As productivity thinker Merlin Mann recently wrote, getting better at photography can be a long-haul test of willpower and humility. It doesn't have to be expensive, though. Whether you're rocking a digital single-lens reflex model or a reliable point-and-shoot, there are a lot of different shots and gear you can experiment with, and important lessons to learn, that cost less than $50, if anything. Read on for our roundup of ten cheap or free DIY projects and lessons for aspiring photographers. Photo by Marcin Wichary.
10. Use your scanner for closeup photos.
The blog we pulled this tip from has ceased to be, but the tip holds true—lots of item listing pictures on eBay and Craigslist, frankly, stink. If you've got a smallish object to be captured in straightforward style, and you've got a flatbed scanner clunking around, it's a lot more convenient than setting up a blank background, keeping shadows and glare off the angles, trying to get your digicam to focus closer-up, and so on. Just set, scan, and upload.
9. Make a remote camera trigger.
It can be really helpful to take pictures without having to be right up on your camera—especially if you're supposed to be part of the shot, or you can't get your own shadow out of the picture. There are plenty of remote triggers available for both higher-end DSLR models and standard consumer cameras, but our favourite versions are cheaper and have better range. One Instructables hacker showed us how to build a trigger out of a hands-free phone kit, while those looking for a DIY project that mechanically presses the button for you can check out Wiley publishing's free PDF for true shoot-anywhere freedom.
8. Sling your camera with a fast-action R-Strap.
The commercial version of the R-Strap goes for about $US44 and hooks into a DSLR's tripod socket, and lets your camera slide up and around your hip to your hands with little friction. As you might imagine, DIYers across the net latched onto this idea and found their own reasons to break out their creativity. Two different projects let you use your own favourite shoulder-slung strap, such as from a favourite bag or guitar, and neither requires more than a few dollars of gear or much tinkering. Check out the original creator's video demonstration for a look at how the R-Strap works.
7. Get a Gorillapod (or make it yourself).
If you're willing to lug around a full-sized tripod wherever you might possibly spot a really great picture that requires steady hands, go ahead and skip this item. For those of us like to roll a bit looser, the Gorillapod, a flexible, attach-anywhere tripod for consumer and DSLR digital cameras, makes for a great addition to a glove compartment/back pocket/satchel. If the $US20 price tag (or $US40 for the DSLR) doesn't ring true, we've previously offered up at least two DIY versions that get the same basic job done.
6. Take underwater photos with a DIY enclosure.
If you've ever seen a nature special on deep-sea creatures, or shopped for custom enclosures for your camera, you can appreciate the cost and logistics of getting an underwater shot or video. For the simpler stuff you want to grab in the pool or the shallow end of the lake, though, you can certainly seal your camera without a federal research grant. We've highlighted DIY enclosures in three distinct flavors—the two-condom "Navy SEAL" wrap, recommended for your cheaper digicam; a leak-alerting plastic bag enclosure, and a military ammo box casing that's a bit more secure, but requires an auto-shooting still or video camera.
5. Take wider-angle shots by creating mini-panoramas.
Panoramas aren't just for gigantic, wall-sized Grand Canyon shots or cheesy "virtual" apartment tours. For those sporting a standard digital camera that doesn't have much scope to its shots, free software panorama tools can help you capture great vistas (the scenic kind, not the much-maligned-OS kind) and improve shots that might have some unfortunate objects or lighting problems. We previously detailed how to stitch photos into panormas with the free, open-source tool Hugin, which I prefer for its fine-grain controls. Windows users can also check out the much simpler AutoStitch.
4. Get started with time-lapse photography.
Photography site Photojojo has a tried and tested ultimate guide to time-lapse photography, and the results speak for themselves. The video below shows what you can do when you put a camera in the right place and have it go off at the right times, often without you having to do much than check the batteries once in awhile. And it's a great way to document the more active moments of your life, as Adam did by time-lapsing his birthday party.
3. Super-charge your Canon camera's firmware.
We've already extolled the virtues of the Canon Hacker's Development Kit a few times recently, and provided a tour of its features and installation, so we'll just point out here that, in addition to giving you way more control and information about your shots, and giving you the ability to automate time-lapse shooting and shoot in RAW files, the CHDK exists and runs only from your camera's memory card. In other words, you can mess with it all you want, and not worry about messing up your basic firmware. Truly a licence to tweak your camera, and see how far your imagination can stretch.
2. Master your DSLR Camera with two tutorials.
It's easy to think that once you've dropped the plastic on a professional (or pro-am), exchangeable-lens digital camera, your shots will automatically be worthy of Flickr's front page. And to some extent, you do have a better sensor and glass pointed at your subjects—but there's a lot more to great photos than hardware. Learn to let go of "auto" mode and get schooled about lighting, flash use, and much more with photographer Scott D. Feldstein's two-part DSLR guide for Lifehacker readers. Part one takes you through the basics of flash use, ISO modes and white balance. Part two gets all photo lab on you, opening your eyes to shutter speeds, apertures, and explaning how all those settings fit together into great shots.
1. Make your own macro kit.
If you've ever felt your mouth water over super-closeup food shots, or your eyes pop open at ridiculously closeup shots of common surfaces, you need to get yourself into macro photography. Like most camera gear, a serious macro set isn't cheap to come by, but you can get started with some seriously cheap setups. One British DIYer came up with a Pringles can macro tube that's easy to fit into any DSLR (after washing out, of course). While it's not the most professional-looking attachment, you can paint it black or cover with cloth for the aesthete inside you. As for the stuff you're actually shooting, your spotty kitchen table won't do. Grab less than $10 worth of cardboard, paper, and other gear, take an hour, and set up a macro photo studio that makes your subjects really stand out.
What homespun gear or cheaper alternatives have you taken up in your own photography? What do you wish you could do for far less than the apparent sticker price? Share it all in the comments.