How To Build A Prop Collection Like a Pro

When I first started this product styling gig I had a little shelf that I stored all my props on, that shelf has since ballooned into three floor to ceiling shelving units, numerous other lockers, shelves, baskets and drawers that now fill an entire room that is now bursting at the seams.  I consider myself a fairly organised person and I certainly started out with all the good intentions of giving items a home and making sure they stay there, but these props have a mind of their own and slowly that have started their crusade to take over our house.

When I first started Revised Edition I used everything that I already had at home for my images, then slowly as things took off I had to constantly purchase new props just to keep the images fresh and interesting.  I am currently at the stage where I have a pretty good selection of the basics and the things I buy now are mainly specialised for a particular project or little treasures that I just can’t pass up. Product styling is my full-time job and I have certainly invested some money and time into searching out and purchasing the right props for my projects but there are also a number of ways you can create a good collection without having to spend a fortune.

My favourite props and must have items:

Out of all my props I think my most used pieces would be my linen tea towels and napkins. They are so versatile and I use them in almost all of my product styling, from food to beauty and home décor they are perfect for adding softness to an image and they just fit so well into any setting. They also have the great scrunch factor (it’s a thing!), when you scrunch linen up it holds its creases and instead of just having a flat piece of material you have created more texture and movement just with that one scrunch, bonus!

The cutlery section of my prop cupboard would also be one of the most visited. Obviously, I use cutlery for food styling but there is always call for a little wooden spoon in some beauty shots or a jar full of vintage cutlery for a homeware shot so it is more versatile than just food.  Currently I have a collection of vintage and new wooden utensils, vintage silver cutlery, gold cutlery, black cutlery, rose gold cutlery and a standard old set of Nood silver cutlery that I found in a second-hand shop for a steal and decided to actually use at home.

I think one of the my cheapest and most used props would be a little bag of walnuts, in their shells, that I brought from a fruit market some time ago now.  These things are just the gift that keeps on giving, they are great whole as they bring a nice texture and neutral tone to images but smashed into pieces and they add even more texture and movement to shots.  I have even kept the ones that I have smashed in a separate container so that I can just throw them in shot when required without having to smash up the entire bag – how’s that for being thrifty?!

Salt is another big one for me, I love to use salt in cooking and where others might add a delicate pinch of salt I am a lot more heavy-handed.  Obviously salt is great for food shots and I can honestly say it is probably hiding somewhere in all my food photos, but as with the cutlery it is also good for adding natural texture to beauty shots and for using if you are styling kitchen décor.  I always used the natural flaky sea salt but have also recently taken a liking to pink rock salt for beauty images. It is reasonably cheap to buy and you can use it you cooking as well as your images, win win!

Other items that I could not live without include:

Notebooks – So good in so many situations plus they’re cheap and functional for all your thoughts and ideas.

Vases – I never seem to have enough vases and I’m always on the look out new ones, I love a mixture of new Scandi style and vintage.

Scatter items – The final details of an image, rings, petals, paperclips, coffee beans those small objects that bring movement.

Building your own collection:

If you are just looking for a few props to up your product photography game or you just like getting creative with great imagery for your personal Instagram, you need props, so where do you start?

What to buy:

Start out by building a base of necessary items that you are always going to use in your images, figure out what the main subject of your images is going to be and start of list of all the most common items that would go with your theme.  If you are going to be photographing mostly food for example you might list plates, cutlery, spices etc If you are styling shots of beauty products then you list might involve linen, dried flowers or foliage or natural ingredients.  If you are styling images for your personal Instagram about your travel experiences then you may want some notebooks, maps, Polaroids etc. Once you have your list you can start to gather these items and as you start using them in your images you will begin to notice there are other things that you would also like to purchase, this all becomes clear pretty quickly so keep an ongoing list of things you need to source and keep ticking it off as the budget allows.

I find the best way to make it look like you have a spectacular collection of props is to choose investment pieces wisely, these are things you know you are going to get the most use out of or are the hero items of your image.  A mixture of investment pieces and cheaper second-hand pieces makes a collection more interesting and it keeps me inspired to find new ways to use these pieces.  Typically for investment pieces I would choose timeless items, not something that is the latest fad.  It should have neutral colour palette that will stand the test of time and work with any number of colour combinations and settings and also if it serves you for personal use as well then what’s stopping you?!

How to buy:

Prop collections are a very serious business for any product stylist and if you are keen to have a collection of beautiful items that evolves with your photography then you have to commit.  Don’t just buy the first thing you see, I have totally been guilty of this in the past but I have learned to search out the right items, check pricing at different stores and always see if you could get the same or similar item second-hand for a lot less money.  Some items are definitely worth investing in, but on the flip side there are some things that I would always try and go cheap.

 Make sure you are on the mailing lists of all your favourite stores, it is always good to be the first to know when they are releasing a new collection or when they are having a sale, an item you couldn’t afford last week may all of a sudden become more attainable.  Make wish lists of items that you would love to purchase then you can whey up your wish items from each store and decide which ones are the most necessary.

