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How to Use Props Effectively When Taking Portraits

8 min read

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Well used portrait props in photography can make your pictures come alive. Whether you’re taking photos of your partner, kids, friends, or anyone else, photography props can add depth and interest.

Once you start thinking about photography props for portraits you’ll be surprised at how soon great ideas come to mind. You’ll think of things that you can make or get that will add new life to your portrait photography.

If the idea of using photography props is new to you this article will kick-start your creative process. We’ll look at how and when you can use props in your portrait photography. There’s also a bunch of great tips on different types of photo props you can use for portraits.

man posing with a guitar as a portrait prop.

Posing People with Portrait Props

For many new photographers, portrait photography is challenging. Even a bit intimidating.

You have to work hard to come up with good ideas for locations, posing, and wardrobe. Being able to connect in a meaningful way with the people you photograph is about the most important aspect of making portraits. Using photography props can help you because they provide something you can talk about with your subjects. When you are posing people for portraits talk about the interesting props you’re using.

You can even use props that are completely unrelated to the person you’re photographing to inject a bit of humor into the photography session. Even if you don’t get usable photos with a funny   prop, it will help your subject relax.

Having a bit of a laugh with a funny prop creates an enjoyable atmosphere. Your portrait subject will relax and let their hair down. Then you’ll be able to capture more natural-looking photographs of them.

woman looking at a small plant as a portrait prop.

You can also use portrait photograph props to add context to photos of a people. With no props, you rely on facial expression and clothing alone to convey information about the person you are photographing. This more the case with studio portraits where the surroundings might be less personal. Taking portraits outdoors you often have more opportunity to use the surroundings. The location your in can help build an interesting photograph.

Concept portrait photography relies on props to help design fantasy-like scenarios. There are many themes for using props in this way. Transport your subjects back in time by using old fashioned photography props and costumes. Bring them into the future with sci-fi themed props. Create a dreamlike portrait with a person posing with props associated with their ideal job.

kid with cardboard props.

What are Props in Portrait Photography?

You can use almost anything at all as photography props when you are doing portrait photography. It’s up to your imagination as to what you use and how you use them.

The most effective photography props will add interest to the photographs. As always, having an idea of what you want to achieve when you are taking portraits of people will help return more interesting results.

Previsualizing your portrait photography helps you come up with the best locations and lighting. It will also guide you in what props you might need. Basing the props you use on a preconceived idea allows you to be well prepared at the time of your photo shoot.

It’s always best to discuss with the person you’ll photograph what props you might use. If they’re on board with your concepts the whole experience will be more enjoyable and effective.

Listen to their ideas too. Ask people what they might like to be photographed with. Do they have a favorite accessory they can bring along to the portrait session? If they play sports, are a musician or an artist of some kind there are many great props that you can make use of. You may not have these things on hand yourself, but they probably will.

Props for photos can be anything that adds to the portrait you’re creating. You can include balls, bats, or other equipment when taking photos of sportspeople. Instruments and cases make great props for musicians. Artists and craftspeople look great when posing with their work and the tools they use to create it. Anyone involved in a portrait relating to their work can be posed with appropriate props.

artist with brushes.

You Don’t Always Need to do What’s Most Obvious

Think outside the box. Sometimes the most interesting photo props are the ones that are a little quirky or unusual. Draw on your creative thinking. Come up with ideas to incorporate objects that may not blatantly connect a person with a particular theme or concept.

I freelanced for a popular computer technology magazine. All the people I photographed had something to do with computers. This was the whole focus of the magazine, the people who were in it and the people who read it.

The editor had one rule for me. I was never allowed to use a computer as a prop. This was very challenging. I would always communicate this restriction to the people I was assigned to photograph. Otherwise they would suggest posing with a computer.

Finding the right sort of prop to use in these situations is very challenging. It pushes you to think creatively about how to convey the concept you want for your portrait without it being obvious because of the props you use.

Whatever props you decided to use, make sure to include them in a meaningful way with the people you photograph. Getting them to somehow interact with or hold on to a prop will help incorporate it into the photos.

woman hitching a ride with a case.

Collect and Find Items to Include in Your Portraits

Any good portrait studio has a space set aside for storing the props. There will be racks with clothes, hats, and maybe wigs. There might be an old trumpet or a guitar. Often there’ll be an assortment of homemade props from past portrait sessions.

