How To Make V Flats, Plus 3 More Awesome Money Saving Photo Hacks

It’s been 10 years since I started out in photography and I still struggle with the cost of gear. Each time I need to upgrade a program or purchase a new camera I cringe just a little bit. It’s another bill that eats into my profits. Photographers have to be smart about the gear they purchase. When first starting out, that means making do with what you can afford and learn how to DIY your own modifiers like v flats and diffusers.

There’s Nothing Wrong With DIY

In fact, the lighting department is a great place to get creative and save money in. There are lots of different ways you can create your own lighting setups. Professional photographers are famous for their nifty homemade gadgets. Beginners should learn from these pros. Controlling light doesn’t have to break the bank.

We’ve included descriptions of 4 different hacks. Each hack will help you to create beautiful lighting suitable for a variety of looks.  While these hacks might not be as fancy as the store bought versions they will certainly do the trick and will save you some cash!

Project #1 – Homemade V Flats

V flats are a fantastic tool for controlling and getting creative with both natural and studio lights. Use a V flat to bounce light or to cut light from any scene. V flats can also double as a seamless backdrop if need be. Lots of famous photographers swear by these simple contraptions and many make their own v flats using the same method we’re going to learn here today.

Materials Needed

Choosing The Right Materials

When shopping for the right foam core material to construct your v flat with, you’ll want to keep a couple things in mind. First, the finished v flat needs to be black on one side and white on the other. If you can find foam core in this color combination, it will save you the step of having to paint them. However, if you do opt to use a foam core that needs to be painted, remember to use a matte finish paint!

Second, v flats are large. You need to use large pieces of foam core or similar material to construct them. Ideally, the foam will be about 8-feet tall and about 4-feet wide. Thickness of the foam is a matter of preference and what you are able to find. A thickness of 1/2-inch is common, but many pros use foam that is up to 2-inches thick to improve the strength and durability of their diy v flats. You’ll need two sheets of foam this size.

If you live in a metropolitan area, check with your local theater supply or production company. Often they stock these boards in black and white for reasonable prices. Another alternative would be to check out your local hardware store or lumber yard. You can purchase large sheets of polystyrene foam for under $20 USD each, but keep in mind you will most likely need to go through the process of painting these boards.

You can find gaffers tape at a local theater supply shop or online. It’s an invaluable tool to have around the studio since it can be used for everything from taping down cables to building DIY V flats. Think of gaffer tape as duct tape optimized for photographers.

how to build a v flat
Here is a picture of the finished V-Flat. The actual V-Flat is 7 feet tall. It’s quite large and the full scale is difficult to capture in my studio. But it works quite well.

Constructing The V Flat

  1. Stack the two pieces of foam core. Stack the foam so the white sides are facing each other. Once the foam is stacked, square up the short sides so they are flush with one another. Along one of the long sides, leave an edge equal to about the width of one of the foam boards. When taped together this will help with folding tension.
  2. Place the clamps onto the stack of foam core to hold them together. Double check the short ends of the foam stack are still flush and the top piece of foam is slightly offset on the long edge.
  3. Run a long strip of black gaffer’s tape down the long side of the stack to secure the two pieces of foam together. Make sure you are putting black tape on the black sides of the foam and the foam remains slightly offset. Add an additional strip to the left and right side of the initial strip of gaffer tape for additional support holding the boards together.
  4. Unclamp the boards. Fold them so the black sides of the board are now facing inwards and repeat step three, this time using white gaffer tape on the white sides of the foam.
  5. Trim off any excess gaffer tape from the ends of the v flat.

There you have it! Your V flats are completed. Check out these images completed with a homemade V flat.

Example #1 – Portrait Taken With a DIY V Flat:

v flat and natural light photography
I used natural light from a window and a V-Flat to help light this image. Photo by Erin Fitzgibbon

Example #2 – Portrait Taken Without a DIY V Flat:

v flat photography tips
I removed the V-Flat from this image. Look at the shadows created by removing this simple reflector. Photo by Erin Fitzgibbon

Project #2 – Creative Catch Lights

The beauty of light is its malleability. You can shape light in so many amazing ways. For example, here’s a neat trick to create beautiful catch lights in the eyes of anyone you photograph.

Materials

  • Black Bristol board
  • Scissors
  • White artists tape or other white reflective medium. For example, you could use white reflective paint.

Constructing The Modifier

  1. Cut a hole in your black Bristol board. The hole should be large enough for you to shoot through. An 8-inch by 8-inch square hole usually works quite well.
  2. Apply the artist’s tape around the perimeter of the hole to create a two-inch thick white border. Take a look at the photo for a visual example of what my board looks like. You can cut different shapes into the Bristol board to create different shaped catch lights. Experiment with circles, triangles, or stars.
homemade v flats
Here’s the piece of Bristol board suspended from my backdrop stand. The black tri board behind was placed only for the purpose of taking this image.