Another great way of finding new treasures is to save your favourite Trade Me searches and get emails when new listings are added.  This requires little effort on your part and even if there is one little treasure in that email then it is worth it, it also saves you all that time searching though lists and lists of items that you are not necessarily interested in.

Hunt out any good second-hand stores in your area and visit them regularly, people drop off items at these stores on a daily basis even though there was nothing there yesterday today might be a different story.  I find you really need to invest time in going over these stores with a fine-tooth comb, If I just pop in for a quick browse then I am not giving it the attention it deserves and this is when you could be missing something vital.  Always go into these stores with time on your hands and a list of items that you would most love to find, obviously there are going to be other treasures that pop up that absolutely cannot be left behind but make sure you really think about your purchase, what you going to use them for, do they match with other items you already own or it just going to be something that you are going to be sick of next week?

As your collection evolves and your tastes change, I find it is good to have a regular clean out to take some of the items that you no longer use back to the second-hand store for someone else to benefit from.  This keeps your collection fresh and doesn’t have your house looking like a junk store. It is also key to have great storage and organisation for your prop collection, you need to be able to see what you have at a glance so you don’t double up on items when they are buried at the back of cupboard.

Where to buy:

As mentioned above your local second-hand stores are the key to making your prop collection unique and interesting, they are filled with other peoples trash which can easily become your treasure and it so much fun searching for those must have pieces and timeless treasures.

Trade me is another place to check in with regularly. If there is something in particular that you need it is a good idea to see if you can find one here first as it might be cheaper and have more character than new items.

I know there are so many Kmart fans out there and I am most definitely one of them.  Kmart is a great place to find bargain, on-trend items for a fraction of the cost of what you would buy from a fancy design store.  However, I have learnt to be very selective about what I buy from here, some items do look incredibly low quality and you would be better off getting something from second-hand store.  This is obviously not the place to find investment pieces but it’s great for all those everyday items that may not necessarily stand the test of time but look great now and you will get a lot of use out them.

For something a little nicer that you are willing to spend a little bit more money on I love Citta Design, I have purchased the bulk of my linen from there and also a large portion of my crockery and other homeware items.  Their collections are made up of beautiful neutral colours and textures that fit well into most situations and styles.  I also love Paper Plane store, Perch Homeware, Shut the Front Door, Cotton and Clay and Belle la Vie, check them out!

Get creative and use what’s around you:

If consistently updating what you have in your prop arsenal is important to you then you will soon learn that reusing and reinventing items is going to become essential.  Tired of that old vase, photo frame, candle holder that purchased last year?  A coat of paint can work wonders and totally give it a whole new life.  Don’t underestimate the power of a test pot or can of spray paint, they instantly give you a new item and save you time and money by using something you already have instead of buying more items. Learn how to dry out old flowers, this is a biggie as flowers can be pricey and if you can get more use out of them in future then it makes sense to take full advantage.

Another place to find props that have a double use is the pantry, you could be sitting on a prop goldmine and not even know it.  My favourites from the pantry include salt, chilli flakes, dried chillis, cinnamon sticks, star anise, lemons and more recently dried orange slices.  These are all items that you might already have which means no extra cost – double use items are always better!

Magazines – oh my where would I be without magazines, a magazine feature can be the jumping off point for an image or it can be the support cast to your hero item, either way mags are something everyone has lying around, it is a cost-effective prop that you can sit down with a cuppa and read before and after you have photographed it.  Can’t get much better than that!  My favourites are Vogue and Donna Hay food magazines.

Plants look great in your house and if you have a few floating around you can totally use them in your images to add that little green accent without having to spend a fortune of flowers.  On that note you need to become an expert forager, if you are lucky enough to be green fingered and have an amazing garden (or family or friends who have an amazing garden) then good for you, that gives you so many more natural prop options and you should make the most of that!  Our garden is not likely to appear in any gardening magazines anytime soon sadly but I still always manage to find a great mixture of leaves, flowers, sticks etc to use in my images. Get snipping!

In conclusion:

I could go on about props for some time, I think the most important things to keep in mind is that your collection should always be evolving. Something you liked this time last year may not be your favourite thing anymore, so reinvent it, sell it or donate it to a second-hand store and get something else to replace it.  Always consider pricing and shop around. Before you get rid of anything ask yourself if perhaps there is a way you get your DIY on and repurpose it, it’s a good idea to have a collection of test pots or spray paint on hand so that you can update these items. Buy thoughtfully, consider what you need this item for and how it going to serve you in future, buying multi-purpose items is definitely key.

Make sure you have fun with your collection and make it unique to you, it should be fun sourcing all these items, who doesn’t love a spot of shopping and getting to do it for work?!? What can I say… I love my job!

Until next time, Nikki xo