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The Beauty of Props

Many photographers can sympathize with my plight. I’ve always felt right at home behind a lens and horribly ill at ease in front of one. Photos of myself prove it. I’m often wearing a look that says, “I’d rather be anywhere but here” which is how I usually react when someone orders me to be still and smile.

This year I got the call from a local publisher asking if I would like to have my portrait taken in conjunction with a story I had written for his magazine. I reluctantly agreed. I have a bad enough time with simple family photos; now I was being asked to sit calmly in front of a professional photographer who would levy the same scrutiny at me that I’m often directing at others.

I knew I didn’t want to convey any feelings of awkwardness during the session. The images would be seen by thousands of people some of whom knew me personally. I began to sweat.

However, the photographer also requested that I bring some props. She explained that the portraits she wanted to make would go beyond head shots by including objects that said something about myself. She told me to bring anything I wanted.

Advantages of Using Posing Equipment in Portraits

Many viewers may not notice it right away but as photographers we see it instantly. A prop used well in a portrait, whether a small object such as a basketball, or a larger environment such as a basketball court, can tell a person’s story or help define a characteristic much more graphically than a nuts-and-bolts portrait. Take a look at the work of master photographer Yousuf Karsch to see how he sparingly used props to evoke and reveal a person’s essence.

Another benefit is that props often put people at ease by giving them something to focus on. Because the object reinforces the subject’s identity it makes the process more personal. Indeed, while I decided which props I would bring with me, I was already feeling more interested in the shoot and less fixated on myself.

Posing With Objects

No matter what type of portraits you’re making – baby, engagement, group, family, etc. – you can breathe a huge amount of life and energy into your images by using props. They take almost any form as long as you can pose it with your subject. Depending on who you’re shooting, you might pose him or her with a musical instrument, a vehicle, a bunch of wildflowers, a pet, or a crib. The combinations are limitless which is why every portrait session offers new avenues for creativity. You can get silly, serious, beautiful, fanciful – whatever the subject calls for.

Senior portraits are perfect canvasses for props. Most young adults at this age know something about themselves and their own interests, and tend to want to establish an identity. It should be easy to coax even the most camera-shy student into suggesting an object or location that can help them feel more comfortable and confident.

For example, what if your subject loves snowboarding? The chances of capturing positive facial expressions and good body language shoots up tenfold by asking him or her to tote a favorite board and clothing to the session. Perhaps you might even try having an assistant sprinkle fake snow over the subject to amp up the fun. Or perhaps take the shoot to a local ski resort.

Likewise props in baby portraiture can be the difference between a ho-hum photo and one that brings joy not only to the family but to all who see it. Considering that infants are naturally curious creatures, placing a prop in their midst can spark emotions and behavior that focuses them, however briefly. This interaction between subject and object can be rich with opportunities. Popular props paired with babies include tubs, wicker baskets, blankets, or favorite toys.

Instead of a rubber duck, an object that conveys something meaningful about a company or business can be used in corporate portraiture. Perhaps you’ll choose to place the subject in a simple elegant chair, or against a stack of products, or at a computer. If you’re working with a group such as the employees of a bank, you might ask them to pose in front of the company headquarters wearing baseball uniforms to communicate teamwork, or maybe in the bank’s vault wearing suits to emphasize financial security.

What Worked For Me

When it came time for my own portrait session, I decided to bring a camera and journal to give an idea of my work in photography and writing. I even brought a large print of mine. But the best prop that day was my dog Finn, a big friendly guy who loves attention like no other dog I’ve met. He easily distracted the photographer and her assistant – and me.  

As a result, the portrait session went far better and was much more relaxed than I had thought. I actually enjoyed myself. Finn charmed everyone and managed to steal the show which is what I had hoped for. Instead of thinking about whether or not I looked ridiculous, I instead kept Finn focused and in proper position beside me while the photographer kept shooting.

A month later the magazine appeared and I could hardly believe it: Finn and I had made the cover. That was when I felt really grateful that the photographer had suggested props. Instead of looking awkward or uncomfortable, I looked right at home while Finn gazed toward the camera, soaking up the spotlight. 

Sometimes it takes getting on the other side of a camera to learn a valuable lesson. By using props you’ll not only bring more fun to your portrait session, you’ll make better portraits too.

Elias Butler

Elias Butler is a professional photographer and writer based in Arizona. He's written a book titled "Grand Obsession" and has been published in Sierra, USA Today, and Arizona Highways among many others. See Butler's website here.


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