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What are props in photography (and why use them)?

What are props in photography?  What makes something a good prop?  These are questions I asked myself once I started getting into portrait photography.  I loved being creative with my photos and trying out different things to bring life into my images.  I would constantly be playing with background ideas, trying to create fun and beautiful backdrops.  I would also look around my house for objects that would work with the subject. 

However, I still didn’t know what of my picture elements were considered props. 

If I had to define a photography prop, I would say it is an object used to enhance the photo but is separate from clothing or the backdrop.  A prop can be something the subject holds, a stand-alone item, an object for people to sit on, and more. 

Let’s delve into photography props a little more.

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Why do props need defining?

As an artist (yes photography is an art!), it is good to know what tools you have available to you for your craft.  The more you know, the more you will be able to choose how you want your image to look.  Defining what you are using also helps describe your vision to those around you.

Also, for any of us who are on a budget for our photography studio, you can allocate funds for just props.  These funds would be set aside just for props and not used on backdrops, camera equipment, etc.  So when you set these funds aside, you know exactly what you will be using them for.

Why we use props

Props have a way of bringing the subject and the photograph to life.  They can enhance the mood of the photo, and bring the theme to life.  Props can allow you to open new avenues of creativity in a very saturated world.

Props can help convey a message that the photo is telling.  Take these examples:

  • A pregnancy announcement with little shoes sitting atop a pregnant mama’s belly.  In this case the shoes help show that there is a new life that will soon be wearing those shoes.
  • An engaged couple with the “&” symbol between them.  The symbol makes a powerful statement as to two individual people coming together to be a couple. 
  • A three year old holding three balloons on their birthday.  Not only does it represent the fun of birthday celebrations, but also will help family remember what number birthday that was!
  • A newborn baby holding a stuffed rainbow.  The rainbow lets the viewers know that this precious baby has a sibling waiting for them in heaven. 

Props can also give the subject something to focus on.  Have a fussy child as your subject?  A prop can help relax them and give them something to hold.  Not sure what to do with a subject’s hands? Have them hold a prop so they don’t feel so awkward. 

What makes a good prop

So now begs the question, what makes a good photography prop?  Since we can literally use almost anything, what should we look for in a prop? 

A prop should enhance the scene, but not overtake the subject.  Unless the object is the focus of the photo for some reason, the viewers eye should immediately go towards the person/animal in the picture. However, the prop is obvious and has a clear reason for being in the photo. 

Take for example my previous illustration of a child holing three balloons in their picture.  The child would be the main focus of the photo.  However, the balloons are still obvious.  Since balloons are traditionally associated with birthdays, the viewer can surmise that the subject is having a birthday even if it isn’t obvious any other way.  Also, the viewer can guess that the subject is turning three based on the number of balloons.  In this example, the props were used to tell a story that otherwise might not have been known.

A good prop can also be something sentimental to the subject.  You have probably seen images of newborn babies sleeping peacefully in their daddy’s military helmet.  Or an expectant mom holding a sonogram over her still-flat belly.  These items have special meaning to the person using them.  To be able to incorporate them into a picture can mean a lot to someone. 

How do I use props in my pictures?

So how does one incorporate props into their pictures?  The options are endless.  Take for example a newborn shoot with a teddy bear.  You have quite a few options when posing the two:

  • Have the newborn nestled right up to the bear
  • Have the newborn and bear lying down parallel to each other, but their heads are facing in opposite directions.
  • Take closeups of the baby’s feet lying on top of the bear’s paws

Spend some time perusing through Pinterest.  There are so many photography examples to draw inspiration from.  If you see something you like, try giving it your own twist and using it in a shoot.  Make a board and label it “Prop Inspiration.”  Save any ideas you like so you can revisit them.  Also check out magazines and books for ideas.  Fashion photography can be a great place to see props in action. 

Once you start using props in pictures, you will start coming up with your own ideas.  You will also discover what types of props you like the best.  Do you like using them abstractly?  Or do you prefer something that is bright and colorful?  Every photographer has their own style, so find something that works for you!

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Should I be using props in my pictures?

The short answer is maybe (sorry to be vague!).  If you use props depends a lot on your personal style and your subject.  Some photographers prefer to use a much cleaner style which doesn’t rely on props.  Others prefer to let the scenery or backdrop do all the work, and not rely on props to convey a mood or a theme. 

However, whatever your subject or style, I would recommend trying out some props just for the fun of it!  Experiment with different objects you have lying around your house.  Look up a Pinterest photo challenge, and add on the stipulation that you need to incorporate a prop into each shoot.  You don’t need to go out and spend any money on anything either.  Just look around your house to see what may work well for a picture. 

Conclusion

To recap, I define prop as an object used to enhance the photo but is separate from clothing or the backdrop.  A prop can be something the subject holds, a stand-alone item, an object for people to sit on, and more. 

I know that I personally have enjoyed using props in my pictures.  I find myself not wanting to throw something out because I could use it as a prop in an upcoming shoot.  Or, if I am out shopping, I look at items and try to figure out how I can work them into a picture.  It is a lot of fun once you start going with it!

I hope this post has both inspired and educated you on the area of props in photography.  Now, go out there and try taking some pictures with props!

If you enjoyed this article, please check out some of my other posts:

How to Take Monthly Milestone Photos (12 Tips that Work)

Fall Themed Photo Props (15 Unique Ideas)

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