Making a Magnifying Glass Lens

I’ve always wondered what using a magnifying glass as a lens would look like, and this summer I decided to give it a try. I’ve seen people online hold a magnifying glass up to an exposed camera sensor or lens for trippy freelensing experiments, but I really wanted to see how close I could get to building an actual lens. The build was super simple: all I did was tape a magnifying glass to a macro tube and attach it to my camera. Here’s a tutorial video I made for my company, showing my process.

I took my new homemade lens on a trip to Greenville, South Carolina last month and captured some video with it, which I then graded with a black and white film LUT. I’m pleased with how easy it was to get the footage to look like an ancient and weathered roll of motion picture film, mostly due to the crazy soft, single element of the magnifying glass optic.

I’ve shot photos with this lens too. Here are some of my favorites.


Shooting with this lens has been a fun challenge. The super lo-fi look it creates makes everything feel weightless and dreamy and forces me to think about composition, light and the emotional meaning of objects and poses. I don’t see myself shooting with it every day, but its a unique tool to have in my camera bag.

Grayslake Pinhole: Shooting Pinhole Video with a Homemade Body Cap Lens

Pinhole imagery has always fascinated me. I own a Zero Image medium format film pinhole camera that I shoot with occasionally, but other than my weird pumpkin camera obscura, I’ve never tried shooting pinhole photography with a digital camera. I find the precision made digital pinhole lenses that you can buy online just a little too expensive for the results you get, so the other day I finally did the homework and made my own pinhole lens from scratch. Here’s a video I made for Fotodiox showcasing my build process.

And here’s the footage I shot on a Sony A7S, which is the perfect camera for shooting pinhole video because of it’s amazingly sensitive sensor. Pinhole lenses are notoriously hard to use for video in anything but bright daylight, but with the A7S I was able to shoot footage with my pinhole lens even at dusk!

I learned some valuable things working on this project, namely that you need a very tiny pinhole to get sharp images and that your pinhole need to be extremely close to your camera’s sensor to get that wide angle look that most people associate with the style. My next body cap pinhole lens build is going to incorporate both of theses changes, so stay tuned!

iPhone Fisheye In The Garden

Japanese Bridge

One of the most peaceful places I know is the Chicago Botanic Garden. I spent an entire day there last summer, walking slowly through the palatial grounds trying to take in all the wonderful designs, colors and smells around me. I had a Sony A7R II and some nice vintage glass with me, but I found myself having way more fun shooting with my iPhone 6s and a little snap-on fisheye lens my friend had recently given me.

Rose Garden Framed

The Japanese section of the Garden has some lovely little pathways in it, and the fisheye lens I was shooting with created some very weird lens flare. Together they made for a pretty cool image.

Japanese Garden Path

The Garden also has some beautiful indoor exhibits, including rain forest and desert plants that require careful climate control.


Attack of the Giant Topiary Kiwi!

I found that the fisheye lens attachment gives iPhone panorama shots a very unique look.

More and more I’m realizing how unimportant the quality of a lens is to me when compared to it’s character. In my book, a lens with a quirky or strange character will always trump an optically pristine lens with none, even when that means I end up keeping the $3000 camera in its case and shooting with my phone most of the day. If you’re looking for a way to spice up your phone photography, I’d definitely recommend trying out a fisheye adapter!

Crappy Cookie Lens: The Loreo Lens in a Cap

I can only think that the company Loreo got it’s name from their flagship product, a body cap sized lens that has the look and shape of an Oreo cookie. I recently picked up one of these Loreo Lens in a Caps and I was pleasantly surprised by it.

Lunch Break

The Loreo Lens in a Cap only costs around $20 and its been harshly criticized by online reviewers for it’s softness, distorted edges and lack of contrast, all things that I get a kick out of. I re-ignited my interest in photography in college with a lo-fi plastic junk camera that I picked up at a Goodwill, so it takes a lot worse to keep me away. Not only do I enjoy the lo-fi look this lens brings to any camera you mount it on, but also enjoy the challenge: shooting with a crappy fixed focus 35mm lens means you have to get creative. The quality of a photograph taken with this lens rests entirely on the strength of the composition and subject matter, the lens does none of the lifting.

