When it comes to experimenting with portrait photography, I believe props are a great way to add visual interest to your images and expand your portfolio. Unfortunately, I've noticed the fear of using props in photo sessions is widespread among professional photographers. We've all seen the images where a prop was used and for one reason or another it just doesn't look right and comes off as cheesy. This is something we all work hard to avoid so the fear of using props in photography is understandable. However, in my opinion, there is no reason that any photographer should be afraid of using props in their next photo shoot.
My goal with this blog post is to help you overcome the fears you have toward props by sharing my methods for choosing props and how I incorporate them into my work. Of course, all while avoiding a cheesy look and still shooting within your own style and brand of portrait imagery.
Before you start working with props in your portrait photograhy, I suggest that you clearly identify what exactly a prop means to you. For example, to me, a prop is an accessory, often small or medium in size (though I don't place any real size restrictions on props), and is used to accentuate an image or provide inspiration for the style or theme of the shoot. Typically, I do not view wardrobe as a prop and believe outfits should be thought of separately but should remain within the theme of any props being used. I tend to view props in the simplest way I can: as an accessory added to a session to create a certain mood or vibe. As with so many things related to photography, I find that keeping things simple tends to work best! I suggest finding props that complement the session, and do not overwhelm or overcomplicate the theme.
Now that we've established what a propshould bring to a session, we can begin to consider what props will work best with your chosen theme. The two main things to consider when choosing props are what items youneed and where you can find them. In short, props can be found almost anywhere! This open-ended search is where you can push yourself into a new realm of creativity. This is one of the many reasons I find incorporating props to be so rewarding. To start, head out to your local antique store, thrift shop, department store or party supply store to see what you can find. You'd also be surprised at the many treasures waiting around your house or garage that could provide inspiration for your next themed session. Always ask yourself if an item has the potential to fit with certain themes you've come up with. Given the right circumstances, any item could make for an interesting mood or vibe in a portrait!
As I experiment more and more with incorporating props into my work, I found that starting with small items works best. Again, props can quickly complicate a session so keeping the items small will help keep your ideas simple. For example, in each of the images in this post, the props I've used are very simple and easy to work with for both myself and the models. From various crowns-styled pieces, to an ornate frame, a costume mask, and a simple glass jar with LED lights, none of these pieces overwhelm the subject and each complement the themes.
When incorporating a prop into your work, an additional - and important! - benefit is that it often puts your client or model at ease. Most people struggle with how to pose their hands and giving someone a prop to pose with often eliminates this problem altogether.
Once you start to feel confident adding props, additional possibilties begin to open up. If your portfolio demonstrates your knowledge of styling a session around an accessory, you can market this skill when reaching out to designers, artists, and vendors for collaboration or work for hire. A great site for prop collaboration is Etsy. Every six months or so, I will comb the site looking for handmade items that could work well for a themed session I'd like to shoot. I'll often reach out to the artist to explain my idea for their product and see if and how they'd like to get involved! Never be afraid to reach out and network with other creatives!
Now that we've defined props and where to find them, it's time to get creative! Knowing your style, mood, and tone will help when identifying new props for your shoots. Avoid cheesy or "costume-y" props at all times but don't be afraid to push the envelope - it's your vision after all! If you find something that you're particularly excited about, don't be afraid to pitch certain props to your clients to gauge their interest. You can also use props to offer a special "series session" to a group or family and utilize props to create excitement for your clients. Always keep in mind that props simply help create a memorable scene and further tell a story. Find the props that tell you and your client's story!
About Evan Kane
Evan Kane is a stylized portrait photographer, retoucher, and writer from northern Colorado. He specializes in location portraiture with a bit of a fantasy flair. With each image he tries to tell a simple story with a unique tone and mood; colors, locations, and expression are everything. Photography is a wonderful journey and he's thrilled to be a part of the adventure.