This week I was clearing out some of my stuff before I pack to move for my new job down in Sussex, and I realised that I have a large collection of props left over from previous shoots. Props, as in the theatrical sense, are used in creative photography to help set up a scene with objects relevant to the look, style, occupation or other (including comic) effect.
This article is a quick look at where one might be able to get a hold of props that they might want for a shoot, be it to buy, borrow or build, and places where you might not have thought to look before. This applies to all levels of creative photography, and to some extent also counts for dramatic costume (usually considered “wardrobe” rather than props).
To Buy, Borrow or Build?
Sometimes there are props you want as a one off, others you want to use a lot. Sometimes they are large items and some you can stow nicely at home or in your studio. The decision to buy vs. borrowing is a tricky one and it comes down to the needs of the individual tog, but sometimes you simply can’t get the prop you want – sometimes your ideas are so original and out there that there is simply no-one offering such wares, and to this end, you have to make it yourself.
Some of us have great links to creatives and designers whilst some don’t, and thusly some of us can get away with borrowing items from people we have built up networks with, that others would have to buy. Here is ANOTHER reason to always network with creatives. I have several clothing designers, sports people and other creatives who have access to all kinds of cool kit that I could borrow (sure, it’d cost me some cake) – I have built whole sets up from borrowed kit and it has cost me no more than a couple of pints or a box of chocolates.
If you use a prop a lot, its not available to borrow, or is delicate (e.g. not likely to survive rentals), then you will want to buy it. I mostly buy mine. From nun-chucks through to poker chips, fake gold chains and baseball caps to hazard tapes to wrap models in. Where possible you will want to buy actual items and not prop versions: e.g. if you want some nun-chucks for a ninja style shoot its easier to buy actual nun-chucks than it is to buy cheap fake fancy dress ones – they’ll look much better, and last much longer, and can be literally only a few pounds more in cost. When you buy props be sure to keep them looking realistic. cutting corners undermines your overall image credibility, which damages image quality.
Typical sources when looking to buy props (and to some extent, shoot wardrobe):
- Fancy dress stores (in the highstreet and online) (e.g. joke.co.uk). You might be able to hire from these too.
- Amazon, eBay etc. – you’d be surprised what you can find on there, as props or as fit-for-purpose items.
- Specialist stores – e.g. army surplus for military shoots, safety / hardware stores for lab / science shoots.
- Charity shops, freecycle, Gumtree – can be great for random items if you want a rummage.
There are places you can commission your own props from, craft sites such as Etsy, and also various prop-builders (speak to your local theatre or university drama department for leads, but they can be expensive. You might also be able to commission pieces at your local college or university if you build networks with the arts and design departments.
Sometimes you want a prop for a one off shoot you have planned, this also counts for wardrobe and also sometimes lighting kit – or items that are way out of budget. Sometimes hardware stores and fancy dress shops will rent you kit if you need it. For the more unconventional items then it comes down to how good you are at networking:
- Local amateur dramatics groups and local theatres
- Local college / university departments and societies (e.g. art, theatre, sports etc.)
- Local boutique (independent) clothing stores
- Even try your local gym or dance studio for things like swiss balls and yoga mats and sometimes even studio space
Play your local networks and see if you can build decent relationships. I have managed to borrow clothes from local boutiques for a charity shoot in exchange for giving them a credit and a copy of the images. Its not limited to small independent companies either, once in Hull I asked to borrow a stock cage (the type you unload stock from on the shop floor), and a spot at the back of the store plot for a shoot from the local Toys’R’Us. I had contacts there and so managed to get an hour’s shoot in there – it cost me some jam donuts for the staff room. It all comes down to how reasonable and communicative you are.
Another thing you can do is offer your services in exchange. e.g. ” can I used your space / clothing / item” and you can use the image for advertising. The cost of the images are often more valuable than them letting you pose a model on their couch in the showroom for an hour, so you can often wrangle something.
Sometimes what you want simply isn’t available to buy or borrow – it could be that it is something unique to your shoot, or just so out of budget that it is unobtainable any other way. I am currently working on one such project – I’m not going to blow the shoot concept here, but I wanted a helmet from the Daft Punk (Guy) image (the Tron one). You can buy cheap replicas which will not look great, or commission a prop builder (you are looking at about £350 for the finished item). If you are willing to put in the time and a bit of creative skill, you can build one for less than £100, in fact probably less than £60, all in all.
If you are building your own props, more than anything you will need space and time, and a mind set to get out of your comfort zone.I have written a mini series on building props: Starting with pepakura (papercraft) and also working with resins and fibreglass and working and shaping body fillers. Hopefully these should get you moving towards creating your own, high quality, photography props.
I have shot a couple of events and shoots in Sheffield where props were handmade, such as The Crane Shoot I shot with Tim Bei (@TimothyBei), who handmade 1000 paper cranes. At one event, an exceptional local artist Geo Law (http://www.getaloadageo.co.uk/) opened his exhibition with a samurai combat scene where he had handmade a samurai sword and mask using pepakura.
It doesn’t need to be complex or long-winded, and you needn’t start from scratch: try re-purposing old materials to make new clothes, or transforming that old broom handle into a spear or that ironing board into a surf board with a touch of foam and some glue – its all about vision. Remember though that the look of any prop you use will effect the overall image quality.
If you lack the skills or vision to build even the simplest of props, consider talking to more creative friends or local college departments to see if they will accept you commission. Where there is a will, there is a way.
I hope I have thrown out a few ideas as to where you might be able to get some of the things you need to make your shoot work – the important part here is that you should never underestimate the importance of building relationships, and turning local shops and societies into assets and resources, you never know when propertunities will pop up. I’ll get my coat.