A Holiday Buying Guide for that Special Photographer

With the holidays right around the corner, many loved ones want to know what their photographers want for Christmas, Hanukkah, or another holiday they might celebrate. I have my desires but decided to ask my colleagues in the DC Focused Facebook community what they want for the holidays.

Find below a list of potential gifts for shutterbugs, from the most cost-effective to the priciest. I sprinkled in a couple of suggestions, too.

Links and prices are from B & H Photo unless the item can only be found on another store. These are not affiliate links. It’s just my favorite photography equipment store. I also use Adorama and Amazon.

Affordable Photography Presents

Everyone’s a Photographer Until… – $18.99 for this super funny T-Shirt. Suggested by Jason Schlosberg.

Aputure AL-M9 Amaran Pocket-Sized Daylight-Balanced LED Light An affordable $45. “This is incredibly handy for an on-camera video interview light or just as an interesting accent light that you can place anywhere,” said Sean Kennedy.

Neewer Professional Heavy Duty Metal 360 Degree Panoramic Gimbal Tripod Head$59.99: “My buddy was looking for a gimble for shooting eagles. He found a pro quality one he liked for a bit $600. I turned him on to this one for one-tenth the price,” said Jon Rochetti.

Instax Square SQ6$106.59 for the camera and 20 pack of film: “I’m liking the new square format Fujifim Instax,” said Joe Newman.

Seagate 8TB Expansion Desktop USB 3.0 External Hard Drive  – $146.99. “I ask for an external hard drive every year. Great stocking stuffer and a yearly peace of mind that I back up my photos after every shoot,” said Stefanie Kamerman.

Bigger Ticket Photography Purchases

Peak Design 30L Backpack$289.99. This one is from me. I need a new camera/laptop bag to haul gear for smaller jobs and trips. I’ve had my eye on the 30L Peak Design for more than a year now.

ikan MS-PRO Beholder 3-Axis Gimbal Stabilizer$299.99, suggested by Jennifer Roe  – Geoff’s comment: Serious flexibility for the photographer who demands a steady stabilized image.

Equinox Leo Carbon Fiber Tripod System$349.99“I would love a nice travel tripod/monopod. Something like this,” said Ben Mendis.

You Really Love This Photographer

Gitzo Series 3 Carbon Fiber Tripod$787.77, suggested by Mark Alan Andre. Geoff’s comment: This looks like a sturdy awesome companion for any serious landscape or portrait photographer.

Fujifilm x100F$1299. Another recommendation from me, the perfect walkabout camera for someone who doesn’t want to carry a big camera. I love the compact X100F with its one lens and a neat retro look, all with professional level quality exposures.

Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM Lens$2099, suggested by Ian Herbst, who said, ” I’ve realized that’s my next lens that I desperately need for shooting events!” If your special photographer uses a different brand of camera, I am sure they will be just as thrilled with that brand’s  70-200.

The Nikon Z7$3396.95 – “It has a  “493 phase-detection AF point” system. The rear touchscreen, which had dozens of little focus point squares, any of which you could touch, to autofocus the camera,” said Roland Johnson.

There are so many things to add with so many little and big things you can purchase for a photographer.  It can get expensive quick, too. If you are looking for something a bit more modest, Ben Mendis noted on his wishlist, “Who couldn’t use fresh memory cards, an external hard drive, or batteries?”

Whatever you do this holiday season, make it safe and take lots of pictures! ;)

Soleil as Cleopatra, Child Goddess

These four portraits of my daughter Soleil, feature her dressed up as Cleopatra, Egyptian Goddess. Soleil asked me to take the photos of her dressed as Cleopatra last winter, so we went and purchased two costumes, and booked some studio time at Union 206 Studio. Jessie Campbell did the makeup.

Unfortunately, I had some significant life events that interrupted the effort. Seven months later the composites are done, just in time for Soleil’s birthday next week.

Egyptian Concept and Influence

The project was deeply influenced by Josh Rossi‘s Wonder Woman effort, where he spent $1500 to turn his daughter into the Amazonian superhero. My project cost approximately $600 not including my time, more of a bootstrap effort, in comparison.

