Stuck for photo ideas over the holidays? Chris Gatcum suggests twelve Christmas photography projects you can try at home
Project #1: Try Freelensing
Most new cameras have a ‘miniature’ mode, and most image-editing software now offers a tilt/shift filter that will help give the impression that you are Gulliver looking down on Lilliput.
However, these options typically work by blurring the top and bottom of the frame, whereas a genuine tilt-and-shift lens actually shifts the plane of focus.
‘Freelensing’ bridges the gap between these two options by allowing you to change the plane of focus but without paying for a tilt/shift lens.
The principle is simple: set your camera to manual and hold your lens in front of the lens mount, rather than attaching it to the camera.
Turning and tilting the lens will allow you to shift the plane of focus (and focus the lens), giving you the shifted plane of focus you want.
However, it sounds easier than it is, as the slightest adjustment to the camera or lens can throw everything off.
The lens you use will also determine the success of your results – longer focal lengths, manually selectable apertures and full-frame (or medium-format) lenses are all things to look for.
You will need a fair amount of patience as well!
As no lens is attached to your camera, if you are worried about getting dust on your sensor freelensing may not be a technique for you.
Project #2: Levitation
In the pre-digital world, making something appear to ‘float’ in an image wasn’t easy, but in the digital age we have software that enables us to create the impossible. The technique I’m going to outline here will work regardless of the scale of your shot: you could use it to make an elephant levitate, or raise a compliant ant from the ground, the only difference is the support that will be needed. In this instance, I’m working with a festive still life.
The process is pretty simple, but you’ll need two shots: the first is of the background without your subject in the frame and the second has your subject in their ‘floating’ pose, albeit with a rather obvious support to hold them up (be it a stepladder, chair or something else).
Your shots need to be as similar as possible, so shoot with the camera on a tripod and keep the same camera settings. Switch to manual exposure, a specific ISO (rather than auto ISO), a preset or custom white balance (again, not auto) and set the focus manually as well, so this doesn’t change, either.
When you’ve done shooting, follow the steps in the images below.
You can do this using your software’s Eraser tool or by creating a mask.
Regardless of your method, as you remove the support the underlying layer will show through, filling the background and enabling your subject to ‘levitate’.
You can see the finished shot above.
I not only got rid of the glue stick holding Santa in the air, but also decided to remove the birds on the right. This is easily done using the Eraser tool.
However, I’m not convinced by the end result – although it’s along the lines of what I was looking to achieve, the shallow depth of field has left Santa disconnected from the background (he’s a little too ‘stuck on’).
A reshoot beckons…
Project #3: Make a Simple Beanbag
A bag of rice or lentils makes a great beanbag, but it won’t earn you any kudos when you’re out and about. However, if you have some scraps of fabric and can sew (or know someone who can), a simple beanbag cover can cost nothing more than time.
Adding a strip of Velcro will make a neat closure for the ‘open’ side and also allows you to replace your rice or lentils.
Project #4: Make a Quick-clamp
All we’re doing here is getting a heavy-duty plastic clamp, drilling a 1⁄4in (6.5mm) hole in the end of one of its ‘arms’ and then using a 1⁄2in (12mm) long, 1/4-20 bolt to attach a small tripod head.
This creates an incredibly simple, yet wonderfully versatile and steady camera support that can be used to clamp your camera to a wide variety of objects.
I mounted a small tripod head to my clamp, but you could also mount your camera directly if you’re willing to have it in a fixed position.
This project comes with a warning, though – the heavier your camera, the stronger the clamp you will need, so a certain amount of common sense is required.
This project is done entirely at your own risk!
Project #5: Shoot with a Lo-fi Lens
If you’ve toyed with the idea of playing with a plastic camera, such as a Lomo or a Holga, but have been put off by their reliance on film, a ‘lo-fi lens’ may be the answer. While Lomography offers an adapter for its Diana lenses, I much prefer the ‘digital’ Holga lenses.
These lenses are designed specifically for digital cameras, but retain the classic plastic construction and design of their medium-format namesake, complete with four fixed-focus distances.
Of course, the term ‘focus’ is used in its loosest sense – as with a ‘proper’ Holga camera, nothing is going to be overly crisp.
You can also expect strong and uneven focus fall-off at the edges of the frame (even on an APS sensor), plus heavy vignetting and chromatic aberration – everything a lo-fi lens should give you!
A word of warning, though: although Holga lenses claim to have a (fixed) aperture of f/8, they can be much slower. The Holga lens I use is in the region of f/32–f/45.
Project #6 – Try Silhouettes
A silhouette puts the ’graphic’ into ‘photographic’, reducing your subject to a featureless dark shape against a brighter background. There’s no better time to hone your silhouette shooting skills than right now, when the sun is low in the sky for much of the day and both dawn and dusk are at a reasonable hour.
However, don’t limit yourself to the colours at the ends of the day – a black & white silhouette can be just as striking, and ripe for a contrast-boosting lith effect.
