Let’s talk Props!


It is important but oh man the decisions are tough when it comes to deciding what to buy and use in your set up. Before long and unknown to most, your prop collection starts growing until it reaches the point of no return when you notice that you have too many of everything but yet you cannot find anything that you can use in your shoot! While we all love our props, we do not have an endless amount of space or time or money to buy, organise and use them all so let’s dive into how we can manage our prop collections, be constantly inspired by the same props and save our moolah for those hero props that matter!


What constitutes as Props?


Props can be anything that will add meaning, tell a story, create layers, texture, balance and provide visual interest in your image. Props range from the practical such as crockery, cutlery, tools, garnishes or fresh ingredients used in the dish to the decorative such as a vase of flowers, plants, books, `paper, magazines to set the scene and create the mood to something special like traditional tools or equipment or fabric that showcases your culture or way of life. Props serve an important practical aspect in food photography since we cannot serve soup on the table but would require a vessel of sorts to hold it. Another practical prop would be fresh ingredients so that viewers know what the soup is made out of. To set the mood and create a rustic homely dining table scene, decorative elements such as an old wooden board to mimic the tabletop and fresh flowers in a vase can be used as props. Something special could be a traditional pot used to make the soup and including it as a prop would elevate the storytelling element in your photo.


Who uses Props?


Generally whoever is styling the food would be the one using the props. On bigger shoots, there is a separate prop stylist but for smaller shoots, the food stylist usually doubles up as the prop stylist. On some shoots, sometimes the photographer or chef or marketing staff is doing the food styling thus they will be using the props to enhance the scene and tell the story as encapsulated in the brief or moodboard.


Why are Props Important?


Very few dishes look great just on the table or ground with no container or vessel or surface to contain it so functional props such as crockery or boards are a necessity rather than a splurge. An exception is raw ingredients where you may be able to get away with no props and showcase it on its own for a minimalist look. With the addition of props that compliments your food, you will find that your imagery gets transformed to tell a compelling story about your food.


As we often recreate the outdoors or create different sets in studio, props play a key role in setting the scene, creating the vibes and transporting us to a different world that would evoke emotions such as nostalgia or happiness that are closely linked to our food memories. Props affect our composition as what we choose have an influence of how we are going to compose the various elements in our frame. We may use cutlery or napkins or boards as leading lines to our food or to reinforce geometry and repetition of our round butter cookies, we may choose to use multiple props that are also round in shape.


Props help to add texture and depth, create layers and ensure balance in the frame which adds much visual interest to the image and holds the attention of the viewer. It is likely that some of your props are textured rather than smooth and that catches the light beautifully. Having props in the foreground, centre and background creates much needed depth and makes the photo look more three dimensional. Layering your props close to or with your food gives it visual weight and draws the attention of the viewer. Props can also act as a way to balance up a visually heavy part in frame so that the image looks more pleasing to the eye.


How to Choose Props?


The million dollar question of how to choose props has been asked and answered by many and here is my thought process of what you need to consider when selecting your props.


PURPOSE

Build your collection based on the type of food that you frequently shoot first then subsequently buy props for other types of food or drinks that you wish to shoot. Choose some classic, timeless pieces that you can mix and match for a maximal look as well as a few standout pieces that can be used on its own for a minimalist look. For a shoot, consider the food that you are shooting, the angle and whether it is a process shot, lifestyle shot, action shot etc so that you can choose appropriate props. Some questions you may wish to ask are:

  • Is the prop functional or decorative or special?
  • Does the prop add texture or meaning to your story?
  • Is this a hero prop that will work it’s magic in your frame?
  • Does this prop work well with many of your current props or with the other elements in the image?


COLOURS AND TEXTURE

Depending on the type of imagery that you wish to create, you may need light coloured props for bright and airy images and dark coloured props for dark and moody photos. If you find yourself leaning towards bright and airy than start your collection with light coloured props first. Generally, matte finishes are preferred as it does not cause ugly reflections and look out for textured props as they look beautiful when it catches the light. Consider colour theory for your image when picking out props as well as the questions below:

  • Is it light or dark or colourful?
  • Is it shiny or matte?
  • Is it smooth or textured?
  • Are they versatile neutral colours or with patterns?


SHAPES, SIZES AND HEIGHT

Compositional rules like geometry and repetition are linked to shapes whereas having props of different sizes are needed to create layers and balance. Having different sizes like dinner plates, salad plates, appetizer plates for the various types of food that you are serving serves a functional purpose, makes the setting realistic and is relatable to the viewer. As props may be used in the foreground, centre, with the food or background, having props of different heights helps to create depth and visual interest in the food. A few questions that you may wish to ask are:

  • Does it reinforce or contrast from the shape of the food?
  • Is it petite, small, medium, large or extra large?
  • Is it short or tall?
  • How does it work with the other elements in your image?


It is often said that props can make or break an image so choose wisely and if you are unsure, add one prop at a time rather than all at once and rent or borrow props if you can rather than buying them. If you do not have an online prop catalogue of all your props, start one right now! You can share it with your clients and that will score you some brownie points. It will prevent you from buying the same or similar prop twice and if pressed for time you can easily do some prop setups with the images in Canva. You can identify what are the missing gaps in your collection and you would never forget about those props that you hardly use.


Where to Buy Props?


The best place to start is in your own kitchen as you probably have some pieces that you can easily utilise for a shoot. Next, ask family, friends or relatives whether they have any crockery, cutlery, tools, equipment that they wish to give away. Sometimes you can find great finds at their homes that would fit in your prop collection perfectly. Check out vintage or second hand shops, garage sales or car boot sales to pick up unique and vintage pieces at a bargain. Lastly shop at retail stores or online websites for pieces that you cannot find and are essential in your prop collection. Some of my favourite places to shop at for affordable props are Daiso, Iuiga, Carousell, Ezbuy, Shopee and Lazada. There are times whereby I just Google the prop that I wish to buy and see what pops up in the search results. I frequently browse art stores for inspiration to see what materials are available and take photos as reference for future projects. This is great if you are good with your hands as you can make your own props that are project specific and befitting of the brief. Or you may know someone who is a good crafter and can make those props for you. Remember that building your prop collection takes time as your style may change over time so add pieces with time and do not rush to buy everything all at once!


Ending Note


Props have their place in food and product photography but the lack of it should not limit your creativity. Take the time to play around with what you have and do creative setups with just your backgrounds, surfaces and props. You do not need to use any real food but have a food in mind when you are doing these setups. Take photos of these prop setups that you come up with and file them in a folder such as Soup Prop Setups for future reference that you can come back to the next time you are shooting soup. Another great way would be to do both minimal and maximal prop setups for the same food not only as practice but also as reference for future shoots. Drop me an email if you have any burning questions about props which were not answered in this post. Follow along on my Instagram and I would love to connect with you through my email list where I share exclusive downloadable guides!