Five Budget Portrait Photography Hacks to Save You Money

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We all love some good photography hacks, and what better than some for portraits. Photography is such a great and fun artistic journey and there is always something new to try, or rather, buy. However, taking great portraits can be done with these five hacks that won’t break the bank. Most of these hacks can be made using household items or you can find them at your local craft stores for a quarter of the price.

Background Portrait Photography Hack - Five Budget Portrait Photography Hacks to Save You Money

Use a plain, solid painted wall on location as a background for your portraits to add a different look.

#1 – Reflectors

Reflectors are a great tool, especially for both studio and on-location setups. They help fill in the shadows with light, bounce light back onto your subject, and can create cool effects. They can even help block out the sun or light falling on either on you or your subject. A reflector is great all around tool.

There are many great reflectors available, like the very popular 5-in-1. But you can definitely make one yourself that will give you the same results and enhance your portrait photography. The great thing here is that your handmade reflectors can be large or small depending on your portrait needs. Small, perhaps for the studio, and large for outdoors or on location portraits. Or make one of each, as it really is so simple to do!

Reflector portrait photography hack - Five Budget Portrait Photography Hacks to Save You Money

Use your handmade reflector to bounce light back onto your subject’s face.

Making your reflector

Grab a piece of cardboard and some aluminum foil (crinkle it up a bit first). Next, glue down the aluminum foil with the shiny side up with spray glue or double-sided tape. Make sure to smooth it out as best you can and cover one side of your board. Finally, paint the other side white. If you choose to go with white foam board, then you can skip the last step.

What you will have is a very durable and effective two-in-one reflector! Use the silver side for maximum fill and use the white side for a softer look. This reflector can be used for both indoor and outdoor portraits. Make a few in different sizes to fit your needs.

Aluminum foil glued to recycled box cut to lay flat.

DIY reflector in use.

Reflector bounce portrait photography hack - Five Budget Portrait Photography Hacks to Save You Money

Use the white side of your DIY reflector to softly fill in light while photographing portraits on location.

Don’t want to DIY it? You can head over to your nearest store and pick up a reflective car shield, the ones that help block the sun from heating up the inside of your car. Those also work great as reflectors and the best part is that you can simply fold it up when you’re finished using it.

#2 – Diffusers

Diffusers, like reflectors, are incredible tools especially for outdoor portraits and for newborn photography. They are simply a translucent material that you can use to soften hard lighting or to create soft light on your subject.

I say newborn portraits because even window light can be hard for these little ones and a diffuser helps to soften it. You can also place the diffuser in front of off-camera speedlights to disperse the light over a larger area, effectively softening it.

Newborn portrait photography hack - Five Budget Portrait Photography Hacks to Save You Money

Use a diffuser to create soft light for your subject, especially great for newborns.

You have the ability to create a diffuser just the right size for your portraits. Grab an embroidery ring and some translucent fabric at your local fabric or craft store. Place the fabric inside the embroidery ring, cut the remaining fabric so that you don’t have too much hanging out. You could hem the edges but the embroidery ring really does hold it pretty tightly.

Once you cut the edges, you have a portable and easy to hold/mount diffuser. It’s lightweight and easy to carry. Use this indoors to soften window light or even a speedlight. Or use it on location to soften harsh sunlight and simply to shade your subject during the session.

This scrim was made with a thiPVCvc pipe about 6 feet long to create a diameter of about 3 feet. I duct taped the ends together and hot glued the translucent fabric to the ring. A hula hoop would be perfect to use for this as well. I couldn’t find one big enough to use for this so I used PVC, both are inexpensive and quick to make.

DIY lighting diffuser in action.

You can also make a DIY large lighting panel – get instructions here.

Editor’s Note: Make note that a ring, 12″ or so is still a relatively small light source and as such will produce fairly hard light. You need a large diffuser (larger than the subject’s face) to really soften the light.

