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How To Use Props In Portrait Photography (Some Images NSFW)

John Duder shows you how you can boost your creativity by introducing props on portrait shoots (some images NSFW).

|  Portraits and People
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Around ten years ago, I was driving to my aunt's house, together with my sister, and there was a road diversion near Bridgewater. As a result, we found a car boot sale in a sunny field by the road, miles out of town (Helen can’t resist a boot sale, so we went for a wander around it).

On one of the wallpapering tables, I found something I’ve wanted since I was about nine years old – a micrometer. It was in a dirty, oily wooden box, still proclaiming it to have been made in Sheffield – and absolutely beautiful. 

 

Samantha Alexandra with micrometer

The micrometer produces a marked contrast when set next to a good-looking model. (Model: Samantha Alexandra.)

 

As it goes, there was also a bricklayer’s plumbline, and a pair of scratched engineering callipers: I bought all of them, thinking I’d find something to do with them in a picture and, as it turns out, I have been handing them to models ever since.

Rebecca Tun

Model: Rebecca Tun.

 

Why?

It might be better to ask ‘why not?’ A creative model will think of something unusual and interesting to do, and the best thing is to hand the prop over and ask them to find a pose. I have heard of interviews for engineers where there’s a random piece of metal on the table, and the aim is for the interviewee to pick it up and start working out what it is for, and random props can work the same sort of way. The model will see a similarity to something they know, and will work out poses. It helps, of course, if the prop itself is photogenic – but it’s possible to make a mundane object important, if you make it a crucial part of the picture.

 

Rebecca Tun with pincers

Model: Rebecca Tun (with pincers).

 

Of course, everybody who has ever photographed a child knows that you should have a toy or a game ready – to distract them, to give them something to do with their hands, to keep them entertained... and it actually works the same way with adults.

 

Boy with pen and model aeroplane

 

There are three basic ways that you can use props to enhance your people pictures:

 

1. Supporting Role

For character portraits, it can work to ask your subject to pick up something they use in their work, or which is related to their hobby. The prop is something of theirs, and it clarifies some aspect of your picture.

So a painter might be holding her brush or standing by an easel, a mechanic might be holding a spanner. There are as many variations portrait subjects. Prop and subject need not be strictly in period: one of my most successful portraits is of my son (who is a mechanical design engineer) with the micrometer. A complete mismatch of tradition and modernity, but it allows a historic resonance as he contemplates a tool that he’d have been very familiar with had he been born a hundred years sooner. 

 

 

Be on the lookout for bits and pieces that you may be able to borrow: scour car boot sales and white elephant stalls. I’ve had really good mileage from a set of headphones a friend gave me when her husband died. They’re nothing special, soundwise – but they are magnificently bulky, with a coiled cable that is utterly Seventies. Wired for sound: used for pictures!

 

Charlotte Raven

Model: Charlotte Raven

 

I regard sunglasses as a menace most of the time. If I wear them, they get in the way of the viewfinder: when others wear them, they conceal the eyes, almost always the heart of a portrait. But just occasionally, a sufficiently silly, spectacular, or stylish paid will be perfect for a picture.

 

Rascal333 & Electric Nymph

Models: Rascal333 & Electric Nymph

 

2. Exploration

I mentioned using a prop as something for the model to explore. This can be very interesting and I have found that different models will do completely different things with the same prop. I have a small selection of props that I have used repeatedly in this way and this is produced a variety of different interpretations – and a whole series of effective and interesting pictures. 

 

Sho Haze

Model: Sho Haze

 

Nee Naa

Model: Nee Naa 

 

Rebecca Tun

Model: Rebecca Tun

 

My daughter-in-law, who shares my interest in taking pictures, gave me a lensball for Christmas. I’ve admired shots with crystal spheres in the past: now I can produce them myself, anytime I care to.

 

Nee Naa and Lensball

Model: Nee Naa and Lensball

 

Nee Naa and Lensball

Model: Nee Naa and Lensball

 

Anything optical offers additional possibilities, as the shot of Nee Naa with the prism demonstrates – mirrors possibly warrant a whole separate article, because there are a number of complications to them.

 

Model: Nee Naa

Model: Nee Naa

 

3. Create A Paradox

Sometimes, a prop can be purely and simply silly. I have an industrial-grade adjustable spanner and a chest-brace drill that provide plenty of room for fun: the spanner has been used, pixie-like, to adjust the sap flow of a tree, and to pick berries in the garden. 