How To Use The Board

  • Position your Bristol board in front of your camera. Position the model on the other side of the board. The white artist tape should face towards your model.
  • Position a light source (bright lamp, flash, etc.) behind and to the side of your model so the light shines indirectly on the white artist tape. You don’t want the light to shine directly into your camera lens.
  • Take your photos!!
catchlight photography hack
Lighting diagram to use the catch light board.

This project works because of two basic properties:

  1. First, black absorbs light. This means that your Bristol board will cut the light out of the image and prevent unwanted reflections.
  2. Lastly, white reflects light. That means the white tape you applied to the board will reflect a very small amount of light back onto your model’s face. Thus creating catch lights.

Try creating triangular or rectangular catch lights. You can create unique streaks of light as well by laying the tape down in strips.  You are really only limited by your imagination!

catch light diy photography lighting
Remember to use strong lights that are focused on the reflective tape for this project. Better yet, use two flashes. Photo by Erin Fitzgibbon

Project #3 – Tinfoil Glamour Reflector

Tinfoil is a fantastic tool to use when lighting portraits. In this project, I will show you how to create a reflector using a Display Triboard to create the perfect glamour light.

Materials

  • Display Triboard – find these cardboard beauties at the dollar store. It’s the same item you used to purchase for school projects. They’re super easy to find and really cheap.
  • White glue
  • Small paint brush
  • Tinfoil

Procedure

  1. Paint a thin layer of glue to a section of the tri-board. Rather than coating the entire thing in glue and trying to cover it before the glue dries, work in small manageable sections.
  2. Cut a piece of tinfoil large enough to cover the section of the tri-board you have covered with glue.
  3. Place the tinfoil over the glue and carefully press down. Smooth out some of the wrinkles in the tinfoil, but a few are okay and create interesting light patterns.
  4. Repeat steps 1 through 3 until the entire tri-board is covered on one side

You can use Gaffer tape to attach the tip of the two rulers to the back of the tri-board. Put one ruler at each of the folding sections. The rulers will act as props for the sides of the reflector.

Here’s a couple examples of the glamour reflectors in action:

photography lighting hacks
Here you can see how I positioned the reflector.
diy lighting hacks reflector
I love the light this reflector creates. For those who are wondering, my model was starting to get restless. 🙂 Photo by Erin Fitzgibbon

Project #4 – Bubble Wrap as a Diffuser

Bubble wrap is a fantastic tool to keep on hand. It’s cost effective, lightweight, and highly portable. Plus, it can be used in a variety of ways. For example, it makes for a greater diffuser.

If you’re lucky enough to have an off camera flash, but no fancy diffusers, bubble wrap can be used to create a soft and lovely type of light. Simply, take the bubble wrap and cover the front of the flash. You can use tape to secure the bubble wrap to your flash. Be aware, as your flash gets hot it might melt the bubble wrap. Be sure to keep track of how hot your flash is getting and take a short break to let it cool down.

When To Use Bubble Wrap Light Diffusers

Bubble wrap can also work similarly with your on camera flash. Just wrap it around the flash and secure it with tape.

Another option is to use bubble wrap to diffuse the light of a LED lamp. Simply hang bubble wrap in front of the light. Some people tape the bubble wrap right over the light, but I like to use a clamp and a light stand to position a piece a few inches away from the light. The light becomes softer when the bubble wrap is positioned a short distance from the light source. If you don’t have clamps enlist the help of a friend who can simply hold a piece in front of the light.

On one occasion, I positioned a huge sheet of bubble wrap over a window. The light was shining directly in the window creating very harsh lighting conditions.  I used clamps and masking tape to cover the entire window with bubble wrap. The effect was a beautiful diffused light that made the perfect spot for shooting portraits.

Get creative with the materials you have around your house. Try different things. There are lots of items that can diffuse light. Try cheese cloth or other packaging materials. Sheets of tissue paper can also be used to diffuse light.

Conclusion

There are lots of affordable ways to work with light. I’ve only covered a handful of options available. Photography is about being creative. The ways in which we create our photographs can be just as creative as the finished product. Push your creativity to the limits. Consider all the reflective materials and lighting options available to you and take advantage of them.

V Flat portrait tutorial
This image was created using window light and a large V-Flat located to the left and in front of the model. I also used a white sheet as a backdrop with a string of white Christmas light behind it to create luminosity. Photo by Erin Fitzgibbon

What’s your favorite lighting hack? Let us know in the comments below. The more ideas the merrier!!

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About the author

Erin Fitzgibbon

Erin FitzGibbon is a Portrait, Sport, Fine Art Photographer and Writer from Ontario, Canada. When she's not taking photographs or writing articles she loves to escape to the backcountry for week long adventures with her family.

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