Four Low-Cost Products I Wish Someone Told Me to Buy When I Was Getting Started as a Photographer

When first getting started, photographers often become mesmerized but also overwhelmed by the sheer scope of learning they must do to figure out all the various new gadgets and doohickeys that they have recently acquired. Usually, this focus tends to be towards more expensive photo-related tools, while some of the seemingly trivial tools end up being cast aside with the thought that they simply aren't worth the effort and can't possibly be all that important. When I was first getting started I wish someone had given me a good shake and simply told me to spend a few dollars and pick up the following tools as they would be invaluable for the indefinite future.

Diffusion Fabric

Everyone is always so quick to drool over all the various light modifiers, softboxes, umbrellas, and reflectors, but one of the cheapest and most useful options to modify light is to simply hang diffusion fabric between the model and light source. For less than $10 a photographer is able to arm themselves with a tool that can provide the same soft light that a large softbox does while also doing double duty to diffuse another harsh light source such as sunlight through windows or on location. Diffusion fabric is so cheap and easy to use that the photographer doesn't need to worry about ruining it in dirty conditions or if they need to cut it to fit a specific use case. Furthermore, diffusion fabric is far more portable than any other light modifier due to its foldable, sheet-like nature. Personally, I can't think of a better way to spend what amounts to the cost of a premium cup of coffee.

Gaffer Tape

It's just tape, right? Expensive tape! I can buy masking or duct tape for pennies at the local dollar store and it will do basically the same thing, right? I feel this is an experience most photographers go through until they give gaffer tape a try and realize just how useful it is. Its ability to easily tear, form a strong bond that releases easily, and rarely leave any residue make it akin to magic. Gaffer tape is the most versatile and useful tool that a photographer has at their disposal other than the camera itself. And even though it is more expensive than a roll of masking tape gaffer tape is still very much towards the cheaper end of photographic investments.


I played with fire for years thinking that sandbags were just a waste of time, space, and effort for someone like me. I wasn't using heavy booms, and light stands seemed to balance just fine with moderately sized softboxes on them. Somehow I managed to skirt by with only a few accidents, none of which were costly or harmful. I figured on the off chance that I needed some weight on a stand that I could simply employ a voice activated sandbag (usually my model's boyfriend) to step in and hold on to a stand. After I finally bought a couple sandbags and tracked down some sand I realized how foolish I had been. Sandbags simply make life easier; no more stress, no more worry, and freedom to place the lights in positions that aren't as well balanced. For a few dollars and a sneaky trip to the beach, I will be forever kicking myself for not buying them from day one.


An A-clamp is like having a helping hand that costs almost nothing, doesn't complain, and is useful in any number of situations. A-clamps come in a vast range of sizes from ones small enough to help tighten loose-fitting clothing or large enough to secure a backdrop. All are useful in their own right and any photographer can find a helping hand in keeping several of each size readily available during a shoot. Fortunately for us, A-clamps can be purchased at local hardware stores and often even at dollar stores at very reasonable prices. Even when purchased for the specific use of photography they are usually very cheap which is a refreshing change from what seems like an industry of typically seemingly overpriced photography accessories.


It's far too easy to find yourself casting aside the seemingly minor items when chasing after the much more exciting toys as your pursuit of photography begins to build momentum. This, however, is a mistake that you likely will regret later once you realize how many frustrating problems could have been solved with simple and cheap tools that the majority of experienced photographers know deserve a permanent spot in their bag. When the cost is low and the learning curve is virtually non-existent, there really is no good reason to ignore them, other than perhaps a bit of stubbornness.

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Samuel Flores Sanchez's picture

The voice activated sandbags... some rascals they are!

Ryan Cooper's picture

Yup! But, though, if you feed them they tend to simmer down occasionally!

Robert Nurse's picture

After my light stand blew over, costing me a $150 repair, these $15.00 life savers go with me whenever I shoot outdoors!

JJ Casas's picture

Damn $150 to repair a stand? Curious what stand was it as C-stands (Matthews, Avenger, etc) are about $150.

james feldman's picture

the $150 was likely a strobe or mod

Alexander Petrenko's picture

My stand was blown by a wind and it cost me flash tube and glass dome covering this tube. Around $200...

Alexander Petrenko's picture

Phottix Indra 360

Robert Nurse's picture

Broncolor Siros L.

Alexander Petrenko's picture

Oh, and $15 - umbrella-softbox was thrown away full of glass.

Robert Nurse's picture

LOL, I wasn't too clear huh? My strobe (Broncolor Siros L) needed repair. I was lucky it fell on a soft grassy area. I was still able to shoot. The control nob was pushed in. Had it fallen on concrete? Yikes!!

Michael Yearout's picture

Gaffers tape. Manna from heaven.

james feldman's picture

I've got a mini roll I keep with the camera bag and a big roll for location

David Moore's picture

Mini roll? I need to look that up. I just have a giant roll haha

Larry Clay's picture

Mini roll = a few feet wrapped around a pencil or dowel.

David Moore's picture

I was THINKING that, but I sorta was hoping someone sold minirolls too

Larry Clay's picture

Diffusion fabric doesn't replace a soft box. The light from a soft box is fairly even across the entire surface of the box whereas a single light source behind diffusion fabric has a drop off going away from the light source.This can be very important when doing beauty or fashion photography. Having said that, I agree with having diffusion fabric in your kit. It is still far softer then a bare bulb or flash.

Ryan Cooper's picture

It isn't difficult to achieve even distribution with diffusion fabric. Yes, if you put a point light source a foot away from the fabric it will create a hotspot towards the middle (The same happens with shoot through umbrellas if you don't extend the shaft far enough) but if say you are diffusing sun, back the light source away from the surface of the fabric, or if you layer the diffusion fabric with a gap between it is pretty trivial to get much more even distribution of light across the surface of the fabric.

Where diffusion fabric does have limitation is in controlling the light, which is where a softbox becomes valuable. Not only does it allow you to corral the light more easily, it also allows you to control the spill. Finally, it also allows for much more fine tuning of direction without a huge headache. Diffusion fabric certainly doesn't replace a softbox but for $10 its a great way to achieve a similar softness of light in a pinch.

Ralph Hightower's picture

I bought a sandbag and gaffer tape for the first time to use last week for the eclipse.

Caleb Kerr's picture

Good call - I've been meaning to order diffusion fabric and I didn't realize it was so cheap. Just ordered a bunch!

Ryan Cooper's picture

Ya, its amazing how cheap something can be when it has nothing proprietary about it so its just material cost + retail markup. Makes you realize just how profitable other photography accessories are. ;)

Caleb Kerr's picture

Grids being the biggest racket in the game.

Ryan Cooper's picture

Yup, though, from what I've heard it's because of a ridiculous license fee from the owner of the patent for grids, it isn't all the individual companies marking it up so stupidly. No idea if its true or not though.

Caleb Kerr's picture

Yeah I've heard that too, it seems like an example of a) something they should figure out how to work around, or b) a patent that shouldn't have been granted.

Sean Fenzl's picture

Love this list, as a product photographer, I'd add foam core too. So much you can do with foam core, tape and clamps. (PS: Hello from Vancouver Island Ryan!)

Jonathan Adams's picture

Your Gaff tape is linked to the Impact Gaff Tap Version.... I bought some to try and and I'm not impressed... The ProGaf is the good quality stuff...Impact doesn't live up to it