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10 Cheap Photo Tricks for Creative Images

As the coronavirus crisis drags on, you may find that you’re getting out less to make photos. You could probably use some fresh and fun photo ideas as a pleasant diversion from the gloomy news. Whether you call these photo tricks, techniques, projects, or whatever, I suggest you give them a try and see what new and interesting photos you can make.

Photo Tricks - Photo Elasticity
I think you’ll eat up these photo tricks with a fork and spoon! This is the last one in the collection, but be patient. Read the rest first, as there are some good ones; we’ll save this technique for dessert.

For a deeper dive

My intent here is not to get into great detail or give much “how-to” for these tricks. For some, I’ve already written complete articles and, where that is the case, I have linked to those articles so you can do a deeper dive into the subject.

For a few other tricks, I may not have written about them in-depth, but others have. The idea is that while these tricks may not be unheard of, this is a collection of photo tricks all in one place; it’s a jumping-off point for your photo exploration.

1. Bag a vignette

You may have heard of accessories called Lensbabies, a collection of adjustable and specialized lenses designed to give artistic, soft, blurred, and other looks to your image.

Now, I won’t pretend this trick will do for a few cents what specialized gear costing a few hundred dollars can do. But here’s a way to bag some interesting, Lensbaby-style images for dirt cheap.

Photo Tricks - Baggie Vignette
This photo accessory costs a few pennies and easily fits in your pocket: the “Baggie Vignette.”

Here’s what you do:

Get a plastic sandwich bag and tear a ragged hole in the bottom of it. Pull the bag over your lens so that portions of the bag intrude into the edges of the image. Focus on your subject.

Viola, you have “Baggie FX.”

Play with the positioning, the size of the hole, various apertures, and lighting. Photo accessories don’t get any cheaper than this.

2. Bokeh with flair

Pronounce it how you like; bokeh refers to the look and quality of out-of-focus elements in a photo. Bokeh becomes especially noticeable when the out-of-focus elements are specular highlights.

Different lenses with different optics, different aperture blade shapes, and different numbers of blades will produce different kinds of bokeh, as will the photographer’s choice of aperture.

Specular Light Bokeh effects with a wide aperture
A wide aperture combined with out-of-focus highlights will give some nice bokeh effects. The pattern of the bokeh shape will depend on the lens. The Canon 50mm f/1.8 gives this kind of look.

Here’s a way to go a step further and make patterned bokeh. Lay a filter the size of lens you intend to use on a piece of cardboard, trace around it, and cut out the cardboard. Now cut a shape, such as a small star, into the center of the cardboard disc you made. Place the disc over the lens and tape it there, or sandwich it between the lens and a filter.

Photo Tricks - Patterned Bokeh
Here, a star pattern was cut in a “bokeh filter,” and the specular highlights in a piece of aluminum foil produced the star effect. Then the image was layered with another shot to create the final result.

With a wide aperture (a 50mm f/1.8 prime, the “nifty fifty,” works great), shoot something with some specular highlights and ensure those highlights are out-of-focus. The highlights will now be the shape of your “bokeh filter.”

Rather than make your own bokeh filter, you can also buy patterned bokeh filter kits with more elaborate shapes than you could probably cut yourself. For folks into 3D printing, this could also be a good project.

3. Reflect on this

You can take a still-life or product photo up another notch by shooting it on a reflective surface. You might think a mirror would be a natural choice for this, but because both the glass surface of a mirror, as well as its silvered backing, are each reflective, you will get two sets of slightly separated reflections if you shoot objects on a mirror.

Photo Tricks - Reflections
A polished dark table proved just right for getting a reflection of the wedding rings. The jar of marbles was shot on a piece of black acrylic sheet and the bokeh effects were added with a string of Christmas lights in the background.

A better choice is a piece of acrylic plastic sheet, also known as plexiglass. You can get this in many colors, but I find a very dark black plastic sheet creates a look I like. (A piece of black tile would work well too, but I’ve not been able to find larger tiles.) Shoot with a black backdrop and you can isolate your subject nicely.

4. Big results with little lights

When we used film or less-sensitive digital cameras, big and often hot lights were needed for indoor photography. With the advent of LED lighting coupled with cameras offering low noise capabilities, we can now make images with very little light.

Also, when doing still-life photos, shutter speed can be anything you like: full seconds, or even minutes, if necessary. Now almost any lighting instrument can be used with some ingenuity. Small LED flashlights can also be used for light painting.

Photo Tricks - Big Results with little lights
LED flashlights like these can be found cheap at the hardware store. The second image shows how they were used…
Photo Tricks - Lighting with small LED Flashlights
…to produce this image. Having limited light isn’t a problem when shooting still life where long exposures are fine. Canon 6D | Canon EF 24-105 f/4 | 3.2 sec | f/3.2 | ISO 100.

