Build your own digital camera, and build knowledge and creativity

Amy Freeborn
Yahoo Contributor Network
Build your own digital camera, and build knowledge and creativity
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The Bigshot digital camera that Amy built.

Last year Forbes reported that 10 percent of all photographs taken in the history of the world were taken in 2011.

And it is estimated that if current trends continue, 880 billion photographs will be snapped in 2014.

But of all the people with a digital camera in their bag or pocket, how many know the basic inner workings of these increasingly ubiquitous devices?

It was with that question in mind that Columbia University Professor of Computer Science, Shree Nayar, first conceived Bigshot.

Bigshot is a build-it-yourself digital camera kit that aims to educate and inspire.

"A few years ago," Professor Nayar explains, "Maybe it was a mid-life crisis, but I began thinking about the popularity of cameras for social interaction, and about designing a camera specifically to disseminate knowledge."

"We live in an age where software dominates and I think it is important for the next generation to understand what the software sits on top of. The hardware is very dense and mystified. I wanted to demystify something that had become very sophisticated."

While contemplating his concept and sketching out ideas, Professor Nayar saw the documentary Born Into Brothels.

The film follows the children of Calcutta prostitutes who were given cameras by director Zana Briski and taught how to use them.

"It's a beautiful portrait, but it's quite heart-wrenching," Professor Nayar says.

"These kids were being brought up in the worst of conditions, then (through photography) they suddenly began to view the world with a fresh pair of eyes. And some started to break away from their circumstances.

"It reaffirmed for me that the camera was very important. It has enormous appeal to society. It allows us to communicate with each other. It's a really emotional experience."

Following a "hell of a ride" sourcing a manufacturer, Professor Nayar forged a partnership with Edu-Science in Hong Kong, and two years later the Bigshot camera was brought to market in the US, Canada and Mexico in August this year.

Last week the camera kits went on sale in Japan. This week pre-orders were launched through UK retailer Rapid Electronics. And next week sales will begin in Germany and India, followed shortly thereafter by Russia.

And all this without any marketing or promotional spend.

"It's all been word of mouth, and re-sellers coming to us, which is very good. I'm overwhelmed in many ways because the reaction has been so positive."

The camera kit is complimented by a website full of educational resources that delve deeper into the fundamental principles of digital photography, including optics, mechanics, electronics and image processing.

In addition, there's a social venture aspect to Bigshot. It takes a portion of royalties from camera sales to fund the distribution of kits to highly under-privileged children around the world.

"Everyone stands to get something out of Bigshot," Professor Nayar says.

"One kid might be drawn to science, one might take up photography, and both of those are good outcomes. It juxtaposes the science and the arts in one learning experience. And it can apply to a wide range of people."

Indeed, the box says it is suitable for ages 8 to 108-years-old.

Last week I became one of the first people in the UK to try out the Bigshot camera kit, which sells for £70.

When Professor Nayar emailed me to ask how it went, my honest and immediate answer was: brilliant.

The process was simple and straightforward and it really was a thrill to complete the build, turn it on and see the power icon light up and the LCD screen come to life.

The camera features a dial of rotating lenses - regular, panoramic and stereo (3D) - a flash, self-timer, tripod mount, and a hand-cranked power generator to supplement the rechargeable battery.

Regular images are captured at 2048 pixels and 72ppi, while panoramic and stereo shots are reduced in size during the rendering process (for which free software can be downloaded from the Bigshot website) to 1800 and 480 pixels respectively.

It's not a high-end professional device, but it's not supposed to be. Its intent and purpose is entry-level - offering an introduction to scientific concepts and a medium through which to explore creative potential. And above all, it's fun, which is perhaps the most important thing.

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