Props can be a unique and fun way to add a little extra something special to your portrait photography. The use of props in family, newborn, engagement and maternity portraiture has become increasingly popular in recent years, with the internet being a treasure trove of great prop ideas, both DIY and for purchase.
Props are a nice way of showing off the personality of your subject. Before a portrait session, find out if your client has any hobbies or interests and suggest that they bring along an item to show this off.
It could be a guitar or violin, a soccer ball, skateboard or a favourite toy, if it’s a small child. Props don’t need to be confined to just objects either; consider having your subject dress in an expressive costume or outfit to show off their unique style - a ballerina in her leotard and tutu, for example.
For young children especially, it can be quite nice to organise themed shoots – cowboys, pirates, fairies, space, Disney, superheros or the holidays are just a few of the more popular ideas. You’d be surprised how easy it is to organise a themed shoot, as they don’t need to be elaborate. For a Christmas theme, consider decorating an outdoor tree in baubles and tinsel with fake wrapped gifts underneath, then pose your subjects around this. A child’s farm theme could be as simple as having them dress in overalls and wearing a straw hat, posed upon a bale of hay.
Big and bold versus small and subtle
The choice is yours as to how big a role you want your props to play. Big, bold props can be fun and quirky, and will really put the wow factor into your shoot. Think vintage cars and motorcycles, costumes, furniture and tepees, even horses or farmyard animals. Just note that it’s easy for larger props to shift the focus off of your subjects, so be careful that they don’t take over your shoot - bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better.
Smaller, subtler props can be just as effective at getting a message across. For a maternity or ‘gender reveal’ shoot, it could be as simple as having the parents hold up toy blocks spelling out the name or gender of the baby.
Old wooden crates, wool blankets or step ladders can make nice seating arrangements. Vintage suitcases and old metal washbasins or buckets are excellent for posing small children inside. Even simpler, props can be as minimal as having your subject hold a flower or balloon, or sitting upon a tree stump or tire swing.
The do-it-yourself approach Adding props to your photos doesn’t need to be expensive, all it takes is a visit to your local craft or thrift store. Hanging backdrops can easily be assembled out of paper streamers, lace, ribbons, faux flowers or origami, then strung between two trees or in front of a clean wall.
This also makes an excellent setup for a DIY photo booth. Create banners or bunting out of multi-coloured fabrics and paint, or give new life to old thrifted photo frames.
What not to do While using props can be great fun, if overdone or not done properly, they can take away from a shoot or distract from the message you’re trying to convey. First ask yourself whether the subject needs a prop, perhaps a minimalist approach will work better? Always start small with just one or two props before going all out.
Secondly, make sure that the props you’re using are actually adding to the quality of the shoot - if they look cheap or tacky, it will be noticeable (especially to your client). If DIY isn’t really your game, you can find plenty of wonderfully unique items on marketplace sites like Etsy or Ebay.
Last but not least, try to follow a set colour theme. Introducing too many colours can really make your setup look messy. Try and find out your subject’s favourite colours or what they plan to wear ahead of time, so that you can organise your props to match. You’ll find that a well thought out colour theme will really help your photos look put-together and professional.