No Swimming or Diving

But that’s not to say that the Loreo Lens in a Cap has no charm. The soft edges lend a retro feel to the images, and the fixed focus throws the foreground out of focus at f/5.6, which creates a unique look. You can shoot at f/64, which turns the lens into a sort of optical pinhole, and with the spin of a junky plastic wheel you can also shoot at an aperture of f/8, f/16 and f/32, but I preferred to stay at f/5.6 for it’s softness and shallower depth of field. At any aperture the lens gives you a flat, faded look, but it’s easy to add contrast in post, especially if you shoot in RAW like I did with these shots.

Early Spring Mud

The lens comes in several mounting options and I went with the Canon EOS mount. I used this lens on both my Canon Rebel and a Sony A7R II with a Fotodiox Canon EOS to Sony E-mount adapter. I enjoyed shooting with both cameras but the A7R II’s full frame gave me a much nicer field of view and revealed more softness on the edges of the lens. 35mm just seems to pair nicer with the full frame format, even though I probably committed some kind of photographic crime by mounting such a crappy lens on such a beautiful high end camera.

Spring Beginning

Finally, I have to admit that I just like the look of the dang thing. It’s light, tiny and, as previously mentioned, Oreo cookie shaped, and it just looks cool mounted on my camera. I’m a hipster at heart and I like to shoot photos and videos with unique and obscure gear, and the Loreo Lens in a Cap, if not much else, is definitely unique and obscure!

Sony A7R II at the Shedd Aquarium

Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium is a beautiful and relaxing place to visit, and last week I was able to take a camera there to shoot some video. I used a Sony A7R II, two Canon FD lenses–a Vivitar 20mm f3.8 and my Dad’s old 50mm f1.4–and a Rokinon 7.5mm Fisheye lens, all mounted on the camera via Fotodiox adapters. I shot half the video is 24fps and the other half in 60fps for the slow motion effect. I was going to shoot in a flat profile but I really love Sony’s built-in color science so I ended up going with the standard picture profile and layering on a film emulsion LUT in post. Here’s the video I shot:

After shooting with the A7R II for a little over a year now I’m still regularly surprised by how beautiful it can render photos and video. It’s not great in low-light, but if you have a fast lens mounted on it and stick at ISO 800 or lower, its powerful little imaging device. I guess it should be for the price. I’m so thankful that my work lest me borrow it so frequently!


Fisheye In The Bog

Bog Boardwalk

I grew up going on hikes with my family at Volo Bog State Natural Area, and it’s still one of my favorite places to visit in Illinois. A bog, especially in the vanilla Midwest, is a magical place, and when you get out in the middle of it, after crossing acres of quaking ground and floating dwarf trees on a narrow boardwalk, you feel like you’re in another world. This January we had an unseasonably warm stretch that felt just like Spring, and one Saturday I couldn’t help but grab a camera and head out to Volo to check up on an old friend.

To keep things simple I generally take just one camera and one lens when I go on a photo walk, and this time I decided to go with an unconventional pairing: my Rokinon 7.5mm Fisheye, which I just recently discovered I could mount on my work’s Sony A7S with the help of a Fotodiox MFT to E-mount lens adapter. Here’s what the camera/lens combo looks like.

My Rokinon 7.5mm is made to cover a Micro Four Thirds sensor, so I had to use the APS-C crop mode on the Sony A7S plus do a little cropping in post to remove the vignette caused by the len’s built-in tulip hood. I love working with wide angle and fisheye lenses because they give me such a unique, dramatic view of the world. Here are some of the photos I captured during my day at the bog.

Big Blue Winter Sky

Dock on Frozen Pond

January Leaf

I also shot video on my walk, and here’s a short film I made with the footage, trying to capture the essence of the day. I had shot footage of other hikers and my own feet walking along different parts of the boardwalk, but I realized that the strongest elements of my footage were shots of the sky and the bog’s relationship to it, so that’s the direction I took with the final edit. You can check out the video below.

Here’s an additional video I made for Fotodiox about the adapter I used.

Limiting myself to a fisheye lens for an entire day of shooting was a rewarding challenge, and I definitely plan on using this lens on a full frame camera again. Volo Bog is even more beautiful in the Spring and Summer, so I may be heading back to capture more images soon.

