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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.