Friday, November 26, 2010

Setting the Stage: Creating Your Scene

Utilizing props can really make your photos something special, even if you're on a budget.

The dream of many amateur photographers is to have a studio of their own. Putting together a permanent set-up, or even a semi-permanent set-up, can be expensive and time-consuming, however. The very process of acquiring and constructing said studio can also be daunting if you've never taken on a task of that nature before.

For practice and fun, you can try working with smaller, more temporary scenery, or simply shoot in rooms that already exist where you live.


Backgrounds
Just like you don't need a fancy camera to take nice photos, you don't have to use a fancy muslin backdrop to have a nice background. You can set up a corner of a room to fit your scene, or use a room as it exists. It's entirely up to your personal tastes and your goal in taking the photos. Something as simple as a formal dining room provides you with a multitude of opportunities. Likewise for a cluttered attic or sun-filled kitchen. Getting outdoors is, as mentioned previously, another good option.

If you like the idea of a professional backdrop versus taking over a room somewhere, you have several options available to you. The most obvious one is to buy a stand and drop cloth. You can purchase from large retailers like Adorama and B&H, or from discount sellers like 2DreamMaker on eBay. You also have the option of buying things in local shops if they're available.

You can create a backdrop with a simple wicker screen 
and cloth from a set of sheer drapes.
Backdrops typically are set up with two lighting stands and a pole crossing between them. The fabric of the backdrop then drapes from the pole in a smooth line onto the floor. If shot properly, it can give the impression of a wall, or a blank space stretching into the distance.

You can purchase these fabric drops in different colors, materials and textures, depending on your personal preference. Lately, I've been drooling over the drop it MODERN vintage back drops. They come in quite a few colors and patterns and look incredibly fun! I think many of them would suit lolita portraits stunningly well (I think I may have seen them in use in a few photos already, but it's hard to say off hand).

T-shaped stands, rather like projector screen stands, are somewhat less common as they are less flexible in terms of size, and not quite as stable. Portable, spring-loaded backgrounds are also available from many retailers, but they're typically smaller than those which rely on stands for support.

DIY Alternatives
You can create a backdrop using a lot of different things. For a close-up portrait, all you really need is a piece of wood or cardboard with fabric stretched tightly over it.  Then, place the board upright behind your model.

For a larger backdrop, use long lengths of fabric (16'/4.8m or more is suggested, so you can have it transition to the floor without a break), two high, sturdy surfaces, and a shower curtain rod. You can balance the rod on anything that stands high enough above your head as to not appear in the photo frame. Ladders and bookshelves are both good options. You can also use something as simple as a folding screen or divider.

You can also paint some really fun scenery on posterboard, foamcore or cardboard if you're up to it. If you cut these out and position them right, you can add a sense of cartoon-like depth to the photos. This works especially well for more whimsical themes, such as renditions of storybooks or fairy tales.

If you're really daring, you can simply remove your model from the photograph you took and use Photoshop to place her in a new scene. This can get a big cheesy if you're not careful, however!

Once you have your background in place, you can move on to the details of your scene.

The room looks like it was designed around Megan!
Furniture
Furniture is technically halfway between a background and a prop. Your model has to interact with it, but it shouldn't be the emphasis of your image.

When coming up with your shoot, try to think of what type of items you want to be in it with your model. Will you need chairs? A table? A cozy recliner? A canopy bed?

Maybe you'll need a neon pink beanbag!

Or maybe the space will be empty of anything but her.

Before you shoot, assess what you want to achieve with your photographs. Are you focusing on the model, or her actions? Do you want to narrate a story, or treat the clothes in an editorial manner? Based on these decisions, determine whether furniture will be an asset or a hindrance to your photographs. If you decide that you want to use furniture in the shoot, move on from there and choose carefully.

There are two basic routes to go with the furniture you decide what to use: contrast or complement.

Think ahead! What will your model be wearing?

Do you want the items to match or act as a counterpoint to that coordinate?

Remember that you can't go wrong with simple, elegantly designed pieces regardless of what your model wears; the colors and details are where you have to get picky. Even if the objects contrast with your model, you don't want them to be so busy as to distract from her. The furniture is a large-scale prop, and she should be dominant over everything else in the frame.

Whether you buy new pieces, use pieces you already have, or borrow from someone else, try to make sure that the furniture you use looks good as a set. It can be jarring (and not in a good way) when your chairs are a different color from your table, or made of an entirely different type of material. You also need to keep in mind what items you'll be using to decorate these surfaces.

You can find amazing items almost anywhere!
Props and Accents
This is the best part of creating a room!

Personally, I have a giant cache of fun props and gadgets for photos, and it's constantly growing a piece at a time. They span a wide range of themes, and very few of them cost more than a few dollars.

You can find extraordinary things everywhere, and you never known what might be handy in a shoot. I in no way to I endorse the practice of compulsive hoarding, but having a few ready-to-go photo props can be mighty useful if you're on a deadline (or just impatient to get started).

If you're not looking for a particular type of prop, but just for neat items in general, your local pawn, antique, and thrift shops will have a bevy of fascinating items for very little money. This is especially the case in large cities which have developed rather quickly. You can find really unusual objects d'art for your photos with only a bit of digging.

You can also check out flea markets, garage sales, and your own attic (or basement, or garage, or shed).

Large hobby and craft stores, like Hobby Lobby, Jo-Ann Fabrics, or Michael's, carry some nifty decor-related items that you can easily turn into useful props in your photos. When I'm looking for a particular item, these are the two stores I typically go to first. I have found everything from glass bottles to wire birdcages to a working spyglass in these hobby shops before.

Something handy to remember: if you're going to a chain hobby store, make sure you check their website before heading out. Often, they will have a discount coupon or two available for you to print out. The coupons typically change once a week, and sometimes from department to department.

It's also a good idea to check these stores right after holidays or at the end of a season, since many things will go straight to the clearance racks when they're no longer "in". They can still be of interest to you!

DIY Alternatives
Just like you can make your own backgrounds, you can also always make your own props. Since there is such a wide variety of available knick-knacks and whats-its, you don't have to be terribly crafty. Simply put, a hand-made item can lend a welcome sense of authenticity and sincerity to your photos, or a sense of whimsy and playfulness.

If you're doing a hand-painted background, it's a good idea to make props to suit. Hansel and Gretel could pretend to devour giant, cardboard cookies or candy. Alice can chase a White Rabbit. Or your tea party can be invaded by killer bows. It's all up to you!


In the end, the scene you set really all depends on what you're trying to achieve with your photos. The key is to make sure that everything is cohesive and unified. Your model should fit in her setting, and her surroundings should fit the theme or message that you want to portray.

Even if you don't have a formal studio in which to shoot, you can always make a cohesive scene of your own. Tell a story, or commentate on the clothes.

The choice is yours, and it doesn't always take big bucks to make it happen.

4 comments:

MarkoManager

I follow your blog...

HSP

There are some great ideas and suggestions here! I wish though, someone could put me into a setting and take a nice photo of myself XD

focusing the lens

@ HSP: That's always how it is, isn't it? It's so hard to get self-timer shots right. XD

Practicepracticepractice and all that. haha

Sparklewolfie

Good suggestions! I wish I could have a fun studio, even though I am not a photographer :P

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