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Tips & Tricks

Dollar Store Steals | 5 Photography Must-Haves For $1 Or Less

By Lauchlan Toal on October 23rd 2015

Photography is an equipment-heavy craft, with many photographers focusing more on gear than the art itself. I’ve gotten caught up in this from time to time as well, having spent hundreds of dollars on things which served absolutely no purpose (the light tent big enough to serve as an actual tent was one such miscalculation). Luckily for us, there are tons of genuinely useful photography accessories that we can purchase for a song. Here are 5 of my favourite go-to photography items, all purchased from the dollar store.

1. White Foam Core

It would be a crime not to lead off with white foam core board. If you’re unfamiliar with this, foamcore is a piece of stiff foam sandwiched between paper. You’d be hard pressed to find a more versatile and consistently useful item anywhere – simplicity is king. This was the only lighting tool I had when I first started with photography, and it’s still my favourite light modifier.

For $1, you get a reflector, flag, diffusion panel, and backdrop. Even better, you usually get two for a dollar. As a reflector, I’ve used this for both natural light and lit portraits, bouncing light back into shadows. I’ve also used it in food photography jobs and product photography.

Foam core’s also just thick enough to act as both a flag and a diffusion panel. For weaker lights, or lights placed far away, it does an effective job of absorbing the light. Place the light near to it and pump up the power, and you get a beautiful diffused light perfect for product photography or even headshots. Finally, it’s ideal for shooting small objects on white backdrops. You can even set up an impromptu light table by beaming a flash up through the board.

LEGO photo lit with foamcore

The lighting gradients were achieved by shooting speedlights through foam core behind the water.

2. Kitchen Turntables

The next item is a bit less flexible, but a great tool to play with. Kitchen turntables are perfect for photographers looking to experiment with 360 degree videos without spending a fortune on motion control machines. Whether you want to impress a bride with a video of the wedding rings, or simply take your product photography up another level, this is a great way to get your feet wet.


3. LED Flashlights

LED flashlights are a great accessory to the turntable mentioned above. If you’re current lighting set-up is all speedlights, you’ll have a hard time lighting a video. The flashlights sold at dollar stores are a great size for putting some sparkle into gemstones, and as such can even be useful for still photography. If you’re not shooting rings, no worries. This is a great excuse to try light painting – especially effective for nighttime landscapes.

4. Tape

Time for something totally unsexy, but an absolute necessity in any gear bag. Tape. Gaffers tape is ideal, but if you can’t find it and have a shoot, grab some black duct tape from the dollar store. Things never go as planned, and if you need to repair a softbox, hold up a backdrop, or any number of other things, a good roll of tape is your best friend. For video work, it’s also great for marking on the ground where people need to stand. Nothing’s worse than reviewing footage and realizing that the focus is off because the actor is standing a foot away from where they were supposed to be.

Speedlight taped to a lightstand

A makeshift alternative to a flash mount – might not be pretty, but it does the job.

5. Index Cards

Finally, the old classic. The crème de la crème of ancient, cheap photography tools – index cards. In a pinch and need to bounce your on camera flash? Strap an index card to the speedlight and you’re good to go. Alternatively, use it to get your white balance in the right ballpark if you’ve left your grey cards at home. Best of all, write down people’s contact information on it when you meet them. Unless there’s an app for that nowadays…

[Rewind: Photographer Creates Art With Dollar Store Products]

These are just a few items I’ve found over the years – what other great dollar store finds have you used in your photography?

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Lauchlan Toal is a food photographer in Halifax, Nova Scotia. When not playing with his dinner, he can be found chasing bugs, shooting sports, or otherwise having fun with photography. You can follow his work online, or hunt him down on the blogs and forums that he frequents.

Q&A Discussions

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  1. nita wright

    My eyes have been opened and now I don’t mind opening my wallet. These are some really cool primo ideas. Another reason why I love being able to communicate with others with the same passion. It’s so rewarding in more ways than one. Thanks for sharing.


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  2. Lori Gerads

    You can use car window reflectors too. They fold and are portable.

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  3. Gabriel Rodriguez

    And, there I thought I was the only one shopping at the dollar store for cool stuff like those mentioned. Lol!

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  4. Rob Ruttan

    What does it mean when it says the foamcore can be used as a “flag”?

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    • Lauchlan Toal

      I mean that you can use it to block light – essentially casting shadows so that you don’t illuminate certain parts of a subject.

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  5. Paul Empson

    black elasticated hair bands… to hold black or white (if you need some fill flash) foamy things.. on my flash heads..

    anyone else any inexpensive photo gear they use?

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  6. Brad Harberts

    Anything cheap at this point is awesome for me!

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  7. marcel bauer

    Good stuff

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  8. Paul Empson

    Velcro ties… I’ve used them to:
    – mark used (red) / unused (green) bag pockets,
    – secure flashes to underside of umbrellas..
    – secure prints to stands at wedding fayres..
    – hang bits of kit to outside of full kit bags..
    – keep cables tidy too..

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