Monday, August 13, 2012

DIY online resources and how to use them

From an extension pole instructable I wrote
One of the first areas a new photographer expands into, once they have camera basics down pat, is off camera flash. Simply because it seriously enhances the look of your images and is relatively inexpensive, compared to studio flashes, and are very portable. However, speed lights alone are limiting. If we want to bend and control light to our will we need light modifiers. This is where it can get very expensive.

Fortunately for us creative types, there are tons of do-it-yourself photography projects available online. Many of them are simple and often embarrassingly obvious it begs the question, "why didn't I think of this?" Other projects can be very complex involving a master's degree in electronics or engineering. No matter what level the project there is always something to be learned.

I have found that DIY projects fall into several categories; re-purposing, recreations, builds and hacks. Each play a purpose and each have their own level of skill required. Her is a brief explanation of the categories;
  • Re-purposing - A re-purposed product is typically a recycled object that began its life as some thing other than photo equipment. A good example of a re-purposed product is the popular "Tupperware diffuser" named because the original was created using a translucent Tupperware bowl affixed to a speed light to diffuse the light being emitted.
  • Recreation - This means that a piece of photographic equipment is re-created using similar but less expensive materials. PVC backdrop stands and the popular "Quick strap" based on the "R-Strap©" by Black Rapid© are two examples of a product recreated with less expensive materials.
  • Builds - Builds are usually pieces of equipment that are built from scratch for a particular purpose and have few or no commercial versions on the market. Specialized shooting tables and tents that meet a particular need rather than a generic one-size-fits-all table is one example. Other examples are light banks or over sized or odd sized diffusers.
  • Hacks - Hacks are modification to a piece of equipment that enhances or expands on the original design or function of the equipment. Some hacks are simple such as swapping out a piece of the original and replacing it with a modification. Adding suction cup feet to a Gorilla Pod is an example of a hack. Other hacks can be involved and quite complicated such as opening and soldering an antenna on a wireless transmitter to extend the range of the signal or add an external momentary switch to a cheap flash for remote manual firing.

You will also find that different authors will attempt similar projects in different ways. Some have more finesse while others are downright ugly yet practical. After doing some searching you may find that you borrow a little from both. Here is a short list of two of my favorite DIY project web sites;

I told you it was a short list. This does not mean there are no other DIY sites available online. There are plenty of additional resources, unfortunately they are spread out and mixed in amongst the hundreds of blogs, forums and regular photo sites. If  you have a specific project in mind just do a search for that project however I can't stress enough the great little nuggets of information your can dig up just trolling around.

Before undertaking a project you will need to determine several factors; Skill levels, material availability, cost factors and Murphy's law;
  • Skill levels - Notice that last word is in plural as in the skill level of the project and your own skill level. While a project may be simple for someone who can solder and read voltage meters, to someone else that project would be near impossible, no matter how detailed the tutorial. You need to assess your abilities to the abilities required to complete the project. If there are too many discrepancies then the project may not be suitable for you. That doesn't mean you can't farm out certain tasks to a friend or relative that's more capable. If one of the steps requires cutting and drilling a piece of steel and your brother-in-law works at a machine shop... well, the answer is obvious.
  • Material availability - Sometimes a DIY project calls for special order items that you either find not worth the effort or just unobtainable. This is where a little ingenuity can really come in handy. You either find a workaround or an alternative. The same goes for tools. Not everyone keeps a table saw in their garage and many guys don't have a sewing machine in their basement. Again, borrowing from people you know can fill in gaps on  your end.
  • Cost factors - This should actually be called the "cost to aggravation factor" because, face it, unless you are the kind of person that loves getting into creative projects that will test ability as well as patience, DIY projects can be testing. If you are new to crafting there is an initial cost in tools and equipment just to fabricate stuff. Then there is the cost of supplies for a given project. While most DIY projects are spurred by cost cutting entrepreneurs looking to save money on photo equipment, sometimes the aggravation just isn't worth the savings.
  • Murphy's law - We are all familiar with it, "if anything can go wrong, it will." And I can guarantee that something will go wrong, but fortunately not always in big ways. You just have to be aware that you may need to redo something along the way, you know, if at first you don't succeed...

Do it yourself projects, besides being money savers, can be very rewarding. Nothing makes you feel more accomplished than when you complete something that challenges you, allows you to be creative and finally becomes a useful tool you get to use. Start off with something simple and progress from there. If possible, do a project with someone else so you can share ideas and network resources. Above all else, enjoy yourself. When it's no longer fun is when you should just save our pennies and but the commercial version.

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