Creating a Pumpkin Pinhole Camera Obscura

I wanted to do something special for Halloween last October to help promote my company, and I hit upon the bonkers idea of turning a pumpkin into a pinhole camera obscura. I hollowed out a pumpkin, put a cardboard frame with wax paper attached to it inside, and put a pinhole lens on one side and a hole for shooting through on the other. It turns out that pumpkins aren’t light tight, so I also had to cover the whole thing in black duct tape. The pinhole lens i made wasn’t able to produce the most detailed images, so I focused on creating silhouette images by back lighting the subjects I shot. All of this could have just as easily been done with a cardboard box, but where would the fun be in that? Here are some of the images I created with this bizarre device.

I also made a tutorial video showing how to make a pumpkin pinhole camera obscura that you can watch below.

Exploring Fort Sheridan with an Ultra Wide Angle Lens

This Summer I spent a lot of evenings exploring new places and honing my photography skills. Fort Sheridan is an old military fort about twenty minutes south of where I work, and I found it to be a beautiful and relaxing places to explore and shoot. Here are some photos I captured there with a Sony A7R II, a WonderPana 10-stop ND filter and a beautiful Zeiss Distagon 15mm f/2.8 lens I was able to borrow from work.

Fort Sheridan Cemetary

Grave and Sky

Fort Sheridan Cemetery Sunset

Memorial Horse

Walkway to Nowhere

Fort Sheridan Water Tower

Because I was borrowing gear from work, I was also able to shoot a tie in video for Fotodiox. Here’s the video, where I go into a little more detail about the process I used to capture these image.

Probably Okay: The Pie Problem

Here’s the latest video from my sketch comedy YouTube series Probably Okay. My writing partner Michael Golus and I have been stepping up our game lately with more complex ideas and polished cinematography, and it’s helped to elevate the material, which is, as usual, entirely mad. Probably Okay is all about jokes without punchlines, and this video is no exception. When Mike and I write these scripts, with occasional help from the rest of our fluctuating team of actors, we like to play the “what if” game and go as far as we can with it, which ends up generating some pretty bizarre ideas. This alternative humor isn’t for everyone, and I’ve encountered plenty of of people who just scratch their heads when they see our videos, but from those who understand the humor, we’ve been fairly well received. We’ve been making these video for 7 years now and we’ve never really generated a large audience, but for Mike and I it’s never been about the amount of views or the likes. We just enjoy creating funny videos that surprise and hopefully delight the viewer with their unexpectedness, and if we’ve done that for even just a couple of people, we feel like we’ve succeeded.

He is Here!

He is here!
Let us abandon our flocks,
let them run headlong into the sea–
our wealth like pale bread floating,
drowning in the water.

Let us run into this dead night
without coats–without warmth,
dead as frozen corpses–our hearts
dying under the fiery gaze of heaven’s eyes.
He is here! we need no terrestrial life,
no warmth for our twisted bodies.

Let us throw our bodies into joyful contortions,
let us scream his name into the black void of space.
We may freeze on these hills
or melt under a torrent of flaming alien rock,
falling dead from the heavens
in utter, terrored worship.

Let us scream His name across these hills,
running with bleeding feet unto the vast, dead cities.
Let us tell these corpses
rotting in their rotting funeral houses:
“Behold you dead men! The KING OF ALL
is birthed bloody on the hay of a bleak cavern stable!”

His holy heart beats in the throbbing asthmatic chest
of a body already dying–twisted in the body
of a freezing newborn babe, red with fear
and the first feel of frozen air.

He beats the air with fists to pierce,
screams through lips to speak God’s words
to a dead world–to you, dead people!
Wake to this terrible night!
Come out of your graves, tear off your graveclothes,
rip out your silent hearts and set them on fire
and run and scream and gibber with us
through this pitch-black midnight!

We run to pitch-black Bethlehem!
We go to prostrate ourselves before the King of all,
incarnate in a sickly, bloodied babe.

The Similarities Between “The Star Wars” and “Rogue One”

After Watching “Rogue One” multiple times last weekend I was surprised by the similarities between it and George Lucas’s “The Star Wars,” his original draft for what would eventually become “Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.” I just re-read “The Star Wars,” which you can find here, and I’ve broken down the similarities between it and “Rogue One” chronologically. Obviously there are plenty of spoilers ahead, so reader be warned!