Soleil’s Egyptian concept allowed us to put together two costumes piecemeal via various manufacturers on Amazon and Etsy.  We bought tunics, Halloween costumes, wigs, and costume jewelry.  It was just Jessie, Soleil and I in the studio, and I used a simple two light set-up.

The images were shot with a green screen backdrop to assist with creating the composites. I intentionally selected ancient Egyptian backgrounds on iStock to complete the feeling of an authentic ancient Cleopatra, at least to the 21st century’s romantic view of that time.

It would be pretty straightforward to simply duplicate the look and feel of Rossi’s work. Instead, I avoided the dystopian heroic movie image seen in many DC Comics movies and tried to create a fantastical environment that felt golden and Godlike with some dark contrast.

These photos represent play between Soleil and I. Soleil was studying Cleopatra for school at the time, and we learned that the ancient Egyptian leader was the country’s last pharoah, and as such was considered or labeled as a goddess. And in this fictional series of photos, Soleil is a powerful perhaps even intimidating goddess. But, she is a playful child and that needed to come through. I think the pyramid and temple shots show this side.

By the way, the half smiling smirking Soleil (because she couldn’t keep a straight face during the photo shoot) may be her interpretation of Cleopatra. Take that Elizabeth Taylor.

I hope you like the shots!

Don’t miss the Union 206 one light workshop on November 11.



What Kind of Camera Should You Get?

Shot with a mirrorless x100F.

Friends often ask me what kind of camera they should get. Usually, it’s because someone wants a new travel camera, their first real camera, or they want a device capable of more functionality than their smartphone.

It’s a bit of a difficult question, as the camera industry is in transition with mirrorless cameras almost outselling DSLRs now.

But there are some easy qualifiers. Someone’s first camera or a new travel camera should offer a couple of things:

1) The ability to shoot manual: Knowing how to shoot manual is the singular skilled shared amongst serious pro and enthusiast art photographers. Though camera software systems continue to improve with technologies like eye recognition, autofocus interprets a shot in just one way. That limits your artistic flexibility to create depth of field, long exposures, creamy bokeh, etc. If your interest in photography expands, you will want to learn how to shoot manual.

2) Flexibility to evolve: Some people just buy a camera for special trips and occasions. Others evolve and want to do more as their skill set grows. Usually, that means upgrading a camera body or buying new lenses. If you choose to upgrade your body, then you will want your old lenses to work on the new body.

So 90% of the time I recommend an interchangeable lens camera system. Fortunately, these qualifiers are not very limiting. Many camera systems will anchor you and provide the flexibility to grow through the years. That way if you want to take landscape photos, you can get a wide angle lens. If you want to take macro photos of flowers, you can buy a long macro lens.

The usual exception to this rule is folks who want a strong travel camera that offers a lot of flexibility, without any lens changes, etc. They simply want to pull out the camera and shoot. I usually recommend a Fujifilm x100f (the above sunset was shot with an x100f), Sony RX100, or Nikon P1000, depending on their needs.

Camera Technology Debates

The recent Nikon Z and the Canon R camera system launches provoked a ridiculous online debate called the mirrorless wars. The debate featured an Internet-wide series of suspicious trolling comments that were pro-mirrorless Sony. This commenting wave or campaign trashed older DSLR technologies as well as Nikon and Canon’s newer full frame mirrorless offerings. The debate even featured a “Can’t we all get along?” post published in several publications across the industry.

The brand war didn’t help folks trying to get into photography much. Instead, it just produced more questions. Confusion of this nature can mislead someone into buying the wrong system for their needs. I liken this to buying too much car: You need a fuel-efficient commuter car, yet you end up buying a Mercedes C 350e.

Much of the mirrorless war debate dealt with full frame technologies, a 35 mm format favored by serious enthusiasts and professional photographers. Full frame cameras are expensive, whether they are labeled “prosumer” or professional grade cameras. In reality, they are probably too expensive for most people.

Many more cost-effective camera systems use smaller mirrorless 4/3 and both traditional and mirrorless APS-C sensors, also called crop sensors. All of the major brands have decent options here.