 

Kate in the garden

Model: Kate

 

Rebecca Tun

Model: Rebecca Tun

 

Hand the prop to the model, and see what they do with it: in most cases, it will be a few seconds before the ideas start. And, on the odd occasion when they don’t, you can simply swap to prop and give the model something else.

Although I am definitely not a still life photographer, it strikes me that a lot of the objects that I’ve accumulated would also be very good for constructing images on a tabletop.

I’ve been lucky enough to be able to use a Fairbairn Sykes fighting knife as a prop a few times. For those who don’t know, it’s a British World War Two weapon: putting it next to a modern person – especially if that person is female, naked and empowered – produces a considerable paradox. However, while it will appeal to many genre lovers, it will definitely not be to everybody’s taste. The same is true of any weapon: be aware, if you use any sort of weapon or replica that you are skating around the edges of quite dark fetishes.

 

Crossover Props

A prop doesn’t necessarily sit in one category – it may fit into more, or it may be something that is a tool of the trade for one person, and a complete novelty for another. The micrometer is like this – engineers know what it is, and are intrigued by the old-fashioned precision (modern micrometers are electronic, and a fraction of the price that mine would have fetched new). Other people are amazed by it, as well as being fascinated by the feel and precision – all of which makes for an intense picture.

 

Cameras As Props

Every photographer has used a camera as a prop at some stage. We all love to catch other togs using their cameras, either well or badly. I’ve posted a couple of shots of togs using their cameras with the lens hood reversed on the lens – as effective (and as silly-looking, to my mind) as wearing a baseball cap with the peak pointing over your left shoulder. But, more seriously, the intensity of a craftsman engrossed in doing the things they are good at is wonderful to see, and always makes for a potential winner. Intensity is good! 

 

Sho Haze with Hasselblad

Model: Sho Haze

 

Some years ago, I found that I possessed a Zenit camera with a shattered prism, so I painted it red. It’s not a prop that I can use every time I take pictures, but for the right, rather jazzy set of pictures, it’s ideal. The picture here was taken of all the models who took part in a latex clothing day run by Beyond Excess designs, and the Zenith shares billing with a Sixties Polaroid camera (surely, the most iconic of cameras, apart, possibly from a 5x4" Speed Graphic press camera?) and my beloved Contax RTS.

 

Models with cameras

 

Props Can Put People At Ease 

There’s an additional benefit of giving a prop to someone who isn’t a professional model because it distracts them from feeling self-conscious. Even if you ask them to do something they’re familiar with it will give them a focus for their attention, while you concentrate on getting a portrait that definitely says more than a simple headshot… (Why did I never take a picture of my mother knitting? She did it all the time, and it was so characteristic of her!)

 

Most of the models in the accompanying pictures are currently members of popular networking sites for models and photographers. However, one or two of them have retired since the pictures were taken.

 

More Tutorials From John

Take a look at more features written by John which includes a guide to vintage lenses, advice on creating a home studio and a tutorial on how you can use inexpensive IKEA lights to capture portraits and still life shots at home.

 

About Author: John Duder 

John Duder celebrated fifty years since developing his first film at Christmas – on Christmas Day 1967, the only present that mattered was a developing tank and chemicals, so that he was able to develop a negative film in the morning, and process a film for black-and-white slides in the afternoon. He doesn’t remember Christmas dinner – but he was only 14 at the time.

A way of saving money developed, so to speak, into a lifelong obsession.

John still has and uses a darkroom, and specialises in black-and-white images, portraits, and nudes. He’s been a member of ePHOTOzine since 2003 and joined the Critique Team a few years ago.

Now retired from his day job, he is keen to share his cumulatively acquired knowledge and experience (CAKE) with others: and who can resist CAKE? He's run workshops at a couple of local studios, and his next outing is at Bodyline Studios in Long Eaton, where he will be working with Nee Naa on 16 March on emotive storytelling in pictures – with props!

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Comments


JackAllTog Plus
10 5.7k 58 United Kingdom
9 Mar 2018 10:22PM
Super article, thanks for showing some amazing ways that people can engage with props. Some time its so hard to force a prop on a person but as you say by giving them the prop to engage with it allows the image to breath as they explore its use.
dudler Plus
16 986 1537 England
27 Mar 2018 9:39AM
Thanks, Jack!

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