Everywhere from Instagram to TikTok, photographers shared their out-of-the-box ideas and tricks, using everything from “toilet paper tube lights” to homemade reflectors to create unforgettable images. On TikTok, #PhotoHacks went viral, and even the influential photographer and author David Hobby got in on the fun. Here are a few quick hacks that caught our attention in recent months, plus some tips for trying them at home.
1. The colander trick
“I’ve seen quite a few other creators and photographers use this colander hack, including Brandon Woelfel,” the Cleveland-based photographer Dani Venen tells us. All you need is a colander and natural light. “The key is to use direct sunlight; since a softbox or regular incandescent lights won’t give off the same effect,” Dani says.
“The brighter, the better: we want those hard shadows and bright highlights. Position yourself just out of the way of the sun so your shadow isn’t casting over your subject, and hold the colander in front of them in the direction of the sunlight.
“Play around with the angle at which you’re holding the colander as well as the angles you’re shooting from. You can also use other porous objects like a sun hat, a sheer textured sheet or cardigan, a spatula, a spoon, or anything around the house that would cast a cool shadow.
“I’m all about stepping out of my comfort zone and thinking outside the box with photography. I always tell my models, ‘the weirder, the better.’ Creating otherworldly and eye-catching art that people haven’t seen before is one of my favourite things to do with photography, and the best part is you can do it right in your home with everyday items.”
Check out Dani’s TikTok video to see how the picture above was captured.
2. The “flowing water” hack
Don’t have access to a pool? Thelma Briggs, the mind behind the Lagos-based creative agency MazBRI Creative, has a simple, no-mess product photography hack. Instead of placing your product in a swimming pool, use a blue backdrop, hand sanitiser, and some sprays of water and glycerine solution.
“I used about 70% hand sanitiser and 30% of the water and glycerin mix to achieve the ‘moving water’ effect,” she tells us. “You’ll have to move the texture around with your fingers or a spatula until you get a ‘flow’ that looks similar to the natural flow of water.”
See how Thelma achieved this effect on TikTok.
3. The DIY prism
No prism, no problem. Gareth Davies creates a similar effect by positioning his phone screen underneath his lens and moving it around to find cool angles. Just make sure you have enough interesting light to reflect off your screen; Gareth uses neons at night.
Here’s a quick video of how Gareth achieved this effect.
4. The petroleum jelly hack
In recent years, the Boston and New York City-based photographer Aly Kula has used everything from prisms to CDs to create cool in-camera effects, and in May of 2020, she tried a new trick. “As I noticed more and more dreamy, vintage-inspired photos coming across my feed, I immediately felt compelled to go out and recreate this style with a ‘homemade twist’—one that simply involved saran wrap, vaseline, and a rubber band (or hair tie),” she tells us.
“After placing the saran wrap over my lens to create a safe barrier, I placed the vaseline around the edges of the lens, over the wrap, creating a hazy and dreamlike effect. The technique created a different type of vignette—one that even caught and created sparkles in direct light. For those looking to try this technique, don’t forget the saran wrap! Your lens loves you too.”
Here’s a short behind the scenes video of Aly’s shoot.
5. The glass trick
The UK-based photographer, videographer, and content creator Pelé Newell has tons of great tutorials on his TikTok and Instagram, including this one using an ordinary kitchen glass. Zoom in with your lens, and put the glass close to the lens to create a unique and dreamy prism-like effect.
6. The mirror challenge
This spring, the content creator and style influencer Hannah Warling brought her full-length mirror outside for some out-of-the-box self-portraits, and the trick quickly went viral.
“The most important thing when shooting the mirror challenge is getting the right lighting,” she explains. “In order to achieve it, you need to focus on angling the mirror and camera the right way. The best technique I found was angling the mirror about 35 degrees from the ground towards the sun.
“You can use a wall, books, or other items to prop up the mirror. Using a bright blue sky for the background gives it a crisp, saturated, and filmic look. Using props as a frame also adds an extra level of depth. I chose flowers, but you can use anything you want!”
