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Gifts for Photographers: 2023 Edition

(Mostly) Affordable Gifts for the Photographer on Your List

Again this year, I’m offering a column for those who have a photographer in their life and are frustrated by not knowing what to put under the tree.

It’s not that we are hard to buy for. It’s that we are hard to buy for if you don’t want to take out a second mortgage. After all, what photographer would pass up that Canon 600mm RF f4 lens? But if your budget is a bit more modest than thirteen grand, I have some ideas.

While I focused exclusively on books for the 2022 Christmas Idea List, I’m expanding it a bit this year to include a few photography accessories that are affordable and indispensable. You see a number of books repeated from last year. That’s because they are so good, I recommend them again and again.

Interested in last year’s lists? You can find them here and here

Wildlife Photography

If you have a wildlife photographer in the house, I recently discovered a great book at a great price, Into the Wild: The Story of the World’s Greatest Wildlife Photography. I’ll be doing a complete review of this book soon, but here is a quick summary. It’s a survey of ground breaking wildlife photography from the 19th to the 21st century.

I have lots of histories of photography, but few provide any recognition of wildlife photography. This one walks through some of the greatest photographs and pioneering wildlife photographers. It should entertain and inspire anyone who likes to photograph wildlife.

Mindful Photography

While on a mini-vacation to Shenandoah National Park, I took along The Mindful Photographer. This book by Sophie Howarth is one of the better books I’ve read in the “inspirational” genre. Each chapter explores a one-word theme and offers some suggested exercises for photographers to get them thinking and growing in the craft. There is a little something for everyone, and if not every suggestion inspires every photographer, virtually everyone should find some that will.  

I also plan to do a more thorough review of this book soon, but that shouldn’t stop anyone from gifting this book now.


Repeating from last year, I’m recommending the Photofile series published by Thames and Hudson, series of mini-portfolio books.

In the past year, I’ve added several to my collection and am including more on my personal wish list.

Although the books are small – just 5 x 7 ½ inches – the reproductions are high quality and the publishers print horizontal pictures sideways, so as to maximize the size of the reproductions. The full series is comprised of well over 30 titles, but not all are currently in print. Still, there is a good selection of photographers available and I expect that some that are currently out of print will eventually come back into stock.

I’m particularly interested in getting a three-part set of the books focused on women photographers. They are arranged by date. With the first volume Pioneers spanning the years 1851-1936. The second volume Revolutionaries, covers photographers from 1937 to 1970 and the final, Contemporaries features photographers since 1970. All three volumes are available in a boxed set if you want all three. Or, they are available individually.

With so many books available, it’s likely you can find someone your photographer is interested in. Be aware though that the series can be addictive and one book leads to another. But at the average price under $20 it’s an affordable addiction.

The Nature of Photographs

Although Stephen Shore has recently released a new book on photography, Modern Instances, I’m again this year recommending his previous book, The Nature of Photographs, as a solid foundation for anyone who really wishes to consider photography in a critical way.

While Modern Instances is something of a personal journey through photography, The Nature of Photographs does exactly as its title suggests – dissecting the essential nature of the photograph and what makes it a unique art form.

Robert Adams

My list would not be complete without at least one book from Robert Adams. This year I’m highlighting his 2017 collection of essays, Art Can Help.

I’ve written before that Robert Adams may be the best writer on photography alive today. I stand by that assessment. Art Can Help is not strictly about photography, but about art in general and its importance in the world. But, except for an initial essay on Edward Hopper, all of the essays draw on and are illustrated by photographs.

It is fitting that Hopper is included in this book dedicated to the art of photography. Hopper’s images can be more photographic than many photographs. His are photographic. Hopper’s paintings show a mastery of light that any photographer would envy. Photographers know that it is always about the light and looking at a Hopper painting we see a kindred soul.

Each of Adams’ essays reflects on a photographer and usually one photograph. Adams is an unapologetic defender of beauty in art today. Not the saccharine beauty that floods internet feeds, but beauty that reveals the deepest truths about life and nourishes our souls. Adams inspires us to turn away from the throw-away feeds of social media and seek art and beauty that is lasting, substantial and challenging.

