thrift shopping tips for photographers
Photo by Sue Bryce

Being a photographer can get expensive, and not just because the gear costs an arm, a leg, and then some. Sets, costumes, lighting – even the space you shoot in can get pricey.

To offset the myriad costs, many photographers turn to second-hand stores, where they can procure costumes, materials, and even old furniture for pennies on the dollar. But if you’re not accustomed, going through the bins of used items can feel a bit like hunting for treasure in the middle of a desert.

You don’t need to be a long-time Salvation Army devotee to find great stuff, though. These thrift shop tips can help you suss out what’s a steal and what’s, well, not.

Look for basics. Why drop big money on pieces that are more functional than anything else? Slips, simple shirts and skirts, drop-cloths, and other basics are your best friend. When you enter the thrift shop, look for solid colors, basic construction, and anything that seems highly customizable. That includes furniture, props, and other items you’d like in your studio or even on location.

Keep an eye out for material. Fabric from a craft store can get pretty spendy, but at a second-hand store, you can get sheets or even entire bolts of material for much less. If you’re handy with a sewing machine – or even a hot-glue gun, a bedsheet can become a light reflector, a backdrop, or even a costume.

Examine stains. Most second-hand stores do not wash their clothing or other wares before putting them out, which means you may spot a spot from time to time. But a deodorant smear is much, much easier to clean away than an oil stain, which will permanently darken material. Determine if a stain can be lifted before making the leap – and factor in the price of dry-cleaning when considering price.

Don’t stop at clothes! As mentioned before, furniture and props are great things to look for at thrift stores. Whether it’s a really basic chair, an apple box, a milk crate, a bucket, a basket for newborn photography, dishes for food photos, or even a stack of old books to add a rustic look to a portrait, there’s a lot more than just clothes at the second-hand shop.

…But be wary of electronics. Lamps can be a big get when thrifting, but they can also be kind of a gamble. Ditto any other electronics; before buying, ask if you can plug electronics in (most stores have a surge bar somewhere you can use) and test them out.

Think in color. A dress might currently be a frumpy shade of ecru, but imagine if you dip-dyed it into a beautiful bath of cool lavender or vibrant canary yellow? Thrifted treasures definitely don’t need to be perfect their native state, and dying fabric is a snap. Look for shapes and materials you love, then think about how a simple color swap could change them.