Working on a project and realizing there's a tool or small part needed to get the job done can be a common occurrence. That's as true with fixing a leaky faucet as it is with completing your next photography project. Many times a project or formal piece of photo gear will benefit from a seemingly random tool or building supply pickup, saving you both time and money as you work. This list will include something of benefit for anyone with a camera.
It's a little insane how reliant I've become on hardware stores for photography production. I'm constantly casing different hardware stores to get ideas, see what tools and resources are available, at what cost, and perhaps most importantly, memorizing store hours. When a store associate asks if I need help finding something and go a dangerous step further asking what I'm trying to do, it’s always fun asking them to handle objectives from a photographer's perspective. Here’s a shopping list by aisle of gear and supplies you might need at the hardware store.
Hook and Loop Cable Ties
For such a small price, few items will help you organize, save space, and at least look like you have your act together, than hook and loop cable ties.
Rolling Tool Chests
These can make excellent carts for studio work, storing cables, and of course, tools.
Portable Tool Boxes and Bags
My styling kit is highly organized in one portable tool box, with another dedicated specifically for beverage styling. I also have a small tool bag for grip, including a magic arm, super clamps, swivel umbrella adapters, and other clamps. The side pocket ends up getting gaffers tape and a bunch of electrical items (to follow).
When I finally organized all of my gear on a few shelves in one area, life became so much simpler. It became easy to inventory gear ahead of a project, anticipate what might be required, and even updating insurance records.
I keep one in my vehicle, one in my primary gear case, and another in my pocket. They’re just that helpful.
Locking Pliers/Vise Grip
Removing stripped screws, can also be used as a heavy duty clamp.
Hex Keys (Metric)
Tightening set screws and all manner of grip.
Another general utility item that can replace a wrench set with one tool in a pinch.
Precision Screwdrivers and Torx
Most useful for electronics work in the studio. See my post, How to Upgrade Your Tech Repair Workflow, for more ideas.
Tape Measure, Protractor, and Level
Recording a setup in the event you need to replicate it in the future.
Tap and Die Set (Metric)
My carbon fiber Manfrotto tripod has taken a few baths in salt water over the years. It usually ends up getting a thorough rinse in the shower but over the last decade the threads on the tripod head started to corrode. A little cutting grease and a tap and die set will clean the threads up good as new.
Opening boxes, cutting flags, removing labels.
Useful for styling or dusting off an intricate item.
After the holiday season, these are always on sale. I always go back and forth about orange vs darker colored cords. Gaff taping cables to the floor covers most of the color anyway but I buy a few of different colors and lengths whenever they’re on sale.
Grounded Single to Triple Outlet Adapters
Allows you to free up an outlet or two, potentially saving you from having someone unplug your gear extension cords for their own equipment. If you’re at an event, it’s also cheaper to lose a shared splitter than a power strip or extension cord if you need to leave before, say, the DJ.
Two to Three Wire/Prong Adapters
It's super rare but on location, some locations might use two prong outlets. Not as safe as a grounded three prong, but what can you do if you need to plug a device in to get the job done? $0.70 adapters can save the day. It's always the small link in the chain that snaps first. All of these adapters go in my grip bag.
Commonly available in 2”, 1”, and 3/4’ sizes. I have many of each, but the 2” clamps are the most useful, securing backdrops, flags, and bounce cards.
Socket Set Screws (Metric)
An assortment of these can be incredibly helpful. I’ve needed to replace different size set screws in backdrop supports, tripod heads, and they’re super simple to replace. Vise Grips also help if a screw is stripped.
Zip and Gear Ties
Light stands need sand bags. Typically 50 lbs of sand costs $4, which costs far, far less than an insurance claim or damaged reputation.
I'm lost without a flashlight packing up in the dark and doing an inventory check before leaving a location.
These are awesome for laying out gear and props on location.
Painting, styling, and avoiding leaving fingerprints on items.
If you're an event photographer and loud music fills the air, you'll be thankful you can still hear after a few years of work.
Thrifty White Tile Board
For full length studio portraits with an in-camera reflection. I learned this one from the awesome and talented portrait photographer Zack Arias, and it's an outstanding addition to a portrait.
Telescoping Paint Pole
Add a Kacey pole adapter and you have a mobile, hand-held light stand for off-camera flash. I learned this one from another incredibly humbling photographer, Joe McNally, who would regard this as being part of a “voice activated light stand.”
Candy Bars and Batteries
Getting hangry while running errands is never fun. The checkout aisle loaded with caffeine and Snickers bars will bring reprieve. If you need spare batteries for Pocket Wizards or speedlights, this is also your chance. Speaking of speedlights, if Joe ever reads this, why do I get the feeling that he'll have something comedic to say about being mentioned next to the checkout aisle?
For the non-photographers, if you're looking for that special something for the photographer in your life, (hint hint), after B&H, a gift card to the hardware store is the next best thing. I regularly use all of these items in my photography work, hopefully you will find at least one item on this list helpful. What did I leave out that you find useful?