The art of a photograph is the sum of many parts. But if inanimate objects can support the subject matter, chances are a prop stylist was involved. Photographers and videographers hire prop pros to build eye-catching, believable settings for their shoots and, in doing so, elevate stories their clients intend to tell. Whether working on a commercial or an editorial project, a prop stylist’s job is to create an environment that is engaging and convincing. Following the artistic direction of a photographer, they need to create the appropriate mood and infuse the shot with the right vibe.
On the surface, the job description may seem simple: a prop stylist sources, transports, and arranges all objects in a photo. More often than not, though, the job is anything but simple. Finding props — especially the unusual ones — takes creativity and flair. A stylist has to be proactive and flexible. They are expected to improvise and ideate, yet they also need to be detail-oriented, meticulous, and well-organized. Shooting a rain scene? Bring twelve umbrellas of different shapes and colors. Photographing summer clothes in the middle of winter? You might need to fly in some tropical flowers from the other hemisphere. And if you’re shooting sneakers, make sure you have a pair of spare laces — a few pairs, actually.
Experienced prop stylists will know how to use a clothes steamer to melt a piece of plastic, or crack Vitamin B tablets to get powder that resembles cocaine. They will be able to find a patterned curtain which agrees with the wallpaper in an English cottage. Then, they will patiently nudge every fold to make it look just so. Sometimes, a prop stylist might spend an entire day re-making a bed and arranging cushions on it over and over again. Next thing they know, someone will want them to build the façade of a wild west saloon — or come up with a dozen ways to destroy a baseball.
“It’s always different. You constantly learn something new,” says New York-based prop stylist Sonia Niki, a member of PropStylist collective who has worked for Ralph Lauren, JCPenny, and Pepsi.
For an experienced prop pro, no object will be too weird or unusual to source. Vermont-based Lizzy Williams recently worked for a client who needed to photograph a vegetable garden — a bed of lettuce, to be exact. Lizzy went to a store and purchased a cartful of green heads.
Jeanette Moncada, who works in California, had to once bring a life-sized gas pump to a shoot in San Francisco. She found it but then had to figure out how to transport it to the location. In the end, she hopped on a municipal bus (yes, she did get some weird looks).
A good stylist will also know how to make something out of nothing, especially if the budget is tight. “As a prop stylist I need to be detail-oriented and imaginative,” says Lizzy, whose clients include CVS, Staples, Nike, Converse, and Ben & Jerry’s. “I carry around a whole kit of strange tools,” she says.
With the help of duct tape, magic glue, X-Acto knives, tweezers, and chopsticks, all stylists have their favorite tools to MacGyver a prop.
Sonia, for instance, was once asked to provide a six-foot snowball for a model to pose with during a fashion shoot. After buying a lot of Styrofoam and turning her Brooklyn backyard into a surreal construction zone, she delivered the goods. And though she couldn’t get rid of the pesky white foam for weeks, Sonia was happy with how the project turned out.
Jeanette often scouts countless prop houses in Los Angeles and says she feels lucky to be around Hollywood. “If I need airplane props, there is a prop house for exactly that. And pieces of furniture from every decade, even from the future. Every job is different.”
For stylists in less legendary locations, Facebook, Craigslist, E-bay, Etsy, and countless other sites can connect you to people who sell pretty much anything and everything. (Not to mention Wonderful Machine’s own Find Crew database.)
And what if the product isn’t on the web? Like an illegal substance, say? If they can’t make it, a good prop stylist will usually be able to fake it. For example, oregano or hobby store moss makes convincing marijuana, while freeze-dried regular mushrooms can become magic mushrooms in a pinch. No wonder stylists often become experts in esoteric subjects, from the consistency of human blood to canned food from the 1950s.
The creative director and the photographer come up with the vision of and concepts for the project; the stylist focuses on details that bring their ideas to life. During the shoot, their role is to edit the space by adding or subtracting layers, creating or eliminating visual clutter, and making objects look exciting and relevant to the project. Perspective, composition, scale, texture, balance, and contrast are all elements that the stylist considers to keep a space from looking flat in an image.
British photographer Charlie Bettinson, a commercial photographer who often shoots homeware and technology gadgets, says it’s important to find the right balance. Props need to be visually appealing, yes, but their primary role is to support the subject. “They have to be fairly simple in design and color so as not to overpower the product, which is the hero of the shot.”
As the work progresses, the stylist will consult with the photographer in order to make the right adjustments — fine-tuning light, changing backdrops, trying different angles, things of that nature. It’s crucial that the two can communicate well and that their stylistic and aesthetic sensibilities match. They have to connect.
“There has to be chemistry,” stresses Sonia. “You have to choose someone who will understand what you’re trying to accomplish, someone with a good sense of aesthetics.”
When selecting a stylist for a given project, the photographer should carefully assess whether this person can mesh the brand and the concept. It’s good to consider their experience and expertise. To wit: some stylists may specialize in children’s toys or intimate table layouts, while others will feel more comfortable in industrial settings.
Location is also important. Since a prop stylist’s job is to source (often unorthodox) objects, it’s helpful to hire someone who knows local stores, antique warehouses, or flea markets inside-out.
Photographer Jason Varney says the key is to make sure a given stylist can bring a project to life. “They should be a seamless extension of the photographer, someone who will elevate the vision for the project.” Jason always strives to find people whom he can treat as equal collaborators.
I review their site and Instagram feed to see what they are working on. Once I find someone, I will often send inspiration for the styling based on my work and theirs, as well as outside work that I find relevant to the project. I then encourage them to take it from there — I don’t ever want to micro-manage them.
Jason stresses the importance of making the client aware that the stylist is a true collaborator early on in project discussion. Photographers should be upfront about the value of hiring a stylist, but also the effect it will have on the budget. It’s important that clients understand how stylist bill for their expenses. They must include the cost of rentals, non-returnables, and time (from prep, through on-set work, to returning props).
The going rate for a prop stylist in New York is around $600 a day for standard editorial shoots, $750 and upwards for catalog shoots, and in the range of $900 – $2500 for high-end advertising. Most prop stylists work as freelancers. However, some may be represented by an agency — in which case clients should expect to cover an agency commission as well (usually a percentage of the stylist’s day rate).
Is it worth it? Some photographers double as their own stylists. Known for his unique style, Charlie tends to source the props himself. However, there is no doubt that utilizing a stylist saves a lot of time and energy, if not money. Working with a good prop pro will mean that you can focus on what you do best: photography.
Bryce Longton: What is a Prop Stylist?
Communication Arts: Secrets of the Stylists by Elise Craig
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