Susan Sontag: More Relevant than Ever

Susan Sontag’s On Photography was published 50 years ago, yet her observations on photography remain as relevant today as they were when first published. But, this year, I am recommending a book that is disturbingly appropriate for a year in which too much of the world is either already engulfed, or is at risk of becoming swallowed by war.

Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others is not easy to read. Written in 2003, it was her last book, and it digs into the unpleasant topic of the symbiotic relationship that war and photography have shared for nearly 200 years.

That Sontag’s 20-year-old musings remain eerily relevant today is clear from this passage, “To those who are sure that right is on one side, oppression and injustice on the other, and that fighting must go on, what matters is precisely who is killed and by whom. To an Israeli Jew, a photograph of a child torn apart in the attack on the Sbarro pizzeria in downtown Jerusalem is first of all a photograph of a Jewish child killed by a Palestinian suicide-bomber. To a Palestinian, a photograph of a child torn apart by a tank round in Gaza is first of all a photograph of a Palestinian child killed by an Israeli ordinance. To the militant, identity is everything.”

Sontag opens with a contemplation of Virginia Woolf’s 1938 essay on the prevention of war, Three Guineas. Through a series of thoughtful essays she then takes us through the photographed wars of the 19th and 20th centuries relentlessly pursuing the rationales behind war coverage and exploding myths that surround our justifications and voyeuristic fascination for war imagery.

There is no simple answer to the questions she poses. But for anyone who sits, as we do today, balanced on a ledge that could easily tip the world into yet another all-encompassing conflict, Sontag’s questions are worth asking.  

Ansel Adams

I believe everyone should own a well-printed book of Ansel Adams’ work and one that I have is Ansel Adams: 400 Photographs. It is reasonably affordable (Under $35 the last I checked) and the reproductions do justice to his work. Unfortunately, Adams’ popularity means that cheaply printed books often find their way into bookstores, with muddy, poorly contrasted images that are an affront to Adams, who was a superb print maker.

I’ve always had mixed emotions about Ansel Adams. It’s not that I don’t admire his work. I believe he was, at his peak, one of the two greatest photographers practicing in the United States, exceeded only by his fellow f64 Group photographer, Edward Weston.

My reaction to Adams is tainted by his deification in the popular press and the way so many lesser photographers sell the public on the idea that imitating Adams makes their own work “art.” I’m also troubled by the notion that Adams represents the epitome of photography as art, which implies that the world of photography has seen no progress for the past 80 years or more.

Adams himself once told Steven Shore, “I had a creative hot streak in the ‘40s and since then I’ve been potboiling.”

If Adams thought his own later work was mere “potboiling,” then what does that make the legions of photographers trying to sell the public imitations of Adams’ work?

Still, I admire and appreciate Adams’ vision and am guilty of unsuccessfully trying to emulate him many times. Own an Adams’ book. Admire his vision. But, don’t stifle your own growth by living in the shadows of a photographer who died 40 years ago.

Contemporary Photography

Any photographer who wants to move beyond the world of Ansel Adams would do well to pick up Philip Gefter’s 2009 book, Photography After Frank. It is a collection of essays from a New York Times writer and former picture editor. Focusing on the evolution of photography since the publication of Robert Frank’s revolutionary 1958 book The Americans, Gefter’s essays provide thoughtful insights into the varied and sometimes perplexing world of contemporary photography.

Divided into six general themes – The Document, The Staged Document, Photojournalism, The Portrait, The Collection and The Marketplace – each of the brief and highly readable essays explores individual photographers, themes or trends.

The common thread in Gefter’s essays is Frank, an artist who, through a single work, The Americans, changed almost everything about photography. Frank’s vision challenged the accepted narrative of post-World War II America just as his circle of “beat generation” friends and associates were doing so in the literary world. But, far more than simply a critic of America in the 1950s, Frank also revolutionized how photographers would look at the world. Nothing in American photography would be quite the same after Frank. Many of Gefter’s essays explore the multitude of paths photographers have followed in the wake of Frank. Unfortunately, there is no recent edition of The Americans available new at an affordable price. But since the book is a classic, I fully expect that a new edition will be out before too many years.

