Props Are Evil: How To Use Them For Good

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Nothing freaks me out like props.  Every time I see a picture of flower girls holding an empty frame that is outlining a bride and groom kissing in the distance, I die a little inside.  

Whenever I am subjected to a photo that attempts to bring in a letter jacket and a football and a casual I’m-just-hanging-out-here-in-my-letter-jacket-holding-my-football expression, I try to remember that I am terrible at making coffee and therefore cannot give-up photography immediately and go get an application at Starbucks.  We have come to a place where portrait photography trends are natural and candid and while you would think that means we are leaving all props behind to die a formal, posed, and staged death, we just can’t help ourselves from wanting to put a little extra something in there.  

Something personal.  Or themed.  Or fun.  As a photographer, the logistics of getting something personal or themed or fun in an image and having it look natural are overwhelmingly complicated.  Often leading to overwhelmingly complicated images.  But if done right, a little extra something adds…….a little extra something.  Photographing people with props comes down to one basic thing: how can you make this interact with that?

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Make it Natural

This shot doesn’t scream A PROP WAS USED HERE, though it was.  This bride did not provide me with a “must have” shot list, which of course makes her my favorite bride ever, but she had one simple request: one picture of her drinking a can of PBR in her wedding gown.  

Now admittedly when she told me that, I wanted to pass out from the biggest eye roll that has ever happened because……….how on earth was I going to pull that off?  The goal was a tongue-in-cheek stylish effort that didn’t come across as a classless snapshot.  

Had there been any posing or obvious mention of the can, it could have easily gone from sweet and funny to tasteless and tacky.  Instead it’s a near romantic take on a candid moment at a reception.  It’s rare that making a joke out of the prop or drawing obvious attention to it generates a beautiful and interesting portrait.  Since it’s already on the losing side of “one of these things is not like the other”, there is no need to point it out.

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Make it Different

When it comes to props in portrait photography, chances are good that it’s been done before.  So do it different.  Photography is just storytelling and a prop is just another subject in your cast of characters; how many lines it gets is totally up to you.  High school seniors tend to be the group most interested in including a prop.  Which is often sports equipment and getting creative and unposed with things like sporting equipment is not an easy task.  Step out of the intended purpose and treat it like an object.  

A soccer ball doesn’t have to go at the feet, a letter jacket doesn’t have to be worn, a lacrosse stick doesn’t have to……do whatever it is that lacrosse sticks do.  The image is about a person—the viewer knows what the intended purpose is of a practical use prop.

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Make it Simple

Including a prop adds another level for the eye to process, so clean up everything else as much as you can.  A tight frame, a clean background, and minimal distractions are all your friends.  Stick with them and they won’t do you wrong.

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Make it Meaningful

As props go, the easiest of the bunch are the ones people want included because they are highly personal and mean a great deal.  Wedding rings, special stuffed animals, maybe their cat (tip: avoid this one if you can).  The interaction here will be easier, so the key is highlighting the connection between the person and their special prop.  

The book in this photo was written by their great-grandmother and has obvious family importance.  Before this shot I took dozens of them just holding the book, wanting badly to document the entire cover.  Finally it dawned on me that the the story here was about kids having something so significantly personal and historic still able to generate their interest.  Great images are never about the prop, but the people it connects to and why.  

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Make it Timeless

Props have a way of dating a photograph.  Take a moment to consider what the image you are about to take will feel like in 10 years.  Or 20.  Or 50.  If there is anything that can be changed, deleted, or moved so that in a decade this image will have every bit as much relevance as it has today, do it.  

These kids had on screen print t-shirts featuring cartoon characters that most of us likely won’t know in a few years.  T-shirts, messy faces, lollipops, and two boys makes for a complicated snapshot.  Colorful props, interaction, and sweet expressions makes for a timeless portrait.  

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Make it make Sense

In my opinion, there is no tougher prop than a costume.  And when these sweet girls showed up in tutus at a suburban park, I had no idea how PINK TUTUS and grass and dirt were going to mix together.  Seemed a little like onion flavored ice cream.  If you take it apart piece by piece, it’s easier to vision it as a whole.  

I knew I wanted to show off the tutus full glory so the girls had to be standing.  I wanted the relationship of the sisters to play a huge role.  And I wanted it to have a feeling of magic.  Much like how I feel when I go to the park in my own pink tutu.

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With enough creativity, almost any prop can make an image fun, personal, and interesting.  Unless someone shows up with their cat and lacrosse stick.  Then you’re on your own.

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Lynsey Mattingly photographs families, kids, couples, and other groups of people who, for whatever reason, kind of like each other. Her portrait work has been featured in People Magazine, Us Weekly, BBC Magazine, and on national TV including CNN, Oprah, and Ellen, but most importantly, in the personal galleries of clients across the country. Her photography can be viewed at www.lynseymattingly.com or on Facebook.

  • ScottC

    Interesting article, how about a photo made up of props? They can be used well in many ways.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/8586305929/

  • Hi Lynsey,

    I agree. I cannot tell you how silly it looks to see some model who has absolutely no idea of how to hold a sword or a gun posing with one. Many photographers go nuts over these photos, but they just look silly to most everyone else. Those are just the silliest, but many props can look that way if they are props, not part of the scene.

