Adding Props to Senior Portraits

Today's post comes from the book Jeff Smith's Senior Portrait Photography Handbook: A Guide for Professional Digital Photographers by Jeff Smith. It is available from and other fine retailers.

The one thing that you quickly realize when working with clients of high school age is that they are all individuals. While some photographers have you believing that every girl wants to look like a pinup model and every guy wants to show off his ripped abs and bulging biceps, it really isn’t that way. We have many girls who want to do the same painted-background session that their mothers did thirty-some years ago. We also have boys who absolutely do not want to be photographed for anything other than the yearbook.

These varying tastes will need to be evaluated and accommodated for in all of your sessions—and they’ll be particularly obvious when clients bring their personal props to the shoot.

The different props teens bring to their sessions show you how diverse your clients really are.

Personalize with Props
I love when seniors bring in their own personal props. We have photographed everything you could imagine—from guitars, to enormous snakes, and everything in between. To encourage seniors to bring in their personal props, we don’t charge a fee for including them and we mention it in all of our information and phone conversations. (Note: I should mention that even with a great deal of advertising, reminders, and no extra fees, the majority of our seniors do not include these items. Probably one in twenty brings something other that the typical letter jacket or cheer uniform. In other areas it may be more popular, but for our seniors it isn’t a major factor.)

When using large props, it’s especially important not to allow the prop to overwhelm the subject.

Keep the Focus on the Person
When we include a prop in someone’s image, we keep the focus on the person, not the prop. I, like most senior portrait photographers, went through the years of lighting props (like mid-swing baseball bats) on fire and creating what were basically portraits of props with people in them. Today, however, I prefer a simple approach. I like to think we are showing a little of the senior’s personality, not creating an episode of “When Photographers Have Way Too Much Time on Their Hands.” First and foremost, the focus of any portrait must be the person, not the stuff they bring in.When your eyes are drawn to anything in the portrait before you look at the person’s face, you really don’t have a portrait of the person; you have a portrait of the stuff the person brought in.

The Size of the Prop
The way in which we photograph a senior with a prop depends on what the prop is and its size. Smaller props are photographed in head-and-shoulders or waist-up compositions so they are visible. These props would be things like books, a football/soccer ball/basketball, or small stuffed

While some props are perfect to hold, like a guitar or other musical instrument, others are better displayed in the background or on the floor where the subject is sitting. Posters, paintings, jerseys, and uniforms fall into this category. These types of items fill the space around the subject to become the background/foreground.

Showing only part of the prop can help keep the attention on the subject of the portrait.

The next groups of props are the large ones—the quads, motorcycles, cars, trucks, buildings, etc. When I photograph these props, I minimize their visual weight by turning them into background elements. I do the same thing when I photograph seniors and teens with our studio’s Viper. If I were to put the subject inside the car, there would be a photograph of a huge car with a person’s head sticking out of it—not a real strong selling point. If, instead, I bring the person in front of the car, I can make the Viper fall into the background so the person remains the focus of the portrait. This is the same idea I use when photographing people with the Harley; the motorcycle either becomes the background or we isolate only a portion of the bike to form a foreground/background element in a head-and-shoulders pose.

While we have modified our studio to allow the Viper to be moved in and out, I don’t want to take the time to bring in seniors’ own cars and trucks—not to mention the fact that summers in Fresno are incredibly hot and the air conditioning has to work hard enough to keep the studio cool without large doors opening and closing all day.

When a senior wants to use a prop that is too large to get through the front door, we set up an appointment at one of our outdoor locations. Many seniors want to be photographed with their car or truck, and this is done outdoors. Since we live an area that has many farms and ranches, it is also very common for seniors to want to be photographed with horses or other livestock. The idea is always the same with these additions: reduce the apparent size of the larger prop by putting it into the background or capturing just the most important part. Horses are a good example. Not only are they huge, but horse owners are always very fussy about the placement of the legs and the position of the horse’s body. The best way to avoid investing undue time in horse posing is just to photograph the head of the horse. Of course, even this is hard enough, because horse people want both ears up and forward.

Props don’t have to be shown as they are usually used. Here, a creative pose allowed the skateboard to be incorporated into a casual head-and-shoulders portrait.

Final Thoughts
Whatever your subject might bring in, you need to find a way to position it somewhere in the frame where it will be noticeable but not overpowering.When you see the variety of props that come in with seniors, you’ll really begin to understand how diverse this market is. Your first senior will want to be photographed with a Bible, the next will have gothic props; one senior will bring a new BMW or Corvette, the next will wheel out an old tractor—you never know.


1 comment:

  1. Very good work there.When you see a variety of props and the elderly, you will really start to understand how the market is diversified. Your first senior to be a Bible photographed in the future will have Gothic props.Thanks for sharing.

    Charleston Family Photographer