digital photography tips with Digital Photo Mentor Darlene Hildebrandt

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My List of Recommended Stuff

I'm often asked what I use for camera equipment and software to create my images, so I've finally compiled a list of some of the things I use most often and what I recommend. I will be expanding on each of these in more detail at some point (need more hours in the day) so below you'll find a summary of how I use each and why I give my stamp of approval.

Yes some of them are affiliate links and I make a small percentage off each sale. But I do not intend to ever place advertising on my web site, and I will only promote products and things that I actually use myself (or wish I had) and can vouch for their usefulness and value.

So, I'd like to briefly describe some of them and talk about what I use, why, and how as well as some things on my own Wish List. I'll cover them in no particular order.

#1 Adobe Lightroom CC

Adobe Photshop Lightroom 4Adobe makes the industry standard in photo manipulation software – Photoshop. It's such an icon that it's even become a verb “can you just Photoshop that out?”. However . . . I primarily use Lightroom for processing my digital images. I've been digital for several years now, and even though I love film, and seeing a black and white image appear in the chemistry will always be magical – I also love the digital medium and what it enables me to do. I can be as creative as I can imagine and make my images sing. I probably use Lightroom for about 90% of my processing and then 10% Photoshop for things I need extra features for like layers, etc. If Photoshop is a little over your head for now (frankly some of the features are still over my head) you might want to try Lightroom. I like it more than Bridge (inside Photoshop) because I love the cataloging elements where I can tag images, and sort and view them even if the actual Hard Drive they reside on is offline. Photoshop was created for design professionals, but Lightroom was created specifically for photographers. I highly recommend both of these upgrades to Photoshop CS6 and Lightroom 4.0 if you haven't done that yet – go now!

Visit Amazon Lightroom section to find out more.

#2 HDR soft – Photomatix software

HDR is a recent phenomenon in the photography world and I have spent the last couple years working with it and sort of perfecting my technique and my style. HDR stands for High Dynamic Range and through capturing a series of multiple images of the same scene, taken at different exposures, and then processing them in a software that will merge them together allows the photographer to create a final image that shows much more detail in both the highlight (brightest) and shadow (darkest) areas of the scene. It allows for creating photo realistic images that just hold more detail, or surrealistic, or grungy images in a more artistic manner, or somewhere in between. There are many different software and plug-ins on the market that offer this type of image processing, including an HDR engine inside Photoshop (CS4 and later). However, I've tried quite a few of them and keep coming back to Photomatix. I find that I like the style I'm able to achieve with it and it integrates quite seamlessly with Lightroom. I can export an image from Lightroom to Photomatix and when I save the finished file it automatically imports the new image into Lightroom, where I continue working on it. For me it fits into my workflow perfectly and I am more than happy with the results. Judge for yourself by viewing my HDR gallery.

If you decide to purchase Photomatix I recommend you make sure to get the new “Merge to 32-bit” plug-in also. To get a 15% discount when you buy, just use the discount code “HERVIEWPHOTO” once you put the item in your shopping cart.

#3 Topaz Labs plug-ins for Photoshop

I found out about Topaz from another photographer's site exactly like this, it was in a list of things that he used. I did a trial of it and liked the results so I bought the whole suite (which at the time included: Adjust, Clean, DeJpeg, DeNoise, and Simplify). You can buy one or all of them, they each do something different. Topaz Adjust, which I use most often to finish off my HDR images, gives them just a bit more pizzazz, punch and edginess. Topaz Simplify can create unique images that I've never seen any other software or plug-in do including: cartoon-like effects, charcoal drawings from photos, and more. They now have several new plug-ins like Star Effects, Lens Effects, B&W Effects and InFocus – which I have not tried yet but may be reviewing some time in the future.

Visit Topaz Labs, download them and try them out now and see if you like what they do.

#4 NAPP – National Association of Photoshop Users (and Photoshop User Magazine)

Where everyone learns Photoshop - National Association of Photoshop Professionals

As professed on their website it's “The World's Best Photoshop Training!” and I'd pretty much have to agree. Membership is only $99 US a year and you get so many things for that, it's just such a great value, it's a no brainer. You get:

  • 10 magazines a year delivered to your door
  • technical support and learning centre (ask a question of one of the experts and get an answer usually within 24 hours – I've used this service many times!)
  • an ever expanding online database of over 1000 Photoshop and Lightroom tips and tutorials
  • bonus sign up gifts
  • product discounts from companies like Adobe, Apple and more
  • discount on a yearly subscription to Kelbytrain.com

I admit I'm usually behind a few issues, but when I finally get to reading the magazines I always get at least one or two good tips and learn something I didn't know about Photoshop and Lightroom. They also have weekly webcasts for exclusively for members of NAPP and a twice a year Photoshop World event in Florida and Vegas. I attended in Orlando in 2010 and it was an intense 4 days of learning.Check out the National Association of Photoshop Users.

