Working with Prop Stylists - Part 2

At the Shoot
Prop stylists organize the delivery of props to and from the shoot, as well as build or oversee the construction of the set. At the shoot, the prop stylist prepares the set for each shot, assisting the photographer and food stylist in the placement and arrangement of all the visual elements. In addition, the prop stylist helps maintain an organized flow of the shoot. As you can imagine, good communication and camaraderie between the photographer, food stylist, and prop stylist is the best recipe for success!

After the food is on the set, the prop stylist should stay nearby in case items need to be changed or moved to create a totally harmonious image. When the photographer and client are happy with the set, then the prop stylist should begin preparing for the next shot. After the shoot is completed, the prop stylist must clean and repackage all props, and handle the return of rented or borrowed items. If room sets were built, the prop stylist dismantles them, stores them in the studio, or returns them.

Note: The stylist must organize all receipts for returns and client billing. Keeping peel-and-stick labels and a good marker on hand to place on packages or bags when using messengers is a good practice. After completing all the returns, the prop stylist calculates the final cost of props for the client's invoice.

Understanding Style
One of the most important characteristics of a good prop stylist is a keen understanding of style. The stylist can choose an array of props to evoke many themes such as modern, contemporary, traditional, ethnic, futuristic, or surreal. They can also use props to stimulate emotions serious, dreamy, romantic, or playful.

Once the style of a picture is decided, work begins on design. Each shot has a key element, which is why no two shots are ever the same. The key elements are affected by how the shot is going to be used in the layout vertically or horizontally, how the camera will "see" the set, and how the food will be placed on the dishes. To achieve the desired design, the prop stylist needs to understand how the elements of color, size, texture, and patterns in the food are affected by the dishware, silverware, flowers, glasses, plates, and backgrounds.

For example, in creating a vertical shot where the key element is in the center, the prop stylist will create the set from the center out. The stylist will place the featured dish in the center, and then fill in the shot by placing smaller or lower items in front of the dish and taller items in the background never using items that will distract from the featured dish. The prop stylist builds the set around the featured item and helps create the final vision. In this way, prop styling is a little like baking a cake. At first, the cake is simple, but then it is decorated delicately, always keeping in mind balance, color, texture, and overall design.

Color is of utmost importance when styling a shot. The color of the food, or the color scheme of a setting, will determine what props can or cannot be used. Many prop stylists create their own personal notebooks, which contain Pantone sheets, fabric swatches, and paint tabs, to help them in the process of selecting complementary props. These can be especially useful in larger photo shoots.

Tip: When speaking to the client, it is very important to listen for specific words or phrases that describe a color or mood for example, "earth tones," "vibrant colors," "rich tones," "pastels," and so on. This is especially helpful when clients are unable to name a specific color.

Tip: If gels are used to change the color of the light in a scene, the color of the props also will be affected. The prop stylist and the photographer should work together when it comes to the selection of gels.

Size and Proportion
Common sense is not always the order of the day when deciding what size plate should be used with that piece of fish you are shooting. From the photographer's perspective and angle of shooting, a 10-inch dinner plate could overwhelm the photograph; a six-inch salad plate may be a better choice.

It is up to the photographer and client to decide at what lens perspective and angle the camera is "seeing" the set. Adjusting the size and front-to-back position of props is another technique that can affect the apparent depth of a photograph.

Now for the key ingredient: food. Depending on the client's vision for the shot, food can be viewed as provocative, fun, or simple, yet it must always look appetizing and delicious. Placing the props so they maintain harmony and balance with the food is critical.

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