Overrated/Underrated: Invasive Photography

Stealthy techniques for taking video and altering stills.

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Spy Pen

With surveillance cameras the size of wasps, it's easy to forget about the clunky office supplies that are laden with hidden cameras. But you can still buy things like the DVR Camcorder Pen Recorder. It's a ballpoint pen (6 inches by 2/3 of an inch) that houses a one-touch digital recorder with a two-hour battery life that stores video and audio to an embedded UBS drive. I'm scared this gadget will be put to more nefarious uses than heroic crime-stopping. And it's not exactly sleek. In fact, it looks "considerably larger than most pens," says blogger Andrew Liszewski of Tipstech.info. So it's clunky and old fashioned, but the worst part is that it costs $300.

the Image Fulgurator

Totally uncalled for and totally cool. This camera stealthily projects images onto what other people are photographing by syncing up with a flash detector and, in effect, hijacking the photos. Berlin artist Julius von Bismarck created it and has applied for a patent. The Image Fulgurator (to fulgurate is to give off flashes, like lightning) has been used to vandalize tourists' photos by injecting graffiti into their images; they don't see the altered image until after they've snapped the photo and are viewing it on their digital camera.

The creator's main target has been Berlin's Checkpoint Charlie, the Cold War crossing point between East and West, where thousands of tourists photograph the sign that reads, "You are now leaving the American sector." When the Fulgurator is in action, pictures of the sign are defaced with graffiti that comment on what von Bismarck sees as the connection between the violence that took place at the Berlin Wall and that on today's U.S.-Mexico border. The Fulgurator is used "primarily to mess with tourists," says John Brownlee of Boing Boing. "It rankles, somehow." So it must be successful!

This gadget is not available on the market, but the maker doesn't shy away from providing other mischievous photographers the blueprints. If you already have a digital camera, all you need is a light sensor, a flash, and some time.

Happy Face Retouch

Sony has taken things to an extreme with the Cyber-shot DSC-W170's Happy Face Retouch feature—a sort of built-in Photoshop that acts as a digital face-lift. The feature detects a frown (how horrible!) and turns it upside down. Or, more accurately, stretches it to something that might pass for a smile—or a plastic grimace. Sony's earlier feature, smile-detection, might have been of more use. "Why stop there?" asks Carlos Martins of Internet's Best Secrets. "Why not add a 'hair retouch mode' to make you have perfectly combed hair? And what about a thinning mode, so everyone looks athletic? And a zit-free mode?" The Sony Cyber-shot costs about $350.