Working with Prop Stylists - Part 1

The prop stylist is integral to making a photo shoot successful. Put simply, while the photographer captures the story that the client wants to tell, the food and prop stylists are the artists who create the story. It is a team effort. In particular, the prop stylist determines the visual elements needed to get the shot. The prop stylist must be a savvy, smart shopper, must be well-organized, and must be resourceful and prudent in his or her use of time. Prop stylists must also be able to work within tight budget constraints. In addition, patience and flexibility are traits that go a long way.

Note: It is critical that the prop stylist understands what the photographer and client want, and anticipates ways to help them achieve their creative vision.

The Creative Process
At the start of a project, the prop stylist acquires information from the photographer and client about the concept and vision for the shoot. This includes a shot list, which describes each photograph to be taken and the recipes that will be used. The prop stylist discusses with the photographer, food stylist, and client the overall design elements, background, surface materials, and accessories that will be required. Budgets are also established at this time.

After styles, designs, and colors have been determined, the prop stylist develops a production list and a prop list. The production list is, in fact, an annotated shot list that describes the creative specifications of each shot, including the following:

  • Tabletop or room setting
  • Themes and motifs (for example, traditional, modern, or ethnic)
  • Colors and textures of tablecloths, napkins, and dishware
  • Serving sizes for each recipe
  • Condiments and beverages that might be included

Note: The production list is a continuous work in progress, and is often adjusted and modified as the project proceeds.

The prop list is created from the production list. It lists the specific plate, glass, flatware, tablecloth, and accessories that will be used for each shot, as well as the exact background and surface materials. This is the prop stylist's "shopping list."

Basic Considerations
In almost every shoot, there are some basic considerations that the prop stylist must address:

How many shots are there?
Do the pictures have to match a style that is always used for a particular product, client, catalog, or magazine? If so, then the stylist will need to obtain as much information as possible from previous shoots. He or she should ask the client for tear sheets, or track down the previous photographer for information.

What are the proportions of the shot a partial or full dish, a meal, a table setting, or a complete room set?
A meal shot might include lasagna with salad, garlic toast, and drinks for one person. This might be on a table with minimal props or simply the dish on a surface. A table setting would include plates or portions for more than one guest, and may also include serving dishes with full table dressing. A complete room set could show a table setting with dining furniture, wall units, and lighting.

What is the budget? 
This should be firmly established. If not, the prop stylist will need to provide the client with a realistic estimate of how much the entire prop expenditure will be. Be sure to take into consideration the expense of having multiple choices for each prop, as well as delivery of props. Once you have a definitive estimate, discuss whether all the planned props can be obtained, or if items must be removed because of budget constraints.

Tip: It's imperative that you get your client's night and weekend phone numbers. That way, when shopping for props at off hours, you can maintain contact with your clients. You never know when you'll find that perfect item that's just outside your budget!

Locating Props
Props may be available in the photographer's studio, or may come from the stylist's own collection. Depending on the budget and requirements of the shoot, the stylist may purchase new props such as napkins, dishware, and glasses, which can be used on the shoot and in other projects for that photographer or client. Other props, such as a large coffee urn that would not be used again, might be rented. The same is true for large surface and background materials, such as tabletops, chairs, wall units, and other decorative items. Many large cities boast prop houses that cater to professional photographers and stylists for just this purpose. Consignment and antique shops, as well as other local retail shops, are other good prop sources, even for rentals. Weekly rental fees typically run 2030 percent of the item's retail price.

Tip: Stylists should keep track of the props used with specific shots because it is sometimes possible to use the same prop in another shot, thereby saving time and money. For example, a platter on which food is featured in one shot might be used as a background prop in another.

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