Camera Choices

Let’s assume you are not ready for a full frame camera from an interest, skill, and/or a cost perspective. You still have many camera systems from which to choose.

From the mirrorless side, Fujifilm’s X series of cameras are fantastic. I shoot Nikon and am well entrenched in their system, but if I was a would-be enthusiast starting from ground zero, I would pre-order a Fuji XT-3, or buy a Fuji X-E3 or a heavily discounted XT-2 today. Fuji offers a mature XF lens mirrorless system with plenty of flexibility to evolve as your skills grow.

There are many more good choices. Olympus and Panasonic continue to wow mirrorless enthusiasts. Sony has an aging but still good a6000 series of cameras. On the traditional DSLR-side, Canon and Nikon have excellent affordable APS-C cameras in their Rebel and Dxx00 lines, respectively. Canon also has a popular M series of crop sensor mirrorless cameras.

Generally, I try to steer people towards the mirrorless side of the house. Reading the tea leaves, it seems evident that in five years most cameras will be mirrorless. Creating flexibility for the future probably means getting into a good mirrorless system.

A camera is just a tool. A mirrorless camera will not make you a better photographer than a traditional DSLR. Learning how to shoot and edit your photos will deliver the result you want.

Ignoring the Hubris

Register for a workshop with Geoff Livingston today!

One final word on technology: You don’t need 16, 24, 46, or even 100 megapixels to become a good photographer.

I see a ton of photos every day when I go through 500px. Some really great photos made with “non-professional” cameras just stun me.

I also see a lot of photos that lack in lighting, composition or some other aspect(s), at least to my tastes. It’s surprising how many of these lesser photos are made with shockingly good equipment.

You wouldn’t buy thousands of dollars worth of culinary tools to learn how to cook. Instead, you would experiment with recipes, watch how-to videos online, maybe even take a class. The same could be said for your camera and photography.

Remember, great photography comes down to the person holding the instruments. For most people, the number of slots your camera has, or whether or not it has in body stabilization, or if the camera is full frame, APS-C or 4/3, or PhaseOne, Canon, or Olympus does not matter.

Whatever system you choose, have fun.

Why I Took a Flyer on the Z6

The Nikon Z6

Last week, I went out on a limb and pre-ordered the 24 megapixel Nikon Z6, which should ship on November 30. It is a bit of a flyer, but assuming my instincts are correct, the camera will replace my second body, my D750.

Currently, I have two cameras, one a D810 and the other a D750. They are my first and second bodies respectively. I use the D810 almost exclusively for jobs, and the D750 serves as a second backup body in case of failure, and a personal project camera, too. I intend to upgrade both cameras over the next year and a half, and I definitely wanted to move towards mirrorless.

The camera has much to love, including most of the features that Sony and Fuji have pioneered in the space. Most notably, Nikon has an incredible new mount that lets in more light than any other Full Frame, APS-C or 4/3 mirrorless body on the market.

I personally think the next D6 or perhaps even a medium format Nikon may use this mount. Plus I have tested Fuji, Sony and Olympus products, and every time felt myself wanting a Nikon DSLR in my hands.

Why the Z6 and not the Z7? Afterall, the bodies are almost identical besides the sensors. The Z7, which is $1400 more for its additional 21 sensor megapixels, was too much of a risk. Let me explain.

Possible Issues with the Z6 (and Z7)

Much has been said about these Z cameras, and while some of it seems snitty and picky, the big concerning issue is the new autofocusing technology. My understanding is that this is a software issue as the test samples had a beta .5x software release in them. As the esteemed NikonRumors said, shame on Nikon for putting half-baked software in the hands of significant press and influencers.

Another major issue with the Z6 and Z7 cameras is a very high battery usage rate which rates at only 300+ clicks per charge (CIPA rating). Test users of the Z camera say the battery far exceeds its low rating. The above video notes that the battery rating also seems to be a software issue based on some reports I have read.

A more controversial (but less concerning to me) issue may be the decision to include only one slot for an XQD memory card. The memory card thing has been a source of a highly volatile online debate, particularly amongst wedding and other photographers who demand redundancy in their memory card slots.