I have a collection of various flashlights (aka “torches”) and other LED lighting gear, which I’ve typically bought for just a few dollars online or at the local hardware store. Finding new ways to creatively use these little lights has allowed me to make some creative images. Take a look at this article which explores this topic further.

5. CD rainbow macros

Before you toss that scratched CD, add it to your bag of photo tricks. Mount a macro lens on your camera, or use whatever means you have to get close to your subject. Put the CD down with the reflective, non-printed side up. Then, with an eyedropper or other tool, place small water droplets all over the surface of the disc.

Photo Tricks - Water drops on a CD
Waterdrops on a CD shot with a macro lens and lit in various ways can produce some colorful abstract images.

Focus your shot and get creative. The lighting is purely up to you. Perhaps try some shots in direct sunlight where the intense light will really pop the rainbow spectrum. Maybe try a small flashlight. Try a long exposure and light-paint the droplets. Anything goes when you’re making abstract images.

6. Oil and water abstracts

I wrote a complete article on this technique, which is another way to get some interesting and colorful abstract images. With minimal equipment and whatever lighting you like (even shooting outdoors with natural light), you can have a whole afternoon of fun.

Photo Tricks - Oil and Water Abstracts
Oil and water don’t mix, and that’s a good thing for this technique. A glass dish shot from above and through the mixture with some colorful objects in the background is the technique here.

7. Up in smoke

Add this to your collection of photo tricks to make some smokin’ hot images. An incense stick and some care with your lighting will get you going. Then take your shots to the computer where you can add additional effects. Have a look at my article here on DPS, “How to Make Interesting Abstract Smoke Photos,” for a full write-up on this technique.

Photo Tricks - Smoke and Mirrors
This is a straight, side-lit shot of the smoke pattern rising from an incense stick.
Photo Tricks - Smoke and Mirrors
Take the straight shot on the left, mirror it in editing, and colorize it. Then you have a firebird! (At least that’s what I see. What do you see in this abstract?)
Photo Tricks - The Gordian Knot
The original smoke photo mirrored both horizontally and vertically and colorized in editing. Is this what they mean by “smoke and mirrors?”

8. Interaction with reflection and refraction

Find historic images of early photographers, and you might see them standing behind their cameras with black capes thrown over their heads. They did not have DSLRs, where the image entering the lens is reflected onto a mirror, through a prism, and then into the viewfinder right-side up. Instead, early photographers used the first “mirrorless” cameras, and the image came through the lens and displayed upside down on a ground glass at the back of the camera. The image was quite dim, which explains the need for the cape to better see the projected image.

Photo Tricks - Reflection and Refraction
The water-filled glasses refract the light while the black acrylic plastic sheet below reflects it. There’s a lot of light physics going on in these shots.

We won’t require you to take a course in optical physics so you can understand the behavior of lenses, light, reflection, refraction, or the differences in light transmission through various mediums. Just break out some glassware, pour in a little water, maybe use that piece of black plexiglass we mentioned earlier, find an interesting background, and go for it.

Photo Tricks - Refraction
You are getting sleeeepy… The water in the glass refracts the light and flips the image, much like a lens.

If you do want to dive deeper into understanding light behavior, take a look at my article “How to Understand Light and Color to Improve Your Photography.” Maybe take a look at this one as well: “Just Dew It – Fun with Macro Dewdrop Photography.”

Photo tricks - Water Drop Refraction
These tiny glycerin drops act as little lenses, focusing, refracting, and reversing the image behind them.

9. Zooming around

In our collection of photo tricks, this one is hardly a secret. You probably have done it before. No? Well, if not, and you have a zoom lens, it’s high time you tried the zoom blur effect.

The technique is simple enough. Set your exposure so you can get at least a one-second shutter speed, if not longer. This ought to be easy enough at night if you set the ISO to its lowest setting (such as ISO 100) and stop down the aperture to a small size (such as f/16 or f/22). If you’re shooting in the daytime and these settings alone don’t get you down to a second or more of exposure time, try adding a polarizing filter or a neutral density (ND) filter to reduce the light still further.

Photo Tricks - Zooming during the exposure
Lights at night make great subjects for the zoom blur technique. You’ll definitely need to work on a tripod.

You can do this technique handheld, but a tripod helps. Set your camera so you get the 2-second shutter delay, then with one hand on the zoom ring, trip the shutter. When you hear it click, zoom in (or out) during the exposure. Play with starting zoomed tight and then pulling out during the exposure, or starting wide and then zooming in. Lights at night can make for great looks. Try only zooming during the first or second half of the exposure. There’s no single way to do this, so play and discover what you can create.