#5 Camera Gear

My camera gear of choice is Canon. However, I don't want to get into a Canon/Nikon debate here as it is my belief that whichever brand you choose is perfect. It's all about what you get used to and what works for you, and for me it's Canon. I find the Nikon bodies a bit too big as I have small hands, you may find exactly the opposite.

For a list of gear I own or covet check out my Amazon page.

#6 Books

There are so many great books about photography. I have many in my own collection and many in my Amazon wish list too. So many books, so little time – I think I need a book on speed reading! Some of my favorites are by David DuChemin (who you may remember from Craft & Vision above), Joe McNally, and Scott Kelby (who is also the brains behind NAPP). I suggest you get a good selection of books that cover topics including technical aspects of photography like camera settings and Photoshop processing, as well as aesthetic aspects like how to make better photos and putting more depth and feeling into your images. With all the electronic devices, video, online streaming, etc – there's still nothing like a great book you can hold in your hands and put on the coffee table. I have a collection of books from some of my favorite photographers of all time. The history of photography and the masters is something I recommend reading about too. Learn about the beginnings of photography the trailblazers of the art, try to learn to see and think and feel like they did and your images can't help but improve as well.

These are the books I recommend.

#7 Kelby Training online photography learning

Scott Kelby is not only the same guy that is the editor of NAPP which I mentioned above, he's an educator extraordinaire and this site is no exception. One of the best, highest quality online photography learning centres at only $199 for a whole year (only $179 if you are also a NAPP member), Kelby Training is a great value. Learn from real, working pros as you go on photo shoots, learning about lighting, go through photo editing, marketing, web design, HDR, copyright and more. These aren't just any pros either, these are people at the top of their game now, such at Joe McNally (National Geographic photographer), world renowned wedding photographer David Ziser, Adobe experts like Matt Kloskowski and RC Concepcion, Jay Maisel, Eddie Tapp and that's just the short list.

There are literally dozens, if not hundreds of videos available on the site and more are added weekly. You have access to the entire list for the term of your membership (monthly or yearly, but yearly is a better deal). You can watch and rewatch them again and again, pause and take notes or go try out a tip and come back later. If you don't have time for a class and learn well on your own, this could be a great option for you to add to your photography education.

They even have a 24 hour trial available so you can test drive it before you buy, and if you use the code KTCJQ12 you will get $10 off.. Give Kelby Training a go! I found I got a lot out of it and there's something for someone of every skill and experience level.

#8 Backblaze online back up solution

I searched far and wide for an online back up option and none of the other ones I tried out would back up an external hard drive which was one of my major criteria. I use a laptop for most of my work but all my images are stored and backed up on external hard drives. If you use a similar set up, make sure you have two drives – one for all your images to live on, and one that's a direct copy of the first one. If you put all your images on your laptop your drive will be full in no time.

Ideally however you want a second back up copy of all your data (images, software, documents, etc) in another location off site. If your home or office burns down (I happen to personally know 3 people whose homes have burned completely to the ground – so it does happen) and you have your computer and your own back up inside, that doesn't do you much good does it? So a third copy could look like another external drive that you take to work with you (or to your mom's or a safe deposit box) and swap out with your other back up drive once a week or so. I found those options to be more of a pain in the butt so I searched out an online solution.

I eventually came across Backblaze.com and they fit the bill perfectly! At only $5 a month for unlimited storage, password protected encrypted data, access from anywhere, AND they work with external hard drives it's a great option. The only drawback is that your first back up will take literally forever and a day. I was backing up about 600 GB of photos and it took over 6 months to get completely backed up. Now it just looks at my hard drive and just saves anything new or changed so it doesn't take as long and it runs in the background as long as your computer is online and the hard drive is plugged in.

I back up my entire laptop to the site as well and it saved my butt already once! I had my laptop crash on me (it would not even power up, black screen, totally dead) the day before I had a class to teach. I had my powerpoint presentation and images for the class backed up onto my external drives but the problem was I had no computer to access them. I could borrow my husband's laptop but he's on a PC and I'm a Mac girl so his computer couldn't read the hard drives. No problem, Backblaze to the rescue! I simply logged in using his computer, accessed my files on the site, and downloaded just that one file that I needed for the class. He has Powerpoint and I was able to run it no problem from there.

Here's what I know about computers and hard drives. It's not a matter of if they will fail it's when and you need to do everything you can to be back up and running quickly and with the least amount of stress possible. Try BackBlaze, they even have a free trial.

Jay Patel mountain scenic photo

#9 eBooks by Jay and Varina Patel

In a recent interview with the Patels I mentioned their eBooks. Their photography is stunning and if you only want something for inspiration you'll be blown away. Many of their photo books are actually FREE to download, so why not grab them all – I did! If you want more they have a how to series where they walk you through their process and how they achieve their stunning images.


Please comment here and tell me what you use, or if there's something you'd recommend. What are your tools of choice? What good books have you read? I'm always looking for new ideas. Let's share!


Note: the links you see in this article are affiliate links, which means if you click on them and purchase that item, I do get a small commission. By no means are you required do so, but if you do choose to do so, and support me so I can continue providing great articles like this at no cost, it will be much appreciated. Thank you!


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