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How Using Props in Portraits Can Make Your Photos More Interesting

There are many ways using props can make portraits more interesting. Often photographing a person can be challenging. This can be so for both the photographer and the person being photographed. Using props can not only add interest to the portrait, but it can also help your subject relax more.

What are props and how can you use them effectively?

Image: © Kevin Landwer-Johan

© Kevin Landwer-Johan

A prop is any element you add to a photograph which adds interest or meaning to your subject or the concept you’re creating. What you can use is up to your imagination. They can be anything from an ancient tree stump to a melting ice cream cone.

Image: © Kevin Landwer-Johan

© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Props can add humor to photographs. Using a prop well with a nervous subject can help them relax. You can use props effectively to help contextualize your subject. Without a prop, a portrait may not convey much or any concept. With the addition of a prop, a portrait can take on a whole new meaning.

A prop is often used to add visual information about the person;

  • their occupation
  • hobbies
  • character
  • or location

Using props to help illustrate a story

When you’re illustrating a story using a portrait, adding a prop can add depth and meaning. A prop incorporated into a photo will tell more of a person’s story than a caption, or even a whole paragraph.

Image: © Kevin Landwer-Johan

© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Making a series of travel portraits with a visiting friend I asked her to bring along her backpack. She was going to the station to purchase a ticket for a later date and would not have brought her luggage. Having it with her for the photographs helped to create more of a visual story.

Image: © Kevin Landwer-Johan

© Kevin Landwer-Johan

The location and the train tell part of the story. Having her backpack in the pictures lets you know she was traveling, not just there to meet a friend. The more relevant visual information you can include, the more interesting your portraits become. Well-used props help stimulate the viewer’s imagination.

Image: © Kevin Landwer-Johan

© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Isolated studio portraits using props

Isolating your subject on a plain background is a popular method of taking a portrait. A subject on their own can produce great character portraits. But for many people, it can be somewhat intimidating.

Image: © Kevin Landwer-Johan

© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Using a prop can help them relax and enjoy the experience more. Having something in their hands to concentrate on distracts them from your camera. Feeling less intimidated by it, they are more likely to give you vibrant expressions.

I took a series of photographs for a small drama school. Using props helped the students feel more at ease. They were confident performers, but many of them were not so comfortable in front of the camera. Including props allowed their tutor, who was assisting me, to encourage them into character.

Image: © Kevin Landwer-Johan

© Kevin Landwer-Johan

A single prop keeps a studio portrait simple and adds meaning that would not be evident without it. Creating concepts for stock photography in this manner it’s possible to facilitate a whole series of photos.

Including props will add depth and interest to a series of photos of the same person. It can be challenging to take more than one or two different portraits of a person on an isolated background. Using props will give you more diverse options for what you can achieve.

Image: © Kevin Landwer-Johan

© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Bring your own props or use what’s available

Often asking a person to bring along their own props can help create a meaningful portrait. Using items that they relate to and tell something about themselves will add genuine feeling to the portraits.

I asked this friend if I could photograph her and also what she’d like to use as a prop. Immediately she replied, “ice cream.” She loves ice cream so it was appropriate and meant she’d enjoy the photo session. The weather was so hot that even with the air conditioning blasting the ice cream melted quickly. We went with the flow and used the prop for additional makeup as well. It was a fun session.

Image: © Kevin Landwer-Johan

© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Any well-established portrait studio has a diverse selection of props. Your subject doesn’t have to own a prop. If they can choose from a selection you have, they might find something that lights up their imagination.

Even simple things that are common can work as props. Having someone read a book or make a phone call can help them focus on what they are doing and not on your camera.

Image: © Kevin Landwer-Johan

© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Finding props on location helps to incorporate your subject in the place. Having them pick up some produce at the market, or interact with some part of the environment can make for a more illustrative portrait.

Conclusion

Working with props definitely adds diversity to photographing people. Use the props to support your subject. Having the prop and subject in the same frame is not enough. Encourage them to interact with the props in different ways. The way your subject relates to the prop is important. This will influence the feel of the photo.

Image: © Kevin Landwer-Johan

© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Work to develop a healthy relationship between your subject and their props. This is part of your job as a photographer. Doing this, you’ll create more entertaining portraits.

Have you tried using props for a portrait session? Let me know in the comments below the props you have found helpful during the session. Also, what type of props help make the most interesting portraits?

 

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Kevin Landwer-Johan
Kevin Landwer-Johan

is a professional photographer, photography teacher, and filmmaker with over 30 years experience.

Kevin is offering DPS readers his FREE course for beginner photographers which will build your confidence in photography. You will learn how to make sense of camera settings and gain a better understanding of the importance of light in photography.
Check out Kevin’s Blog for articles with a more personal approach to photography.