If you own an iPhone or Mac, you’re probably a photographer — either with your iPhone’s camera or a standalone camera you connect to your Mac. Just as iPhoto’s simple editing and storage tools helped Apple sell iMacs, photography has become a major marketing focus for iPhones, empowering people to capture increasingly beautiful images and videos with the one device they’re always carrying.
Over the past year, I’ve reviewed some of the very best hardware, software, and services available to Apple-loving photographers. And I’ve spent the last month adding new choices to the list. So just in time for the holidays, I’ve put together 9to5Mac’s Holiday Gift Guide with top photography picks, at price points ranging from $2.99 to $2,200. From basic accessories to smart photo backup solutions to amazing photo-to-wall art printing services, there’s something for everyone inside…
$2.99 And Up: Photo Composing, Editing + Library Software
If you’re looking to take your iPhone photography to the next level, tap tap tap’s Camera+ ($2.99) is a great tool to start with. Unlike Apple, which has made iOS’s Camera app an almost entirely automatic point-and-shoot experience, tap tap tap gives you manual control over everything from color temperature to stabilization, macro focus, exposure, and zoom settings. Camera+ also includes a Lightbox that lets you radically enhance photos you’ve snapped, including everything from granular color and brightness adjustments to adding filters, frames, and text.
Post-processing your photos can change and in some cases radically improve them. I personally use and love Macphun’s Creative Kit 2016 ($150, left), a collection of 6 apps that handle everything from color adjustments to refocusing prior images. Each of the six apps is discussed in this review; they can be purchased individually, but are a great value when bundled together. Most of the apps can also be used as plug-ins for OS X Photos, Lightroom, Photoshop, Aperture, and iPhoto. Macphun also just introduced Aurora HDR Pro ($90, right) as a standalone app for creating gorgeous high-dynamic range images, and it’s seriously excellent, co-developed with HDR master Trey Ratcliff.
Apple’s discontinuation of the professional photo editing and library management app Aperture has left a large hole in many photographers’ lives, and Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 6 ($142) is the safest alternative. Reviewed here, Lightroom has most of the same tools and features as Aperture did, plus a bunch of its own tricks — camera calibration, noise reduction, and grain adjustment, to name a few. If you have a lot of pictures and a need to organize them, this is probably your best option right now.
$16 And Up: Basic iPhone/iPad Camera Accessories
If you’re looking for a gift that can instantly improve an iPhone 6’s photographs, start with Olloclip’s 4-in-1 Lens ($80). It fits the iPhone 6, 6s, 6 Plus and 6s Plus, bundling wide-angle, fisheye, and 10x/15x macro lenses into a single accessory you can carry around in your pocket or on an included lanyard. My full review is here. Olloclip also sells iPhone 6/6s and iPhone 6 Plus/6s Plus cases compatible with the lenses for $30 each, as well as iPad versions of some of its lenses.
If you’re shooting photos with a standalone camera and want to send images instantly to your iPhone or iPad, I highly recommend either the Eyefi Mobi ($30 and up) or Eyefi Mobi Pro ($60 and up). These SD cards literally add Wi-Fi to your camera, rapidly sending each photo you snap to your iOS device (or Mac) without the need to stop or use a card reader. Eyefi cards have become indispensable in my workflows, letting me send DSLR-quality photos directly to the Internet from my iPhone, edit photos on my iPad, and immediately store them on my Mac. Pick the Pro version if you use the high-quality RAW image format; otherwise, both versions work with more common JPEG images, and come in multiple capacities.
I’m not going to tell you that I’m a fan of selfie sticks, but what started out as a fad has almost become the new normal over the past year or so. Spigen’s new S520 Bluetooth Selfie Stick ($16) is affordable, full-featured, and device-agnostic — it works with any-sized iPhone from the 5s to the 6s Plus, expands from a portable 7.7″ to 31.5″ in length, and includes a Bluetooth shutter trigger to help you snap the perfect shot. It also feels solid and well-made, which can’t always be said for selfie sticks, but is important for something that’s holding your iPhone.
Serious photographers and videographers understand the value of stabilization when trying to shoot blur-free still photos and shake-free videos. Tiffen’s Steadicam Smoothee ($150) is a hand-held stabilizer that lets you achieve gimbal-style steadiness when walking, panning, and tilting, while using only a single hand. It comes with your choice of iPhone-sized mounts; the brand new $170 version shown here comes with an adjustable universal bracket and small balance weight for use with any iOS device from the iPod touch up to the iPhone 6s Plus. Older versions are sold at discounts with brackets for the iPhone 4/4s or iPhone 5 series.
$19 And Up: Photo-to-Wall Art Printing Services
If you’re looking for a more personalized, thinking-outside-the-box photography gift, this section has the best options. Readers loved my series on making amazing wall art from your Mac’s photos (part 1, part 2, part 3), so I decided to check out a few additional services ahead of the holidays in the brand new part 4. My favorite overall photo-to-wall art solution of the year was produced by Nations Photo Lab, which turns any photo into a “Genna Effect” hand-painted canvas (starting at $110 for an 8″ by 10″). Nations’ Genna Effect begins by printing your photo on a canvas, which is followed by an artist hand-painting over the photo with latex, creating a truly one-of-a-kind piece of art. The results are beautiful, and unlike many of the other solutions, can work to turn even low-resolution photos into large-sized canvases.