Photo Tricks - Long exposures with zooming
Both these shots were zoomed during the exposure. See my fireworks article for the “Boom, Zoom, Bloom” technique.

10. Create a computer screen background

An interesting background can add to the story of your photo. If you have a good-sized computer monitor and are shooting a smaller object, being able to create a background on your computer screen opens all kinds of possibilities.

Photo Tricks - Computer as background
Create a unique background to go along with the theme of your photo by putting up something appropriate on a computer screen in the background of your shot.

Photographing screens would seem a simple process, but can be more tricky than you think. If you plan to do much of this, reading up on the best camera techniques for shooting screens would be time well spent.

Cheaper by the dozen

The title said 10 photo tricks, but I’m going to throw in two more for free and make it an even dozen. I really like the looks I can get with these last two.

11. Action sequences with Microsoft ICE

I wrote the article “Make Easy Panoramic Images with Microsoft ICE,” which focused primarily on how to use this free and very powerful tool from Microsoft to make panoramic images. That is good fun in itself and a very useful technique.

Toward the end of that article, I touched on something else you could do with ICE: sequential action images. These are great for showing the progressive steps of action, and ICE makes the technique quite easy. Follow the link, read through the article, and see how you can make images like this:

Photo Tricks - Sequential Action Images using Microsoft ICE
Pan with the action while shooting multiple images in continuous mode, then use the free Microsoft ICE software to assemble them. Quite easy, actually!

Here’s an alternative way to make sequential action photos with a completely different technique, one that’s more well-suited to capturing very fast action: “How to Use Multi-flash to Capture Compelling Action Photos.”

12. Phun photos with photoelasticity

Combine physics with fun and you get Phun, right? With this technique, you will be exploring what is called photoelasticity or, more specifically, birefringence.

Photo Tricks - Photo Elasticity
Clear plastic tableware goes cosmic with this technique. Learn about birefringence.

You don’t have to understand what’s going on, and this isn’t hard to do. It just works and looks cool. Here’s what you’ll need to do:

  • Your light source will need to be an LCD computer monitor, TV or, for smaller subjects, a tablet, or even a cellphone. LCD screens emit polarized light, and using polarized light to backlight your subject is part of what’s needed to make this work.
  • Try to limit any other ambient light. The effect will be stronger if the LCD light is dominant in your shot.
  • Use subjects made of hard, clear plastic. Polystyrene is what is used for most clear plastic cutlery and drinkware, so these make good subjects. Often the plastic in cheap picture frames is made from similar materials. Glass objects will not work for this.
  • You will need a polarizing filter on your lens. Standard circular polarizing (CPL) filters work well.
Photo Tricks with Birefringence
Polarized light plus a polarized lens reveals the “mechanical stress patterns” within certain types of plastics. Clear styrene plastic usually works well.

Now, get ready to say “Wow!” Place your subject in front of the LCD light source. Bring up an image that will create a totally blank, white, bright screen so that light backlights your subject. You won’t see anything until you look through the camera viewfinder and through the attached polarized filter. Cool, huh?

Now rotate the filter. The computer screen will be white, black, or intermediate shades, while the plastic subject will show the rainbow birefringence effect. The patterns will be showing the mechanical stress within the plastic, with tighter patterns where the curves of the object are tighter.

Photo tricks - Photo Elasticity
Is it okay to still say “Groovy, man?” A second sheet of plastic was held in front of the lens, producing the colored background. Aside from some exposure and saturation adjustments, this effect is what you see through the lens while making the shot, not added later on the computer.

Just a tip when you are seeking potential subjects for this kind of photography:

Your LCD cellphone screen is a polarized light source. If you have a pair of polarized sunglasses, objects held in front of a blank white screen on the phone and viewed while wearing the glasses will show the effect if they are the right kind of material. You may have to tilt your head to get the same effect as rotating a circular polarizing filter.

Now go play

So there’s a dozen new things to try with your camera. You will also find that these kinds of photography will force you to use different exposure, focusing, camera control, lens selection, and editing skills than perhaps you normally might use.

Remember, even failed experiments can be lessons when you seek to determine what went wrong and then try again to get it right. Now go try some of these photo tricks, have fun, and post some of your images in the comments section. If you have any questions, feel free to post those, too.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Rick Ohnsman
Rick Ohnsman

Photography isn’t just a hobby, it’s an adventure! Photography is about sharing my personal vision. From the ’70s, with a film SLR and a garage darkroom, college work with 4×5 view cameras, Kodachrome slides and into the digital age, I’ve pursued photography for over 45 years. An enthusiastic member of the Boise Camera Club, I share this common passion and enjoy teaching new members. See my work here – on 500px and on instagram.

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