There comes a time in each photographer’s life when we ask ourselves why we didn’t choose a less expensive hobby. Camera bodies don’t come cheap, lenses range from expensive to “Are you kidding? I paid less for my car!,” and a lot of the accessories aren’t exactly light on your wallet, either. While most of us don’t have the skills to design and build our own lenses, there are plenty of other workarounds for expensive gear that, while they may look suitable for There, I Fixed It or another, similiar site, work as well as their pricier counterparts. With that in mind, here are a handful of DIY projects from around the web, with a disclaimer that I have not tried many of these myself, and cannot personally vouch for their reliability. If, however, you’ve got more patience and creativity than cash, you might find these are right up your alley.
1. The DIY Light Tent: Light tents sell individually, or as kits that include backdrops, lights, and other doodads. By themselves, they can easily cost $100.00 or more, so building your own can represent a significant savings over buying one that’s been mass-produced. Check out this tutorial from Digital Photography School for more information: http://digital-photography-school.com/how-to-make-a-inexpensive-light-tent
2. DIY Macro Extension Tubes (Onion Dip Optional): On the off chance that you wanted to try macro photography with the lenses you’ve already got, and didn’t want to shell out the money for high-end extension tubes, you can do what photographer Haje Jan Kamps did, and opt for a Pringles can instead (preferably after you’ve eaten the chips). See his process on Pixiq here: http://www.pixiq.com/article/macro-photography-on-a-budget
3. DIY Time-Lapse Photography: Some cameras have an intervalometer or other doohickey built in that allows for time lapse photography; you can set the camera to photograph at set intervals, and as long as there’s enough room on your memory card (and a full charge on your battery), you can shoot some pretty cool time-lapses. I lucked out; my camera’s got said doohickey. If yours doesn’t, you can invest in something that’ll do the same thing for you (a few manufacturers build battery grips and other accessories that add the function), or you can go to Photojojo, and they’ll give you an alternative: http://content.photojojo.com/tutorials/ultimate-guide-to-time-lapse-photography/
4. DIY PVC Manual Focus Lens: I was going to say that I’m not 100% sure why you’d do this when it’s possible to buy older lenses that’ll do many of the same things a newer, more expensive lens will do (except autofocus, and sometimes metering), only cheaper; then I remembered that Lensbaby has made a multimillion dollar industry — literally — out of charging gobs of money for stuff that’s meant to make your SLR shoot like a cheap plastic camera. If that’s the look you’re after, check out this handy tutorial from DIY Photography: http://www.diyphotography.net/manual-lens-from-pvc-pipes
5. DIY Pinhole Camera: You know that guy in college who could make a bong out of nearly anything? Well, there are photographers who apply the same approach to their photography; they can, and will, make cameras out of anything from Altoids tins to oatmeal containers or toilet paper tubes. There are gobs of tutorials on the web for pinhole cameras, but there’s also a very good book on the subject, Pinhole Cameras: A DIY Guide* by Chris Keeney. Most of the projects require a familiarity (or the patience to familiarize yourself) with film development, but Keeney lays all of that out, as well.
6. DIY Macro Table: This was actually the impetus for the post you’re reading right now, as I’d gone into a local camera shop and found a really nice macro table for “only” $400-odd dollars. Looking at the construction — a lot of aluminum tubing, a handful of plastic joints, a sheet of plexiglass, and some strategically placed metal bits to hold everything together — it occurred to me that this is the kind of thing someone could probably knock together in a workshop. I’ve come across several options online, but I rather like this one because it uses materials that are a bit more readily available and easy to work with, even if you’re all thumbs like me. Besides, how can you not like a photographer who calls himself Grumpy John? http://www.grumpyjohns.com/index.php/2010/diy_studio_light_table_for_productmacro_photography/
7. DIY Flash Diffuser: To say that I’ve lost count of the number of light modifiers I’ve seen is a bit misleading; I never quite started counting, since what I saw from Gary Fong alone made my head spin. Suffice to say, they exist in oodles, but there are at least as many options if you want to make your own. There’s a great post from photographer Chester Bullock that covers a number of them here: http://www.chesterbullock.com/2008/11/03/do-it-yourself-light-modifiers/
8. DIY Light Reflector: Reflectors are one of the few photo accessories where you can find something that’s both cheap and effective. It’s literally possible to make a reflector or beauty dish with little more than cardboard and aluminum foil, or to make a large diffuser (for available-light shots outdoors) using K’Nex and a bedsheet. Lighting Academy has several projects here (also available in German) http://www.lighting-academy.com/index.php?id=diy_anleitungen&L=1
9. DIY Camera Bag: It can be frustrating trying to find just the right bag — durable, looks good, fits your stuff, doesn’t let the world know you’re carrying your gear — at the right price. Sometimes you may already have, or have seen, the perfect bag, only it’s not really designed for a camera. There are workarounds that allow you to modify anything from a standard messenger bag to a backpack, purse — even a diaper bag or ammunition case, if you were so inclined — into a perfectly serviceable home for your gear. In this case, I’m including two tutorials, one from the guys at Click Whirl Photography that’s strictly quick-and-dirty (http://clickwhirl.com/diy-camera-bag/) and one from Patty at My Craft Spotlight that would appear to require sewing, glue guns, and a number of other things with which I’d probably make a terrible mess… you can find that one (actually, those; it’s a handful of ideas) here: http://www.mycraftspotlight.com/top-10-diy-padded-camera-bag-tutorials/
10. DIY Photo Effects: I’ve seen a handful of these over the years… they’re essentially ways to modify how your lens “sees” and renders what’s in front of it. One word of caution: if you’re going to do any of these, I strongly suggest slapping a cheap UV filter on your lens first, ’cause it’s quite a bit better to damage one of those than to potentially damage the lens itself. You can do a pretty respectable simulation of a haze filter by putting panty hose over the lens (secured with a hair tie). You can also get a soft focus effect by putting vaseline (or anything else that’s a bit greasy) over a UV filter (which is also, incidentally, why you should never use Puffs Plus or any other tissue that contains lotion to clean optics). It’s also possible to modify the shape of bokeh (those lovely bits and blobs of light rendered by the lens when it’s wide open), as is shown by Make:Projects here: http://makeprojects.com/Project/Bokeh-Filter/371/1
By way of a postscript, if you’re feeling especially adventuresome (or just want to waste the better part of an afternoon looking at some uber-cool DIY stuff), drop by DIY Photography (http://www.diyphotography.net/), which is a great resource for all sorts of do-it-yourself goodies. And if you have any DIY tips or hacks of your own, share ’em in the comments below.
*That’s an Amazon affiliate link; purchasing Keeney’s book (or pretty much anything else) through the link helps support The First 10,000. Gracias!