For the photographer on your list, or for you to leave in highly visible locations for folks to see as gifts for you, here's the Top 12 as discussed at the November meeting, with a bit more detail.
- A great ball head makes a huge change in the usability and value of your tripod. Recommendations are the Really Right Stuff BH-40 or BH-55. Alternatively, consider a Gitzo GH2780QR. The RRS heads all take Arca Swiss style plates. **If you need the best in a carbon fibre tripod and you want the last tripod you'll ever need, consider a Really Right Stuff 24L
- The Adobe Photography Bundle subscription is $9.99 USD per month and includes continually updated Photoshop CC and Lightroom. For most anyone, this is the software combination that every photographer should have. Adobe makes updates pretty much monthly and there are services provided that buyers of Lightroom box products cannot get.
- A carbon fibre monopod is a great tool. I suggest the Gitzo GM2516 with Manfrotto's 234 Monopod head. Monopods need a head, but a regular ball head can be cumbersome and overkill. If you want to go all out, get the Really Right Stuff MH-01 kit with MC-34 Monopod or MH-02 kit with MC-34 Monopod. RRS has two head variants, Pro has a screw knob to lock the camera, LR uses a fast and efficient lever lock. Note that RRS heads take Arca Swiss style plates.
- The one tool that can open your eyes to photographic skill development is a great handheld light meter. Today you can get an amazing incident light meter that also acts as an incredible flash meter. This is the Sekonic 478D. It has a touch interface, is easy to learn and will really open up how you think about exposure and tonal range.
- If you will be shooting portraits, headshots, weddings, engagements, pets or children, there is no substitute for a set of powerful yet transportable studio grade strobes. Your hotshoe flash can put out between 60 watt-seconds and 80 watt-seconds of light. A decent entry strobe will push up to 500 watt-seconds of light and give you five to seven stops of power range in 1/10 stop increments. There is nothing like a good studio strobe for output consistency and white balance. They also open the doors to the incredible world of light shaping tools. The Bowens 500R kit is a good value giving you two metal bodied heads with modelling lamps, two stands, a travel case, one umbrella, one softbox, one radio transmitter and one receiver. Add a second receiver to complete the kit. The option I will recommend most is the Elinchrom BXR 500/500 kit. It includes 2 high density plastic cased heads with modelling lamps that are super lightweight, two stands, two small soft boxes, and a Skyport SPEED transmitter, all in a travel bag. The heads have radio receivers built in and unlike the Bowens alternative you can control up to four zones and set the output power all from the transmitter on your hotshoe. Neither of the kits are TTL but that's not a show stopper. A couple of test shots to get the exposure or even better, the aforementioned 478D and you are on your way. Many pros swear by the Elinchrom stuff because the quality is great and they are light enough to take on location with you.
- Scott Kelby is the number one writer of Photography books in the world. You can get the entire set of his Digital Photography Book Series, volumes 1-5 on Amazon for just over $72. Every photographer will benefit from these great books that are written in an easily understood and friendly style. I will list a couple of other books after the main list.
- If you or your favourite photographer in the house can learn by watching videos online and using the same files used in the video courses, and you want to get right to doing the work with minimal babble, the folks at KelbyOne do the best job in this regard. A KelbyOne membership is $249 for a year, and in addition to great training there are numerous discounts made available to members. As of this writing, KelbyOne is having their Black Friday sale and you can save a lot on this membership.
- Getting your hotshoe flash off camera is critical to higher quality flash images. The easiest way to do this comes in a kit from Lastolite. The Lastolite EZYbox Hotshoe includes the bracket, the flash holder and a collapsible soft box that produces beautiful light. There is also a full kit including a light stand if you prefer to get all in one. The EZYbox comes in different sizes (I like the 24" version for its versatility and portability) and internal finishes. The basic has a silver interior and the Joe McNally signature has a special white interior that produces very creamy light. If you just go with the soft box kit, you will want a tilt bracket with a spud for the soft box bracket and an air cushioned light stand. Lastolite, Westcott and Manfrotto all do tilter brackets ($39.99 - $59.99), just be sure to get one with a long spud on one side and a hole on the other end for the light stand. I like the Manfrotto air cushioned light stands. If you take care of them, they last forever. Check out the Manfrotto 1005BAC stand, about $150
- Sometimes, especially when one is learning lighting styles, it's advantageous to be able to see exactly how the light and shadows will play out. When doing adult headshot, or macro work or still life, continuous light can be a really benefit. Continuous lights can also be very useful if you are shooting video indoors. The Westcott Erin Manning kit contains two fixtures, two daylight balanced CFL lamps that put out the equivalent of 250W each, two stands and two soft boxes. It normally sells for around $399 but I see it is on sale at present for $349. Many pros use both continuous lighting as well as flash for different or combined purposes. The kit is easy to setup and very portable. The daylight lamps are already frosted so they are soft, and then when placed in the soft box, the light is clean and beautiful. The only place where continuous lights won't cut it is for subjects that move quickly such as children or pets because they need longer exposures and wider apertures than flash would.
- Nikon, Canon, Sony, Panasonic, Olympus and pretty much everyone else has some means to control off camera flash from the in camera flash. The method uses infrared tech and is line of sight. While powerful in concept, many people become very frustrated with making it work. Personally, I really dislike infrared for the reliability reason, and much prefer radio, and if that radio can also do TTL at a reasonable price, so much the better. The Hahnel TUFF TTL Radio set is presently available for Nikon and Canon systems. It is radio, it is simple and it fully supports camera TTL capability. The units are wrapped in a tough rubberized exterior and have excellent surviveability. You get a transmitter and receiver for under $200 and can add more receivers at just over $100 each. The system just works, and won't drive you into the poor house the way a Pocket Wizard system will.
- I find that the idea of getting out to shoot with other photographers is a good motivator and forced skill developer. Photowalks are great but they can be as much social as photographic. Bryan Weiss' Daytripper Photo day trips are terrific routes to build skill with talented instructors while photographing with your peers. The classes are especially worthwhile for photographers developing or wanting to reinforce core skills.
- Finally, sometimes the best way to learn a new skill set is through personal instruction. There are a plethora of web based mentor programs out there. Some are competitive, some are personal and some are group oriented. I offer personal one on one mentoring programs with curriculum built for your needs and your desired outcomes. The meetings are face to face, there are regular assignments and real development. If there is something you want to learn, or you simply are looking for a mentor to guide you through your personal photographic or videographer development, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org to set up a no cost / obligation consult to discuss what you want.
At our meeting, I mentioned a couple of other books I highly recommend.
The first is Photoshop CC 2014 for Digital Photographers. Best route is amazon.ca here
Second is Roberto Valenzuela's Picture Perfect Posing on amazon.ca here