Lights, drama, action: Props in portrait photography sessions

Feb 14, 2023

Creative portrait photography is considered to be one of the toughest skills to master. Not only is it a reflection of your skill in being able to master all the technical aspects of setting up a scene and taking a compelling photograph, but to also to create a mesmerizing and captivating scene of pure fantasy. 
Look at any of the top photographers in the world and look at their work. They bring out a whole different aspect of their subject in a way that is a lot more than just wearing costumes and playing make-believe.
Today, we will take a look at how you can add drama to your photographs with simple props, some simple picture prop ideas, photoshoot accessories ideas, and what you should look for when buying props for photography. 

Propping portrait photography profile 

As portrait photographers climb the skill ladder, their ultimate aim is to move into a large studio where they can create the most otherworldly scenes that captivate the imaginations of the masses. 
But what if I told you that you do not need to wait for 20 years in the business before you can start shooting such shots which you see on global magazine covers or billboards. You can get started in whatever your current studio space is.
All you need to achieve it are some polished skills, good photographic gear – camera, lenses, lights, soft boxes, and v-flats - a good model, and some props that add drama to your photos.
As we discussed in the blog on props for product photography, you have to approach these photographs as if you are making a painting. This is why planning the shot is very critical before going out and getting expensive props.

Setting the scene 

The right way to choose props for a photograph is to first sit down and break down what is the exact feeling you want to convey through your photograph, whether there is a particular emotion you want to portray such as an angry cowboy.  
You also want to take a step back and think about the story you are telling, because that is what scene building is all about – telling a story in just a single image. You want to do that because it adds a bit more depth to the overall photograph and creates greater space for
any viewer who looks at your photograph and is instantly transported into the world to which you have created a window through your image. It forces them to pause and think about what is going on, why should they care about it and how can they have empathy with the
subject and the rest of the scene.
Once you have decided on what kind of a feeling or emotion you want to showcase, you can go about visualizing it. This ranges from the kind of pose you want your model in, the kind of a wardrobe they should have, the kind of accessories, the kind of light you would need, and of course, what kind of props can help complete the scene. 
When constructing a scene, remember the fundamentals of good photography and understand that layering can be the best thing that you can do. You can start with the background and then move forward filling up your frame to create a real sense of depth. This method is also useful in mapping out where and what kind of lights would you need for your scene.
Say you are shooting a moody scene of a pirate, think about what would be a naturally moody place where you would find such a pirate, what would they look like, what would they be doing, or what will they be thinking about. You can also look at what are the other things in the scene with which they will be interacting in the scene to add greater intrigue. This kind of thinking can also give you photoshoot accessories ideas such as the kind of rings, bracelets, watches, hats, necklaces, or even an eye patch.
You can use set design software such as Elixxier to set up your scene virtually to gauge how certain lights and their positioning could impact your photograph and basically create a map for shoot day. This is especially helpful if you have a complicated scene and you need not only multiple lights but also lights of varying colors and softness.
If you are working for a client – whether on the wardrobe, makeup, jewelry, accessories, or footwear, you can then go about further fleshing out the set with scene builder props. Sometimes picture prop ideas can come from other props or wardrobes to be used by a model. Others can find ideas from past iconic imagery, such as graphic novels and movies, and even scenes created by other photographers in their photos.
One tip for shooting portraits is to pay close attention to your model when directing them. Apart from telling them where to look and where to place their hands and how to shape their bodies and facial expressions, it helps to have some props that the models can hold in their hands. It helps to tackle the awkwardness of empty hands and many models and photographers struggle to figure out what to do with empty hands.

Lighting props 

Once you have identified the mood and set up a map for the scene you can go about adding lights that will not only help light up your subject and the direction of that light but also any auxiliary lights you need to light up the different props to add depth and even add some color tone that infinitely enhances the mood of the photograph. 
Another tip when shooting scenes is to use practical lights. Practical lights are essentially props that are supposed to be luminescent and help you indirectly light the scene by adding an element of a practical light in the scene. An example of this is if you are shooting a desktop scene and if you have a lamp there, either on a side of the desk or in the background that is lit. Now, for practical purposes, you can lower its power by using a lower-powered bulb or diffusers and put up another light that can provide light from the same angle but off camera but it would look a bit more natural.  

Getting the props 

After you know what kind of a scene you want to shoot and how you will shoot it, it is time to go about creating the scene in reality. 
Thus comes our favorite part, buying props for photography.
You can go to a host of stores, especially home stores, even Ikea, Walmart and Target to get some of the props. But equally good are thrift stores and stores selling antiques. Garage sales are great too to pick up interesting items for a bargain – you never know the kind of stuff that people buy and are willing to sell just to clear space.
This does not just apply to items such as furniture or decoration items but also to wardrobes such as hats, overcoats, and drapery. 
Even damaged items can work because you are unlikely to use them for their intended practical purpose and only for a photo. Thus, you can get many things on the cheap. Just be careful to expertly hide any damage. This is especially true for vintage items such as record players, old rotary phones, and even photo frames.
Plants and thatching can be a great help, especially when you want to create interesting patterns with lights and shadows in your portraits to inject a bit more of a mood.
You can also put multiple props together or re-layer existing props to make DIY props that suit your need. Just try not to be completely destructive otherwise you will not be able to use your prop again in another photograph.  


Creating scenes through props is a great way to quickly elevate your portrait photography profile and even land clients because many clients want to showcase their products in settings that convey a mood and feeling while telling a story rather than just showcase the product. 
Break down all the elements of your story, especially the mood and emotions. 
Use this to map out visually what your image should look like and then sketch it out either with your hands or specialized software. 
Start building your scene from back to front while thinking about the subject and their setting and what is contained in the scene and what is the relationship of each item with the subject. 
Layer your scene and light the layers to add the feeling of depth. Experiment with the tones, harshness, and color of lights to infuse mood and emotion. 
Acquire the props based on your scene to make your subject appear in their natural setting and be involved in a natural action in such a setting.

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