Stuff You Can Do When You Ain’t Got Nothing to Do

Are you bored yet? I don’t have to ask if your kids are bored yet. A lot of you are trying to think of something to do besides ‘out the window’ and ‘front porch’ photography. We’re all worried and anxious about a lot of things, but sooner or later, we need to do something, anything, to keep from going nuts.

Many of you also have kids in the house, and in most cases, said offspring aren’t handling things even as well as you are. So I talked to a bunch of people here at Lensrentals and got some ideas for entertaining you and your kids, that might be better than spending 8 hours a day on social media.

I know for a lot of you when I said ‘entertain your kids’, you were pulling out the credit card, cause whatever it costs, man, take my money. But nope, most of these ideas won’t cost you a dime; you probably have everything you need. Most of the rest won’t cost much, and if it involves camera equipment that you might consider renting, well, have we got a deal for you.

We’re keeping every employee employed and to be blunt; they ain’t got anything to do. So they will fill your order in about 17 seconds. No need to worry about ‘is it in stock’. Every damned thing we own is in stock. It’s not doing anyone any good sitting in the warehouse, so here is a discount: 17SECS code for 20% off orders arriving by May 1st.

And in case you don’t know, it comes to you disinfected to my standards, which are high. You could eat off this equipment. Well, if you can balance your food on a lens, you can eat off of it.

But for many of you, even a small expense right now is out of the question, so I’ve tried to get as many ‘use what you’ve got at home and McGuyver’ ideas as I can.

So, whether you’re just bored re-editing all the images on your hard drives, trying to herd the cats that are your offspring, or just want to take advantage of your downtime to do learn some new skills; I’ve got some suggestions.

Learn Lighting

This was my first thought since I consider myself a natural light photographer (that means one who doesn’t know how to use lights very well). If you don’t want to tackle strobes and triggers and such, start with a set of LEDs; that’s a simple way to learn the effects of different angles and light strengths. I’m at this stage, and I’m already pretty awed at how the same scene or person can look amazingly different with variations in light position and strength.

Pro Tip: If you’ve got kids at home, rather than using light stands, let them hold the lights. The Brownian motion that is toddler will give you all kinds of lighting angles and positions to evaluate. 

If you’re ready to tackle more powerful and portable strobes, a simple set of speedlights, one or two inexpensive slave flashes, and a modifier or two will keep you occupied for days. (In my experience, that meant that after a few days I’m still pretty bad at it, but way less intimidated by it.)

lensrentals.com, 2020

There are 7,439 online tutorials about using lights, so you’ve got plenty of teaching handy. The Aputure User Group is offering its lighting certification course free to anyone who wants to join right now. The Hurlbut Academy has made its Illumination Experience Workshop free online, too. So free tutorials and lots of time on your hands, you can come out of this with some new skills and techniques.

Light Painting for The WIN!

Have you never done this? Got kids? There you go!! You’ve got a camera, you’ve got some light painters, you just need some lights. Kids who have long since rolled their eyes every time you get a camera out will be way interested once you show them images of their light painting. Plus, this gets random enough that anyone is going to make some beautiful images, and some hysterically funny fails.

You can use anything from some break-and-glow chemical lights or flashlights (color some plastic wrap to make filters). If you want to get a bit more fun, something like a Manfrotto CROMA2 lets you adjust the color and intensity of the light source while you paint; it can make some really pretty effects and is perfect for the kids to randomize things.

The king of light painting, though, has got to be the Westcott Ice Light 2. It’s battery-powered, dimmable, can be had with barn doors to shape the light, and most importantly, looks kind of like a lightsaber.

Pro tip: Do not let the kids light-saber fight with these. They will last about 1.25 blows. Don’t ask me how I know because I don’t have kids, so it would be embarrassing to go into the details.

Courtesy fjwestcott.com

Miniaturize Your Neighborhood

Got an upstairs window, an apartment balcony, or similar vantage point? That and a tilt-shift lens, and you can make your neighborhood look miniature. It might be fun, and the kids will probably like looking at them. The kids will perhaps like being in them, too.

 Astro or Moon Photography

If you’re working from home, your sleep schedule is probably going to hell anyway, so you’re up at night. This time of year, there isn’t much heat haze in the atmosphere, so images are sharper than they’ll be in summer. And really, for good moon shots, all you need is a telephoto zoom lens and a tripod and head. You don’t need some wide-aperture monstrous telephoto; the best moon shots are usually at f/5.6 or f/8.

Roger Cicala, 2014

If you want to try your hand at astral tracking and star photography, a reasonably wide-angle prime lens and tripod will get you started; you just need to keep the exposures short, say 8 seconds or less.  If you really want to get into it, something like the iOptron SkyGuider is pretty inexpensive to rent and will let you get dramatic starscapes or Milky Way shots if you live in an area where the light pollution isn’t bad.

Bray Falls wrote an excellent post on this blog, Getting Started in Deep Space and Astrophotography, if you’re interested.

Learn Some Photography History

I just spent a few hours rereading some really awesome and entertaining articles on the history of photography. The early history of photography is really stranger than fiction; those guys were brilliant, bizarre, and generally jerks. Full disclosure: I wrote them all, so I’m probably not the most impartial judge of how great they are. On the other hand, at my age, I hardly can remember my kids names, so I was halfway through the first one when I realized I’d written it.

If you want my unbiased recommendation, I’d start Exploding Photographers, Disappearing Clothes, and the Development of Film or The Heights and Depths of Nadar. If you don’t like those, you probably won’t like the rest.

If you’d rather listen than read, we did a history podcast, too. Oh, and don’t tell anyone in the marketing department I told you about them because they hate them pretty much. Still, there’s an entire section of the blog consisting of older articles where I went full out sarcastically snarky. You won’t learn anything (other than I pretty much make fun of everything), but you might get entertained. If you haven’t read it, Hammerforum is the closest thing to an actual work of literature I’ve ever written.

