Creating incredible portraits involves finding the right portrait photography props and using them well. Our article shows you how to find and use props to make incredible portraits.
Portrait photography can be challenging when you first start. Coming up with good photoshoot ideas and poses or knowing where to place people’s hands isn’t easy. But that’s where portrait props can help.
4 Ways to Find the Best Portrait Photography Props
Here are four ways to source and choose the best portrait props. Then we’ll discuss how best to use them in the section afterward.
1. Use Everyday Objects As Props
Whatever you have on hand works. It could be a camera, book, handbag, or mobile phone. Or it can be as simple as a pair of glasses or books, like in the image below.
You may be surprised how effective it is to ask a nervous model to make a phone call. Or to take a photo as you photograph them. Getting them to concentrate on a prop, whatever it is, draws their attention away from you. And it can make for better portraits.
2. Find Props on Location
Look around for photography props if you are out and about for your portrait session. There are plenty of great props at the markets where I love photographing people.
This is one of many photos I made of this young woman with chilies. She had chosen her dress, especially for her portraits.
Props you find in the environment add spontaneity. But I find thinking ahead and planning to have some props with you is a good habit.
3. Collect Second-Hand Props or Make Them Yourself
Having props on hand in your portrait studio is a good idea. Having a vast selection of photography props gives you more scope for creative expression.
You can buy second-hand props at yard sales or thrift stores. Or you can make your own homemade props. I used glasses and a book for the portrait photo below.
Keep your props well organized and clean. You want to be able to find them when you have that bright idea to use one. And handing a model a dirty or dusty photo prop isn’t professional.
4. Ask Your Model to Bring Props
Sometimes your portrait subject will know the best props to use. So ask your model ahead of a planned photo session if they have any props they would like to include. Many times you will not have thought about including the props they suggest.
Portrait props can add elements of fiction with conceptual photography ideas. And the results can be terrific. And by asking your subject for prop ideas, they’ll be more involved in the portrait concept.
This was the case in my portraits of a ceramic artist. She had brought along clay because her idea was to show herself as “being one” with her artwork medium.
We started with only a little mud on her face and built it up after every twenty photos. I chose dramatic lighting and posed her like a fashion model.
9 Ways to Use Photography Props With Portraits
Having a healthy imagination enables you to develop the best photoshoot ideas. You can cultivate your ideas by seeing how other photographers use props in their portraits. So study the masters and try their ideas. Then develop your own ideas and experiment a lot.
You can start using props in conventional ways. This will be more comfortable for your model. But don’t just use a prop the first way you thought of it or in the most natural way.
Have your model do different things with the same prop. Think alternatively, even contrarily, and you will create some unique portraits.
1. Use Portrait Props to Add Location Information
Environmental portraiture is often best when you use only one or two props. Props support the visual story and provide more information about the location.
They can also enhance the image by showing more of the person’s character. A particular style of hat. A craftsperson’s tools. A stack of books. Use anything relevant to the person, the location, and how you want to portray them.
Even when someone is out of context with their environment, a well-used prop will tell their story.
I enjoyed photographing people in my outdoor daylight studio in mountain villages. They became removed from their environment. Introducing a prop connected them to who they were and where they were, yet they remained distinct.
2. Create a Concept Using Photography Props
Concept photography can be challenging for many. Coming up with good ideas is often a lot more effective and easier when you use props.
Adding different props can produce completely different concepts. Even when working with the same model, in the same location, and with the same lighting.
The photos below show how the props you choose and how your model interacts with them impact the concept. Even variations in your model’s expression and posture will alter the story. So someone who is very expressive and enjoys being photographed is a huge advantage.
3. Provide Occupation Information With Props
Getting your subject to hold a tool or object they work with can convey information about who they are.
A man holding a hammer may be perceived as a carpenter. A woman pictured with test tubes, flasks, and a beaker of liquid will most likely be seen as a scientist or chemist.
Some props are not so informative. Computers, clipboards, books, and other items might be too generic and ineffective.
You want your prop to convey specific information about the person’s occupation. Or at least to hint at it.
The woman pictured below sold steamed mackerel at a local market. In this location, most backgrounds were uninteresting or too distracting. But having her stand in the opening of her workspace with a fish tray told a story.
Without the fish, she was just a happy woman with an awesome smile. But by including the fish, I can hold the viewer’s attention longer and get them thinking. Why is she holding this tray of fish? What does she do? Where is she?
