Photographers: How to Shop a Thrift Store

Thrifting Tips for Photographers

Meet Jennifer Parr, a freelance photographer who successfully made the switch from hobbyist to professional.  She’s always scouting out great deals for new equipment, but she also extends that bargain-hunting to thrift stores!  Thrift stores are a veritable treasure trove for budding & professional photographers.  Whether you are just starting out, a seasoned pro, or just a hobbyist, hit up your local thrift store to help your portraits sing.


As a fashion blog, I’d be remiss not to include costumes first on the list.  If you are aiming for an artistic shot, costumes will help bring your vision to life.  Perhaps you’d like a vintage-inspired shoot – pick an era and seek out pieces that capture the vibe or complement your model’s physique.  It’s an easy way to transform the whole shot – and on a budget!

Jen’s / Katie’s Thrift Score

Check out Katie’s Athena pose for the Greek-inspired Penny Jarr Photography photo shoot.  (Katie thrifted this gold dress from Goodwill in Springfield, IL!)

Photo by Jennifer Parr for Penny Jarr Designs

Jen is planning a future photo shoot based on Alice in Wonderland – Destination Thrift will be honored to help her hunt down some great costume pieces!


Backdrops from a photo specialty business can be pricey (averaging about $40-$60 apiece) plus they all start to look alike.  While you’ll still need a few high-quality staples, experiment with colors and textures of thrift store textiles.  Every thrift store has a linens section where you can find large bolts of fabric, bed sheets, curtains, etc.  If the material isn’t heavy enough as a backdrop, layer it with a higher-quality backdrop to keep the light from seeping through and showing your studio walls.  Linens can also be used as props or set dressing.

Jen’s Thrift Score

Jen likes to seek out fabrics with mega texture – check out the gold texture, blue brocade, white lace, and fuzzy purple.  These fabrics add interest and depth to a shot.  She uses these not only as backdrops for portraits and still-life shots, but also as props like tablecloths or even draped across models as part of their outfits.

Fabric in gold, white lace, purple, and blue

Jen has thrifted some great fabric to use as backdrops – love the colors and textures! – Photo by Jennifer Parr

Equipment Bags

Bags to carry your equipment can be really expensive.  Of course you want to protect the investment in that expensive gear, but it doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg.  Even if you opt for a pricier bag to carry your precious camera or lenses, you can pick up a cheap bag to lug gear like tripods or even shot lists and pose idea books.

Keep your eye out for gear as well.  A few years ago, I bought a brand-new tripod for just five dollars in a local Goodwill.  It has served me well for years.  Sometimes you can pick up photography paraphernalia like light meters and other tools that you may be able to use.  For any attachments, check that it will work with your camera model.  If you like to collect old cameras, thrift stores are a great source for picking up old Polaroids or film cameras.

Jen’s Thrift Score

Jen recently picked up a cheap photography bag. “It’s just a normal over the shoulder bag, but I got it for only $4 dollars and it helps to make carrying equipment easier and not have to spend the big bucks on real photography bags.”

Jen’s thrifted photography bag – only $4 – Photo by Jennifer Parr


Props are the small details that make a huge impact on your final shot.  Often overlooked, these details can make your picture interesting or convincing.  Thrift stores are brimming with ephemera at rock bottom prices.  Yes, some of it is junk.  But go in with an artistic and creative eye, and you may find a way to give it new life.

I sound like a broken record, but make sure to check the condition and know what you’re willing to pay and when to walk away. If you have a specific shot in mind, check the condition of the item and plan accordingly.  For instance, a wide shot where the prop will appear small can facilitate a slightly more beat-up or damaged prop.  Maybe you only need it for a couple of angles, or maybe you need it to be shot from many different angles – keep these needs in mind as your shop.  If you need the prop for a close-up, you’ll have to be pickier about how it looks.  Don’t settle for something that won’t look good in your picture.  If you get it home and realize after a few test shots it’s not going to work out, donate it back to the thrift and be glad you didn’t spend more money on it.

Jen’s Thrift Score

Jen spotted an awesome old telephone that would have been great for a shot – but at $7, the damaged piece didn’t fit the bill.  She wisely left it behind.  Check out this vivid purple pillow – what a great idea for set dressing!

Pillows make great props – and they are plentiful at thrift stores. – Photo by Jennifer Parr


Along the lines of props, don’t overlook the furniture section.  A unique chair can be a great portraiture prop.  Find an old chair that needs a facelift, and rework/stain/upholster that dud into a gem.  You might also score other useful items like mirrors that can be used as props in pictures or to provide behind the scenes for your models.

If you are a DIY-er, my advice is to take a risk on a piece, even if you still need a few skills to complete the project.  Jen wasn’t a master reupholsterer, but she taught herself how in order to complete the project.  Painting and staining don’t take special expertise, but projects like upholstery are a bit more advanced.

Furniture can be a great gamble — it’s very expensive new, and it can be fun to reimagine these old pieces into something a bit more modern.  The caveat is that furniture takes space to store, as well as project workspace to stain, paint, upholster, or otherwise fix it up.  Be realistic not only about the space you need to rework it, but where you will store the finished piece.  If you’re buying it for one photo shoot, it’s probably not worth it in terms of time and space.  However, if it will be a staple for your studio, by all means, scoop it up!

DIY-ers, I caution you:  don’t buy everything that could potentially be something — there is not enough square footage in the world for that!  Take a risk on things that you realistically will actually follow through on, and of course what you love.  Otherwise, your space will be invaded by a ton of UFOs – Un-Finished Objects.

Jen’s Thrift Score

I was shopping with Jen when she spotted this old chair in Salvation Army.  She debated over it for a long time, wondering if it would suit her needs as a portraiture chair.  It was super dusty and decked out with cobwebs — even with one of its arachnid inhabitants still clinging on!  She knew the chair would need a little upholstering and a lot of TLC.  I couldn’t advise her one way or the other – I was skeptical because I knew it would be a big project and I didn’t want her to be disappointed, but she had a better vision for it in the end.  She successfully replaced the fabric with a rich-looking brown brocade and cleaned the wood (no more spiderwebs!).  It was like an entirely new piece of furniture!

This is one of my favorite thrifting-with-Jen stories because it goes to show how a little elbow grease and a lot of vision can turn a disaster into a thrift win!  That poor chair might have collected dust in the thrift for awhile – it wasn’t clean, and the fabric was pretty outdated.  But it was saved from that fate thanks to a little DIY spirit.  (Check out the portrait chair in action in the Portraits gallery – yours truly is featured in a red dress on this very chair!)

Jen’s creative vision breathed new life into this old chair – behold the stunning After! – Photo by Jennifer Parr

Learn More about the Contributor

Jennifer Parr is a freelance designer in the Peoria, Illinois area.  She provides services in Web Design, Graphic Design, and Photography through her freelance business Penny Jarr Designs.  Check out her gorgeous Photography Gallery on her newly launched website:

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