April 29, 2009, 10:35 AM — In this story, you'll learn how to make high-def, time-lapse video from your ordinary point-and-shoot digital camera, how to geotag your photos even if your camera can't do it, and how to draw messages with light on live photographs. (Why? Just because!)
For more, see the other stories in our "57 Amazing Things You Didn't Know Your Tech Could Do!" package, including our full list of tips and tricks.
Geotag Photos Even If Your Camera Can't
In years past you may have charted your travels using the old pins-on-a-map method. Now, in the digital age, you can mimic that approach by storing your photos by location. Many cell phones and a few specialty cameras already geotag your location, embedding the data in your pictures.
If you don't have a camera capable of geotagging, you can use a GPS digital imaging accessory to add location information after the fact. Sony's US$150 GPS-CS3KA, for instance, works with many cameras and camcorders, and keeps track of your location and the time. Just turn it on, and go shoot. Back at your PC, the gadget's software matches the time you took a picture, which is recorded on the camera, with the location data the GPS-CS3KA has recorded. That geotag data gets stored in the photo's EXIF (exchangeable image file format) profile.
If you don't have a GPS device, you can manually enter location details at your PC with the free program GeoSetter. After you do, the application can show your images as pins in a Google Maps pane built into the program. The process updates EXIF details so that the locations appear in other applications.
Here's how to use it. First, download and install the software. Within GeoSetter, navigate to your pictures in the upper-left pane. In the Map pane on the right, use the Google Maps tool to enter a location. Try searching--or zooming--to be even more specific, focusing on, say, "Arc de Triomphe" versus just "Paris." When the map pin is in the correct location, select one or more images, and choose Map, Assign Marker to Selected Images. Geotag data will now be stored in those pictures for you to browse in GeoSetter or other applications. On services such as Flickr and SmugMug or in Picasa software, you can see your photos displayed on a map. In basic photo editors, you can only browse the metadata and see the latitude and longitude.
If you upload your images to the Web, the geotag data usually stays intact. However, if you want to protect your privacy and not let people know your location, you can strip the data out before you upload the photos.
GeoSetter and many photo editors can modify or erase EXIF details, but a specialized utility can strip the data out more quickly. I like Exif Farm because it's accessible through the right-click menu. Select one or many pictures, right-click, and choose Exif Info, Clear Exif Info. Note that this process erases all potentially identifying details, including your type of camera, as well as the time and date you took the photo. --Zack Stern
Get High-Def, Time-Lapse Video From a Lowly Point-and-Shoot
Time-lapse video can create beautiful scenes that condense hours or days into seconds. Shadows drift across skyscrapers at sunset, the moon rises and sets, and morning crowds cross a street en masse.
You could speed up video footage for similar results--but don't accept that substitute. Camcorder scenes are limited to the length of a full tape, and they lack much of the aesthetic charm that you can create by controlling things with a still camera. Here's how to do it.
First, pick a subject and plan the shot. Consider different scenarios: flowers opening, ice melting, a construction project rising. Such examples will look fluid in the final video, but you might also consider capturing scenes without any beginning or ending, like cars alternating at an intersection, children running around a playground, or a snowstorm swirling outside your window.
You'll shoot each frame of the final video, so use some simple math to make a plan. It's a bit involved, but worthwhile.
For smooth motion, aim for 30 frames per second. Think about how long you want the final shot to last, and factor in the length of the event. For example, if you want a 10-second video clip at 30 frames per second, that totals 300 frames. If the real-world scene lasts 20 minutes, say, divide 20 minutes into 300 frames to get the shooting rate (in this case, one photo per 0.066 minutes). Multiply by 60 to turn that rate into one photo every 4 seconds.
Many cameras include a time-lapse mode to shoot automatically on an interval. Without such helpful automation, you can manually fire the shutter on the schedule yourself. Just be sure to mount the camera on a tripod, and position it out of the way of the action you're photographing--you don't ever want to have to move your camera during the process. To save effort later, set the camera to shoot JPEGs at a resolution of about 1024 by 768 pixels.
After shooting, import the digital images to your PC, and store them in a single folder. Download and run the free PhotoLapse 3, which creates .avi movies from a collection of .jpg files. Select your folder, and click Load files from current folder. After it finishes, set the FPS (frame rate) to 30, and click Create Movie.
In the Video Compression prompt, leave the setting at Full Frames (Uncompressed) if you're going to import the video into an editing program. Otherwise, you can reduce the final file here. Click OK. Depending on the number of frames and their sizes, the process could take a few minutes to finish. --Zack Stern
Troubleshoot Your Stereo With a Digital Camera
You're mashing buttons on your remote control, but the stereo ignores you. You replace the batteries. Still no action. So which is malfunctioning: the remote control or the stereo?
Believe it or not, your digital camera can tell you the answer. Most models can see well into the infrared spectrum, which is the region where your remote control operates. To troubleshoot, point your remote control into your camera lens and then push some buttons.
Now look at the camera's LCD screen (not at the optical viewfinder). If the remote works, you'll see a flashing light where the remote's infrared emitter is. --Dave Johnson
Draw Messages With Light on Live Photographs
If your digital camera offers a manual shutter speed, you can use LEDs (light-emitting diodes) to write messages in a long exposure. The whimsical results have more personality than Photoshop tricks, and you can share them instantly from the camera.
Because LEDs shine very brightly, yet in a concentrated area, they work better for this trick than other light sources (such as ordinary flashlights or a cell phone).
Use a small LED flashlight or buy LEDs from RadioShack and attach them to 3-volt disc batteries. Mount your camera on a tripod or a steady table, and set it for a long exposure. Play with the settings: I got good results at f/20, with exposure times of 20 seconds or more. If there isn't much ambient light, don't worry about leaving the shutter open too long; those lengths just give you more time to draw. While the shutter is open, sketch through the air with the LEDs. You can even fire the camera's flash--or shoot with another flash, such as on a different camera--to illuminate people in the foreground. --Zack Stern
Use Long Exposures for Crazy Camera Effects
Stop shooting pictures that all look the same. You can set a longer shutter time to control a photograph's final look.
Nature scenes: Try this trick when you're shooting a waterfall, an ocean beach, or even rustling leaves. Mount the camera on a tripod or set it on a stable surface. Put it in shutter-priority mode, and try a time of about 2 to 5 seconds. (Shutter priority is often abbreviated with Tv--literally, "time value"--or S on a camera mode dial. Check your camera's manual.) Use a remote to press the shutter button to avoid shaking the camera, or rely on the self-timer feature. Water, leaves, and other moving objects will gently blur together.
People or animals in motion: For another trick, try a handheld shot of a moving person or animal with a slightly longer shutter speed than normal. If you can match the subject by pivoting or walking alongside them, the background will blur, as shown in the photo here, but the foreground will stay in focus. Use shutter-priority mode again, and try a shutter speed of about 1/20 of a second. Mix in a burst of the flash--even in daylight--to further sharpen the foreground subject. --Zack Stern