4. Relax Your Subject By Including Props
Portrait photography props can considerably aid in getting a nervous or uncomfortable model to loosen up. With children, props can provide the best distraction. Plus, they allow you to take the most natural, unposed portraits.
Without a portrait prop, your subject is likely concentrating on you and your camera. And their thoughts are focused on how they look. Introducing a prop into the portrait session gives them something else to focus on.
Simple things like asking them to make a phone call, read aloud from a book, or blow some bubbles transform a static subject. You must take more photos to capture the best expression, but it’s worth it!
When people are focused on the prop, their facial expressions will be more natural. But it may not always look the best.
You’ll have to choose the most flattering frame afterward if they speak on the phone or perform an action.
5. Add Ambience With a Portrait Prop
Creating emotion in a portrait with a person who’s a little camera shy is always challenging. So adding the right prop into the mix can help you build some emotion. You can do this in many ways, depending on the mood you want to set.
Giving a woman flowers to hold will almost always lighten the mood. A cup of coffee can have a similar effect. Even if the prop is unrelated to the person, it can help to create ambiance.
You can also encourage your subject to imagine themselves as a character in a movie. And then be ready to photograph wherever their imagination leads them!
6. Inject Humor to Portraits With Props
Creating humorous photos can be very difficult. But you can use props to make a photo session more fun.
It’s best to encourage good facial expressions to maximize the comedy in a situation. The more your subject puts themselves into the role, the funnier the photo will be.
In this photo, I used a vacuum cleaner as a prop. I would not have conveyed humor if it were not for the great expressions of my models.
7. Go With the Flow When Using Props in Portraiture
Working with props adds a certain dynamic when photographing people. So when things do not go as planned, be flexible. Use the prop differently if your initial ideas do not work out.
I wanted to create two different styles of photos with the model below. It was her idea to use ice cream as a prop. My idea was to take some light, happy, summer-themed portraits like those in ice cream ads. And then some darker portraits.
Even though we set the air conditioning as cold as possible, the ice cream melted rapidly. I knew I would not get the classic-style portraits I had hoped for. So we went with the flow. And this provided a fun series of upbeat portraits!
By this time, we were resigned that the ice cream would not do anything other than melt. So I used it to create a dark concept of someone addicted to ice cream.
8. Use Props to Create a Series of Portraits
If you use props, a series of portraits of the same person will have extra depth and interest. Making numerous portraits of a person diverse is much easier by including props.
Using props allows for not including the person’s face in every photo. With an appropriate prop, it can still be obvious that it’s a photo of your subject.
This photo of a ballet dancer with her pointe shoes is a good example. It’s part of a series of portraits her parents commissioned me to make.
9. Use Props to Create Extreme Compositions
You want to incorporate your props in either a natural or an exaggerated manner. My photo earlier of the girl playing with the bubbles is an example prop used to create a natural feeling. The guy pictured below with the blue wig and rubber chicken exaggerates real life.
The biggest mistake you can make is having your props invoke an uneasy atmosphere. Using a prop that does not convey enough meaning or invoke interest can ruin a photo.
Placing props in a portrait that doesn’t belong there will look contrived. Cliches are also best avoided unless you are out to create a specific type of humor. You are better off not using a prop than using one poorly. Either natural or extreme is more effective.
Best Portrait Photography Props FAQs
Here are answers to frequently asked questions about photography props.
What Are Photography Props?
Props are anything used to better support and add meaning to the main subject in a photo. With portrait photography, a prop should enhance the subject. And it should give the viewer a better idea of who the person is.
What Props Are Needed for a Photoshoot?
When planning a portrait photoshoot, you need props based on your desired portrait message. Think about enhancing the subject’s personality or composition.
To enrich the visual narrative, there are a multitude of props to consider adding. They can include fabrics, handheld accessories, or everyday items. But they should reflect the subject’s interests or add captivating visual elements.
Should a Photographer Provide Portrait Props?
Whether a photographer should provide props depends on their creative approach. Some photographers offer props for a cohesive style. Others may encourage clients to bring their own to personalize the portrait. It depends on your artistic vision and collaboration with your client.
Conclusion: Portrait Photography Props
Props are there to support your subject. How your subject relates to the prop is important, as this will influence the feel of the photo. Having a prop sit alongside your subject will sometimes be enough. But it’s often best to encourage some form of relationship between your subject and their props.
Giving a person glasses to wear and a book to read invokes ideas of intelligence. And a person with a guitar will be a musician in peoples’ minds. So work at developing the right relationship between your subject and their prop. Doing this will lead to much more interesting portraits.