There are only two things to remember for successful silhouettes: expose for the background, not the subject (your camera’s spot meter is good for this), and try to avoid having too many overlapping objects in the frame.
Keeping things simple is the best option.
Project #7: Make a Bottle Cap Camera Mount
With various family visits and parties, it’s the time of year when a pocketable compact camera might take precedence over an SLR. If that’s the plan, then a bottle-cap ’pod will let you transform a drinks bottle into a camera stand, allowing you to use longer shutter speeds instead of cranking up the ISO (and noise).
Now you can swap the regular cap on a full drinks bottle for your bottle cap and you’re good to go – just attach your camera.
Project #8: Single Camera Stereo
Stereo photography is often seen as being quite involved, with a need for specialist twin-lens cameras or two cameras mounted side-by-side. But it doesn’t have to be that way: if you limit yourself to static subjects, it’s possible to produce a stereo pair with just one camera and free software.
The process starts with you shooting two images of the same subject, shifting the camera horizontally between exposures. Use aperture priority or manual exposure to ensure the depth of field doesn’t change, and set the focus manually.
The amount of ‘shift’ you need between your shots depends on the subject distance, shift distance and a bit of geometry as well, so the easiest option is to shoot more images than you need, shifting the camera a little more each time. This means you have a number of potential combinations that can create your stereo pair.
Once you’ve shot your images, copy them onto your computer and use StereoPhoto Maker to combine them. This is a free Windows-only program that you can download from stereo.jpn.org/eng/stphmkr.
Several guides are available via the website to get you started. In essence, though, you need to determine the pair of your exposures that will work best and the software will then align and optimise them for you, making them ready for printing or viewing on screen using the classic ‘cross-eyed’ method.
Project #9: Make a Macro Tube
Once the glue has dried, cut your crisp can to length. The longer the tube, the greater the magnification, but the more light will be lost (requiring a longer shutter speed or higher ISO).
With your tube cut to size, it’s time to mount your lens.
A 50mm prime lens is ideal, and as you aren’t actually ‘mounting’ the lens it doesn’t need to match your camera mount – a manual-focus lens with a manual aperture is ideal – the same lens can also be used for freelensing (see page the Christmas project #1).
Your exposures will have to be set manually and you will have to focus by moving the camera backwards and forwards, but despite these limitations it’s still possible to produce some striking results – you can even turn the lens slightly to create a ‘tilt’ effect.
Project #10: Create a Photo Cube
To start with, you’ll need to find a cube template – if you search online you’ll find dozens that fit the bill and are free to use.
Project #11: Make a Panning Device for Time-lapse
If you want to add a panning movement to time-lapse videos this is a simple solution. You need a 60min kitchen timer with a hole drilled in the top that is large enough to fit a 1⁄4in tripod screw. Be careful when drilling as there may be some mechanical parts inside the timer that could be damaged. With most timers it is fairly easy to pull them apart so you can see what you are doing.
With the hole drilled, fix the tripod screw into place. For added rigidity, you may want to secure it in place by using some epoxy resin and a rubber washer. A small compact camera or even a mobile phone in a tripod case can then be attached to the timer. Turning the timer all the way round will allow the camera to rotate 360° over the course of one hour. Using the camera’s intervalometer, you can set it to take pictures every few seconds to create a time-lapse video. The more frequent the images, the longer the time-lapse video will be. For example, one image every second would create 3,600 images, which would be a 120sec video at 30fps. One image every 3secs for 30mins would create 600 images and a 20sec video at 30fps.
As an optional extra, drill a second larger hole at the bottom and fit a 3⁄8in to 1⁄4in tripod thread adapter to allow you to mount the panning device to a tripod.
Project #12: Make a Movie Grip
The quality of the video that can be shot using a DSLR or CSC has increased rapidly in the past years, resulting in a bewildering array of video-orientated grips being sold. However, you don’t need to spend a huge amount to make your camera more video friendly, as this DIY grip proves.
The key ingredients are: plastic pipe (you will need roughly 60cm of 20–25mm diameter tube); two right-angle adapters to fit the pipe; and some sort of flat ‘plate’ to mount the camera on. I used 20mm conduit pipe with an inspection box for the camera base, and came home with change from £10 from the hardware shop.
The aim is to create a rough ‘C’ shape, so you need to cut your pipe into three lengths. The lengths don’t have to be equal as they will depend largely on the size and shape of your camera – about 10–20cm will be about right, but there are no hard and fast rules. Use the right-angle adapters to connect the pipes and form your ‘C’, gluing them together and possibly screwing or bolting them for added security (remember, you’ll be attaching your camera to this bracket).
For the base, I drilled a hole through the inspection box so I could fit a 1⁄2in (12.7mm) long, 1/4-20 bolt to attach the camera, and the finishing touch came in the form of a spare motorcycle handlebar grip I had kicking around my garage (foam pipe insulation, grip tape for bicycle handlebars or tennis rackets, or just the bare pipe would work just as well). It may look fairly rudimentary, but it makes a huge difference when you’re filming – especially if you’re shooting from a low angle.