The Whills

One of Lucas’s early drafts mentions the Journal of the Whills, and the film was even subtitled this at one point. In “Rogue One” the protectors of the Jedi temples on the planet Jedha are called the Guardians of the Whills, a nice nod to Lucas and an intriguing bit of world building.

The Opening Scene

Anakin Starkiller, his brother Deak and his father Kane are hiding from the Empire on a small settlement on a barren planet. The Empire sends a Sith Warrior in a lone ship that lands on the outskirts of the settlement and the Sith attacks and kills Deak. This opening of Lucas’s original draft is very similar to the opening of “Rogue One,” in which Orson Krennic and his Death Troopers find Galen Erso and his family hiding on a farm on a similarly barren planet and end up killing Galen’s wife.

Spies and Intelligence

On Alderaan, the capital world of the Empire in “The Star Wars,” Clieg Whitsun, a Rebel spy, meets with Bail Antilles, another Rebel, to get information about the Empire’s movement to attack Aquilae, including news of a new “giant space fortress” as big as a moon that the Empire has constructed. They are then confronted by Imperial troops and Whitsun narrowly escapes. This is closely mirrored in an early scene in “Rogue One” in which Rebel Intelligence agent Cassian Andor meets with another Rebel who has information about the Death Star and then has to flee from Stormtroopers.

Political Debate

On Aquilae, the last bastion of the Rebellion, King Kayos argues with other Rebel leaders about going to war with the Empire, as it is threatening to attack unless they sign a treaty. These scenes of politicians desperately arguing over how to proceed are echoed in “Rogue One.”

The Force of Others

King Kayos, and later others characters say “May the force of others be with you all.” In “Rogue One,” this mantra is repeated by blind Guardian of the Whills Chirrut Imwe.

More Machine Than Man

Kane Starkiller, one of the last of the Jedi Bendu and a bitter enemy of the Empire, reveals that he is more machine than man–his chest and limbs are mostly mechanical. He then sacrifices his life to provide the Rebels with a means of escape. This character is very reminiscent of “Rogue One’s” Saw Gerrera, a militant rebel who is part machine and chooses to stay on Jedha to die when the Empire partially destroys the planet.

Re-purposed Imperial Droids

R2-D2 and C3PO were originally imperial robots on the Empire’s Death Star space fortress who deserted to join the Rebels. Aside from the fact that R2 speaks English, they’re pretty much identical to the R2 and 3PO found in the actual film, but their Imperial origins remind me of “Rogue One”’s K2SO, a reprogrammed Imperial Strategy droid who works for the Rebels.

Stolen Imperial Vessels

In “The Star Wars,” our heroes travel in a stolen Imperial ship, similar to the stolen Imperial freighter in “Rogue One.”

Violence and a Darker Tone

“The Star Wars” is way more violent than “A New Hope” and has a grittier, darker tone to it. The Rebel stronghold on Aquilae is filled with political traitors, one of whom is cut in two when he is found out. A family is found dead hanging upside down, the Sith torture the civilians and General Skywalker slices people in two and “from chin to groin.” The violence is similarly more brutal in “Rogue One,” as is the tone, which has a sense of cynicism, fear and despair to it, though ending on a hopeful note.

Air Tanks

The Imperial soldiers use air tanks in battle, similar to the one used by the imperials in “Rogue One” on Jeddah

Child in Hiding

Biggs, a little boy and one of the princes of Aquilae, has to hide under a trap door from stormtroopers who are searching for him, similar to how Jyn has to hide from the Death Troopers.

Imperial Defectors

Valorum, a First Knight of the Sith and basically a sympathetic version of Darth Vader, defects to the Rebels and helps them defeat the Empire at the end of “The Star Wars.” He’s driven by a deep code of honor, and though he’s not very similar to the Imperial defector Bodhi Rook in “Rogue One,” a lowly pilot who defects out of moral outrage, both characters are instrumental in leading the Rebel heroes to victory.

I’m not sure how many of these similarities were intentionally inspired by Lucas’s early drafts of Star Wars, but I’d like to think that at least some of them were. “The Star Wars” is actually a pretty good script and an engaging read, filled to the brim with exciting sci-fi adventure plus concepts and  plot points that Lucas would later use in “The Empire Strikes Back,” “Return of the Jedi” and even his Star Wars prequel trilogy. I recommend reading it if you’re a fan of the series. May the force of others be with you!