Prop it Like it's Hot: Where to Source the Best Accessories for Styling Your Photo

With Michelle Hartnett from @two_at_a_tea_party

Hi everyone! I’m really excited to join you this week to talk about one of my favourite parts of creating visual content: sourcing styling props. Props are right up there with composition and lighting when it comes to creating interesting, well balanced, and engaging images. They’re the styling tools that help tell a visual story, add colour and texture, create tone, and enhance the mood and ambience of your images.

But before you race out on a prop shopping spree, it’s always a good idea to have a clear picture in your mind about what you want to photograph, and the style of images you want to create. I specialise in vintage styling props so when I’m sourcing, I have a definite “look” in mind and often very specific items on my shopping list. I’m a big list person - mostly so I don’t forget anything - but also so I don’t come home empty-handed or, worse still, with a car load of “stuff” that has no purpose other than cluttering up my prop cupboard!  Sourcing a useful, interesting, and photo-worthy prop collection comes down to a little bit of planning, knowing where to look, and buying what you need. There’s also no harm in throwing in a few eye-catching items if the budget allows! Prop sourcing should be a fun extension of your creative process. So here’s a few of my favourite “go-to” sourcing suggestions to help get you started!  


WEEKEND TREASURE HUNTING

I always keep an eye on my local newspapers to find out when and where garage sales, fairs,  markets, and auctions are being held in my region and neighbourhood. I’m always amazed at what other people give away, toss, or are prepared to part with! Just point me in the direction of a local hall festooned with banners advertising, ‘Market this Saturday!’ or a hand-painted roadside sign directing, ‘Garage Sale This Way!’ and my little styling heart starts to skip a beat in anticipation! I’ve found some of my all-time favourite props at these types of events including this buttery soft, age marked, sheet music from the 1920s; these rustic rolling pins;  and these chippy, wooden handled kitchen utensils. Items like these are perfect for introducing points of interest to your photos- they can either be the star of your image or the supporting act.  


GATHERING PROPS ON A BUDGET

When it comes to sourcing and gathering styling props without spending a fortune, you can’t go past second-hand stores- also known as Op, Thrift, Goodwill, and Charity shops depending on what part of the world you live in. You can find items to use and re-purpose as styling props for only a few dollars, from just about every era, that will suit any style of image you may be creating. I can’t go past anything vintage- especially old paper sewing patterns. As you can see here, I’ve used them as a background in the first photo, as a prop in the second image, and I’ve even been known to put them to use as wrapping paper! Anything that’s practical AND photogenic is definitely top shelf prop cupboard material!

And just another tip - if you’re going to be a regular customer at your local charity store, make sure you introduce yourself. I always let my local volunteers know if I’m looking for something in particular and also check in with them, at least once a week, to see if any interesting items (for me that means old, rusty or tarnished!) have been dropped in.


TELL PEOPLE WHAT YOU DO

I love it when friends or family turn up at my door with “things”- like this rustic kerosene lantern found during a shed clean-out; vintage bakeware that had been hiding in the back of a cupboard; and some lovely old French postcards that were a holiday find at an art market. I admit to doing a little happy dance while I was finding a spot for this lot in the prop cupboard! By letting people know that you’re building, or creating, your prop collection, you might just be surprised what treasures come your way- either as a gift or as something someone may be willing to sell to you.


HARDWARE STORES

I have a bit of a thing for tools and hardware (OK, maybe a big thing!). I’ve been known to spend hours wandering the aisles of hardware stores and warehouses, looking for bits and pieces that can be used to add texture, interest, or balance to my images - particularly to flat lays. Keep your eye out for items like paint swatches, little pots of succulents and plants, bags of pebbles, interesting door handles and knobs, metal tubs, tins, watering cans, and gardening tools. Items like the ones I’ve used here - a simple bag of screws, a ball of twine, and a garden fork (that I rubbed back with a piece of sandpaper to create a rustic, textured look) can all work really well as inexpensive but effective styling props.


VARIETY, CRAFT, AND OFFICE STATIONERY STORES

Variety stores (like Kmart and Target) offer a smorgasbord of inexpensive homewares props in every on-trend style, shape, colour, and design. And while I love hanging out in these aisles (and have been know to bring home quite a few props to play with), I also frequent the craft and stationery sections. I often buy patterned or plain craft paper to tie together a themed image- like in the ‘Autumn Story’ flat lay below. This image also includes some transparent leaves that I spied in the craft aisle and incorporated into the photo as a textural element. Office stationery stores and specialist craft stores are also great sources for props. In this second image, a plain, black, fabric covered journal, some artist pencils, and craft paper from my local stationery store helped tie together this travel themed image. And when I just can’t find what I’m looking for, I’ll head to a craft store for materials to make my own props-like the luggage tags used in this final image. Sometimes prop sourcing is a matter of thinking outside of the square!


PROPS FROM MOTHER NATURE

You can’t go past botanical styling props to add some interest, colour, or simply an “Isn’t that beautiful!” factor to your images. Flowers, berries, leaves, twigs, seed pods, sea shells, driftwood, fruit, buds, blossoms and all those other lovely natural elements we see incorporated into beautifully crafted images on Instagram are as easily obtained as walking out into your garden, or heading down to your local park, nature reserve, or beach. And who doesn’t love sourcing props when you can collaborate with gorgeous Mother Nature herself!

 A FINAL NOTE

Sourcing styling props is great fun and very satisfying, but it also takes lots of time. So if there aren’t enough hours in the day to run around town, online sourcing is your answer. Online marketplaces, like Etsy and eBay, and online auctions, offer an almost endless array of collectables, vintage goods, and hand-crafted items from seriously talented makers that you can use as props. A quick Google search will also locate companies that offer props for hire if you’re working on projects with a styling budget. Everything from linen and silverware to major pieces of furniture and homewares can be sourced online and delivered for a fee. No running required!

Wherever, and however, you chose to source your props - just remember to have fun with it! Grab some like-minded creative friends and head out one weekend and see what you can find. Just remember to take that prop shopping list with you - and coffee money! Because prop sourcing days should always be fuelled by a lovely lunch somewhere and frequent coffee and cake stops! Enjoy!

Michelle x

Instagram @two_at_a_tea_party

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