I had a Nikon Df for four years and only experienced one card failure, and the XQD card is supposed to be much more reliable than the older SD format. Further, the owner’s manual seems to indicate that wireless backup to a hard drive may be a feature in the new camera. Still, it’s a serious issue for some.

The single slot decision shows that Nikon chose to ignore Sony’s challenges in its evolution to the A7R Mark III. Some say Nikon didn’t want to create a more substantial body or that there were cost reasons, but a more likely motive was to protect Nikon’s existing pro DSLR user base. Perhaps this was penny-wise and pound foolish based on the response.

These issues are not enough to stop me from using the Z6 camera body as a second rig. Most of them can be addressed with firmware updates. At the same time, the overall risks give me pause and make me want to mitigate my risk. I can’t replace my D810 with a single slot unproven camera that had a decent, yet flawed launch with serious question marks.

The Z6 allows me to get into Nikon mirrorless, and play with the kit lens and my existing lenses via the FTZ converter. A primary reason to stay in the Nikon universe is my current sunk costs in lenses. Further, the next Z camera may very well be an actual pro version with two slots and the most advanced features in the Nikon line. We will see.

It will make my life much easier if the Z series works out.

October and November are Critical for the Z Line

Dupont Circle Metro in Washington, DC

The Z7 will ship two months before the Z6. I will be very interested to see how the Z7 does in the two months before Z6 shipping.

I suspect that many of the issues revolve around the pre-production software loaded on the influencers’ Z7 cameras. But if the concerns persist or worsen, then I can always cancel my order.

If that is the case, I will buy an “old school” DSLR format Nikon D850, and make the D810 my second body. And perhaps consider a Fuji XT-3 or X100F as a personal travel camera (sorry, Sony, I still don’t like the build quality).

I imagine many people are in the same boat, trusting Nikon, but worried about the risks. As many of you know, I have two businesses the primary being a marketing consultancy and the second being my photography. The marketer in me sees a rushed launch and a flawed influencer strategy, but Nikon put itself in this boat. Now the Z has to get the company out of the situation.

Let’s Get Grounded About Photography, Please

Henri Cartier-Bresson must have sucked. He didn’t have two slots.

I’ve got two concerns with the ongoing debate these cameras have sparked, regardless of whether you are a Sony or Nikon (or Canon or Fuji) shooter. The theory that a camera makes you a better photographer is just wrong. We need to get grounded in a better conversation about what these tools do. Here are my two issues:

1) You need more megapixels — at least 40 — to be considered a pro or outstanding photographer. Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit. Canon 1DX MII, Sony A9, and Nikon D5 are all 20-24 megapixels, and they are the top of the line DSLRs, the shit that’s so expensive everyone is dropping down. Do you think all of these professional AP and Nat Geo photographers are really out there shooting with inferior cameras?

2) You need a fast lens, 1.4 or better (unless you have to settle for 2.8 in a telephoto, which then is fine) to have good glass. More bullshit. Truthfully, the best range for almost all lenses is 5.6-11, with 8 usually being the sweet spot. Yes, wide open creates a sick bokeh effect, but you make some serious sacrifices on image quality. And that’s from a guy that uses wide open lenses frequently at night.

The photographer makes a great image, not the equipment. Tools make it easier and allow you to have different options, but please don’t tell me you are taking an inferior shot because the lens is an f1.8 or even f5.6 wide open lens. Or that you only have 24 MP in your camera.

It’s on you the photographer to make great images, not the equipment.

Photo of the Week from Geoff Livingston

The above photograph was taken on the Indian River Jetty in Dewey Beach this past week. It is literally my first photo of the week.

Every week I will send interested parties with my highest ranked photo posted on the 500px community. The emailed image will include a link to a downloadable version of the picture on Flickr. Photo of the week recipients can download the photo and use it however they like via a non-commercial creative commons license.

If you would like to receive the photo of the week, click on the image below to signup.