#3  Portrait stools

There are many tools that are made specifically for portrait photography like the portrait stool. It’s basically a fancy hydraulic stool to sit your subject on while you make their portrait. There are also some made especially for children. You don’t have to invest in one of those, however, you simply have to go to your local hardware store and pick up a small two-step ladder, or if you photograph children, a two-step stool. Both of these options offer you the same functionality as a portrait stool.

Use them during your session to pose your subject indoors or on location. Another advantage to using a ladder as a posing stool is that it gives you the option to use it yourself to get a higher camera angle. There are really no limits to the usefulness of the ladder, or small step stool, and it is easy to transport. If you are a beach photographer, use it as a tabletop to hold your gear and keep it from touching the sand.

Portrait Photography Hack - Five Budget Portrait Photography Hacks to Save You Money

Use a portrait stool to seat your subject.

#4 – Phone Flashlight

Sometimes the best tools are right in your pocket. Your phone is used for so much of your daily life and it can also be a great tool for photography. The flashlight on your phone can serve as a steady fill light in case you don’t have an off-camera flash or need a little boost of light.

Turn your camera’s flashlight on and point it directly toward your subjects. You may need the help of a selfie-stick or a friend because although it’s powerful, you’ll still need to have the light pretty close to your subject. The mighty flash is perfect for portraits where you want to capture the light behind, but need a little fill on your subject. This is perfect for on-location photography, especially when the sun is setting behind your subject.

A phone flashlight was used to create interesting lighting in a dark area.

Use your handy smartphone’s flashlight to add drama to your portraits.

Create a little drama using your phone’s flashlight and use it to manipulate the available light around you. This is also very easily done for indoor portraits and it works great to fill your subjects when there is beautiful warm light behind, like in the photo above. Get creative with this portable light that you always have with you. It’s quick and there’s no fussing with adjustments.

#5 – Backgrounds

One of the best photography hacks that you’ll learn is how to turn plain walls into beautiful portrait backgrounds. When you’re looking to do some headshots or just photograph so that it looks as though you were in a studio, this is the hack you can use every time.

Choose a concrete wall that is plain. Pose your subject a good distance from the wall so that you can let the background blur a bit (use a wide aperture as well). Then, with your handmade reflector or phone flashlight, photograph your subject. What you will get is a beautiful seamless background just a tad out of focus to give it that studio look.

Portrait photography hacks - Five Budget Portrait Photography Hacks to Save You Money

Use your ladder and a plain wall to create studio-style portraits on location.

You can also choose a more patterned wall to give your background added texture. Look for walls that are painted in a solid color or have a repeating texture like the brick wall below. Another great photography hack is to shoot from above and let the concrete stairs or asphalt blur out so that it creates a nice background.

Portrait Photography background hack - Five Budget Portrait Photography Hacks to Save You Money

Choose plain or patterned walls to give your on-location portraits more of a studio look.

Conclusion

These five portrait photography hacks will save you both time and money all while enhancing the portrait experience for both you and your subject while photographing on-location. Use them for your next portrait session to get new and different results!

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Jackie Lamas is a destination wedding and portrait photographer based on the beautiful beaches of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. She earned her degree in photography from California State University, Fullerton. Jackie has over 10 years of experience as a professional photographer and teacher. When she’s not on the beach, you can find her writing on her blog and spending time with her baby and husband. See more of her work on Instagram.

  • Some great tips (and I have used some of the in the past). Not sure what my clients would say though if I turned up to a session with half a cardboard box.

    With the ladder/stool it maybe worth trying to think of some kind of seat. The top of a ladder can be uncomfortable to sit on for any length of time.

  • Jackie

    Hi Chris! You could use a standard white foamboard with one side silver or a car shield instead of a piece of cardboard. And yes ideally a two step ladder would work or a milk crate. Anything where your client could sit.

  • WeddingWhisperer

    Wow, what good advice! Find your professional wedding photographer in Cape Town here https://pink-book.co.za/wedding-photographers/cape-town/

  • Brian M. Bannon

    Thanks Jackie!

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