I love, love, love playing with props in my photo styling.
Hm. Just as I finished typing out that sentence, I realized how stupid it is. Of course, I would love playing with props - I'm a prop stylist for heaven's sake! If I didn't love it, I wouldn't be one!
(Good one, M. *insert sarcastic thumbs up*)
As much as I love prop styling, I understand how expensive it can be to have a library of good go-to props. I totally get it. I was there.
When I first started, my prop collection was so pathetically minimal that it couldn't even be called a proper collection. Over time, I shifted my mental thinking of what a photo prop was - basically, anything is a photo prop - and I was able to build my prop collection on a budget. I still want to add a lot of things to it, but I've been able to keep my costs at a minimum by following these few tips I'm sharing with you below.
Use this free worksheet
to organize your
photo prop inventory!
1 | SHOP YOUR HOME
There's a strong likelihood that you have a lot of awesome props hiding in the recesses (or even in plain sight!) in your home. Start by opening up closet doors, cupboard doors, peek into the dark corners of your kitchen and bathrooms.
If you're a food blogger or food stylist, your pantry is a goldmine of props! Pull out those rusted and stained baking pans. Trust me - they look amazing on camera.
If you're a fashion blogger or wardrobe stylist, I bet your closet is already filled with some pretty cool accessories and jewelry pieces. I even look in my husband's closet when I need a simple checked fabric. Once zoomed in, you won't even notice that check pattern is actually a men's shirt.
When I'm shopping my home, I like to look for items that have a simple shape, little to no pattern and minimal colors. I also keep in mind the reflective quality of the object, like mirrors. They often cast a glare or reflection that I don't want in my images.
2 | SCOUR THE SHOPS
Once you've looked through your home and determined which items you can use as props, you'll likely realize how many things you want to add. When you're on a budget, start by filling any holes with pieces from dollar stores and thrift shops. I like to shop these places first because you can often find basic pieces for minimal cost.
When you've exhausted the dollar stores and thrift shops, then look to the stores that might cost you more than $5 per item. IKEA and discount home stores are my favorite go-tos.
When I am able, I will shop the antique stores for special items. These are items that have character and personality I might use as a lifestyle prop. I usually keep these antique purchases specifically in my prop library, not to be used for everyday purposes.
The last point I want to make about shopping for your props when you're on a budget is to buy items you would use anyway. If you need vases for floral arrangements, buy ones that would fit in well with your home decor while also doubling as a prop when you need it. Another thing I love buying for my home are live plants. When I need some fresh greenery in my photos, I just pull a potted plant off the shelf. This method not only saves time, but also saves space if you have a home studio.
Use this free worksheet
to organize your
photo prop inventory!
3 | SHOP YOUR FRIENDS' HOMES
If you have stylish friends, raid their homes and ask to borrow their objects. I have a friend whose husband has amassed a huge collection of vintage film props over the years. She lets me borrow whatever I want or need for my photo shoots. (What an awesome friend, huh?) Just make sure to return everything in pristine condition. Of course you know this already!
In addition, I've been able to find some gems in my parents' home. And if you know my parents, you would not think they own anything of value. But for this prop stylist, I love old things [that my husband thinks are junk] which are usually perfect for my photo shoots. Now mind you, 95% of the things in my parents' home are not photograph-worthy, but every once in awhile they surprise me. So it helps to keep your eyes peeled for those special pieces.
4 | FORAGE
Before I got pregnant and spent my mornings sleeping in after an exhausting night of caring for the baby, I used to wake up early to go for a jog at the park. I would walk through the back alley to get there. On garbage days, I'd find lots of containers in the recycling bins to start my vegetable seeds. While digging through other people's garbage, I'd find a cute mason jar here or there to take home, wash and use as a prop in my next photo shoot.
But the best things I like to forage are plants and flowers. I'm lucky to have a lot of nice shrubbery and spring flowers in my backyard, but not everyone is. So keep your eyes open for interesting plants or flowers in your walks or when you're driving about. I do this all the time and have come home with loads of fascinating things I wouldn't have access to otherwise.
I also like to become friends with my neighbors who grow pretty things. This way, I can ask to get a clipping when they bloom. They are usually more than happy to share their garden with you.
Other things you can forage are seashells at the beach, interesting shaped rocks, pine cones in the woods, fallen autumn leaves, fallen branches - oh, the list goes on! What else can you think of that can be foraged?
5 | FREEBIES
If you're not into dumpster diving, then try the next best thing: the free section on Craigslist. Oh. My. God. So many good things can be found here! I've gotten wood scraps to use for backgrounds, terra cotta pots, fabric remnants, and countless furniture pieces that I've redesigned or upcycled. You gotta act fast though because the really awesome items get snatched up quicker than that brown fox jumping over the lazy dog!
I also get a lot of free props as gifts, whether from friends or as part of a grab bag from a conference or fair. The Got Craft? fair here in Vancouver gives out swag bags for the first 50 people. These goodie bags have done well to stock some cute stationery props in my library. My husband is a teacher and he has come home with goodie bags from his professional development conferences. They're usually educational brochures and such, but once in awhile there's something worth photographing in there!
It also pays to get the word out that you're a prop stylist. Without even asking for props, my friends have been asking me if I want any of their "junk" before they pack them up for donation.
You have to be patient when stocking your prop library with freebies. This method works best if you just keep your eyes out for good finds that would be an asset in your library rather than looking for a specific object to use as a prop.
At the end of the day, whether you have a zero budget or an unlimited one, the best thing to do is to build your prop collection slowly. You'll find that you will come across a lot of items once you start to see everything as a photo prop, but there's no sense in adding them all to your library.
With practice, you'll soon find out which items don't photograph well and are just eating up valuable real estate. Don't waste time or money on those duds. Keep your library streamlined and uncluttered. It's better to have quality pieces that will work for a variety of scenarios than to have a bunch of things that you'll struggle to make work.