It’s Not About The Camera – Making Great Photos With Shitty Equipment

Let’s spread some inspiration here and get people out shooting with what they have instead of waiting for the right job to get the right money to buy the right equipment to figure out they should have started earlier, shall we? ๐Ÿ˜€

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 Not So Lonely - Revisited
Not So Lonely – Revisited

I had an interesting conversation on my latest Google+ post regarding “Not So Lonely โ€“ Revisited” photo the other day. It was the “you’re great but you’ve got a great camera too, I couldn’t possible do anything similar with what I have” type of conversation. Although Nikon D5100 is indeed great and the best camera I’ve ever had, it’s not really that great compared to some other Nikon or Canon or Sony or whatever else cameras.

While you can’t get any shot with any camera (and I believe no-one would argue that), it’s still possible to get really great shots with really shitty equipment (the “Not So Lonely – Revisited” included) and I’m currently in probably the best possible place in the world to show it.

The camera in question was a low-end smart-phone camera with about 2 MP resolution and sensor quality you can probably guess from this info. Since I’ve got a super-duper Samsung S3 phone camera, I tried to borrow an old phone with a shitty camera.

The worst I could find were an old Nokia and a Samsung SGH-M310. Both had the highest resolution of 0.3 MP but the Nokia’s lens was scratched and pierced beyond repair (and that’s, folks, why you don’t keep your keys and phones in the same pocket) so Samsung it was.

The procedure

The desired photo was supposed to be similar to the one in the post, so that meant long exposure, low light and wavy water (boat was optional ๐Ÿ˜› ).

Fixing in place

ToolsYou’ll need to fix your camera in place somehow so it wouldn’t move while you’re shooting, just as you would with any long exposure shot. I used a tripod which costed about $15 when I bought it as new, 5 to 10 years ago, and I still use it. That means you could swap a cup of coffee from Starbucks for a tripod like this. Cheap enough?

Samsung SGH M310Since it’s a phone and doesn’t have a tripod mount, it’s easy to use some plastic cooking wrap and some duck-tape to fix it in place. If you don’t have a tripod, use the same ‘tools’ to fix it to a chair or a rock.


Carefully choose where to point your camera. Sometimes it means getting near the smelly stuff (I still can't name the thing behind the tripod)
Sometimes it means getting near the smelly stuff (I still can’t name the thing behind the tripod)

Compose your shot carefully, set the camera to the highest resolution and finest settings (you still want it to do it’s best, right?). I played a little with white-balance but turned out it gave crappy results (what did I expect?) so I left it as ‘auto’.

Remember to enjoy the view while taking photos :)
Remember to enjoy the view while taking photos ๐Ÿ™‚

Shoot a few dozen shots with as little movement of the camera as possible. You will need all of them later. I wanted 50-100 but ran out of memory at 30ish. Turns out the phone has only 5MB of internal memory…

Bringing it all together

Your folder content should look something like this
Your folder content should look something like this

You’ll need to transfer it all to a computer after shooting and copy it to the same folder. You can use USB cable, Bluetooth, WiFi or whatever is available. I used Bluetooth to transfer it to a Nexus 7 and then FileExpert to transport it over WiFi using FTP to my computer. There was a malfunctioning in the Bluetooth so I couldn’t make it go directly.

Now is the time for the fun part!

Your shots most likely aren’t perfectly aligned. Hugin to the rescue!
After downloading and installing Hugin, use Command Prompt or Console (if you’re by any luck using Linux) to navigate to the folder where your photos are (use cd command ;)) and fire this command away:

align_image_stack -a out *

This will align all the images in the folder (and you’ve got only photos you want to work with in it) and save them as out#.tif, where # represents a four-digit number starting with 0000. This is only the temporary result so you don’t need to worry about that ๐Ÿ˜‰

Next we use ImageMagick to blend them all together by firing this command:

convert *.tif -evaluate-sequence mean -alpha off OUT.tif

This will take all the aligned images and blend them using the mean of the pixels and save it as OUT.tif

This is where the magic happens. That reduces the level of noise in your result photo AND blends the exposures so you get the similar effect to the one you would get if you shot a long-exposure shot. Patrick David explains it very well in his post.

We’re almost there

Open OUT.tif in your favorite image editor, such as GIMP or Photoshop and edit to your liking. I straightened it out a bit, rotated by 90 degrees, played a bit with saturation and curves, reduced some noise and added a signature in the sand. Voila!

This is what you do with a crappy camera!

Take this, try it out, and share your results with me by tagging me on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, or in the comments below.
If I did this using 0.3 MP phone camera, imagine what you could do with your 10x larger (or more) smart-phone camera ๐Ÿ˜‰
Do you have any nice hacks or techniques for improving photography you would like to share?

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