Bay Photo is an excellent photo printing service with a wide variety of spectacular-looking large-format options. Made from sheets of ink-saturated aluminum, Bay’s Double Float (left, starting at $34 for 6″ x 8″) joins two layers of metal together to create a three-dimensional picture frame. The sample Double Float I tested had deep blacks, excellent detail, and substantially accurate colors. For something more rustic, Bay offers Maple Wood Prints (center, starting at $22 for 5″ x 5″), optionally with a white finish that’s color-accurate to the deliberately dreamy image, and looks like a painting on wood. Another option is the Face-Mounted Acrylic Print (right, starting at $19 for 4″ x 4″), which is a traditional but large photo print on paper, supported by metal and foam core backing. Deep and glossy, it’s one of the most substantial-feeling and nicely mounted solutions I’ve ever covered.
Another heavy hitter in the photo printing business is Shutterfly, which offers many types of great wall art. I loved Shutterfly’s Photo Gallery Acrylic Print (left, starting at $70 for 8″ x 10″), which arrived with optimized, intense colors and gallery-quality stainless steel mounting posts in the corners. Contrasting with Bay Photo’s alternative, Shutterfly’s Upload Your Own Design Wood Wall Art (center, starting at $90 for 8″ x 10″) comes only in a natural grain option that really lets the wood texture shine through. Another company, CanvasPop, specializes in printing photos on canvas (right, starting at $37 for 10″ x 10″), and does a very good job, very quickly. I was thrilled by the print quality on this rendition of my youngest daughter, which took a 22-Megapixel image up to a 20″ by 30″ size while accurately preserving both detail and colors. Three-canvas triptychs and up to 2.5″ frame depths are offered as options.
$100 And Up: Photo/Video Storage Solutions
It’s inevitable that your photo collection will either outgrow your Mac’s internal storage capacity or become important enough to back up. In either case, you’ll want some sort of external storage solution, and I have a couple of fantastic recommendations, starting with G-Technology’s G-Drive USB ($190). For less than $200, you can have a fast USB 3.0 drive with 4TB of highly reliable storage space. As noted in my review, G-Tech’s hard drive mechanisms are the most reliable around, and the price for this particular model is awesome. My personal photo library lives on a G-Drive USB, and yours should, too.
Apple may not love optical drives, but they’re still very useful for storing high-resolution videos and photos. If you have memories you want to preserve for decades, OWC’s new Mercury Pro ($78/$135) burns archival-quality DVDs or Blu-ray Discs using recently-released M-DISCs, which are guaranteed to last for generations and play in regular DVD/Blu-ray players. The $79 model is less expensive than Apple’s USB SuperDrive and burns M-DISC DVDs, while the $139 model can burn M-DISC Blu-ray Discs and let your Mac play back Blu-ray movies, as well. A full review is here.
$600 to $3,500: A New Camera
If you’re reading this article, you most likely already have a camera, but I have a couple of recommendations. As the saying goes, the best camera is the one you’re actually carrying when something’s worth photographing, which has led me to care a lot about two types of cameras: the one I carry every day, and the one I carry to special photographic destinations. Since my everyday camera is an iPhone, I upgrade each year to get Apple’s best cameras (here are tips on how to trade your old iPhone in for cash towards a new model), which now are found inside each year’s Plus models. You can’t go wrong with any iPhone 6, 6s, or Plus version, but the “s” models have radically improved 5MP selfie cameras, 12MP rear still cameras, and 4K video cameras; the 6s Plus has optical image stabilization for videos. An unlocked iPhone 6 starts at around $600, iPhone 6 Plus at $700, iPhone 6s at $715, and the iPhone 6s Plus at $885. I personally use the iPhone 6s Plus and would recommend at least 64GB of storage capacity.
The camera I carry for special occasions is Canon’s 5D Mark III ($2,149), which I chose because it offers huge steps up in image quality and versatility relative to my everyday camera. Super fast and equipped with a 22MP full frame sensor, it’s capable of taking superb images under any lighting conditions, particularly when paired with an excellent zoom lens such as Canon’s 24-70 f/2.8L II ($1,799). If I wanted something that was priced between the iPhone and those two Canon options put together, I’d look seriously at Sony’s DSC-RX100 IV ($948, shown inset), which has a fast, sharp 24-70mm-equivalent lens, a 20MP sensor, and a pocket-sized footprint. The iPhone 6s and 6s Plus use lower-end versions of the same Sony image sensors found in the RX100 IV, and have no zoom capabilities, making this a stronger pick if you’re willing to spend the cash for a standalone camera that fits in your pocket.
More From This Author
Check out more of my How-To guides and reviews for 9to5Mac here! In recent months, I published a guide to turning your digital photos into beautiful wall art (see Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4), as well as a lot of different topics of interest to Mac, iPad, iPhone, iPod, Apple TV, and Apple Watch users.