Getting started in alternative photography?
December 15, 2005 2:35 AM   Subscribe

I want to get started with alternative photography. I've been using my 350D and a normal film 35mm SLR for a while now and I feel creatively stale. I want to delve into the world of alternative photography. Help me MeFi.

By alternative photography I mean everything from medium format to pinhole, polaroids to lomos, everything.

What's fun, what's interesting, what's wacky, what have you had the best experiences experimenting with?
posted by petah to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (18 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
How about infrared and ultraviolet spectra photography?
posted by Rothko at 2:41 AM on December 15, 2005

Infrared has the added bonus of being fairly easy to get into—just pick up the right filters and shoot. Some digital SLRs, however, may have internal filters that block infrared, so you may want to do some research to see if the 350D is one of the hobbled cameras.

Have you tried night photography / long exposures? This can go from the relatively mundane (static shots of buildings at night) to interesting (late night cityscape, complete with streaks of traffic) to something not really resembling photography (Picasso's light drawings). I've tried the latter, and it's really wild trying to figure out what works and what doesn't.

I know someone who once turned a room into a giant pinhole camera as well. Probably works best if you can develop your own prints, though.
posted by chrominance at 3:23 AM on December 15, 2005


I also had fun using a 50mm F/1.8 lens held reversed in front of my normal lens, acting as a macro thing - gave some interesting results... (There was a discussion somewhere on Flickr, but I can't find it at the moment...)
posted by Chunder at 4:00 AM on December 15, 2005

medium format probably won't do much to pull you out of a creatively stale period (the irony isn't lost on me) as it will involve many of the same processes you are already used to.
You would probably get the most out of experimenting with pinhole photography (there are loads of do-it-yourself kits on the interwebs and some nice ready-to-shoot models as well) or delving into Polaroid Emulsion Transfers.
I also second Rothko's suggestion for infrared and ultraviolet should you not want to invest in new equipment.
posted by medium format at 5:12 AM on December 15, 2005

I'd disagree with chrominance about the IR - you don't just want to get an IR filter and shoot.

Since you own a 35mm camera get filters for that and use Kodak's HIE black and white infrared film, and also look into its Ektachrome EIR colour infrared (although for the latter I'd recommend a standard yellow filter or something similar rather than an 'opaque' IR filter).

You get much more interesting results than with a digital in my opinion.
posted by edd at 5:16 AM on December 15, 2005

Toy cams like Holgas and pinhole cameras. I once saw this awesome site where the guy made a pinhole camera out of a matchbook and took a series of photos from the point of view of his mouth (with the tiny camera inside his mouth).
posted by Brittanie at 5:19 AM on December 15, 2005

B&W emulsion paint that you can paint onto rocks or whatever, polaroid image transfer (I love doing this onto fabric, but the film's pricey and the cameras are hard to get hold of), QTVR panoramas (if anyone has a link to the panorama on a ship that had a sepia picture of the photographer's grandmother pasted in, I'd love to see it again), macro photography, high-speed photography (balloons popping, water drop crowns, etc), aerial photography with balloons or model aircraft, disposable camera chains (take one disposable camera, write on it "take one photo and pass the camera to a friend. Will the last person in the chain please return the camera to [your address]". Develop returned cameras and make website). Holography is well within the realm of the hobbyist, though I think red-light-sensitive film might be hard to get hold of right now). Unusual chemical processes (painting with chemicals directly on photographic paper, albumen process, gold, cyanotype etc).

Pinhole is dead easy with an SLR - just drill a hole in a body cap.

I once saw the work of a photographer who used a slit (two razors set close together) instead of a pinhole. He walked one way while a motor wound an entire roll of film the other way. The results were pretty cool (I especially remember a wedding portrait).

On doing Lomo cheaply: I used to buy cheap cameras from junk shops. The Lomo is overpriced for what it is, and I regret buying it now. These days, I use a mobile phone camera and print the images in a 3x3 grid on a regular-sized photo to get a lomowall effect. The advantages are cost and that the camera goes everywhere with me.
posted by Leon at 5:24 AM on December 15, 2005

something i've always wanted to do is put a camera on a kite.
you might also try exposing paper without a camera at all (someone whose name i've forgotten produces beautiful prints of flowers in this way, so that's been done, but maybe you can go for something more abstract, perhaps using dirt/diffraction - consider shadows made during an annular eclipse, for example).
posted by andrew cooke at 5:46 AM on December 15, 2005

I recomend getting old junky cameras. I made a link about it here a while ago.
posted by chunking express at 6:08 AM on December 15, 2005

Someone will mention this sooner or later, so I might as say it now:


If you've never played with camera movements before, you're in for a treat. A Lensbaby is a great way to experiment with movements cheaply while still sticking with the small 35mm/DSLR format. I don't own one, but most who do that I've talked to have tons of fun with theirs.
posted by DaShiv at 6:24 AM on December 15, 2005

How to turn a regular digital camera into an IR digital camera. Since you want to be able to see the image as you compose I would stay away from digital SLR's as they only use the screen for playback (and because they are pretty expensive and this mod is permanent).
posted by caddis at 6:43 AM on December 15, 2005

Pinhole is dead easy with an SLR - just drill a hole in a body cap.

Then you have something that is a pinhole camera only in the most technical sense, and still has everything that's boring about that SLR—you're just making things more difficult for yourself.