Check out her behind the scenes video on TikTok.
7. The (other) mirror hack
To create this kaleidoscope effect, the Baton Rouge-based creative entrepreneur and photographer Jordan Hefler bought small mirrors from Hobby Lobby and taped them together to form an ingenious DIY prism. Her tip? Try a wider lens for a stronger image.
Check out Jordan’s TikTok video to see how simple this is to do.
8. The bathtub shoot
This idea comes from the Charleston-based photographer Rook Barber, who used food colouring, flowers, and an LED light to transform a bathtub into a botanical dreamscape. “I knew I wanted to create something that felt serene and peaceful, yet surreal,” he remembers. If you want to try it at home, remember to keep your model comfortable.
“Make sure the water isn’t freezing, as it’s hard to control your expressions when you’re uncomfortable as a model,” Rook advises. “Comfort and trust are very important elements. Food dye will also stain your skin and clothes, so be careful with it. I had smurf hands for a week. I recommend using various flowers of different sizes to add depth and texture. It’s worth spending a few extra bucks on more flowers.”
Here’s a video of Rook’s bathtub set up.
9. The windshield trick
The Maltese-based photographer Kyle Schembri developed this trick for creating a portrait with a shadow overlay in-camera. Simply have your model sit behind the windshield of your car and cast shadows over the glass. You can use your hands or a flag with custom shapes.
Just remember to clean your windshield before you try it, as Kyle demonstrates here!
10. The floating wine glass
This hack comes to us from Alisha Cohen, the food stylist and photographer behind LISH creative, who developed it while working on a shoot for the brand Fun Wine. “When coming up with creative concepts for clients, I try to tie in their brand personality as much as possible,” she tells us. “Not only is this client literally named ‘Fine Wine,’ but their labels are also incredibly punchy and vibrant. For their strawberry flavour, I thought it would be cool to incorporate this balancing element to complement the label design.”
To create the effect, she used acrylic blocks, woodblocks, and sticky tack. “If you want to try it, it helps to have your woodblock match your background colour for better camouflage, and the more powerful the sticky tack, the better,” she advises. “Be sure to wait to pour the liquid until the glass is securely fastened!”
Here’s a behind the scenes video of how this balancing act was done.
11. The icy product shoot
This idea comes to us from the San Francisco Bay Area-based photographer and content creator Haley Ivers, who developed it while shooting for the skincare brand Summer Fridays: simply fill a bucket with ice, place your product inside, spritz it with water, and put plastic over your lens.
“Shoot in indirect sunlight instead of direct sunlight,” Haley suggests. “This way, you can achieve a dreamier photo with even tones throughout. Shooting in direct sunlight will not only cast too many shadows and introduce too much contrast, but it will also melt your ice faster.
“Also, experiment with ice shapes! You can buy ice trays with fun shapes to help elevate your idea. For example, heart-shaped ice would work for a Valentine’s Day idea. With editing, make sure to sharpen your photo to enhance the water droplets. I also added a soft grain to add a little bit more texture and make the photo a little more editorial.”
Check out Haley’s TikTok video to see how it was done.
12. The homemade snoot
“This lamp and paper hack is meant to replace a snoot, a common lighting instrument for photography,” Buenos Aires-based photographer and videographer Mechi Calvo tells us. “The idea originated from my desire to create original pictures at home during quarantine, with limited equipment and materials. In my country, quarantine lasted nearly nine months, so, like all photographers during this time, I had to get creative.”
As you can see in this video, Mechi used solid black paper, tape, and an ordinary desk lamp to create the results. Don’t forget to turn out all the other lights and block your windows for a spotlight effect. Lengthen the tube to shrink your spotlight, or shorten it for a larger spotlight.
About the contributor
Feature Shoot showcases the work of international emerging and established photographers who are transforming the medium through compelling, cutting-edge projects, with contributing writers from all over the world.