Because modern photographic equipment is so technological, many assume there is little you can do yourself to solve problems, and that every “solution” must be bought. But this is not the case.
On Digital ImageMaker, I recently wrote about the GigaPan Epic, a motorized camera platform for shooting panoramas and creating gigapixel-resolution images by stitching. That got me thinking about the do-it-yourself (DIY) mentality in general.
The Epic motorized platform is designed to enable people to mount compact point-and-shoot digital cameras on the platform and shoot huge panoramas. It does this brilliantly. For Digital ImageMaker, I reviewed the base model for point-and-shoots. But the company that makes GigaPan Epic also offers a more expensive model, with an adjustment that lets you mount a somewhat larger camera, including some compact DSLRs.
When I looked more closely at the basic model for point-and-shoots, I saw that it would be quite easy to adapt the unit so it could hold a larger camera. After a little bit of thinking, it took me about a half an hour to solve the problem. I simply used a $3 piece of aluminum, a hand electric drill and a device to tap a thread in a hole. Click here to see the solution I devised. This adjustment allowed me to mount a Canon 350D which I had converted to shoot infrared. Thus, I was able to use the Gigapan to do infrared panoramas, such as the one shown here.
But the DIY mentality doesn’t end with shooting. For my inkjet printer, I’ve built a small angled platform that allows me to readily feed sheets of aluminum that I’ve pre-treated with an inkjet-receptive coating.
Other devices I have built include a small-but-useful macro light that I assembled from some batteries, a couple of bright white LEDs and a switch.
Being willing to try building things myself has solved a number of photographic problems without requiring me to spend a lot of extra money on new accessories.
On the Internet, an active DIY community exists within photographic circles. One I have found fascinating is the active community of camera software hackers. It turns out that some Canon digital cameras have firmware (the software built into the camera that controls its processor) that can be modified. These modifications can open up new functions that Canon never intended for that model, such as RAW file capability, intervalvometer functions (setting the camera to take an image every so often), and much more. The CHDK software acts as an add-on to the existing firmware.
One can only imagine what wonderful things would result if camera manufacturers would open up their cameras to add-on software in the same manner as your computer or iPhone. It would be even more wonderful if they would make it easy to add this new software.
YouTube has wonderful videos on all sorts of DIY endeavors. For example, one clip I found amazing showed a Japanese photographer who has modified a scanner to act as a camera. Click here to see the YouTube video of the resulting scanner-cam. The resulting images have been posted on Flickr. There are in fact many people actively converting scanners into cameras.
Other creative do-it-yourselfers have experimented with inkjet-receptive coatings and inkjet-transfer films to create stunning works of art on different types of metals, marble, wood, and fresco materials. The best known in this field is the trio of great artists: Dorothy Simpson Krause, Bonny Lhotka, and Karin Schminke, who form the Digital Atelier. Bonny has even created her own inkjet-receptive coating that she shows how to use in the DVD training courses she sells on her Digital Art Studio Seminars website.
Certain areas of photography seem more DIY-oriented than others. Areas such as astro-photography and macrophotography have a long tradition of DIY solutions to various problems.
Studio lighting is also an active area for DIY projects, with people making their own lighting rigs and light-modification screens, etc.
Panorama photographers have often made their own rigs. But perhaps the biggest single area of DIY activity is pinhole photography. Many of us have done something in the area, either by drilling a hole in a DSLR body cap and mounting a piece of aluminum foil or by making a whole pinhole film camera.
Indeed many companies that now provide digital-imaging products started as DIYers working at home in their basements or garages. When they found out there was a small market for their inventions, they went from there. Indeed, many companies start out in the garage, including corporate giants such as Hewlett Packard and Apple.
The reward that comes from doing it yourself is not just that of saving a bit of money. When you do things yourself, it makes your photography different from everyone else’s, either because you can do something they can’t, or you are doing it in a different way.
Another benefit is the opportunity to recycle items that might otherwise end up in a landfill.
Plus, there is the satisfaction that comes from making something with your own hands. This is important to those of us who spend a lot of our time working on the computer each day.
Personally, I get a huge sense of satisfaction from identifying a problem, finding the solution and making it work.
If you are a DIY-oriented person, don’t let the technological sophistication of modern devices intimidate you and stop you from trying a project or two. You don’t necessarily have to get engaged with the electronics or software to make meaningful improvements that can help your photography as well as other people’s work. Give it a go.
My newest passion in photography is infrared (IR) photography, which uses that part of the light spectrum just beyond the visible red end. Digital makes it possible to experiment with IR photography in ways that film never could.
Traditionally, to do infrared photography you had to use special film with an extended sensitivity in the infrared region of the spectrum. I never really liked film IR because of issues such as getting the exposure right, trying to envision how the image would look, and the simple hassle of loading the camera in subdued light. (Maybe I just never did enough of film IR photography to get past these issues.)
Digital photography has changed that. All digital image sensors are sensitive to both the visible and near-infrared parts of the light spectrum. But in their quest for greater color accuracy, camera makers have built increasingly stronger IR-blocking filters into their cameras. None of these filters is completely effective because at least some IR light still gets through to the sensor.
When I started testing digital cameras 10 years ago for their IR capabilities, I discovered that if you wanted to shoot with only the IR part of spectrum, you had to cover the lens with what was commonly called an IR filter. It was actually a filter that blocked all visible light. The results were surprising and have remained so. As the camera’s built-in IR blocking filters have become stronger the exposure times have become longer, but quality IR images are still possible.
For the past three years, I’ve been using various digital cameras to shoot infrared in a serious way. Of course the viewfinder has been blacked out by the visible light blocking filter (usually a Hoya R72 in my case) and I have needed to mount the camera to a tripod to deal with long exposures in the 8 to 30 seconds range.
Rather than seeing these limitations as disadvantages, I have viewed them as advantages. I’ve been slowing down, exploring blurred motion, and learning to visualize the framing of my various lenses. This is all good.
Because of my growing love for digital IR, I have had a camera converted into an IR-only camera by removing the built-in IR-blocking filter and replacing it with a visible-light-blocking filter. Some people do this themselves and it works great. I chose to let someone else make this modification for me. It gives me back fast exposure times and a viewfinder I can use. Now I can shoot people, freeze motion and do precise in-camera composition, all in infrared. I love it.
Here's an IR image I shot with a long exposure on my unconverted digital camera with a filter that blocks all visible light from reaching the sensor.
This image was shot with my converted, IR-only camera.
I still use both my converted camera and my unconverted one. With my unconverted camera, I get strongly colored images. I typically convert these images to monochrome. My converted IR-only camera gives me images with much more subtle color. And I can print all of these images on a range of papers on my HP Designjet Z3100.
The end result is that it’s now really easy to take all sorts of images—almost anything I can envision. And that is what photography is all about, isn’t it?