Brightly wrapped gifts spill out from under the little spruce that stands aglow in the corner of the living room. The stockings have all been hung with great care. Not a creature is stirring - except, of course, for the photographer in your family who's loading his camera and getting ready to capture the excitement of the next morning.
If you have a friend or family member who is a serious photographer, you may be wondering what to buy him or her for Christmas. Here are a few suggestions, beginning with the most expensive ideas and moving down to a few things you can buy for several dollars to put in a stocking.
* An extra lens
If the photographer in your life owns a single-lens-reflex camera, you may want to consider buying an extra lens, as the beauty of owning this type of camera is its capacity for using different lenses. Many people, however, buy one of these cameras with the standard 50mm lens that comes with it and never explore the creativity that a telephoto or wide-angle lens can add to their picture-taking abilities.
My first choice in an auxiliary lens would be a medium telephoto, somewhere in the 85-110mm range. Such a lens not only brings scenes a bit closer in travel photography, but also serves as an excellent lens for portraits.
There are many lenses on the market that will fit almost any make of camera. I strongly suggest, however, that you buy the lens of the same manufacturer who made the camera body. You might pay a few extra dollars, but I feel you're getting a better value for your money in the long run.
This will not be an inexpensive gift by any means, but it will last a long, long time, and the pleasure it will bring in creating more striking pictures will be appreciated by your entire family. Expect to pay in the vicinity of $175 for such a lens.
* An electronic flash unit
There was a time not too long ago when a flash unit required its user to calculate the proper setting for the camera by measuring the distance from the camera to the subject. If you wanted a more pleasing effect by using bounce lighting, it was necessary to measure the distance from the camera to the ceiling then to the subject and adding one f-stop and so on and so forth. Anyway , by the time all this was figured out, the kids had decided to go next door to play with their friends.
As in so many other things, modern technology has made taking flash pictures much easier. There are now many models with a little white sensor that determines the exact amount of light the unit must emit to make a perfect exposure. When the flash goes off, the sensor reads the amount of light bouncing off of the subject and tells the unit when it should shut itself off.
Some camera manufacturers are making cameras that read the amount of light bouncing back from the subject right off of the film plane. It is, therefore, important to be sure to ask the salesperson if the flash unit you are buying is compatible with the type of camera to be used.
Sunpak and Vivitar make very good units with these amazing little sensors built into them. Both companies make models ranging in price from $25 to $110. For the serious photogapher, I recommend buying one in the middle price range that enables the flash head to be aimed at a white ceiling or wall. Such a bounce technique gives the picture the feeling that it was taken with natural light and eliminates the stark black shadow that often appears behind the subject with the straight-flash approach.
* Camera bag
While photography is an art form, it is also a rather exacting science. Serious photographers are fussy about their equipment, and there is nothing more pleasurable than having a special bag designed to hold everything for travel.
There should be individual compartments for the camera, an extra lens or flash unit, and film. It's also helpful to have a pouch to hold things like lens tissue, maps, a small notebook, and even a passport. It should have foam padding in the bottom to help protect equipment from receiving more abuse than necessary.
There are many bags on the market, and no doubt you may be able to find one for $10. But if you're buying this for someone who loves to travel, I highly recommend spending $40 to $50 on a Domke or a Tenba bag. Most photography stores will carry at least one of these two brands. Compare them to the cheaper ones you'll find in discount stores, and you'll readily see the difference.
A tripod is a little stand required to take pictures at slow shutter speeds. Many of the travel pictures you've seen of cities at night were taken with a camera on a tripod. Many serious photographers would like to take the kind of picture that you see on travel posters, yet they don't want to bother with lugging an extra piece of large equipment around.
The solution to the problem is to buy a ''table top'' tripod that can be tucked away in a small camera bag. Having traveled around the world with one of these, I can tell you from experience that it is always possible to find a place to rest it. You don't always have to place it on a table for height. I've placed mine on many a cobblestone street throughout Europe. You can buy one of these marvelous little inventions for about $25.
Several months ago, Kodak introduced a new line of color-print film that includes the VR l000, a very fast film that enables pictures to be taken in very low light. It is possible in many cases to use this film indoors without a flash. Many people ask me what I think of this new product. Frankly, grainy prints bother me, but the ease of using this film indoors may outweigh such concern. My advice is to try it and compare its characteristics with other films.
For under $10, Kodak has made it possible to try all four of their color-print films by packaging 12 exposure rolls of VR 100, 200, 400, and the new 1000 in a trial pack. Processing will require an extra charge, but this is a great way to sample the results from four different speeds of film.
If your gift recipient takes slides rather than prints, you might want to buy a roll of Agfachrome 64 or the new, faster 200, both of which come packaged with a handy prepaid processing mailer. For the photographer who likes to experiment, think about giving a few rolls of Ilford XP1 - black and white film that is developed in color chemistry and produces incredibly sharp, almost grainless black and white prints.
* Stocking stuffers
Serious photographers like to keep their equipment in good shape, and keeping lenses clean is imperative for taking good photographs. With a few dollars you can buy several packs of lens-cleaning tissue or a handy blower brush with soft camel-hair bristles that gently removes surface dust. Put these in his or her stocking so they'll be there first thing Christmas morning. Lenses may have to be cleaned before taking this year's pictures around the tree.