'Tis the season to Crave: Stephen Shankland's picks

Digital photography is a great hobby, so there's an enticing world of accessories. Here's what caught my eye during this season of consumerism.

Editor's note: From now through the end of December, various Crave experts will be sharing their top five (mostly) tech-related wishes for the holiday season. See what we crave, and maybe you'll get some ideas!

I'll be honest. What I want is Canon's EF 500mm f/4L IS USM telephoto lens, but it costs $5,600, so let's move on to some options that aren't quite so detached from economic reality for a mostly amateur photographer such as myself.

Obviously my camera is a Canon SLR, but I'm reasonably happy with my setup right now, so here are some items I covet that are more modestly priced and that happen to be neutral as regards camera manufacturer.

WhiBal cad
RawWorkflow.com's WhiBal white-balance card RawWorkflow.com

1. WhiBal white-balance card. I shoot raw images, which means data is taken directly from the camera's image sensor without any in-camera processing. I like it because it gives me more flexibility for matters such as exposure adjustment. Second in importance to exposure, though, is fixing white balance--for example the orangey color cast you'll often see when shooting under incandescent lights or the bluish tinge of pictures in the shade.

The flip side of raw photography is that it's more manual labor than just grabbing the JPEG, but to me it's worth it. I mostly just eyeball the white balance, but sometimes keying off parts of an image--the whites of someone's eyes or gray and black clothing--gives an easier way to set white balance with software. But for more precision, the WhiBal cards from RawWorkflow.com give an easy way to be more rigorous. You take a photo of the durable card, which shows a standard 18 percent gray, then set the white balance in software off that part of the photo. With modern raw-image editing software, you can synchronize the white balance for a series of images off the one you took with the card. The $19 keychain model looks about my speed.

iBird
iBird Explorer is an electronic bird book for the iPhone. iBird Explorer

2. iBird Explorer Plus software for iPhone. When I'm toting my camera at the beach, I confess to sometimes having trouble telling a marbled godwit from a whimbrel from a long-billed curlew. And don't even talk to me about the time I sent a picture of a sanderling to my birder pals--but called it a snowy plover. I know just enough to embarrass myself. I lug a bird book around sometimes, but iBird Explorer Plus for the iPhone gives a different approach to bird identification in the field as long as your battery lasts. The $20 software walks you through identification based on habitat and descriptive characteristics such as bill length, and like no book I've ever seen, it plays the calls of the various birds. There are $10 versions for regions of the U.S., and a $5 version for backyard birds, too.

3. ScanCafe gift box. I'm kind of a slob, but somehow I actually manage to keep my digital photos mostly organized. My collection of slides and negatives from days of yore, though, is the classic dusty box. I'm quite daunted by the prospect of doing anything with it. But what if it were digital? Then the archive would come alive. But I'm never going to get around to scanning hundreds of images myself. So how about the $150 ScanCafe gift box?

With the company, you send the slides off to India to be scanned and edited for color balance, scratch removal, and dust removal. If I were doing it myself, I'd probably just use the pay-as-you-go service, which costs 24 cents per negative, 29 cents per slide, and 27 cents per photo. But we're talking presents here, so for the record, the gift box is good for 400 prints, 120 color negatives, and 140 slides. The company sends back a DVD with the JPEGs in about five weeks. Some people freak out about the idea of sending their precious memories to the other side of the planet for weeks or months, but the ScanCafe reviews seem favorable judging by several opinions I've read. And how much worse can it be than being consigned to the oblivion of my closet?

Gary Fong Universal Lightsphere
The Gary Fong Universal Lightsphere Gary Fong

4. Gary Fong Universal Lightsphere. When I can, I bounce my flash off the ceiling or wall to get softer, more even light. But sometimes I'm shooting outside or in a location with high or black ceilings where bouncing just won't work. Enter the Gary Fong Universal Lightsphere, a $50 bulgy plastic apparatus that attaches to the top of most flashes, diffusing their light to get ease of the harsh shadows and blow-out highlights of direct flash light. It also can help avoid some of the raccoon-eye shadows of bounced flashing, though it can be used either with its cap on or with it off to bounce light as well.

5. HDRsoft's Photomatix software. With digital photography, it's not all about the hardware. Most of my needs are met with Adobe Systems' Photoshop Lightroom, but I've been curious about high-dynamic range (HDR) photography, which combines multiple shots taken over a range of dark to bright exposures into a single image. A lot of HDR photography involves a moody, surreal, gimmicky look that is not to my mostly literalist tastes, but HDR also can help restore some of a scene's realism that my eyes see but my camera isn't able to cope with.

One classic example is the interior of a cathedral, where it's no trouble for me to appreciate both stained glass and carved stone pillars. Another is the subtle tones of clouds that often wash out to a plain white when a foreground is exposed correctly. Photoshop CS3 and CS4 have some HDR abilities, but the leader of the pack is HDRsoft's Photomatix, which costs $99 as a standalone package or $119 including a Photoshop plug-in, too.

PREVIOUS CRAVE HOLIDAY LISTS: Sharon Vaknin , Anne Dujmovic , Erica Ogg , Dan Ackerman , Matt Hickey , Leslie Katz , Emily Dreyfuss , Candace Lombardi , Jeff Sparkman , Eric Franklin

 

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