Second-hand stores and thrift shops are gold mines for portrait photographers. In these places, you’ll find all manner of interesting items that can be picked up for next to nothing. If you plan on becoming a serious portrait photographer you’ll need to start frequenting such stores. You will be able to build up a good collection of photography props.

Dollar stores are fun places to shop for props. Wigs, crazy glasses, flags and all manner of cheap things are available you can include in your pictures.

Space for storage or photography props in your studio is essential. But you don’t need to keep them hidden away in a storeroom. I have a guitar hanging on my wall. I can’t play the guitar, but it looks cool on the wall. And it’s something I’ve used many times as a portrait prop.

Keep the items you use as props well organized and clean. You want to be able to find things when you need them. You will also want to make sure they are presentable to the people you are asking to pose with them.

You can also use whatever you have on hand as a prop. Hand your model a spare camera. Ask them to pose with their smartphone. Give them your umbrella. Anything at all that’s around you! This is especially helpful to help people relax and enjoy their portrait photography session.

guy using an umbrella as a portrait prop.

Use Whatever is Around Your Portrait Location

When you’re taking portrait photos on location, look around for items that you can include and pose your model with.

Spontaneously including produce at a fresh market of part of the decoration at a cafe can add energy to a portrait.

Be respectful if you’re using something that belongs to another person. Ask them if it’s okay for you to borrow the item briefly to include in your photography. Always return things you use and leave them how you found them.

Taking a photo of someone in their own environment will often be enhanced when you can find something around them that can be used as a prop. Doing this, you can visually provide a viewer with more information about your subject. You can use anything that’s relevant to the person or why they are at that location. The better looking the item is and the better it fits with the person, the stronger your portrait will be.

If you’re in their space, ask the model. Get them to think about what items they might like to have included in the photos. You might be surprised at what they have in a cupboard or a storeroom that you can’t see.

Find objects to include that say something. Generic things that could be used by any person may not convey the concept you want. Specialized items that are specific to the person, what their occupation or hobby is will work best.

portrait of brewers.

Photography Props for Portraits of Kids

You know what they say about photographing kids and animals. Don’t do it! But, at times you may need to, or even want to. I am kidding, of course. Photographing children can be very enjoyable and create some of the most endearing photographs. Using  photography props when you photograph children in a studio can make the whole process flow better.

Giving something to a child that will distract them and keep them occupied while you make your portraits will help smooth the process. Kids often have short attention spans, especially when they are not really interested in what’s going on. This may be the case when you have to take photos of them.

A toy or treat will often hold their attention for longer than normal. Providing a prop to capture a child’s imagination will help produce more interesting expressions. They may not be so keen to look into your camera lens, but playing with a new toy or eating an ice cream is likely to result in some smiles.

Photography props that kids can interact with often help hold their attention longer during a photo shoot. One of the most fun things I’ve used with kids when photographing them is bubble mixture. Kids love blowing bubbles. They have to concentrate to make the bubbles and when they succeed there’s always great smiles.

The easiest and probably the most common modern prop is a smartphone. These certainly hold a child’s attention but are otherwise not so great to use. The child becomes absorbed and quickly looses interest in anything else. You might get a couple of nice frames, but all of them will be pretty similar. The child looking down at the phone and not aware of anything else.

girl blowing bubbles.

Use Your Imagination

Be as imaginative as possible when taking portraits and using props. You might need a more serious approach for a formal portrait. Don’t let this deter you from finding a great prop to include. Maybe you’re struggling to connect with your subject. Giving them something fun to pose with might break the ice.

Props are best used to enhance the subject of a portrait. Don’t let the props you use to steal their thunder. Get them to interact with the things you’re arranging in the photo. Bring them together.

So, next time you’re stuck for an idea of how to pose someone, think about adding an interesting prop to make your portrait come alive.

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Kevin bought his first camera in the early 1980s and started working in the photography department of a daily newspaper a few years later. His whole career is focused on photography and he’s covered a multitude of subjects. He loves to photograph people the most. During the past decade, Kevin has begun to teach and write more, sharing his passion for photography with anyone who’s willing to learn.
Kevin bought his first camera in the early 1980s and started working in the photography department of a daily newspaper a few years later. His whole career is focused on photography and he’s covered a multitude of subjects. He loves to photograph people the most. During the past decade, Kevin has begun to teach and write more, sharing his passion for photography with anyone who’s willing to learn.

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