Do Some Green Screen

Lensrentals.com, 2020

A green screen is cheap to rent, learning to use it and edit it will take a couple of hours to achieve some reasonable competence, and after that, you can entertain yourself and the family for quite a while. The good thing is you really only need it for a few days; once you have a bunch of green screen images of everyone (don’t forget the cat) in various poses, you can paste them into backgrounds forever. Level II, of course, is getting some good green screen video footage.

Pro Tip: If you don’t want to rent or buy a green screen, any brightly colored bedsheet will do. The editing may be a tiny bit patchy, but it works. 

Especially for the Kids

If you’ve got some bored kids (I realize ‘bored kids’ is redundant right now) at home, here’s some pretty easy and inexpensive ways to keep them occupied.

A Projector

Some of us are in the situation of having more people needing screen time around the house than we can handle. The TV, computer screens, and tablets are all in use between online schooling, communications, and working from home. Something like the Anker Nebula portable projector can be a lifesaver, projecting a reasonably bright (emphasis on ‘reasonably’; you’ll want a dim room) 720p image via phone app or HDMI, and with built-in speakers. There are better projectors, but not at anywhere near this price point.

A Camera

Yeah, duh. But you might not want them jumping straight to your gear. There’s a ton of small, easy to use cameras that any kid from a late preschooler on up could have fun with: Canon Powershot G5x looks much like an SLR, or a Canon D30 is waterproof.

A Fisheye Lens

You probably have one. If you don’t, there are a lot of inexpensive ones available. Kids are pretty ‘whatever’ about another selfie like picture, but let them take some distorted pictures of the cat from 5″ away or whatever, and they generally find that hysterical.

Pro tip: Boys, once properly instructed in the technique, will find endless entertainment taking pictures of mothers and sisters out near the edge of the image, where distortion is maximized. 

A Macro Lens

See above. A Holy Quest such as “show mom what the dust particles on the table look like close up,” along with the classic dead insect closeups, can generate even further interest. Dog fur and cat’s whiskers can turn it into an almost scientific thing. If you want to get really into it, the Venus Optics Laowa Probe Macro can show you places you’ve never seen before. (That was both a selling point and a warning.)

A Kid Cam

Many of you have a GoPro or similar camera. If not, they’re pretty inexpensive to rent. Add a chest harness or head mount and a child, and you get a win-win-win. (Toddlers are the best for this purpose, dogs a close second. Cats, for obvious reasons, don’t work well.) Kids enjoy making footage; you hone your skills editing the clips, the other kids will watch said footage about seven zillion times.

Make a Time-lapse Clip

Putting a camera in the corner of the playroom/activity room to take a shot every 30 seconds or so can make a fun video for the kids to watch, a great record for showing later, whatever you like or want. Most of you already have a camera that will do this. (You could use your phone, of course, but ain’t nobody giving up their phone for an entire day right now.) There are hundreds of online tutorials to show you how to do it. If your camera doesn’t do it, most Nikon cameras (chance to try out brand X, if you want), all GoPros, and lots of others do. If you’re a Canon shooter, the inexpensive TC-80N3 remote shutter controller will do perfectly.

Make a Movie

You can do this with a phone or tablet, or you can go upscale to a video camera and microphone. The kids can spend hours scripting their movie, more hours shooting it, and (possibly with some adult help) more hours editing it. And their work can be sent to friends, grandparents, cousins or anyone else they can’t see at the moment.

Pro tip: Do NOT get your kids a shotgun mic if you intend to ever say anything you don’t want them to hear.)

Make a Miniature Diorama

If you’ve got kids and they have small action figures (or an old toy train set, etc.), you can make some amazingly fun dioramas and photograph them. The kids will love staging them once they see a couple of shots. You don’t need special equipment, any camera and lens will do.

Image courtesy Matt Wening

Lighting them brightly can be done with room lights, simple flashlights, or can get you some isolated lighting. You can get entertaining effects and increased realism playing with perspective and the depth of field. Need some inspiration? You can go days of prep realistic or throw together something funny with lego figures.

Image courtesy Matt Wening

Image courtesy Matt Wening

If you really want to get into this, there’s an awesome blog post by Zach Sutton showing master miniature imager Felix Hernandez at work.

Still Bored?

That’s all I’ve got for today, but, well, we’re all gonna be hanging around here for a while. So I’ve brought in some reinforcements for fresh ideas, and I have an appropriate test crew (as you can see in the images above) waiting to test those ideas for quality and reliability.

We’ll be trying to get out a “Stuff you can do” post every week or so.


Roger Cicala, with the awesome help of Ally, Carolyn, Kristin, Matt, SJ, and others.


March, 2020


Author: Roger Cicala

I’m Roger and I am the founder of Lensrentals.com. Hailed as one of the optic nerds here, I enjoy shooting collimated light through 30X microscope objectives in my spare time. When I do take real pictures I like using something different: a Medium format, or Pentax K1, or a Sony RX1R.

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  • Athanasius Kirchner

    Ah, Hammerforum, my favorite blog post bar none. I re-read it like once a year, and still laugh like a maniac when I do ?

  • Lester

    The headline photo just wonderful, a perfect capture of the universal thoughts and emotions of three kids at somewhat different stages of life. Interestingly shot through a glazed panel, I guess a window, adds a little mystery for the viewer.

  • Nicolas Woollaston

    Another great article. My kids really enjoy making table top stop motion movies with their lego dioramas. And fight scene movie stills was another one that seemed to amuse the boys when they were younger.

  • Michael Clark

    If you can picture them without hair, they do kind of look like Roger.

  • Turniphead

    Roger, you are awesome; thank you!

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