Published Dec 7, 2009

Occasionally someone compliments my photography. Misguided though such a sentiment may be, there are a few specific items that I would recommend anyone interested in taking better shots buy. Since it’s the holiday season, why not help yourself to one of these?

For Just About Anyone

Whether you’re one of those annoying people who can’t be separated from their SLR (like me), a hipster with a Holga, or just like to snap a shot of your friends from time to time, we all want to take better photos. Photographic Composition is a great, accessible book that gives concrete examples of specific techniques you can use to improve how you put your shots together.

If you have a lens and/or an LCD screen, then you need a Cleaning Kit to keep your pictures looking nice and your controls easy-to-read.

Mount your camera securely anywhere — the Gorillapod flexible tripod can stand on any surface or be wrapped around pretty much anything. That means that you can safely set up your camera to get that shot of you and your family or that low-light scene.

The Flip is hot, but the Kodak Zi6 HD Pocket Video Camera is the video camera I use — much cheaper, with the same high-quality HD picture, and a good control set.

If You Shoot on Your iPhone

Everybody has a cameraphone these days, which is great because now you have a camera all the time, and bad because that camera doesn’t have so much as the face-recognition or close-up modes of a $100 point-n-shoot. Make the most of your iPhone cameras with these tools that give you the ability to manipulate your shots for art or for clarity & composition. You can use these to shoot photos or, for the first two, edit any photo on your iPhone with them.

The Best Camera has it all. Color filters, vignetting, framing, contrast modification, artistic modes: all one click away. It’s pretty much all you need.

If you crave control over depth-of-field — you know, that technique, common on DSLRs, that lets you blur the background of a shot while the subject still pops — fake it with Tilt-Shift Generator. With controls over brightness, contrast, and color saturation, there’s enough here to create many artistic effects as well.

Just for fun, use QuadCamera to take four shots, a split second apart, of any moving scene.

If You’re DSLR-Shopping

If you’ve enjoyed your point-n-shoot for a while, then it might be time for you to start thinking about a DSLR. If so, I highly recommend you go to a camera store and play with the entry-level options from Nikon and Canon. Both brands are equally good, and you should pick whatever feels the most natural in your hands. (I don’t recommend looking to other vendors, even Sony, because there’s just so many accessories for the big two out there, including lenses, at lower prices than for any other maker.) All you really need to figure out is how much you want to spend and if you really want video.

But you owe it to yourself to think about the new micro four-thirds system. It’s a family of compatible cameras created by a bunch of different companies, with the capabilities of a DSLR at half the size. Prices are a little higher and the lens selection’s a lot smaller, but the camera is much smaller too. The Olympus Digital PEN is a great micro four-thirds option. (Real photo geeks might want to buy it at Adorama.)

After you get that DSLR, learn how to use all those buttons and dials! Kodak’s How to Take Good Pictures is a classic little volume that talks about just what it says. While it may appear to have been written for film only, the fact is that you have all the same controls on an SLR, whether digital or film; the tips and tricks you learn in this book will help you learn to take better photos on your DSLR than you could get from any point-n-shoot.

If You Already Own a DSLR

So, you’re a geek like me. Awesome — I want to hear all about it. Owning a DSLR is a perpetual treadmill to get better tools to match your improving skills. Here are some tools that you can stick with for a while.

You probably got a kit lens when you got your camera. Well, it’s time to move past that to something nice. The good news is that the starting price of nice is not very high! I recently upgraded from my kit Canon 18-55 f/4.5 to the Sigma 18-50 f/2.8, and the upgrade was striking. Not only did I get the full stop of improvement — with the attendant advantages to both low-light shooting and depth-of-field — but the bokeh’s just lovely. Get it at Amazon, for Nikon, Amazon, for Canon, Adorama, for Nikon or Adorama, for Canon.

Everyone thinks zoom these days, but fixed lenses are a great option. In particular, you can get a lot of additional stops for a very few dollars. If you’re on Canon, like I am, the Canon ‘thrifty fifty’ gets you f/1.8 for under $100. It’s a great portrait and indoor lens. I don’t know much about it but the Nikon equivalent is only about $30 more.

Once you’ve got that nice new lens, get yourself a circular polarizing filter — it’ll cut reflections, make your skies more vivid, and make your water sparkle or just ice clear.I brought Tiffen’s filter to take on my honeymoon and loved it, get yourself one at Amazon or Adorama.

Getting the shot is only half the battle — once you get home, you have to edit your photos down into something that you’ll be proud to show. I switched to Lightroom earlier this year and just love it. Try it out yourself from Amazon or Adorama.

It’s Christmas — get yourself something nice. You and your photos deserve it!