    Frank

  • That lollipop picture is a beauty!

    http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/

  • andrea orellana

    Wonderful article. Very helpful! Great key points.

  • Craig

    Interesting article with really good tips. My eye are still watering at the thought of onion flavored ice-cream though! ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Thank you all!!! ๐Ÿ™‚

  • vernesia

    This article is hilarious because it is sooo true. I run from props when the client wants them but their theme does not IN ANY WAY go with the prop they have their eye on! We had evil rose petals for valentines and fall leaves last fall – NOT GOOD! We were counting the days until we were given the ok to toss them out!

    I must say that some props are a compliment to the picture – it really depends on what you are shooting!

  • Jenny R

    So interesting! I’m very much a beginner and there’s so much to learn.
    I like the analogy of onion-flavoured ice-cream. It sums up quite a few things in life.

  • Great article, thanks for the tips…just getting into doing more portraiture & the crazy props seem to be what people want tho I prefer simplicity. Had a family portrait session awhile back, little girl goes, “Wait, I gotta get something!” and comes back with a blow up beach ball. On their front lawn. In October. I was like “Wha??” It made no sense at all to me. They chose that photo and used it for their Christmas card, hilarious. Sometimes ya just gotta go with the flow, lol………….

  • Definitely agree. I had to do a football with a senior once. I actually found quite a few shots with it that I thought were pretty unique. But thanks for all the other tips. Definitely helps!

  • MHC

    Great article about props! Here’s another great article about using props for photo sessions: http://www.theclickchickphotography.com/props-to-you/

  • Lourika

    Hey Lynsey, thanks for the post!!! I HATE using props, BUT, I’m also not very good at POSING – so I really like it when my clients bring in their own props, something to make the shoot fun, blowing bubbles, hats, etc – but yes, the old frame, etc – I HATE those, but I also realised that the people in my town like it – and I don’t want t turn any potential client down, so I take those shots with the props – even though my style is ALLLLLL natural and candid – have a look at my work (www.lourikareinders.com) if you’re keen and you’ll see what I mean ๐Ÿ™‚ Thanks again for a sharing!!!

  • Nora

    I wrestle with this a lot. I prefer candid shots, sans props, but props are so popular. it just doesn’t make sense having a garage full of prop junk that I’ll prob never use again, and I agree, it takes away from the people. I tend to stay away from trends when it comes to photography I guess. it’s a struggle.

  • Jean

    Great article! I so agree that props are not necessary it is the people you need to capture not the props!

  • Cindy williams

    I totally agree with this information. I love your first statement, that is exactly how I feel. I like to use natural things, like if a child is cooking with his or her mom or grandparent, put him in an adorable apron and chef hat. I have found some really naturally cute props on etsy @ a shop called Lacyragz

Some Older Comments

  • Janell June 6, 2013 07:41 am

    Definitely agree. I had to do a football with a senior once. I actually found quite a few shots with it that I thought were pretty unique. But thanks for all the other tips. Definitely helps!

  • Amanda Davis May 29, 2013 11:33 pm

    Great article, thanks for the tips...just getting into doing more portraiture & the crazy props seem to be what people want tho I prefer simplicity. Had a family portrait session awhile back, little girl goes, "Wait, I gotta get something!" and comes back with a blow up beach ball. On their front lawn. In October. I was like "Wha??" It made no sense at all to me. They chose that photo and used it for their Christmas card, hilarious. Sometimes ya just gotta go with the flow, lol.............

  • Jenny R May 25, 2013 09:16 pm

    So interesting! I'm very much a beginner and there's so much to learn.
    I like the analogy of onion-flavoured ice-cream. It sums up quite a few things in life.

  • vernesia May 24, 2013 10:45 am

    This article is hilarious because it is sooo true. I run from props when the client wants them but their theme does not IN ANY WAY go with the prop they have their eye on! We had evil rose petals for valentines and fall leaves last fall - NOT GOOD! We were counting the days until we were given the ok to toss them out!

    I must say that some props are a compliment to the picture - it really depends on what you are shooting!

  • Lynsey Peterson May 24, 2013 08:59 am

    Thank you all!!! :)

  • Craig May 24, 2013 07:00 am

    Interesting article with really good tips. My eye are still watering at the thought of onion flavored ice-cream though! :)

  • andrea orellana May 24, 2013 01:26 am

    Wonderful article. Very helpful! Great key points.

  • Mridula May 23, 2013 04:15 pm

    That lollipop picture is a beauty!

    http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/

  • Frank Kautz May 23, 2013 06:51 am

    Hi Lynsey,

    I agree. I cannot tell you how silly it looks to see some model who has absolutely no idea of how to hold a sword or a gun posing with one. Many photographers go nuts over these photos, but they just look silly to most everyone else. Those are just the silliest, but many props can look that way if they are props, not part of the scene.

    Frank

  • ScottC May 22, 2013 06:20 am

    Interesting article, how about a photo made up of props? They can be used well in many ways.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/8586305929/

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