Crew: Props & Backgrounds

Mar 4, 2021

A new assignment asks you to recreate a restaurant meal or prepare for a fashion shoot. Chances are, you'll need some key props or a specific background, but no need to worry — a network of rental houses is ready to help. Establishing a relationship with these local institutions is essential for every photographer.

With apartments size shrinking, not many photographers have the space to store rolls of Colorama backdrops and an assortment of props. And since you're likely to have to update this selection regularly for new shoots, it doesn't make financial sense to try and create your own collection. Rental houses such as Schmidli Backdrops — with locations in New York, Los Angeles and London — are places you should plan on patronizing regularly.

Schmidli Backdrops

Walking through rows of shelves piled with colorful ceramics, drawers of cutlery, and stacks of vintage chairs and furniture for the first time is a thrilling experience. But it can be overwhelming, so do your research first to avoid feeling lost and unprepared, as Chicago-based photographer Kevin Serna advises.

I wish I had known to always create mood boards for myself before any shoot. Take the time to visualize what you want to create, research your location, and think about what you can accomplish. For my mood boards, I'll have images of the location where I'll be photographing, photos of the subject, color swatches that I think suit the spot, and inspirational images that illustrate the feel I'm looking to create for the shoot.

This is an essential part of a photographer's job and one often overlooked by up-and-comers. Before visiting a rental house — locally or online — have a clear idea of what you'll need (preferably in which colors, as well). Even better, have a backup plan in case the items you want are not available. You might be asked to share this information with your client prior to the shoot, and even if it's not a requirement, doing so will avoid unnecessary delays and expenses. Furthermore, it might also help the rental house’s staff advise you on items you had not initially considered.

Unique glass and plate at an intimate setting, by Kevin Serna
An image for which Kevin had to rely on a Props rental house

“We always suggest visiting the facilities, especially if it's your first time hiring from us,” says Piers Herron, co-owner of Backgrounds Prop Hire in London, who goes on to add:

We specialize in props for food commissions, and our stockholding can change by the hour. When you come in, you will be assigned a working space where you can arrange items according to your vision. It is always a good idea to allow plenty of time when you visit and make sure you have a clear idea of what you're looking for — it's easy to get lost otherwise Although we are always happy to make suggestions!

Another thing to consider is time: if you need a background or a prop immediately, a local house might be the best option, though it may limit your choices. If you have time and are planning ahead, consider online outlets. Is there any deal you can take advantage of? Similarly to renting gear, some prop rental houses offer a cheaper day rate over the weekend and for longer rental periods. Always ask what your options are, including for delivery. Depending on the size and quantities of your order, there could be an interesting deal available. Of course, it often helps if you're a returning customer and a familiar face to the staff, part of why we consider building a relationship with a prop house vital to a photographer's success.

Gabriel Manlake
Probably don't have this in your basement: photo by Gabriel Manlake on Unsplash

And you do not need to wait for a commissioned job to start building a relationship with these locations. Use some of your spare time to get acquainted with your local rental house; you might want to consult some of the websites, too. Keep in mind that some online catalogues might be complicated to navigate. My personal favorites are those with the option to search for props and backdrops based on specific aspects — London’s PROPabilities, for example, allows you to search by Era, Room, Color, or Category, making it easier to locate what you need. On the other hand, sometimes less is more and ideas need to be tweaked, as Kevin recalls:

I have often had ideas in my head that sounded great but when I would get to the shoot did not look great, and then I’d panic a little and would scrap my whole game plan just to make something safer that I knew would look good. To create something you really love, you need to sit with it and stretch those creative muscles and play until you find what is going to make the image in your mind a reality. It's usually better than what you intended!

It's easy to get excited if the budget is good and the options are endless, but more props do not necessarily mean better photographs. Have a clear idea of how the final product should look and feel, and then add the props one by one. You might realize you need fewer than planned. If the shot does not feel right, consider removing something and allow your creativity to fill the space instead. After all, props are there to assist your plans, not dictate them. 

Next time you're looking for a prop rental house, use Wonderful Machine's Find Crew page.

If you run a prop rental house and you'd like to be listed on Wonderful Machine, send an email or call us at 610 260 0200.