When I was a kid, this time of year I'd comb through the pages of the Sears Wish Book and make a list filled with GI Joe sets, Lego blocks, and Erector sets. These days, I put grown-up toys on my wish list--even though it's scientifically proven that you can never outgrow Legos. Over the next few weeks, I'll take a page from my own wish book and give you recommendations for digital photo gadgets and goodies. I'll start with some gift suggestions for new and growing photographers. Come back for suggestions aimed at casual snapshot takers, action photographers, and people who love to shoot portraits and outdoor photos.
Photo Gifts for Everyone
Let's start with some photography-related goodies that are great for just about anyone.
Top-notch image editor. Once you get past adjusting brightness and contrast and doing a little cropping, you generally need a full-featured photo editor. My favorites include Adobe Photoshop Elements 10--just released for around $75--and Corel Paint Shop Pro X2 ($60). Both of these programs have a full suite of common editing tools, support for layers, and the ability to use plug-ins that provide additional special effects.
Easy lens cleaner. Sometimes it's the small stuff that matters most. If a camera's isn't free of gunk, its photos will suffer. There are all sorts of inexpensive lens cleaning kits you can drop in a stocking, but I'm fond of the Lens Pen ($15), a slim tool that fits in any camera case. It has a dust brush on one end and a small cleaning surface on the other end that lifts dust and grime off your optical elements.
Free and inexpensive smartphone apps. Some of the best photo gifts are free. If you know someone with an iPhone or Android, you should check out the smorgasbord of cool photo apps available for those particular gadgets. iPhone folks can read "8 Powerful iPhone Photo Apps." Android users, head of over to "9 Apps to Transform Your Android Phone into a High-End Camera." If you're buying for an iPhone fan, it's even easier to just give a gift card--though unfortunately there's nothing like that for the Android marketplace quite yet.
Photo gifts. The coolest way to use your photo collection is to print your favorite photos and give them as gifts. There are a million photo printing services--Shutterfly, Snapfish, and Costco come immediately to mind--but give Zazzle a try. You can print photos on clothing, key chains, buttons, bags, stickers, magnets, mugs, and a dozen other items. My favorite: You can make a custom case for your smartphone emblazoned with a personal photo. And you can give Zazzle gift certificates too.
Photo postage stamps. Here's another great gift idea: Turn digital photos into legal U.S. postage stamps. I've mentioned this many times before, and I still think it's an awesome gift. After all, what's cooler than getting a sheet of postage stamps with a picture of your new baby or your favorite pet? Upload a photo to PictureItPostage to make stamps that can be used to send letters anywhere in the U.S. Of course, you might want to use this idea soon, while we still have a post office to deliver our mail.
Gifts for New and Growing Photographers
What kind of photographer is your giftee? If the person on your list is still getting comfortable with a digital camera and striving to take better photos, these gift ideas will help them make progress.
A good how-to book. There are tons of good books on digital photography. This is the one time of year I hawk my own books, such as How to Do Everything with Your Digital Camera. The book is a great introduction to the basics of light, exposure, composition, using a digital camera, and photo editing. I've written several other books as well; see my Web site for a partial list.
As it turns out, other people write awesome books, too. I'm impressed with Capturing Life Through (Better) Photography, a superb combo package that includes a book, instructional DVD, and quick reference guide, all for about $70. It's written by photographer Tamara Lackey, and is full of useful info that helps novice photographers take better photos in everyday situations. The DVD really helps make the information in the book accessible and understandable.
Cameras to grow with. Folks who are new digital photography and hoping to grow their photographic skills are probably looking for a compact camera that has point-and-shoot simplicity but the option to switch over to manual control--and a healthy dose of options for growth and expandability. You can find our top recommendations in this category in our "Top Point-and-Shoot Cameras with Manual Controls" roundup.
Case in point: It's hard to beat the Canon PowerShot G12 (priced around $480), a 10-megapixel camera with a 5X optical zoom, an optical viewfinder (which helps extend battery life), flip-out LCD viewfinder, and easy-to-learn controls.
Or consider the Nikon Coolpix P7000 (about $380). This camera has a 7X optical zoom and ready access to a rich set of manual controls that make it a solid camera for aspiring an Ansel Adams.
Peace of mind. If you've got a compact camera (or even a smartphone that you rely on for on-the-go photography), you might wish there was an easy way to securely attach it to your person to prevent loss or theft--and I bet the novice photographer on your gift list is even more nervous about their gear. The Direct Z Connect[http://get-z-connected.com/68-direct-z-connect] ($30) is a great gift for nervous Nellies. It's a small round disc that securely connects to a gadget with a force of about 100 pounds per square inch--an angry rhinoceros would have trouble making off with the camera. It can then be clipped to clothing or a handbag. And even so, it's not permanently affixed; there's an easy way to remove it without affecting the device's finish.
Hot Pic of the Week
Get published, get famous! Each week, we select our favorite reader-submitted photo based on creativity, originality, and technique.
Here's how to enter: Send us your photograph in JPEG format, at a resolution no higher than 800 by 600 pixels. Entries at higher resolutions will be immediately disqualified. If necessary, use an image editing program to reduce the file size of your image before e-mailing it to us. Include the title of your photo along with a short description and how you photographed it. Don't forget to send your name, e-mail address, and postal address. Before entering, please read the full description of the contest rules and regulations.
This week's Hot Pic: "Champs de Mar" by James Morales, Bakersfield, California
James writes: "While on vacation in Paris, I took this photo from the top of the Eiffel Tower. Later, I converted it to look like a tilt-shift image using Adobe Lightroom."
He used an Olympus E-520.
This week's runner-up: "Arches National Park" by Jerry Ricker, Walnut Creek, California
Jerry says that he took this photo with a Canon EOS T2i.