Other Gifts

As promised, this year I’m including a few affordable photography accessories that gift-givers can consider.

Giottos Rocket Air Blaster

This little air blower is a classic that every photographer should have. Essential for blowing dust off a lens (both the front and rear glass elements) as well as, for the brave, reducing dust on the camera sensor. In fact, this is the only method for removing dust from the sensor that most manufacturers recommend.

A note of caution here. Modern camera sensors are extremely fragile and easily damaged. Damage can result in the need for a very costly repair. The key to the blower is not to ever, ever let it touch the sensor if you do choose to try to clean the sensor.

Generally, though, I find the Giottos most useful for cleaning lens elements, especially for blowing dust off the rear element, and for cleaning dust and grit from the camera body. I routinely pack this when I travel and use it to clean the outside of the camera, after a day at the beach or walking in the woods.

Op/Tech USA straps

Camera straps are a personal choice and most experienced photographers have strong opinions of their preferred straps. If your photographer is already using another brand of strap, it’s probably best to leave well enough alone. But if your photographer is still using the freebie camera strap that came with the camera, this is a nice upgrade.

I like the Op/Tech straps because they are modular. They come with short straps that attach to the camera and have plastic clips that attach those short straps to a longer neck strap, thus you can switch out strap lengths and try different styles. They are durable and I have never had any problem with the plastic clips breaking or wearing out, despite years of use.

Most importantly, the neck straps have a well-cushioned pad that reduces pain and stress on the neck.  

I know that many photographers prefer the style of strap that screws into the tripod socket on the bottom of the camera, but frankly I’ve never been comfortable relying on a single point of attachment, especially because I’ve had near disasters when the attachment screw started to unscrew itself from the socket as the camera twisted around. Still, as I said, if your photographer has already purchased their own straps, then this is probably not the gift for them.

Think Tank Pixel Pocket Rocket

Today’s higher resolution sensors and high frame rate shutters means a photographer can quickly burn through a single camera memory card in short time. On vacations and other extended trips, having a good system for storing extra memory cards can be a life saver.

A quick lesson for anyone who has no clue what I just wrote. Today’s digital cameras have replaced film with memory cards. To take pictures, the memory cards have to be inserted into a slot in the camera body. When the card fills up, it needs to be replaced with an empty card until the original can be downloaded to a computer.

On an extended trip, a particularly enthusiastic photographer can easily fill multiple cards, all of which need to be saved, usually until the trip is over and the files are safely stored on a computer. Even then, many photographers hang on to the filled cards until they’ve archived or duplicated the files.

The Pixel Pocket Rocket is a convenient, compact way to store multiple cards while traveling, assuring that your photographer can always find a card when it’s needed.

Think Tank DSLR Battery Holder

Just like memory cards, today’s cameras, especially mirrorless cameras, can really burn through batteries. There are few worse feelings than being out shooting in the field and finding you’ve run out of batteries.

This little carrier holds four batteries for most mirrorless and DSLR cameras. Four batteries will get almost anyone through the longest day of shooting. My own workflow while traveling is to throw this case with four extra batteries into my camera bag and then, at night, recharge any batteries that I’ve used during the day.

Lenspen Lens Cleaning Pen

This is another great item to throw into a camera bag or pack in a suitcase.

It’s basically a retractable soft brush on one end for removing dust from a lens and a cleaning tip on the other for getting rid of tougher spots, like fingerprints.

A related must-have is lens cleaning solution such as that made by Leitz. Sometimes you need a bit of wet cleaning for a lens and this cleaning solution is from one the leading makers of lenses. Use sparingly and couple it with a soft, dust free cloth.

A word of advice here. There is no need to go overboard cleaning a front or rear lens element. Small specks of dust are inevitable and won’t affect photos. Clean a lens sparingly and only when you spot a particularly objectionable spot of dust or fingerprints.

That’s it for my 2023 list. I hope this will help you find a suitable present for the photographer in your life without breaking the bank.

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