Thursday, June 02, 2005

Cool Camera Projects

You probably bought your digital camera to record holiday celebrations or send photos of your family to doting relatives. Or maybe you have it just for work and haven't found much other use for it. But no matter what you use your camera for, chances are that you've tapped only a few of its possibilities. In this article we'll give you some ideas of what else you can do with your digital camera for fun and possibly for profit.

Go Fly a Kite

Figure 1
When we first heard about kite aerial photography (KAP), we thought the concept was science fiction. But the truth is, with a bit of effort almost anyone can fly a camera ( Figure 1 ) and rig it to take images from the sky ( Figure 2 ). You'll need a kite large enough to lift your camera, a bracket to hold the camera on the kite while allowing it to pivot and stay level, and a system for remotely releasing the shutter—normally either the remote system from a model airplane or a standard wireless camera-triggering mechanism. You can also use the servos from a remote-control kit to aim the camera once it is in the air.

Figure 2
A basic KAP rig for a point-and-shoot camera can be built for as little as $400. Rigs that can support larger cameras or add wireless video for helping compose your images can cost considerably more. There aren't any off-the-shelf solutions large enough to support digital cameras, so you'll need to do some work yourself, but you can find plenty of background information and instructions at and lots of helpful advice in the rec.kites newsgroup. In particular, you'll want to make sure you use an extra-long tail for stability and practice your takeoff and landing techniques with a bean bag before risking your digital camera in the air.

Santa Cruz sports photographer Pete Burnight took the attached beach volleyball photo with a Nikon Coolpix from a rig he built—similar to Chris Benton's rig, which is pictured here.

Sell on Ebay

Figure 3
By now everyone knows something about how to sell on eBay. But did you know that items with appealing images sell for more? Research shows that quality photos do make a difference. Meanwhile, like most of us, you're probably not sure how to take a good-looking photograph of that piece of jewelry or household appliance you have for sale. After all, professionals use lighting studios costing thousands of dollars.

Figure 4
Take heart: It isn't that hard. For a few dollars you can build a simple "studio" from a sheet of neutral white plastic attached to PVC pipe ( Figure 3 ), which can greatly improve your product photographs. And now there are prebuilt "ministudios" like the Photek Digital LightHouse ( that do the same thing, can be stored easily, and cost less than $100 each. The key requirements are having an even background, both below and behind your item, and lighting it evenly, either with natural sunlight through a window or with diffused work lights. If you have a small tripod or a tripod with a reversible center column, that can help you compose your shots better and let you use lower shutter speeds. Any digital camera with a custom white balance can do an excellent job.

Figure 5
We used a Nikon Coolpix 4300 on Automatic to take these images. The only setting we had to adjust was the white balance, which we preset based on the scene—easy enough with the 4300's menu system.

Figure 4 shows a typical eBay product shot: a model train on a table. In Figure 5 you can see the difference a simple tabletop studio can make. But you can make your images even more striking, as Figure 6 illustrates.

Figure 6
To create a dramatic effect like this, you first need to add plenty of extra lighting on your subject, so that it is very bright compared with the background. Then manually set the exposure on your camera so the subject appears normally exposed, and the background will fade to black.

Shoot Small

Figure 7
Digital cameras can focus very tight and shoot in low light. This makes all sorts of new photographic opportunities possible. You can create attractive images using a flashlight or even candles. Experiment with the white-balance setting on your camera to explore the creative potential of this approach.

Wildlife photographer Moose Peterson is also an avid fly fisherman and always on the lookout for fresh ways to showcase his fishing flies.

Figure 8
Using the close focus of his digital camera and a triple-A Maglite flashlight as the only light source, he was able to create artistic images ( Figure 7 ) that showed off his flies well enough for him to sell the pictures to fly-fishing companies. As you can see in Figure 8 , all he used was an artful arrangement of fishing items and the hand-held light.

For the Birds

Figure 9
Bird photography has traditionally been reserved for those who could afford expensive cameras and even more expensive fast telephoto lenses. But with digital technology, all you need to take excellent photographs of birds is a fairly good camera, a spotting scope, and a simple adapter to hold them together. Essentially you're combining the magnification of your scope with that of your camera, allowing you to take impressively sharp pictures from considerable distances. The technique is called digiscoping.

Figure 10
The only major limitation of digiscoping compared with more expensive photo outfits is the much slower shutter speeds, as the spotting scope doesn't pull in as much light as a fast telephoto lens. As a result, digiscoping is best used for birds who are perched or standing still. You won't be able to get great flight shots, but you can certainly get compelling images of a bird on a nest or waiting patiently for prey. You can hold your camera up against the scope's eyepiece, as we did to get the image of a great blue heron shown here ( Figure 9 ), but you're much better off with an adapter you can screw or clamp onto your scope, like the one we show attached to a Nikon Coolpix 4500 and a Swarovski Optik scope ( Figure 10 ).

If you get an adapter designed to go over your scope's eyepiece, you'll be able to use the scope when you don't have the camera mounted. You get the best quality, however, if you buy an eyepiece designed specifically for digiscoping.

Because this is an unusual application, it may take a little research to find the combination that will work for you. You can find an excellent selection of adapters for digiscoping and telescope connection at ScopeTronix (, along with a configuration wizard to help you learn what you need. The cheapest adapters clamp onto your scope. Some of the more expensive ones provide their own eyepieces.

Shoot the Moon

Most of us have enjoyed looking through a telescope at one time or another. But capturing or sharing that experience has been best left to astronomers—until the advent of the handy digital camera. You can use a simple adapter to connect your digicam to a telescope of nearly any size and record your astronomical observations for posterity.

Figure 11
There are two basic ways to work. If you have a point-and-shoot camera, the technique is just like digiscoping: Either hold your camera up to the telescope or attach it to the eyepiece with an adapter. You'll want that adapter to keep the camera still if you're going for anything other than shots of the moon. If you're using a single-lens reflex camera, however, you'll want to get a T-Adapter and use the camera in place of the telescope's eyepiece. With this approach you focus the SLR using the telescope's focusing knob and set the shutter exposure manually.

Figure 12
We tried both approaches to get images of the moon and found that either could capture images nearly as good as those taken with a much more expensive telephoto lens. To get the image in Figure 11 , we used the first method ( Figure 12 ), holding a Canon Powershot A80 against the eyepiece of a backyard telescope after focusing the scope on the moon, then using the camera's LCD to align it with the telescope until the moon was centered in the frame. The camera was in Auto mode, relying on its own auto-focus and auto-exposure capabilities to capture the image.


Figure 13
Capturing the grandeur of natural scenes is one of the trickiest problems for a photographer. Our eyes are adept at grasping the full sweep of a vista, but our cameras have not been. Now panoramas are within the reach of anyone who owns a digital camera. By taking a number of overlapping images and stitching them together on your computer, you can easily create panoramas of almost any size or shape. Many cameras even come with free software to help you.

Ideally, you should use a stable tripod that allows you to pan horizontally and take several overlapping images on the same level. Depending on the scene, you can take anything from two images to a full 360-degree sweep. Images with even light work best.

Figure 14
We shot our panorama with a hand-held Canon Powershot A80 set on Auto. To get the perspective we wanted and to hide an unsightly parking lot, we crouched low to the ground and took eight overlapping frames, moving slightly to the right for each successive image ( Figure 13 ). To assemble the images quickly into a panorama, we used the supplied Canon Photo- Stitch software ( Figure 14 ). For more information, including a comparison of software products, is an excellent resource site.

You may never again think of your digital camera as just for taking snapshots. Whether you try all of these ideas or only one, you can have a lot of fun expanding the boundaries of digital photography.

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