Portraits that Prop

Portraits that Prop



As a photographer, how many times have you had your portrait taken. There is nothing more uncomfortable and awkward than sitting in front of a camera trying to evoke a natural smile or a true, heart felt expression. Let’s be honest, the experience of having your portrait taken can be down right terrifying, yet we aspire to have our subjects pose and emote in an organic and subtle way that transcends and captures the embodiment of our subjects personality. Simple right?

The reality is that the camera makes our subjects self-conscious and hyper aware of their appearance, with an overall fear of not capturing a single image that meets their approval. I mean, how many of us truly look in the mirror each morning thinking, “Wow, I am looking fantastically, good today?” Most of the time, all we can see are the imperfections and bothersome nuances that melt away and stifle the perception of our own esthetic. So how does one capture a nice, natural portrait?

I have read many articles and blog posts concerning this topic. Many focus on trying to relax your subject either through gentle conversation and personal connection or simply by breaking out some wine as a medicament to treat the inhibitions created by the shoot. The truth is that there is no easy recipe to help overcome this problem. No matter whether you are shooting a model, family member, or even a close friend, the camera is still the giant 400 pound gorilla in the room that everyone knows is there regardless of any distractions. So what can we do?

Aside from normal social graces and pre-planning for the shoot, I have one simple method that surprisingly works almost every time. PROPS! It is amazing what magic can happen when you give your subject something else to interact with while you are shooting. Cuts right through some of those awkwardly, silent moments when both you and the subject know things are not working yet no one wants to admit it. Yes, we all experience these gratingly, uncomfortable situations.

So what kind of props am I talking about? All and any kinds. They can be silly, beautiful, interesting or even surprisingly strange. These can be fresh flowers, a costume, a masquerade mask, a piece of interesting fabric, a hat, a pet, a piece of fruit, sports equipment, a music instrument, a lawn mower, oven mitts, or even an original, mint in box, Darth Vader action figure from Star Wars. The reality is that any item that has some meaning to the subject or that they can relate to will work and don’t be afraid to go way outside the box into the realm of the disturbingly obscure or insanely cliche. It is amazing how a simple prop can break the ice and give the subject something with which to interact, allowing you to capture a few true emotive moments when they have forgotten about the camera, shed some of the self conscious inhibitions and helped you create a beautifully expressive portrait.

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Alex Smith is a photographer and blogger out of Denver, Colorado. He is cofounder of the blog Shutterhogs.com that is dedicated towards making better photography easier for everyone. More of his work can be viewed at alexsmith88.500px.com.

Some Older Comments

  • Chad November 17, 2012 11:35 pm

    Excellent article! Thanks so much for the tip.

  • Mei Teng November 10, 2012 12:40 am

    Agree....excellent tips and article.

  • Juan November 9, 2012 09:13 am

    This could work!!

  • Megan November 9, 2012 08:37 am

    I recently had a portrait shoot that just wasn't working out. We tried many different poses and ideas, but dad looked uncomfortable. So, what sort of prop do you bring for a family portrait?

  • Chitra Sivasankar Arunagiri November 8, 2012 10:36 pm

    Great Piece of article!!! :)

  • Mridula November 8, 2012 04:23 pm

    Sounds like an excellent tip, have to try it out. And botht he props and the model look so pretty!


  • Dewan Demmer November 8, 2012 08:29 am

    Props are great all round. I often find it gives the subject something to concentrate on and as a result somehow relaxes them, while at the same time it gives me something I can use to direct the subject. In this set of images it was the umbrella that was the Prop, she choose it and I had trouble getting to put it down.

  • David November 8, 2012 07:33 am

    Is the first question of this article a question or a statement?

  • Jai Catalano November 8, 2012 05:57 am

    Yes portraits are very uncomfortable. The number one rule is to NEVER say smile.

    It's the worst look in the world.

    Those 2 shots are very lovely. I would have loved to have seen a few more on the post.