I get lots of emails about how to get into prop styling (my work here). It seems to be a dream career for a lot of people these days. I love it because it’s an immediate way for me to create a story using props and flowers which are my medium as unfortunately I wasn’t born with a painting or musical or ballerina/modern dancing (much to my chagrin) talent.
What is a prop stylist? A prop stylist shops for and gathers a selection of props for photo shoots. The shoots might be editorials for magazines or advertising shoots for catalogs or websites. It might be a photo shoot all about food recipes, or a fashion story, or an interior design story. There are many types of stylists: food, wardrobe, prop, floral, hair, makeup, and more. I am a prop stylist with a specialty in floral styling given my background as a floral designer. The prop stylist is normally responsible for executing the vision of the art director. Sometimes their vision is a vague, one sentence description you can run with, other times, it’s a very specific, pantone color swatch, list of props instruction. The prop stylist will shop for props (might be dishes for food, tables, furniture, backdrops, depending on the type of shoot), show up on set and organize all the props, and put together the set for the photographer. While the photographer shoots the photo, the stylist will watch in the camera or tethered laptop for styling changes that might need to be made and adjusts as necessary, working closely with the photographer. At the end of the shoot, the prop stylist will pack everything up and return the props.
Where do you procure all your props? Several ways. In big cities like LA and NYC, they have prop houses and studio rental services at stores, where you can go in and rent props. In smaller cities, like Portland, where I worked, you shop around to different boutiques and shops who will charge you a 20-30% rental fee. Unfortunately, another common practice in the industry, is the buy and return (exclusively at large chain stores), where you walk into a shop, buy something, and then return it after the shoot. Courtesy says you should buy 20-30% off the receipt. In a small town like Portland, it’s a bit tough to buy and return all the time, as people are going to block you from buying if you do this every week. I prefer to make PR contacts with chain stores and try to work out a loan or rental (this is easier if it’s an editorial and they will receive credit in the publication). At the end of the shoot you return the props to the stores or prop houses, or give anything purchased to the client. Once in a while, they’ll say just keep it, obviously fresh things like food and flowers go home with the crew.
Who buys the props?
Big clients often expect the prop stylist to purchase props upfront and they don’t plan on reimbursing you usually for several months. I’ve seen this happen with up to a $10,000 budget, where the stylist is asked to front this amount of props and set materials. Sometimes with smaller clients or nice ones, you can get a cash advance. This is probably my least favorite part of the job. I won’t write an angsty post about it but there’s really not much way to get around it. If you are fronting several shoots at a time, unless you have a big line of credit or personal money you would like to just throw at a big company for a few months, plan on buying props for a lot of big name clients upwards of $10,000 and not get reimbursed for 90 days. Eeeek!
Is it creative?
It really depends on the job. They are all so different, which is why it can be a fun job. For advertising jobs there are a lot of opinions, and any cool ideas will most likely get watered down into something pretty boring at the end of all the opinions weighing in. Editorials pay less but are much more creative, and in my experience the art directors on these jobs give the prop stylist a lot more leeway.
What do you like about it?
I absolutely love working with a good team. It’s incredibly inspiring to be challenged by a super creative art director it or photographer. It’s awesome when everyone just let’s their egos go and chips in to make the best photos possible. In these cases, it feels like making art.
Did you study or go to school to be a stylist?
I have a degree in Art History and Curatorial Studies so I was trained to look at photos and art in a critical way and break them down. I have a background in floral design. I helped some stylists but mostly just started working with photographers on just for fun shoots to start getting experience. A few amazing mentors helped me a long the way (Nicole Gerulat, Jen Gotch, Pia Bijkerk, Lisa Warninger). I suggest though, if you can, to apprentice with a stylist so you can really learn the ins and outs before diving in head first.
What type of schedule and hours should I expect?
Most stylists are freelance. Plan on working 24/7 practically if you are on a job (which could be anywhere from one day to a month or two). I love that you work like crazy for a few weeks normally, and then have some time off (hopefully!). It’s fun that it changes up so often.
Are you still styling? Do you need an assistant?
I take on a few jobs a year when the match is right. You can see my latest work here. I have a few assistants I work with but am not searching at the moment.
It seems like a glamorous job where you get to play with pretty things all day long. Is that true?
The most rewarding part for me, is making art with a good team and then seeing it in print. Plan on long days of shopping and errands, schlepping, and moving and debating over important decisions like which tea cups you should buy and getting the impossible done on the shortest deadline possible. If you love moving, you will love prop styling!
See a behind-the-scenes of me working right here.
Hit me up with any questions in the comments!
Top photo by me. Bottom photo by Lisa Warninger.