Photo of the Week Signup

Photographing the Washington Monuments with Angela Pan

Last week I interviewed Angela Pan in advance of our Photograph the Washington Monuments at Night photo workshop on July 18 (held in conjunction with Focus on the Story). For those of you who don’t know her, Angela is the author of Snap DC: Your Guide to Taking Extraordinary Photos of the National Mall and Beyond…

You can watch our interview with some of Angela’s fantastic photography above. Or you can read the entire interview transcript below (with a pic or three). And do consider attending our Night Monuments photography workshop on July 18, 7:30 until 10:30 p.m. It’s going to be fantastic.

Angela Pan

Geoff: We’re doing this workshop together, it’s about the national monuments. And you just put out a book on it, which I’ve got, it’s outstanding. Tell us about your book [Snap DC].

Angela Pan: Thank you. It took about nine months to create, and it’s just all of my tips and tricks on photographing the National Mall. I’ve been photographing the National Mall for well over five, six years now, and I’ve just had so much experience of where to park, what metro station to take, what time of the day to take those pictures.

The Washington Monument by Angela Pan

So I just put all of that information I had into a book, and it’s really just to help you photographers, anybody visiting the DC area, to shorten the research time, and get out there and do what we love doing, and that’s photographing landscapes, National Mall, whatever.

Geoff: Very cool. Obviously I’ve done some of that too, and I think most people, when they think of photographing a National Mall, they think Lincoln, and Washington monument, and maybe the Jefferson.

But there are a lot of little monuments down there, and some interesting side views. And I’ve gone on a photo walk, and you’ve shown me a couple of those. What are some of your favorite spots to take folks on when you’re down there, that are kind of off the beaten path?

Angela Pan: I think my favorite spot … First of all, I do really enjoy starting at the Lincoln Memorial, where we went on a photo walk. But I think that’s just a great meeting point, because there’s so many great memorials along the way to walk around the mall.

Like right next to it is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and I love it just because of the emotions that it brings for anybody who visits that memorial. But also, the reflections are so great, the line is so great.

The Tidal Basin by Angela Pan

My favorite kind of shoot anytime is sunrise, so when you’re there, you’re all by yourself, and there’s really no other time of day where you’re going to get that. And it’s just such a peaceful, calming experience. You feel so grateful for all the names that are up on the wall.

Even if you go down a little bit further, Constitution Gardens, which not a lot of people know about either, and it’s a great place just to sit, hang out. It’s my favorite time to go in the wall, because all the trees are changing and all the leaves are falling, and it’s perfect. And not a lot of people are there any time of the day. So, those two I would say, are my favorite that are in the National Mall.

Geoff: What do you think of the Korean War Memorial? That’s actually one of my favorite night shots, only because it’s so spooky, you know, with those guys going through the walk, right?

Angela Pan: Yeah, yeah. It’s not in my book, just because of copyright reasons, but the Korean War Memorial was really cool.

I think that memorial in particular is great in different environments, like when it’s snowing and you see all the snow details, and we see what they’re wearing, and then the helmet that they got. Or when it’s foggy and you can get that atmosphere too. But night time is really cool because it’s lit up, and just it makes it more dramatic, and more impactful the way that you can photograph it.

Geoff: There’s that group of monuments and memorials, and then you jump over to the Tidal Basin, and there are four I think, at least that I can think of, that are over there. There’s obviously Jefferson on the Tidal Basin.

And then you’ve got MLK, and George Mason, obviously FDR. You could probably throw the Washington Monument in there, ’cause you’d get some crazy reflecting views off of not just the main Tidal Basin, but that little pool on the other side of Independence Avenue. What are your thoughts of the Tidal Basin?

Angela: Oh, it’s one of my favorites. I love it. Especially during cherry blossom season. I feel like it’s the default place to go, but not even cherry blossom.

I was just there yesterday photographing the sunrise, and every time you go it’s going to be something different. Unfortunately, yesterday when I went, there was a whole bunch of flooding. And it was really sad to see, but I had some beautiful reflections.

And I feel like for me, myself, just photographing that flooding, and showing people that that’s happening right now, will bring awareness that the National Mall does need help. It doesn’t take care of itself. There are natural elements that will affect it, and this rain that we got over the weekend and the past week cause all this flooding to happen, and need our flood walls to be repaired.