I made a pinhole camera once out of cardboard, duct tape and soda cans that shot a 360-degree panorama on a 9" strip of 35mm film. You could wind the cartridge and get five or six panoramas on a 36-exposure roll. That's what is fun about pinhole photography, for me -- getting out of standard formats and equipment.

Doing that takes a lot of experimenting to get things right, and you need feedback faster than you'll get taking your film to the drug store. The first thing I would do is make sure you have the gear to process film at home. All it takes is a bathroom you can seal off from light, a few trays, and some packets of chemical mix from the local pro shop.

Processing at home will also let you use paper negatives (where you expose a piece of printing paper instead of film, process it and lay it flat on top of another sheet of paper to make a positive contact print), which labs won't work with. I would recommend starting with paper negatives anyway with pinhole photography -- the feedback is more instant, and you can work with them under a safelight instead of pitch black. You also only need the paper chemicals and don't have to mess with film at all.
posted by crabintheocean at 7:33 AM on December 15, 2005

Besides IR photography, I've had fun with Ortho copy film. Another tip is 6x6 medium format. Get a cheap (~$250) used Yashicamat 124 or similar camera and work on square composition -- it will force you to think differently and can ultimately improve your rectangular eye. Large format (4x5) can really force you to compose slower and more carefully. Pinhole, Camera Obscura, whatever, it's pretty interesting stuff. You might try assigning yourself a theme or mission, then going out to fulfill it (colors, circles, weapons, monkeys, whatever). Try your hand at pano photography (stitching etc.) -- digital is easier but scanned film works too. Lensbabies. Crazy filters. Long exposure. Astrophotography. Kite aerial photography. Model rocket photography. Geek a digital camera or video camera to an RC car (or plane, boat, robot). Time-lapse.
posted by mumeishi at 7:41 AM on December 15, 2005

This doesn't strictly answer your question, but since you've had a few good answers, I'll put it out there.

I haven't found new technique tricks to be an answer to creative staleness - I want to play around with those things when I've got lots of ideas. I've found two things that have worked for me.

1) Go out and find new subjects. Shoot something you don't normally shoot. Travel. Invite people over and shoot some portraits. Take a walk in the park. Whatever. The more interested I am in what I'm shooting, the more interested I'll be in what I'm shooting with, not the other way around.

2) Put the camera down for a while. Maybe you just need a cognitive break. It happens.
posted by Caviar at 8:47 AM on December 15, 2005

when i'm sick of taking pictures, i'll usually x-process a few rolls and that makes me happy again.

if you've got a few bucks, a daylab slide printer is really high on my wish-list. you can shoot slides, then use the daylab and polaroid film to do polaroid transfers onto paper, canvas, or whatever. you can also do emulsion transfers.

there are a lot of kits and chemicals you can buy online to do van dyke prints, cyanotypes, platinum prints, etc. all you'll need is a really basic darkroom set up, but since you can paint the emulsion onto whatever type of paper/cavas you want and expose it in sunlight, they allow a lot more flexibility and a lot more fun. you can make huge oversized negatives to use with photoshop and a printer, or order some negative paper from calumet and use your darkroom.

lomography is fun, but the lomos are kind of pricey and prone to breaking. holgas are fun too, especially with x-processing. i'd really like a holga w/a polaroid back, but those are also pretty price-prohibitive. a holga by itself isn't too much.

if you want more info on any of this stuff, just let me know. i took a few alternative photo classes in college and it was a ton of fun.
posted by booknerd at 9:37 AM on December 15, 2005

Related thread. -- my comment.

What kind of film SLR are you shooting with? I find that the feel of a camera can change the psychological attitude and mentality with which I compose or approach a scene.. Try using a rangefinder -- the Canonet GII ql17 or Yashica Electro come to mind -- or try borrowing someone else's SLR. The Nikon FM3a is different from, say, a Canon EOS..

The Lomo LC-A IS overpriced -- it was overpriced even when they were selling for $100 -- but similarly, they have this unexpected psychological appeal that comes from, among other things, the stupidity and fickleness of the camera. The LC-A essentially reduces photography down to composition and focus (focus in 0.8, 1.5, 3, infinity meters).. and the end results are never very certain. If you're someone who needs complete control over the frame and likes to document with accuracy, lomos are not for you -- but if not, try borrowing and using it for a roll or two.

In my opinion, lensbabies are stale and provide little room for improvisation beyond the 'blur' effect. Try, instead, using a disposable camera (or a cheap reusable one) and scratching/drawing on the lens, covering the lens with transparent gel, etc etc. Drawing a black circle around the outer edges of the lens with a magic marker creates this odd isolated-dark-tunnel-vignette look which works really well with certain portraits. Holgas seem nice too, although I haven't used one myself.
posted by provolot at 9:49 AM on December 15, 2005

I reckon you could do some pretty cool experiments photographing time and motion by making a lens system for a flatbed scanner, then use its slow directional sweep of light capture to contrast moving objects with static - instead of (as is normal) blur and sharpness differentiating motion and stillness, you could, for example, get everything sharp but with altered proportions indicating the difference. By "aiming" the speed and direction of the sweep, or moving the camera itself during shot, you should be able to learn to control how things get exagerrated or distorted, and lead the eye to lead the brain into some interesting thoughts.
posted by -harlequin- at 11:11 AM on December 15, 2005

Actually, a hand / roller scanner would be better suited to that idea, and presumably gives you direct manual control over the speed of the sweep.
posted by -harlequin- at 11:59 AM on December 15, 2005

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