I know this may come as a shock to you, but I LOVE PHOTOGRAPHY! There's a pretty good chance that you do, too. Photography is such an accessible art, both to view and participate in. Amateurs can produce images of great beauty and interest, and even the most revered professionals can spend a literal lifetime improving and growing. Photos capture our world, our lives, like nothing else.

One could also spend a lifetime depleting a bank account buying photography gear, gadgets, and related items; there is SO MUCH cool stuff! Endless. So today, just in time for our beloved holiday season buying frenzy, I am going to post up these five items of photo goodness that I own and particularly love, and that you or your photo nut family or friends might also love, slanted a bit towards DSLR serious amateur/semi-pro/pro photogs.

1. Think Tank camera bags/accessories. Fact: if you are spending a few thousand bucks on camera equipment, you need to invest in something to carry it around in, unless you intend to never leave your home and only take photos of your cat. Not that there's anything wrong with that, Mr. Fluffy, but most people do like to take photos wherever they go, for work or play. Choosing a camera bag is hard, because there are so many, and most of them seem to be so similar. This year, I became a real fan of the Think Tank line, and I just cannot say enough good about all their products. From ergonomic, thoughtful, practical design to build quality to ease of use to flexibility, Think Tank excels. Everything I have asked of my Speed Freak v2.0 bag it has done for me flawlessly: it holds everything I need on a shoot with all items instantly available to me, the zippers are super-sturdy yet swift, it's incredibly comfortable to wear for hours at a time with a very well-padded crossbody strap, pull-out waist straps, and compact, curved design, has a built-in rain cover, and is lightweight but well-padded. It's held up beautifully through months of use. Their motto is "Be Ready 'Before The Moment'" which is what it's all about for so many types of photography, from concert to sports to street to candids.

2. Nik Software: If I had to point to the one thing I acquired this year that most helped to improve the quality of my images, it's this collection of photo processing software plug-ins. I cannot tell you how many times Nik has helped me salvage photos that otherwise would have been unusable, or made an ordinary shot into an eye-catching image. I wouldn't be without them now, and I thank Seattle photographer Laura Musselman for recommending them to me. The plug-ins are compatible with Photoshop (CS3 through CS5), Photoshop Elements (6 through 9), Lightroom (2.3 or later), and Aperture (2.1x and later). From adaptive noise reduction (Dfine) to multi-level sharpening (Sharpener Pro) to near-infinite color and contrast choices (Color Efx Pro) to spectacular b/w conversions (Silver Efx Pro) to all-around workhorse (Viveza) to wild HDR effects (HDR Efx Pro), I use them all, and many in combination on a single image. And they are FUN! You can play forever with these! If you are just getting started in photo processing your digital images, get the trial downloads for Photoshop Elements and the Nik trials and dig in. You don't have to be any kind of tech whiz to figure them out, and you'll raise your game instantly. It's a very simple process to buy them if you decide you'd like to keep them around after the trials expire. Check out some before-and-after examples here.

3. The Lens Cap Strap Holder. Despite having great camera bags, the thing I fumble most with on shoots are lens caps. Aw, man... I've dropped them on packed mosh pit club floors, left them on tables and stages and car dashboards, and spent precious seconds digging around in my bag for them when changing lenses. The last time I dropped one was at Thee Oh Sees show last month, when I was standing up high on the side bench balancing sort of precariously, sweating like mad, hovering over a sea of insane dancing people. Plonk! Clatter! There went the lens cap, close to getting smashed by a Beatle-boot-shod Mod. In this case, I tapped the shoulder of a fellow reveler on the floor, smiled pathetically at him, and asked nicely if he might rescue my poor lens cap from certain death. I think he weakly smiled back, rolled his eyes, and retrieved it for me. BUT! With this device, this problem should no longer be a problem! The Lens Cap Strap Holder is a great idea -- it fits on any camera strap (and maybe on a camera bag strap, depending on size), and you just click that baby on there and IT STAYS PUT right in easy reach. If you are a klutz like me, or forgetful like me, or fairly lazy like me, you should click that title link or the one under the photo and buy this at the always-awesome Photojojo.

Buy the The Lens Cap Strap Holder at the Photojojo Store!

4. Hipstamatic. If you have an iPhone and you are not using this awesomely-fun photo app, you are really missing out. Hipstamatic with its perfect low-fi vintage square shots often delivers pictures that I love even more than the ones I take with my pro gear. There's just something uniquely charming about them. You can purchase extra "packs" for the app, which contain presents for lens type, "film," filter, flash, etc. including a brand-new "Foodie Pack" because like me, you really, really like to take pictures of restaurant food and upload them to Twitter or Facebook. I <3 Hipstamatic, the world's most popular photo app, and so should you.

5. Vivian Maier, Street Photographer, ed. John Maloof, Powerhouse Books, 2011. Vivian Maier's story is one of the most compelling that I can think of in photography's history. It is made all the more exquisite for the fact that it was mere chance that her entire body of work -- over 100,000 images taken over a span of several decades in the mid-to-late 20th Century -- was not lost forever as the unclaimed warehouse property it became as she entered a nursing home, with no family to claim her belongings, or her. The book's editor and Maier image conservator John Maloof, hoping to find a few old photos he could use for the book he was hoping to write about the Portage Park neighborhood, instead stumbled upon several plastic bins jam-packed with Maier's negatives and prints, completely unmarked with any identifying info. After a cursory look, he decided to purchase most of them, thinking he might get lucky and find something suitable for his project. Instead, he ended up discovering one of the most gifted street photographers ever seen, and embarked on a mission to discover who the photographer was, how her negatives ended up one step away from being dumped in a landfill, and how such brilliance apparently remained hidden from the entire world up until that moment. In an even more sadly-dramatic twist, after the extreme difficulty of figuring out who took the photos and where she lived, Maloof discovered that Maier, ill for some time, had died only the month before, and only a few miles away. After reading about Maloof's determination to see Maier's work preserved and brought to the public, I was honored to be able to donate to the Kickstarter campaign that would fund negative restoration and scanning, with exhibits, a fine-art book, and a film planned. The book was published last month, and it is beautiful. Maier's portraits of everyday Chicagoans, whether an older couple asleep on public transportation, children playing in a dead-end alleyway, snooty doyennes, wretchedly poor, herself reflected in the tall shop windows, show masterful composition with a deep understanding of light and texture, and compassion, humor, even anger. The world she shows us is stark and imperfect, yet underlying every photograph we see Maier's ability to make something beautiful, if also often concurrently sad, from the ordinary. I am a better photographer, and perhaps even a better person, for being able to view her work.

Shoot in peace and prosperity in 2012, my brethren!