If you ended up with oven mitts and no gift receipt instead of the 50mm lens you actually wanted, all hope isn’t lost. Whether you’ve got it easy with an Amazon gift card or are trying to find a way to use store credit to Home Depot, every store has at least something that can come in handy as a photographer.
The best-case scenario is your loved ones actually listened, getting you something you really wanted or needed, or even surprised you with a thoughtful and insightful gift. But things aren’t always that perfect — maybe you ended up with a teapot, shower radio, keychain, or something else in your workplace’s Secret Santa. To address that, let’s take a look at what you can get from stores like Walmart and Home Depot that can still be useful.
This is one of my favorites, but I might be partial to it as I’ve just finished reorganizing my office. There are a bunch of great options for tweaking your workspace at every price point. Starting with the cheapest, consider getting some drawer organizers. These are great for storing little bits like adapters, SD cards, that little hot-shoe cover that always gets lost, and the Allen key that came with your tripod plate.
For bigger items, you can go with even bigger organizers, but I’ve taken to setting items in a drawer atop some drawer liner. This rubberized surface makes things a little less likely to slide around, plus gives things a bit of extra cushion. While not a perfect substitute for dedicated storage, I’ve found this to be a great option for lens hoods, card readers, and other things that just can’t seem to find a place.
Moving up the price ladder, I’d suggest checking out the power situation. I know in my office there’s a chronic lack of outlets, especially as rechargeable devices have taken over. Until every manufacturer comes to their senses and puts USB-C on every device, a power strip is essential. My new favorite is actually an extra-long power strip I first spotted in Home Depot. The generous spacing between outlets makes it much easier to accommodate those bulky “wall-wart” chargers.
Once you’ve got space to plug everything in, you’ll soon be sick of seeing everything plugged in. When that happens, reach for some reusable velcro cable ties or a bigger cable sleeve for use with computer cords.
If you were fortunate enough to have a big spender who still happened to miss the mark, consider exchanging for a piece of useful furniture. A clothes rack makes it easy to hang camera bags, reflectors, and other bits of kit that are too bulky to fit in a drawer. While I don’t personally have one, I know many have described a sit-stand desk as a huge upgrade to their workspace (plus, it serves as a great head-start on that perennial New Year’s fitness resolution).
Things get a bit trickier when you end up with credit to a more specialized store, but even still, there are a few things I’ve added to my kit that have come in handy. From Home Depot or other hardware stores, keep an eye out for an electronics-focused screwdriver set. Even well-equipped home toolboxes often lack Torx security bits, delicate Philips bits for that little screw on your camera’s baseplate, and smaller Allen keys to tighten up your tripod. Picking up a small kit is a great way to make sure that you can troubleshoot gear issues, even in the field. Depending on your store’s inventory, this can even be a great place to look for a number of the home organization items previously mentioned.
At craft stores, consider grabbing some white foam board. While not a perfect reflector, it’s a virtually disposable way of adding a little kick of light to your next product photo or portrait shoot without having to worry about getting it ripped or dirty. My local store also has a surprising array of surfaces like slate, wood, and acrylic, which make for a unique backdrop for product photos.
If you ended up with an Apple gift card, don’t forget that you can buy apps as well as music or movies. Some of the best photo and video apps have a paid version, making them a great choice for burning that last few dollars on a stocking stuffer gift card.
I’ve featured PhotoPills in a few previous articles. If you’re a landscape, travel, or astrophotographer, I’d consider this a must-buy. It offers so much functionality, while still being incredibly easy to use. Some of the major features include sun, moon, and star “mapping,” essentially making scouting locations far easier. The augmented reality features are perfect for visualizing how that Milky Way shot will look three months from now, and it also comes in handy when setting up for a meteor shower, as it lets you identify the radiant in seconds. It also rolls up a dozen useful calculators for things like depth of field, hyperfocal distance, exposure, and time-lapses.
I’m also a big fan of Filmic Pro. While the stock camera app is as good as or better than most still-camera apps, Filmic Pro still remains king when shooting video. The depth of control over everything from which mic is used for recording to the resolution and codecs used is incredible. Recent updates have added support for things like 10-bit SDR and Log profiles, offering even more options for tweaking your footage in post. In a world of free apps, it’s a bit expensive, but compared to the functionality it unlocks, it’s a bargain.
Receiving a gift is always an appreciated gesture, so don’t let this little bit of pragmatism overshadow the spirit of the season. Instead, if you ended up with something you really have no need for, consider one of these options for turning it into something useful. Have you found any unexpected purchases that have made a difference in your work as a photographer?
Lead image courtesy of Kira auf der Heide.