And that’s what the Trust for The National Mall has been doing. I think that just photographing it can bring awareness to the people. But Tidal Basin is beautiful at sunrise, sunset, no matter where you go you’re going to get amazing views.

Geoff: Right. That’s interesting. It’s funny you mention that, ’cause I think of the Jefferson, and how messed up the roof is on the Jefferson, and how they’ve just kind of let that go into disrepair. It looks awful. I’ve lived here for 25 years, and just watching that thing deteriorate over the two decades plus that I’ve been here.

So, when I look at your photos, they’ve definitely got that HDR feel to them. They’ve got a lot of vibrancy, and color, and a lot of texture. So, I was kind of wondering, if you were to give our listeners today any special tips, maybe you could give them one or two. I know it’s kind of hard to open up the cookbook unless you’re Scott Kelby, and you’re making a ton of money off of it.

The U.S. Capitol Building by Angela Pan

Angela Pan: No, actually I don’t mind at all. I think that my images … I like to shoot sunrise, sunset. You know, the magic hour, that photographers like to call it. I think my biggest secret is that I’m just very consistent. I go out there as much as I can.

When I haven’t been out there in two or three days, I just miss it, and I want to go back. Every day it’s going to be something different, and it really is, for me, just getting out there and being consistent, going out. Pictures of sunrise, even right now, that summer time sunrise is around 5:45 in the morning, so you have to be there 30 minutes earlier.

Geoff: You’re an animal.

Angela Pan: Haha… and there is no better way to … Yeah, it is. But it’s just getting out there and doing it. It’s a lot of practice. And like I said before, I’ve been doing this over five, six years, and the main thing for me I think, is just practice, and getting out there and doing it.

If I think I had a second piece of advice, it would be just to photograph what makes you happy. I don’t know if that’s too similar of advice, but too generic, or what it is. But just sitting at the edge of the Reflecting Pool, watching the reflections and the clouds pass by in the water.

And just sitting there in peace and watching the ducks float by, I think it’s so much fun, and so interesting every time. So, photograph what makes you happy, consistently, just keep on practicing, and yeah. I think those would be my biggest tips.

If you talk about exposure or photo editing, those are two completely different things.

Geoff: It’s funny, I saw Amy Vitale speak. She’s a Nikon Ambassador. I saw her speak at Nat Geo, I think maybe three or four years ago. And she said the exact same thing you said. In fact, she said it kind of like … About the morning stuff, she said, “If you want to be a real photographer, you have to be up early. See things before the day begins, when people are just starting to stir, that you would never see.” And she says literally some of her best photos are early in the morning.

And I think that’s true, whether you’re a landscape photographer, or street, or documentary. I know some of my best shots are at odd times of the day. And particularly in the morning, if I’m there early I really see some incredible things happen. So, it’s some good advice.

Angela Pan: Yeah. Just that early morning light. Yeah, that early morning light you can’t beat. When I first found out that one out of the two times to shoot any kind of subject is sunrise, I never really used to be a morning person, and when I actually found out, and my husband was telling me, “Oh yeah, you should wake up for sunrise,” I literally cried.

I did not want to wake up that early. I didn’t want to do it. But I just trained my body to wake up now. And even this morning I didn’t wake up at sunrise, I woke up maybe around 5:30, just because I’m so used to it now, you know? It’s crazy how much things have changed.

Geoff: Where can people find your book, my friend?

Angela Pan: You can find the book on amazon.com, just go and search Snap D.C. or you can put my name, Angela B Pan. And my website is abpan.com. I upload a new image on my blog every weekday, and I’ve been doing it for the past eight or nine years, which is crazy. And I haven’t missed a day. And on social media, I’m abpan.com, or I’m sorry, I’m abpanphoto, and you can find me there.

Geoff: Very cool. All right folks, and if you are available on Wednesday night, July 18th, come out and do a fantastic workshop with Angela, myself, and Joe Newman, who runs the Focus on the Story film and photography festival. We’re going to do a great workshop on July 18th, about night photography and the monuments.

Angela Pan: It’s going to be awesome.

All photos in this article are by Angela Pan.