Holiday Gift Guide for Portrait and Outdoor Photographers

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As a kid, I asked for a really fancy Erector set several years in a row but never got it (it came with three motors and some sort of remote control); apparently Santa didn't love me enough. These days, I have my mind set on a ContourRoam, a $200 hands-free HD camera that I can use to document my outdoor adventures. You never stop wanting toys, apparently. Over the last few weeks, I've recommended photo gifts for all manner of photographers on your holiday list, including new photographers and casual and action photographers.

This week, I'll wrap up my annual shopping suggestions with a look at cameras and accessories for people who like taking portraits as well as outdoorsy types who shoot landscapes and wildlife.

Photo Gifts for Portrait Takers

Portraits are unique and sometimes challenging--getting the light, focus, and skin tones right can require specialized skills and tools. These cameras and accessories are ideal for taking photos of people.

Portrait-friendly cameras. When folks who like to take people pictures ask me for camera recommendations, I suggest that they look for a camera that takes great photos in ambient light, without the need for a flash. In particular, that can mean finding a camera with a very wide aperture. You should also be sure the lens has a zoom range that passes through 90 or 100mm--which is about the right focal length for good portraits. And, of course, it needs to have manual controls.

The Nikon CoolPix P300 would be a good choice. This 12-megapixel camera is super compact and boasts a very wide aperture--f/1.8--for really strong natural light performance and great narrow depth of field that's ideal for portraiture. You won't find an aperture this wide in any other camera this compact and lightweight. The camera's zoom ranges from 24mm to 100mm, hitting the sweet spot for people portraits. The P300 also offers a full set of manual controls in addition to the usual automatic fare, and a pop-up lens for situations in which you need more light. It's available online for about $280.

Another excellent option is the Canon PowerShot S100, a similarly lightweight and compact point-and-shoot camera with manual controls. It also has a 12-megapixel sensor and optional manual override, but it has a somewhat broader zoom range (24mm to 120mm). Other nice features: Unlike the Nikon, this camera can capture higher quality RAW images, and it has a useful control ring conveniently mounted around the lens. It's priced around $400.

Powerful editing Adobe with Lightroom. I generally recommend photo editors like Adobe Photoshop Elements 10 and Corel Paint Shop Pro X2, but for certain kinds of photo editing, nothing beats Adobe Lightroom (about $200). I love Lightroom, especially for touching up portraits.

Lightroom is designed from the ground up to accommodate a smart digital editing workflow; it stores your photo library and has an array of tools for color, exposure, and composition control. You won't find features like layers or a clone brush in Lightroom--you'll still need to import your photo into Adobe Photoshop Elements or another image editor for that sort of work. That said, Lightroom's Adjustment Brush is absolutely indispensable. You can use it like a super-simple mask tool to paint virtually any adjustment onto your photo with extreme precision. You can easily change the exposure and sharpness of someone's face, for example, with just a few simple brushstrokes.

Avoid Shadows with the Roundflash. Anyone who is getting serious about portraiture will want a way to avoid harsh shadows or uneven lighting on the subject's face. There are a lot of flash accessories out there, but a new one that has recently caught my eye is the Roundflash. The Roundflash is sort of like a traditional ring flash: Instead of a single point of light coming from above the lens, this gadget distributes the flash's output in a donut shape all around the flash for even illumination. But where the Roundflash excels is both in price--it's just $159--and portability. It's a collapsible fabric adapter that weighs just a few ounces, takes up almost no space, and assembles quickly.

Photo Gifts for Outdoor Photographers

Obviously, most people don't focus on only one kind of photography. You might take a lot of action photos at soccer games, but you probably also take casual and portrait photos, too. Even so, I must confess that of all the general categories that I've described over the last few weeks, I tend to identify myself mostly as an outdoors photographer. If a person on your gift list loves taking pictures of the natural world, they fall in this category right alongside me.

Cameras for the great outdoors. If your giftee is enthused about wildlife, landscapes, and other outdoorsy settings, then they probably want a camera with a very wide zoom range that lets them switch quickly between shooting wide-angle scenes and pulling in distant subjects. Useful features include a panoramic mode for capturing very large vistas and perhaps even GPS for geotagging photo shoots.

Definitely check out the Nikon CoolPix P500, a megazoom camera with a monster 36X optical zoom that starts at a super-wide 22.5mm and extends to an almost tripod-mandatory 810mm. Can you find a camera with a wider, longer zoom combination? I couldn't. The camera boasts a 12-megapixel sensor and a full range of automatic and manual controls. In addition to image stabilization (essential for no-tripod telephoto shooting), the camera also takes extended dynamic range photos with the Active D-Lighting control. Another great outdoors feature: a one-touch panorama shooting mode. The CoolPix P500 is available online for less than $400.

I'd be remiss if I didn't also suggest the Sony Cyber-shot HX100V (about $430). The lens also offers a massive zoom--this time just 30X, though, which means it doesn’t offer quite the same wide angle coverage as the P500. But it's impressive nonetheless, serving up focal lengths from 27mm to 810mm. This 16-megapixel camera has all the basics covered. It has manual and automatic shooting modes, of course--but throws in some awesome extras. It’s got a blazing fast 10 frames per second shooting mode, for example, as well as panoramic shooting, 3D capture, and GPS that records the location in your photo's metadata.

Stay charged while out in the wilderness. If a loved one spends time backpacking and you get concerned about the batteries in their camera (and other useful gadgets, like cell phone or GPS device), here’s the perfect gift: the Brunton Freedom. This $50 portable solar panel charges all sorts of gadgets, from an iPhone to digital cameras to a GPS receiver. One caveat: Like any solar charger, it tends to do its thing slowly. Don't expect it to top off devices; it's more of a "fallback plan" to provide just enough juice to get by when there are no other options.

Slow down waterfalls with neutral density filters. Many times before, I have recommended neutral density filters to let you shoot outdoor scenes with a slower shutter speed--great for smoothing out the motion of running water. You can find relatively inexpensive filters online or at your local photo store, but if you want to give a single screw-on filter that offers the most exposure flexibility, turn to Singh-Ray's Vari-ND (about $300). This neutral density filter that offers two to eight stops of light change as it’s turned.

A Special Gift for a Special Photographer

What do your loved ones plan to do with their glamour shots and outdoor masterpieces? They should have a high-quality "fine art" printer to show each pixel in the best light. I am fond of the Canon Pixma Pro9000 Mark II, an eight-color, dye-based printer that can generate prints up to 13 by 19 inches in size. The dye-based inks deliver a very wide color gamut, and the images that it prints last a very long time without fading. It's available for between $430 and $500 online.

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: "Foggy Reflections" by Paul Bild, Vancouver, British Columbia

Paul writes: "I took this photo last fall in a foggy afternoon in the VanDusen Botanical Gardens in Vancouver. I used a Canon G6, and I converted it to black and white with Adobe Photoshop Elements."

This week's runner-up: "Motorcycle Jewelry" by Patricia Morphy, Shannonville, Ontario

Patricia writes: "My brother and I were in my car, awaiting the arrival of a ferry in Nanaimo, British Columbia. I glanced out the window and saw this motorcyclist's hand. I thought that the shining silver of the bike and the jewelry were an interesting composition."

Patricia used a Canon Power Shot S2 IS.

To see last month's winners, visit our November Hot Pics slide show. Visit the Hot Pics Flickr gallery to browse past winners.

Have a digital photo question? E-mail me your comments, questions, and suggestions about the newsletter itself. And be sure to sign up to have Digital Focus e-mailed to you each week.

This story, "Holiday Gift Guide for Portrait and Outdoor Photographers" was originally published by PCWorld.

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