Top 5 best camera hacks of all time
There are hundreds if not thousands of these posts, most of them are absolute rubbish.
Many of the so called ‘camera hacks’ that I have seen don’t just suck, they are straight up pointless.
I would call a camera hack something that is genuinely useful that you might use in a real world situation. A tool worth adding to your knowledge bank so should the opportunity call for it, you know what to do.
Covering my lens in Vaseline, shooting through a dog kennel (yes someone posted that)…
Some ideas are best left on the drawing board.
Each of these techniques I have tried and used in the real world, some as a last resort, others as genuine go to techniques to create the aesthetic I want.
The macro tip for example, I have had to use this if I’ve left a lens or extension tubes at home. Is it the ideal? no. Did it work and produce a result that both I and more importantly the client was happy with, yes.
Camera hack 1 – Lens Chimping
As far as I’m aware, the introduction of this technique into the modern sphere was by an american photographer called Sam Hurd. Notorious for experimenting with weird and wonderful bits of kit, Sam’s blog is worth a look.
An odd name I’ll admit, but it’s definitely worth having in the camera hacks tool box.
What is lens chimping?
Simply put, lens chimping is putting a piece of glass in front of your camera lens to create distortions.
When I say a piece of glass, I don’t mean a random shard that could cut your hand off. I mean a genuine optical element, like this:
You can buy them from Amazon here for less than ten quid.
What does it do?
It renders light sources weird shapes and can throw objects out of focus, so you can take a messy scene like this:
and make this:
The glass is convex and distorts the light moving through it. Concave would probably work but I can’t say that I’ve tried it.
Not only does it bend light, but it can also produce excellent lens flares to also distort anything in the background that you don’t want to see.
How do you use it?
Hold the piece of glass in front of the lens and move it around until you see a result you’re happy with.
Focus and recompose, then introduce the glass. Otherwise you camera will sometimes struggle to work out what you want to focus on. Get the focus set and keep your finger held in place to lock focus, then move the element in front of your lens and move it around until you get the effect you want.
I recommend playing with this at home first because what you see in the viewfinder can sometimes be wildly different to the actual result. Not often, but it has happened, so practice first.
SUPER MEGA BONUS TIP
If you hold the element in front the lens flat on, it becomes a close focus semi macro lens
Real world scenario
Photographing a gig a few weeks ago, the venue was small with no lighting behind the performer.
What is common with music photography is for the lights to be various different colours to create something of a visual spectacle, this can be a nightmare photographically speaking as it throws the skin tones way off.
I locked focus on the microphone as the performer will stay in that plane of focus, angled the piece of glass on the left side of the lens and rotated it until it caught the ceiling lights.
Real world scenario 2
First dance at a wedding, the DJ is creating the back-lighting which looks romantic. Problem: DJ’s setup is ugly as balls. There are cables everywhere and for some reason he is wearing casual clothing and has spilt mustard on his t-shirt. No thanks.
Using the back-lights to outline the subject, I locked focus and used the lens chimping camera hack to blur out any distractions in the background.
You can add lens flares in Photoshop or Lightroom, I don’t however think they look in any way realistic, I think it’s pretty obvious when it’s been added in post production. You may disagree, but here’s a cool hack to play with anyway.
Camera hack 2 – The Phone mirror
Cameras are bloody heavy. Lenses are bloody heavy. Add in all your cards, flashguns and spare underpants (always keep a pair, saved my life once) and you’ve got a bag that is…bloody heavy. Fortunately the photography industry is finally starting to catch up modern tech and equipment is slowly becoming much lighter. For the foreseeable future however, a bag of ten plus kilos when on the move is going to be the norm. With this in mind, everything needs to earn it’s place. Dead weight is not an option as it will only result in a bad back in the long run. If your bag gets too big, it makes it harder to take it as hand luggage too and I will never check in a bag full of all of my kit.
This is where the telephone can earn it’s place. Let’s face it, we don’t leave the house without it and it could arguably earn it’s place by replacing the wallet with the invention of NFC. From a photographic point of view however, it’s value lies in it’s screen being a reflective surface.
Real world scenario
The above image was taken in a hotel room where the bride and bridesmaids were getting ready. The room is empty of people, but luggage, make up and discarded clothes can be an issue. The window on the right is providing the main light source. The bed is at an awkward angle which means a full length shot isn’t possible and the background makes it impossible to shoot wide without capturing the clutter. You can also see at the back of the dress is a radiator, making things computationally even worse – what do we do? Using the mobile phone to reflect the dress in such a fashion eliminates the background. In this instance, the added benefit of the angle of the phone helps keep the eye in the centre of the frame, placing emphasis on the dress and nothing else. Furthermore, as it is reflected light, it will naturally be darker than the subject matter, which ensures that the viewer’s eye is not distracted from the main focus of the image.
Clean image and no distractions.
Is it going to win an award for best dress shot?
The important thing is that I could get a usable image that I would be happy to present to the client. Photography will teach you to remove your ego from the equation. Whilst you should strive for excellence, not every picture you take will be a masterpiece, sometimes you have to work with what’s around you to create the best possible image you can.
If in doubt, use the floor as a backdrop. Expose for the brightest part of your image and shoot at a very wide aperture to throw everything out of focus. Convert to black and white for an instant win. Again, it’s not ideal but the result is still pretty good.
