If there’s one word you can use to describe photographers who mastered their craft before there were such things as auto-exposure, autofocus, auto-flash, or digital imaging, it’s resourceful. These guys and gals had tricks up their sleeves that would let them meet practically any challenge, and a host of ingenious ways to take their creativity to new dimensions. Here are eight of their timeless tricks that are useful, easy to execute, and fun. We also hope they inspire you to come up with your very own.
1. Create soft-focus effects with optical filters As many old-timers know, you can create a wide variety of unique soft-focus effects by simply applying a light layer of petroleum jelly to a glass filter (such as a clear lens protector filter or a Skylight 1A) with a cotton swab or your finger, and then screwing it into the filter ring of your lens. To get an overall soft-focus effect, smear a very thin layer over the entire surface of the filter. For a vignette-like soft-focus look, apply the petroleum jelly in a wide band around the periphery of the filter—or you can get some interesting effects by adding various-sized blobs of petroleum jelly in or near the center. The effects are limitless, so experiment—and if you find one you really like, store the filter in its plastic case so you can use it again. Also, try other filters, such as the 812 warming filter, which will let you achieve a combination of color balance and diffusion effects.
2. No tripods allowed? Use a string stabilizer! If you forgot your tripod or they’re not allowed in the museum, the classic photographer’s dodge is to use a stout string or cord to create a de facto monopod. Tie the string to a short-shaft (3/8 of an inch or so), ¼"-20 bolt (same size as your tripod socket), available at any hardware store. Make sure the string is long enough so you can step on its bottom end when you hold the camera at eye level. Pull the string upward until it’s taut, and fire away. As refinements, you can add a large flat washer with a hole small enough to capture the end of the bolt going into the camera, or affix the bottom end of the string to a small flat piece of wood to make it easier to step on. No, it’s not as steady as a tripod or even a good monopod, but it will let you shoot at slower shutter speeds than you could handhold. Warning: whatever size bolt you use, screw it in finger tight to avoid punching it through the tripod socket!
3. Make your own flash diffusers There are dozens of excellent flash diffusers on the market but, in a pinch, you can do as we did in the old days and create your own on the fly. Any translucent material, such as a layer of bubble wrap tied over the flash head with a rubber band, will do nicely. Or you can make a rectangular diffuser by stacking short lengths of corrugated cardboard, and wrapping the stack with duct tape around its periphery, leaving the holes on the ends open to transmit light, then mount the gizmo over your flash head with rubber bands, etc. All these methods cut down the amount of light coming out of your flash, while giving you softer lighting with a broader, more diffused beam—no problem with TTL flash systems, but open up a stop or two with manual flash systems. Another classic trick: tape a piece of a white 3 x 5 card at an angle to your flash head (or even your camera’s built-in flash) to achieve full or partial bounce-lighting effects.
4. Try a hot-shoe bubble level Most recent digital cameras have a built-in electronic level that can be displayed on your LCD or in your EVF. However, the one in your camera will generally only show if your camera is tilted to the left or right, not backward or forward. Whether your camera has a built-in level or not, you can benefit by using a traditional hot-shoe-mount bubble level. The cool thing is that you don’t even have to look at or through your camera to level it horizontally and vertically, which is a lot more convenient when you’re shooting atop a tripod or monopod.
5. Use a body cap as a pinhole lens A pinhole camera gives you virtually limitless depth of field, and typically lets you capture images that can be surprisingly detailed but with a pleasantly soft quality. The downside/upside is that the effective apertures are very small, like f/64, f/128 and f/256, and often require long time exposures, even outdoors. Many old-time photographers drilled homemade pinholes into the lens boards of large-format sheet film cameras or even poked pinholes into the sides of oatmeal boxes and inserted sheets of 8 x 10 film. They also discovered that body caps make excellent pinholes if you simply drill a hole into the center and mount it on the camera. However, drilling a really small hole into a convex plastic surface with a very small (1mm or so) drill bit can be challenging. Drilling a hole into a sheet of metal foil and then mounting it on the end of an extension tube is easier, but achieving a really clean pinhole of exactly the right size without using a laser or other high-tech equipment is difficult. By all means try it yourself—you can figure the f/stop by calculating the ratio of the pinhole diameter to the pinhole-to-film (or sensor) distance. The easiest solution: Buy a Rising precision pinhole, essentially a body cap pinhole designed specifically for your camera. They’re available from B&H in many types and sizes, and apertures ranging from f/41 to f/222. There are even wide-angle pinholes, but no zoom pinholes yet.
6. Use a lamp as a stand-in tripod If you’re taking available-light pictures in someone else’s living room, need to stop the lens down to extend the depth of field, and don’t want to shoot “noisy” images at elevated ISOs, you hope you brought your tripod. If you didn’t, you can press practically any lamp that has a lampshade into service by unscrewing the finial (that thing that holds the lampshade in place) revealing (what else?) a ¼"-20 screw thread you can screw into your camera’s tripod socket by inelegantly turning the camera round and round until it stops (don’t overdo it or you can poke a hole in your tripod socket). Your camera will now be perched atop the harp, the official name for the heavy curved wire support that surrounds the light bulb and holds the shade in place. It’s not the most stable and robust camera support, but it can be conveniently moved from place to place and it’s sturdy enough to support the average point-and-shoot or even a mirrorless or smaller DSLR camera with a short zoom lens. Hint: To avoid camera shake, fire the camera using the self-timer, a wireless release or, if your camera has Wi-Fi connectivity, via your smart phone.
7. Remove your lens for macro shots This old-time photographer’s trick seems improbable but it really works. Just dismount the lens from your camera and hold it, front forward, a short distance from the open camera mount and—voilà—you can focus closer than before. You’ll probably have to set your camera to manual mode to fire the shutter, you’ll have to focus by moving the lens physically back and forth, and you may have to open the lens to maximum aperture manually while you’re doing this by pushing on the slider that controls the aperture. Once you get the hang of it, it’s a blast and the results can be gratifying, especially when you tell people how you did it. Hint: This works best with prime lenses in the 50-100mm range and with short zooms like the classic 18-55mm. A more “civilized” alternative: Get hold of a reverse mount adapter that lets you get down to the macro range by reversing the lens on your camera, mount end toward the subject. If you’re a Canon shooter, the most elegant example is the Vello Macrofier Reverse Mount Adapter and Extension Tube for Canon EF/EF-S lenses.
8. Shape your bokeh If you want to record points of light appearing in your images (think Chanukah candles and Christmas lights) to appear as captivating and distinctive shapes like stars, hearts, and crosses, all you have to do is cut out a piece of black paper roughly the same size as the front ring on your camera’s lens. Use an X-Acto knife or a single-edged razor blade to cut the shape you want in the center of the paper (a pattern roughly 5/8 of an inch across is ideal), place the cutout over the lens (try it with and without the lens hood in place) and take the shot. This effect comes across best when you shoot at wide apertures and throw the point of light slightly out of focus. This and similar tricks were often used with large format cameras to create romantic “fashion portraits” in the 1930s and ’40s.
So there you have it, eight simple tips and tricks that have been around almost as long as cameras themselves. We hope you have fun experimenting, and please feel free to post your results in the Comments section, below!