible with microSD, SD, CF, and MS cards and let’s you mount your files just like any other directory on the computer’s hard disc without specific driver software.

Hoodman HoodLoupe, 120 $. A viewfinder for the 3.2” LCD displays of DSLRs. The loupe also comes in handy for filming and chimping in bright light. It is almost indispensible for manual focusing using live view. Features a +-3 diopter adjustment as well.

WD MyPassport 2 TB, 120 $. Buying someone data storage as a gift may look like the equivalent of socks for him and a fragrance for her. But you can never keep enough backups of your work. I keep at least two, one in the house and one in the office. In this way I avoid digital melt-down in case of fire or burglars stealing my 5-year-old iMac.

Books. Jeff Bezos has made it easy to order a book on a mouse click, but he has taken away the joy of discovering and browsing a treasure in a bookstore. Here are my two cents on recent photo-book releases.

  1. Before They Pass Away (Jimmy Nelson, teNeues), 140 $. This is a massive, 12×15” book. It’s one of those proverbial coffee table books that are almost a table themselves. It contains highly stylized photographs of 35 endangered tribes and portrayals of ancient traditions, shot on film using a large-format Linhof camera. Nelson says: I am trying to put these people in the same context as somebody like Kate Moss. Our society, for whatever reason, has decided she is important and deserves to be photographed in a high-concept way; I’ve tried to do the same here. The book will be a testament for future generations of how these people are living and dressing before they are assimilated into modern society, giving up their traditional way of life, their nomadic existence, and are dressing in H&M. Unfortunately, Nelson or the publisher could not leave their fingers off the bleach-bypass filter. What emphasizes the alienness of the people and places gets me bored in the long run.
  2. Genesis (Sebastiao Salgardo, Taschen), 50 $. I picked up this book at the Salgardo exhibition in Lausanne. The trade edition of the book contains more than 500 large-format black and white images in geographical order. The exhibition is the result of an eight-year project in a worldwide survey on environmental issues and features images of wildlife, land and seascapes, as well as indigenous people. Interesting that Salgardo converted to digital half way down this project in 2008. Salgardo uses light valve technology to create film negatives from a digital file and then makes silver gelatin prints. Visit the exhibition and check if you can notice the difference.
  3. Untold, The Stories Behind the Photographs (Steve McCurry, Phaidon) 80 $. Steve McCurry’s photograph of an unknown Afghan refugee girl became the most recognized National Geographic picture of all time. But this is just one of more than 200 memorable photos that this book contains. The text covers a vast range of political history and related travel anecdotes, but through the voice of an anonymous writer in an overly descriptive manner.
  4. On this Earth, A Shadow Falls (Nick Brandt), 110 $. Large-format-style, black and white portraits of large mammals in Eastern Africa, which look as if the animals were posing in a studio. Intimidating low perspectives, so I wonder how he did this without robots, drones, and traps. The overall tones and aesthetic surpasses even Salgado’s work, mainly due to the superior print quality and choice of the coated baryta paper. Brand works a lot with out-of-focus renderings, allegedly, in a fully analog process (which I doubt). But whether you are into fine-art printing, wildlife photography, travel, Africa or any combinations thereof, I guarantee that this book will land (and stay) on your coffee table, as it did on mine. Unfortunately the linen cover is very prone to transport damage, so it makes sense to order through a bookstore.

Billingham shoulder bag 307, 500 $. The best camera is the one that you have with you, so you can always make use of another bag; ladies you agree? Well made, stylish, and pricy, the Billingham bags nevertheless don’t shout “camera gear inside” to everybody on the road. This is not surprising, because Billingham originally designed them as fishing bags until they noticed that photographers used them as camera bags. The system of buckles is a bit odd and therefore the handling is slower than for the more modern designs, so it is probably not that well suited for run and gun photographers.

Gitzo GT3320B2 tripod, 530 $. Sky-high ISO numbers and image stabilization may suggest that tripods are things of the time when we shot ASA 25 Kodachrome. However, the investment in high-resolution cameras and lenses is meaningless when images are blurred due to camera shake. And let’s face it; there is a clear degradation of image quality (noise and reduction of dynamic range) for ISO settings above 400. The GT3320B2 tripod is a low-height (35 cm), high-load (18 kg) unofficial Gitzo offering not featured in their catalogue. Combined with an Arca-suisse ballhead this tripod is my travel companion to the mountains.

iMac with Retina 5K display, 2500 $. Use your Megapixels, print! This was my mantra until now. But in October Apple announced the new iMac with a 5K, 27” Retina display. A whopping 5120 by 2880 pixel resolution at 217 ppi, albeit at a 16:9 aspect ratio. This means 14.7 MP for a full size display of an image. For the price of a wide-gamut, self-calibrating monitor, for example, Eizo’s ColorEdge CG 277, you get a 3.5 GHz processor, 8 GB of RAM, and 1 TB of solid state storage too boot.

Displaying your images at this resolution just makes them pop off the screen due to the smooth tonal separation and enhanced micro-contrast. Just like the dithering process in printing makes up for intermediate colors and tones, the resolution of the screen exceeds the visual acuity for normal viewing distances and therefore transmits more color information. And here is the crux: at this resolution you interact with the entire image. You want to study a smaller part of the image? Don’t zoom; just move your head closer. I included a high-res image for examination at your next visit to the Apple store; all their equipment is connected to the Internet. But this performance puts me into a dilemma. I should increase the size of my web-uploads to 10 MP and apply less jpeg compression. But then, who is prepared to wait for the loading of the pages?

Zeiss Otus 55 mm f/1.4 Apo Distagon, 4400 $. This lens is to Canon, Nikon and Sony Alpha shooters what a Bugatti is to car aficionados. With 12 lens elements in 10 groups, weighing in at nearly one kilogram, the lens lives up to its expectations. It is sharp to the corners already wide open and the micro contrast and tonal rendering give the images the punch and crispiness often referred to as the Zeiss look. The fast transition between the in- and out-of-focus planes yields a three-dimensionality that is otherwise reserved for medium-format shooters. The lens outperforms the 36 MP sensor and is therefore an investment in the future; it better be for this price tag. That this lens is still on my own wish list comes from the lack of autofocus. The mediocre focusing screens of modern DSLRs hamper manual focusing, and even the focus indicators are not precise enough for the high-resolution sensors. Focusing in live view is therefore the only sensible option for the use of the Otus unless Nikon or Canon announce mirrorless cameras featuring EVF and focus peeking.

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