11 household items you can use to take better photos
Pricey accessories are great, but sometimes the tool you need is only a junk drawer away.
As photographers, most of us are programmed to love gear. We dream of bags filled to the brim with enough accessories to fill a B+H catalog. The problem is that those accessories can be as expensive as they are useful and often they only fulfill a somewhat limited purpose. But accessories don’t have to be exotic or cost a lot to get the job done and with a little freethinking, you can turn lead into gold. The trick here is to think like MacGyver: see what fun and practical uses you can extract from ordinary everyday objects. You may not be able to find a way to blast your way out of a collapsed tunnel with a salt shaker, a stick of gum and a handful of pushpins, but you’d be surprised the cool things you can do with gizmos that you probably already own and that won’t dynamite your budget.
Here are some of our favorite “found” accessories and some suggestions for putting them to good use. MacGyver would be proud.
Small mirrors make excellent reflectors for all kinds of outdoor shots, including portraits and close-ups, but who wants to carry a sheet of glass around all day? Yikes! Acrylic mirrors are relatively lightweight and totally indestructible (they’ll outlast the backpack you carry them in) and you can usually find them cheap at your local drug store. Mirrors are super-efficient reflectors and highly directional, good for opening a deep shadow area or creating a bold fill, in a portrait, for instance. Dan Bracaglia
OK, so the manufacturer says your shoulder bag is waterproof, but why put it to the test when a fifty-cent garbage bag is guaranteed? Pack a few in your camera bag and when the skies open up, just toss all your gear inside and tie it up until the rain stops. Carry a few extras and you can use them as rain ponchos just by tearing a quick head hole. You can throw them over lights when a quick storm rolls in, make them into impromptu umbrellas for protecting hair and make-up from getting ruined and even use them as a light-blocking flag if you use the thick, black kind. Not a bad resume for something so cheap. Dan Bracaglia
There’s no point in fumbling with teensy camera controls and cursing the darkness when an inexpensive flashlight would save the day (or the night, as it were). Penlights are great fun when it comes to delicate light-painting embellishments (tracing an object’s outline, for instance) and larger-beamed lights can be used to paint interesting background patterns (on a brick wall in a portrait perhaps). An adjustable beam is even better if you can stand the extra cost. Great for finding that lost bushing in the bottom of a dark shoulder bag, too. An LED headlamp is even an option if you’re not keen on having to stick a flashlight in your mouth while you dig through your bag. Dan Bracaglia
Zipper bags are your friend and you should never travel without them. The large, gallon-sized ones make a great impromptu weather housing for shooting (just poke a lens hole and secure it with an elastic band), but they’ll keep dust off of your extra lenses and backup body in your shoulder bag, as well. They’re also great for keeping plane tickets, passports, bus schedules and maps clean, dry and organized. Buy several sizes and you can stuff the small ones inside of the bigger ones. Dan Bracaglia
Mini Bungee Cords
You’ll find these in the camping-supply aisle at Kmart or in almost any hardware or sporting goods shop, but tiny 10-inch bungee cords are great for lashing up tripod legs or attaching a water battle to your shoulder bag or bicycle frame. Keep a bunch in your bag and you can daisy chain them together to make longer straps. Good for a quick fix on a broken camera strap, too. Ace sells a plastic bottle of 20 10-inch cords for under $10. Dan Bracaglia
Let’s face it, stuff falls apart at the absolute worst times — camera straps, shoulder bags, those comfy old running shoes — electrical tape isn’t elegant, but it will fix them all in a jiffy. It has most of the same qualities of duct tape, but comes in smaller and cheaper rolls — and you probably have a roll in the kitchen drawer. Under $2 almost everywhere. And while gaffer’s tape won’t leave sticky residue on your gear upon removal, it’ll also take up a lot more room in your bag. Dan Bracaglia
A sprinkling of raindrops or some beads of morning dew can do wonders for close-ups of flowers and such, but you don’t have to get up at the crack of dawn or wait out a rainstorm to get them naturally. Instead, carry a small plant-misting bottle with you and spray at will. By adjusting the nozzle or the spray distance, you can tweak the size and quantity of the droplets, too. Combine it with an eyedropper and some glycerin (see next slide) and you’ve got ultimate droplet control. This trick also works with models if you’re going for a shiny or wet look. Just make sure you warn them before spraying away. Dan Bracaglia
Eyedropper (And Glycerine)
If you plan on getting really close or just want ultimate control over your droplet placement, this setup will suit you better than the spray bottle. Here’s a trick that will buy you tons of time: fill an eyedropper with glycerin and place the droplets precisely where you want them (a flower stem, a twig, etc.) and the sticky drops will patiently wait while you compose the perfect macro reflection. You can even nudge them into place with a toothpick. By the way, glycerin rocks when you want a wet look in food shots, too. Dan Bracaglia
Paper Cups (White)
Not only does a paper (or plastic) cup make a sanitary and convenient way to grab a drink from a public drinking fountain, but if you cut the bottom out you can make a great impromptu snoot for your accessory flash. Snoots help focus the light to create a more direct beam. Or mount it as a snoot, but cut the front out and use it as a bounce diffuser on a flash or any lightsource. You could also line it with your black electrical tape and mount it on your lens as a backup lens shade to block light from hitting the edge of your lens and creating flare. You generally won’t have to worry too much about a pattern on the outside of the cup. As long as the inside is white, you shouldn’t see any funky effects on your light pattern. Dan Bracaglia
Paper Plate Reflector
Call it the poor-man’s ring light if you want, but if you cut a whole in a white paper (or plastic) plate and tape it to your lens with gaffer tape, you have a great reflector for backlight close-ups and face shots. Better yet, cut a radial slice in the plate and then create a funnel-shaped reflector (think of the funnel collar that vets put on dogs) around your lens barrel to aim the light more precisely. Want a more efficient reflection? Tape a sheet of aluminum foil to the plate, shiny side out. Shooting with a flash? A little plate hacking and they can also act as bounce cards or even a snoot. Dan Bracaglia
Micro Screwdriver Set
Hopefully your camera won’t be one of the things that falls apart in the field, but other mechanical gizmos do loosen up: eye glasses, sunglasses, tripod heads and even the occasional lens flange. You can pick up a set of micro screwdrivers at the dollar store or the flea (or spring for a nice set for around $10 on Amazon. Dan Bracaglia