Building Seven Creative Studio Photography Sets on a Budget


As professional photographers, it is our duty to create the vision necessary to realize the concept a client is trying to convey. This is generally accomplished with hair, makeup, wardrobe and styling, lighting, products, props, and backdrops. Sometimes photographers are afforded creative control of a photo shoot. There is usually a budget involved, which can often feel like a roadblock to achieving the client’s concept when that budget is limited.

Above photograph: For this image, I already had the microphone. Mic stand, $20; pop filter, $15; headphones, $25; fur vest, $10 from eBay, which was sold back on eBay after the photo shoot. Model: Maria Iodice

Photograph © Dawn M. Wayand

Don’t worry—you don’t necessarily have to relinquish creativity under those circumstances. Great images can still be created and captured with diligent planning and the utilization of various, easily accessible, and valuable resources.

Creating the Vision

Whenever I am afforded creative control over a photo shoot, I first gather information about what is “static,” or what I don’t have control over (such as a model’s wardrobe, an accessory, or a product), and then I begin to build a mood board around the static elements. A mood board is a collage of inspirational images and ideas for a specific look, which is typically used to convey the photographer’s vision for the resulting image to his or her subject, client, and creative team.

Examples of some of my mood boards from past shoots

Mood boards can include inspirational images and ideas for hair, makeup, lighting styles, poses, wardrobe, accessories, props, backdrops, and more. Sometimes I also include a brief description of specifics I aim to capture during a shoot, as a checklist.

You may be wondering, “If I’m on a less generous budget, how can I bring my mood boards to life?” That’s where developing a talent for finding your resources for free or inexpensively comes into play.

Set-Building Resources

Just about any resource can be useful when aggregating components for your photography sets. Here are a few recommendations for resources I rely on frequently.

  • Use what you already have around the house. You may already have things in your home that you can use for props, such as a furniture, wardrobe accessories, knick-knacks, and more.
  • Borrow from friends, family, neighbors. Had your eye on your aunt’s armchair as a potential prop for a photo shoot? Ask if you can borrow it for a day.
  • Negotiate bargains on Craigslist. Craigslist is full of objects people want to get rid of, making it easy to negotiate a price you can afford.
  • Peruse flea markets and second-hand shops. These are great places to find kitsch and vintage items that could work for certain photo sets.
  • Participate in auctions on eBay. I have found eBay to be a great resource for finding anything inexpensively, whether buying outright or through auctions.
  • Create DIY sets, buying supplies from arts and crafts stores. Not only can you find inspiration here, but if you shop the sales or find good coupons, you can also save a lot of money by creating your own props.

Resource Tips

Tip #1: Acquire things that can be used multiple times.

While you can make a roll of disposable seamless paper last for several photo shoots, you might opt for canvas, muslin, or vinyl for an even longer lasting and more economical background option. If purchasing furniture, go classic in style and dress it up; something too unique will be recognized if it’s used too often.

Tip #2: Use auctions and negotiations whenever possible.

eBay is great for purchasing inexpensive wardrobe and props via auction. Craigslist, flea markets, and second-hand shops are other places where negotiating prices is acceptable and can offer you a better deal.

Tip #3: Sometimes it helps to have a good retoucher.

When you are looking for something specific and cannot afford it, hiring a good retoucher to add it to the image is another way to go. In the image below, we covered stools with blue seamless paper as placeholders for cubes on which I wanted my model to be perched in her designer jumpsuit. My retoucher added the cubes in post-production.

Retouching to add furniture I couldn’t afford to buy

 Model: Karen Ramos

Dawn M. Wayand

Examples of Sets on a Budget

Set #1: Winter Advertorial

For the advertorial image below, I sponged Liquitex White Opaque Flakes Texture Gel ($11 a jar at any art store) onto a piece of 20 x 24" Plexiglas® ($29.95) and placed it in front of my model.

Model: Karen RamosDawn M. Wayand

For the background, I used part of a roll of Savage Black Seamless Paper (36' x 107" roll; $55.99), which I was able to reuse since it never touched the floor.

Set #2: Natural Nautical

For the following simple fashion photo, we recycled the unused side of a large piece of Savage Mocha Seamless Paper (36' x 107" roll; $55.99) as a background by taping it to a wall with Impact Gaffer Tape ($3.95 for a 1" x 55 yard roll).

Model: Jeff ThomasRobert Olsen (left) Dawn M. Wayand (right)

We also used gaffer tape to secure a 5 x 6' “Rustic Planks” photo carpet (Denny Manufacturing $109 w/ membership, on sale), which I’ve used over and over again, including in another photo featured below. Natural light was free, and it helped create a dramatic feel in this image, which the client loved.

Set #3: Whimsical Maiden

While we could have escalated this fun set to the point of creating a full forest, I opted for simple to shift more focus onto the dress. For this photo, I used Savage Smoke Gray Seamless Paper (36' x 107" roll; $55.99) as a backdrop and covered the floor with faux-ivy vines purchased from eBay (12 x 6' vines; $10).

Model: Deeksha ChawlaRobert Olsen (left) and Dawn M. Wayand (right)

The dress was purchased on eBay, for $120, and was resold for the same price after the shoot. The rose petals on the floor, as well as the roses in the model’s hair, came from drying roses I had received as a gift. The bobby pins holding the roses in her hair cost $1 at a dollar store.

Set #4: Butterflies in the Mist

A roll of Savage Smoke Gray Seamless Paper can go a long way. We used the same roll for the background in both photos, above and below. The model’s dress cost $20 on eBay, and was resold for the same price after the shoot. The model’s black tulle lace wrap cost $6 at a local fabric shop.

Model: Kristin RuttyRobert Olsen (left) and Dawn M. Wayand (right)

The 3-D butterflies were $7, from Groupon, which we secured onto her dress and skin with Gaffer tape. What really set the mood was the fog created by a fog machine I bought new from eBay, for $35.

Set #5: A Desperate Housewife

For the image below, I reused the same piece of Savage Mocha Seamless Paper and “Rustic Planks” photo carpet from the “Natural Nautical” set above. The table and vase were items I already had in my apartment, and I bought the faux Calla lilies from a local arts and crafts shop, for around $8.

Model: Colleen CareriRobert Olsen (left) and Dawn M. Wayand (right)

I purchased the couture dress from eBay for around $25 and resold it for $50 after the shoot. For the fine china prop, I purchased a four-piece place setting for 20 people from Craigslist, for $15, and I broke half the set with a hammer to spread across the floor of the set.

Set #6: Fashion Statement

Again, I used the same roll of Savage Smoke Gray Seamless Paper for this background, as in two of the photos above. I purchased the Vero Moda dress from eBay for $10, and resold it after the shoot for $20. The necklace and bracelet were accessories I already owned.

Model: Mao HanadaDawn M. Wayand

To complete the look of this fashion photo, I used the fog machine and added color by attaching gels from a Rosco Color Effects Filter Kit 12 x 12" (15 colors; $33.88) to my strobes.

Tying It All Together

You can have a budget and still get creative with your photo sets by planning your shoots well, and sourcing backgrounds and props from economically friendly resources. Invest in things you can use more than once, and don’t be afraid to use what you have, or borrow what you can, to turn your inspirational visions into photographic results.

Do you have tips for sourcing props economically, or creating visionary photo sets on a shoestring budget? Please share the in the Comments section, below.