Photography is a great career for the entrepreneurial spirit who can’t afford a ton of overhead.
That said, it can get still expensive quick if you’re not looking for opportunities to perform regular photography tasks on a shoestring budget; there’s always a flashy, $2000 version of a tool out there claiming to solve all your problems when a $20 version will absolutely do.
In my camera bag are many tools that cost me $20 or less on Amazon or at a local craft store—and you know what? They work great! I’ve never had a potential client look at my portfolio and say, “You used a _______ for this, didn’t you?” I’ve never had anyone catch me with my tail between my legs just for saving a dollar. Nope, 9 times out of 10, an affordable option will get the job done for an everyday photographer like me.
Here are just 7 of my favorite cheap (or free) tools to use on photo shoots. For a longer list of all 25, join my new program, Social Media Photography and Photo Styling (for a Living), starting July 15, 2019!
Tool #1: Gray Cards
I got these handy-dandy gray cards on Amazon for less than $10. The pack of 3 includes a white card, a black one, and an actual gray, slides easily in next to a lens in my camera bag, and offers tremendous relief during those tricky lighting situations when you just can’t seem to get the color right in-camera.
What I use them for: Usually I pull these out if I’m shooting behind the scenes in a kitchen or office that doesn’t have windows that let in natural light. Artificial light bulbs cast weird colors over human skin and often make editing a real chore; so I’ll shoot one photo in every “batch” with a gray card in it, and then use the eyedropper tool in Lightroom to set my white balance for all the other photos. Then I resume editing as usual!
Where to get them: The exact set I have doesn’t seem to be available anymore, but this one on Amazon looks very similar—and really, any pack should do!
Tool #2: A White Foam Board
I get mine at Michael’s or Hobby Lobby. They typically only last 2-3 months before they start getting dinged up and need to be replaced… but since they’re just $6-12 apiece, it doesn’t put me out every time I have to bring in a new one (especially if I remember to grab a coupon online first!).
What I use them for: Either for backdrops in color-iffy situations, or to reflect light on a gloomy day. There’s one café in particular where I shoot a lot, and the tables there are a color of wood that is strangely difficult to edit. So I’ll place the food on top of a white foam board and shoot as normal. And a white foam board makes a great reflector during those times when shadows feel just a little too deep, as well!
Where to get them: Michael’s Craft Stores (remember to bring a coupon from their weekly ad!)
Tool #3: Clothespins
If you already have these around your house, you won’t have to spend a dime! I’ve never needed more than 1 or 2 for a single shot. I use them in a variety of ways, from “tailoring” baggy clothing to pinning back a model’s hair when she doesn’t have a hair clip—they’re my MacGyver tool!
Example of how I use them: In the behind-the-scenes photo above, the model’s necklace pendant kept falling under the collar of her blouse, so I used a clothespin to weight down the clasp in the back just enough to keep the pendant visible in every photo.
Where to get them: A junk drawer in your house, or Walmart—a pack of 48 or 50 costs less than $5!
Tool #4: Tide-to-Go Pens
I cannot tell you how many times a client has shown up to her brand shoot with a bag of outfit options, pulled out a favorite shirt, and discovered right there for the first time that the piece has a stain on it. Tide-to-Go pens are miraculous in these situations!
Where to get them: They come in packs of 3 on Amazon!
Tool #5: A Flatiron or Curling Iron
I didn’t have to invest in this tool just for my business—I already had an extra one at home. As a brand photographer, I do a lot of shoots for #girlbosses who are the face of their own brands. And so, so often, they arrive at the shoot with shiny, bouncing curls, and after an hour of posing and outfit changes, their locks are frizzing and/or starting to droop. A flatiron for frizzies or curling iron to restore curls takes minutes to warm up and it can practically save a photo shoot!
Where to get them: Your own bathroom closet, or the clearance shelf at Sally’s Beauty Supply.
Tool #6: A Lintroller
There’s nothing like editing out a hundred cat hairs or specks of lint after an otherwise flawless photo shoot! Lint rollers at their cheapest can cost less than $2 apiece, and save you hours in Lightroom or Photoshop. Get a pack of them, and keep them anywhere you store camera gear!
Where to get them: Grab one from around the house or pick up this pack from Target.
Tool #7: Graduated Lens filters
Lens filters are tinted panes that can be added with an adaptor (I needed this one for my camera) to the front of your camera lens. By “tinted” I don’t mean colored; I mean they’re effectively like sunglasses for your lens. They can be tinted all the way across, or fade in a gradient—meaning tinted gradually more or less from one “side” and to the other.
What I use them for: If it’s a super bright day and I’m shooting outside, I might know that in order to get my subject properly balanced in-camera, the sky behind her will end up completely “blown out” (too bright to see color or detail). By using a graduated lens filter, I allow less light to pass in from the top half of my frame (where the sky is), but still plenty of light to pass in through from the bottom half (where the ground and my subject are); so I can keep a sky that still looks bright and blue without losing any detail on my subject.
Where to get them: Amazon. This is what they look like. Shop around for pricing and good reviews!
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Hello! My name is Alexis.
Coffee lover, day dreamer, foodie, and creative. Currently working and living in New Hampshire, I’m an eclectic mix of forward-looking and completely old-fashioned.