Camera hack 3 – Freelensing
Freelensing takes some DIY lens hacking and will take some time, the previous two hacks were a bit more out of the box, this will take a more concerted effort.
What is freelensing?
Freelensing involves taking the lens off of the body, exposing the rear lens element (bit of glass) to create a cheap tilt shift lens.
What is a tilt shift lens?
A tilt shift lens allows the glass in the lens to be moved so it is no longer parallel to the sensor. This means your depth of field can fall off in different directions. Which means you can create cool effects like this:
The premise of freelensing is to create a much cheaper alternative to a tilt-shift lens. In this example I have used the Canon 50mm f/1.8. It’s inexpensive and easy to take apart. The Canon professional tilt shift lens can cost £/$1000+ so this makes much more sense. The other main reason for using the plastic 50mm lens is because they are often one of the first lenses photographers buy, so you might even have on relying around that you don’t use anymore. Further still, because it’s the first lens you buy, it’s often the first lens you sell, so the second hand market usually has plenty for you to pick up for under £$100.
The aim of taking the lens apart is to expose the rear lens element so it can get closer to the camera sensor.
This is essential in order for this technique to work.
You will need:
- An old lens that can be easily taken apart (50mm is ideal)
- A screwdriver
- A camera with Live View capability (you can see the image in real time on the screen)
- Steady hands
Because I have no idea what lens you’re using, best bet is to Youtube the specific lens you’ve opted to use and find a step by step video as the construction of every lens is different.
Once you’ve exposed the rear element, switch on live view on your camera.
Simply move the lens backwards and forwards and side to side until you can see whatever it is you’re trying to focus on.
Once vague focus has been achieved, just start playing.
There is no right or wrong way to do this.
This is my Canon 50mm f1.8 that has been taken apart so I can use it for freelensing. Take all the backing plastic lens mount off to reveal the circuit board and rear element. N.B the rear element can fall out with an anticlockwise twist, worth gluing it in.
I also attempted it with a 28mm lens, but the focal length is too wide for it to work effectively and the focus fall off isn’t particularly dramatic. Result – waste of a good lens.
A point to note is that you need a camera that has a live view mode. This enables the rear lens element to get close enough to the sensor to have maximum effect.
Below you can see the DSLR with the mirror down. If the camera didn’t have live view, then the rear element would be hit by the mirror every-time you took a picture. Not only would it potentially damage the camera, but the picture wouldn’t be exposed, thus making all your efforts pointless.
With the mirror locked up in live view as below, the rear element can be placed closer to the sensor and no mirror-slapping-lens when the picture is taken.
With the right hand holding the camera and the left hand holding the lens, look at the screen as you move the lens and you’ll quickly see the effects.
Here’s some examples of executing this technique in the real world.
If done right, there is not a substantial drop in image quality and sharp images are absolutely achievable. There are a number of YouTube videos explaining how to take the rear casing off a prime lens to use for freelensing and you can watch this video by Sam Hurd, where he explains how to do it on a Nikon lens.
The principle of tilt-shift is to rotate and move the lens plane relative to the image plane. Rather than focus falling off in front and behind the subject, it can be manipulated to fall off in any direction. A more thorough explanation of the process can be found here. What we need to know for the application of this technique is that the focus fall off can help us select what portion of the background is in focus. One of the hardest things to master about this technique is that the aperture on the Canon lens is locked at f/1.8 so you’re working with a difficult technique and a crazy shallow depth of field. Practice is a must before unleashing on your professional shoots. One way around this is finding an older lens from the manual focus days that has an aperture ring which can be changed independent of the camera body. With the aperture wide open the live view screen is nice and bright, I have to wear glasses when shooting otherwise I would never get an image of acceptable focus.
It is much easier to do this with still objects because the shallow depth of field means a minute adjustment of your hand can result in a big shift in focus.
As you become more confident, you can increase the distance between yourself and the subject. I recommend starting close, as it takes some getting used to.
The further you pull back, the more dramatic the affects can become. I particularly like the wider shots, as the corners begin to swirl, which draws the eye into the centre of the frame. Try it for yourself.
Camera hack 4 – Reverse lens macro
This is incredibly easy and very effective.
What is it?
Macro allows you to focus very close to objects and magnify their appearance.
How do you do it?
- Take the lens off of the body
- Turn the lens around, set focus to manual and rotate the focus barrel as far as it will go.
- Hold it in place as if you were trying to mount it the wrong way around
- Take photographs as normal.
You should now be able to focus to within a few inches of your subject, giving you a macro lens without spending a dime.
Close up of pages of a book using this technique:
In order to focus the image you will have to move physically closer to the object. You have taken the lens off of the body so obviously the auto-focus is disengaged and you are holding the camera in one hand and the lens in the other, so you cant rotate the focus ring.
Slightly better cheap macro hack
You can also by extension tubes for your camera that fit in between the lens and the body of the camera. By increasing the distance between the lens and the sensor, you increase the magnification of the image.
You can buy some super cheap extension rings from Amazon – opens new window.
Although cheap some versions still allow auto-focus, although in my experience it’s a bit hit and miss. Better off switching to manual focus and doing it yourself. If you camera has live view mode, you should be able to use the buttons you would normally use to zoom in on your pictures to zoom in on the live video to check focus accuracy.
Camera hack 5 – Turn your bedroom/classroom/living room into a camera
This is so cool I made a whole new post to explain it.
Follow the link to read about how to turn your room into a camera obscura.