How to Become a Prop Stylist

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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.

Here’s a quick run down for those who are curious about what prop styling is but I highly recommend reading these posts by Emily Henderson who will tell you the down and dirty of the job.

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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!

Cheers!

Top photo by me. Bottom photo by Lisa Warninger.

xo

21 Comments

  1. What an interesting post Chelsea! I know how hard you work and how intense it is!! Bravo to anyone starting out….

    Cheers,
    Shirley xoxo

  2. Hi Chelsea,

    I love your work and have been a follower for quite some time. I really enjoyed this article. I’ve done a bunch of wardrobe styling in the past, but am interested in transferring into prop and interior styling. My question to you is what are your recommendations for getting jobs? Do you reach out to companies and what do you send them? What would you recommend the best way to get started? Is being an apprentice the only way to go?

    Thanks.

    Ali

    • I have similar questions like Ali’s. I’m working on a Portfolio to show prospective clients and I plan on sending companies a link to my portfolio and a pitch/ideas for images…I live in a small town so I am limited in some ways. I would be interested in how you started out trying to get a job and the best way to do this. Thanks again for this informative article!

  3. Very interesting post! Love the things you do and it really sound like the perfect job I want 😀 Thanks for sharing and absolutely love the photos, they look amazing.

    Best wishes,
    Jovita

  4. Hi all!

    Thanks for the comments! To answer your questions:

    I definitely recommend working with photographers to get started on a portfolio. It sounds like you probably already have contacts that you could do some test shoots with. I recommend making a website of your work ( I love Dripbook and Format) and sending that out to art directors and photographers. Networking with these people will help put you on people’s radars for jobs. You could also make a book or put together a porfolio on an ipad and present it to agents. I highly recommend being an apprentice or working as an assistant first. You’ll learn all the tools and tricks and everything you should have in your kit. You could also just start putting together shoots and put them on a blog. 90% of my work comes from my blog or from the internet and social media. Other times it’s word of mouth from other shoots I’ve done. SEO and Linked In have been surprisingly effective as well. If there’s a publication you really like, perhaps try to get published in there. There are lots of art and indie magazines that are a great way to showcase your work. Usually they don’t pay but the work I’ve done for free for small publications has often landed me commercial jobs. I also spent a few years creating online content before I started getting commercial work. Once I got a few commercial jobs, it gave me the credentials to get more work like that. It’s a great way to start out and it helped me build a portfolio. Keep in mind the wedding world is separate from commercial work. Most commercial clients don’t want to see any wedding work unless its editorial or advertising so be sure to keep wedding content separate from the rest of your portfolio. Hope that helps!Let me know if you have more questions. Thanks, guys! xoxo

  5. In my dreams I am a prop stylist as lovey as you, but in my real life I am an editor, which is why I’m quietly letting you know you have a typo in your headline that makes you a sylist rather than a stylist. xxx

  6. Hey!

    My sister is a prop stylist, living in NYC. She has just recently branched off from her main employer, to pursue a freelance prop stylist career of her own. Anyways, here I am trying to be a good brother and get her something nice for christmas this year. Something that will assist her to grow in this demanding and ever expanding field. Might you have any ideas for gifts this year? I look forward to hearing back from you. Cheers!

  7. Hi there, thank you for this wonderful post!
    I am a budding prop stylist in LA, but have worked up to this point only on music videos, commercials and TV promos. I would much prefer to work in print, and am inching my way towards that goal.
    I have plans to move to Portland soon, and am hoping to find work as a prop stylist in the print world over there. I am wondering, based on your experience as a stylist in Portland, if you have any advice or essential info to pass on to those of us who would like to work as prop stylists over there?
    Thank you so much!

  8. Hi there, I work as a prop stylist and art director for mostly interior designers and architects. I agree with you that its a lot of hard work and far from glamorous but can be very satisfying and fun to work with a good team. Here’s my questions… I’ve noticed that photographers are almost always credited for their images in press and social media, Art Directors sometimes but stylists pretty much never- at least for interiors. Has this been your experience? Any insights or comments would be appreciated! Thanks.

  9. I am a designer and I do not want to become a stylist however I am very attracted to product photography, food photography and was always wondering how some designers get really good how shooting a beautiful image with great assets on it. Taaa daaaa, I have my answer now! Need to learn more on this for my personal projects. I am thankful I found your blog today as you gave me a really good answer and objective view on the topic!

  10. Hi Chelsea, I’ve known about you and your wonderful blog for quite a long time and found this post which I must say is incredibly spot on in describing the life and times of a prop stylist. Everything you say is so honest and truthful about all the hard work that goes into putting together a beautiful photo. I wanted to mention that I am teaching a prop styling course this Spring in NYC in case you know anyone who wants to kickstart their portfolio and meet other creatives with the same dream. I’ve been teaching a styling class at FIT for the last 8 years and this is a new and exciting venture. I hope you’ll share this with your readers, and I wish you the best!

    • Hi Robin,

      I wish I had scene this post and your comment earlier this year! I was in NYC and would love to have attended your prop styling course! Any chance you’ll be in the Pacific Northwest in the coming months, or can you recommend any courses in this area (I’m in Seattle)? I’m thrilled to know there are one-off courses available for those of us with this creative streak that will not let us rest 😉

      Cheers!

  11. Hi Chelsea, I have followed your wonderful blog for a long time now and found this post so informative. Your description of the life and times of a prop stylist is so spot on. You speak with such honesty and clarity about all the hard work that goes on behind the scenes at a photo shoot, but how rewarding it can be as well. I wanted to share that I am teaching a prop styling class in New York City. I’ve been on the faculty of the Fashion Institute of Technology for 8 years teaching a photo styling course and this is a brand new venture for me. This will be a great opportunity for people to kickstart a styling portfolio and meet like minded creatives with the same dream. Would you kindly share this with your readers? I would be so grateful. All the best to you.

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