At some point in your photography journey you are going to explore the wonderful world of photography props. Whether you are a photography beginner, or you have been shooting for a while, you can never underestimate the value of a good prop!
Photography props can be expensive! So whenever I can get my hands on a cheap photography prop I get very excited. In fact, just because a prop is inexpensive does not mean it is somehow “less than.” Actually, my favorite photography prop, the one I use in many, many of my photographs, is probably the cheapest kind of prop I have in my magic prop box. And it is….drumroll please…..FABRIC!
Yep! Just a simple piece of fabric, used the right way, can make for an amazing photography prop. Throughout my photography career I have used fabric as a prop more times than I can count.
When I first started taking photographs, I would get so frustrated. Having already forked out a ton of money for a camera, I couldn’t afford to buy the beautiful dresses and props that I admired in other photographer’s work. I felt like my images were lacking that magical quality that I so desperately wanted to create and express.
Clothing makes a huge difference in the quality of your images and it took me a while to realize this. I was shooting everything else correctly. The location was beautiful, the sunlight was filtering in at just the right angle, and my subjects were poised perfectly, but something was just off. It wasn’t until I realized that the colors and textures in my subjects’ clothing were clashing with everything else in the image and were literally distracting the viewer. It seems so obvious to me now, but as a beginner photographer I had no clue about this important element of photography.
But I was determined to find a way to create the images I wanted on a tight budget. So, I decided if I could’t afford to buy what I wanted I was going to make it. Even now that I have more expensive props, I find I still love and often prefer using fabric.
Ok, so how do you use this fabric? Let me count the ways…
As a “Dress”
Frequently, I will use a piece of fabric as a makeshift dress for my subject. This has been especially helpful when I am doing maternity shoots and my subject has a very limited wardrobe because of her growing size. I simply wrap the fabric around their midsection/chest and pin it behind them.
The best part is, that unlike a dress, which will only fit someone of a certain size, fabric can be used with subjects of all different shapes and sizes so you can use it again and again (making it an even more budget friendly photography prop).
Use Fabric Clips
You can use styling clips which will hold your fabric in place. They are specially made to tighten garments on a model to make it fit properly for photographs. I have tried using clothespins, but they don’t seem to have enough grip and the fabric eventually starts to slide down. On a couple of shoots I actually had clothespins fall apart which was a little embarassing.
I do not recommend using safety pins. You don’t want to risk accidentally hurting your subject with the pin. Be aware that depending on the angle you are shooting, you may have to edit the clips out later in photoshop. OR you can just be very careful to place your clips out of the camera’s view.
Now some slippage is inevitable and you will have to readjust from time to time depending on how active your subject is while you are shooting. But I find that the benefits far outweigh these minor inconveniences. I always, always bring my fabric with me whenever I shoot for clients and it has come in handy more times than I can count.
A Tip for an Even More Elaborate Dress
Another great way to use fabric is as a base. What do I mean? In this image of my daughter I wanted to capture the essence of fall. So, she and I took a little walk together and collected some beautiful fall leaves.
We brought them home, laid out our lovely piece of soft, brown fabric on the table and used doubled sided tape to attach the leaves to the fabric. Because she was literally only going to be wearing this “dress” for the few minutes that I was photographing her, I wasn’t worried about the leaves sticking for very long. Since I knew I just wanted my makeshift dress to last long enough for me to photograph my daughter in, it worked out perfectly. I was able to create a beautiful outfit for my daughter to wear in this shot with an inexpensive piece of fabric and free leaves from our yard.
As a Shawl
This is pretty self explanatory. You can see in the image below how I draped the fabric over my subject’s shoulder’s. It ads a pop of color and dimension to the photo. And of course serves another purpose in this particular photo because it covers up parts of the subject that they would prefer not to be seen in the photograph
As a Veil/Crown/Wrap/Headpiece
You can also use fabric on the head of your subject as a veil, crown, wrap or whatever you can think of. I find that this works well with smaller pieces of fabric. In the image below I wrapped a simple piece of lace around my daughter’s head. It works perfectly in this image and adds beautiful texture to the photograph.
As a Prop
Fabric can also be used as a prop for your subject to hold. In the image of this young woman you can see that the fabric gives her a purpose, or at least a sense of doing something instead of just posing for the camera and it makes for a more dynamic image. Again, you get that sense of movement in an otherwise still image. It also gives you a feel for the weather, because you get the sense that the wind is ripping through the air. It adds more depth to the story or “feeling” you are attempting to create.
As a Blanket
Wait what? Don’t you just mean use a blanket. Well, yes blankets are great, but an nice blanket can set you back some serious $$. Generally, it’s a lot cheaper to use a large piece of fabric. I have used fabric in place of a blanket many times. Simply place a piece of fabric on the ground for your subject to sit or lay on. You can also wrap your subject in fabric just as if it were a blanket. This is a good tool to remember if you are really looking for some ways to create great images on a budget. I have a couple of blankets that I really love using, but my favorite one costs almost $200.
As a Cape
This is a fun way to use a piece of fabric. Just tie it loosely around their shoulders and you have a great little cape for your subject. This is a lot of fun when photographing children and they love it. It has comes in handy when trying to photograph a child who just doesn’t want to sit still. In fact I have a whole post about photographing children here.
Nothing will get your child subject more excited than being able to run around with a cape on. When you are trying to get some fun images of children this technique is definitely worth a shot.
Where to get your fabric
So that’s it! If you are looking for cheap photography props to take your images to the next level, then I can’t recommend fabric highly enough. You can find inexpensive (or expensive if you want) fabric at stores like Joann Fabrics, Michaels, or even online. I have found some great pieces on Fabric.com.
Etsy also has a lot of great options, especially if you are looking for fabrics for newborn photography. Etsy seems to have a plethora of gorgeous baby wraps. They are made out of all different kinds of unique fabric like soft gauze, stretchy lace, and soft furs.
A note of caution about buying online. I do find that it is nice to actually see and feel the fabric in person before you buy. I always consider how well the fabric is going to drape and flow before I make my final choice. You need to think about how you plan to use your fabric as a prop in your photo. Are you using it as a makeshift “dress”? If so, you want something that is going to drape nicely against your subject’s body. If you want it to be flowing in the air behind your subject then be sure that your fabric is light and airy.
And of course color is key! You want to pick a color that flatters your subject’s hair, eyes, and skin tones, and also something that goes well with whatever you are planning to use in your background. Never forget your setting. For example, I probably am not going to use a heavier faux fur fabric for photos on the beach, but it would go nicely in a snowy winter scene.
Don’t forget faux fur fabric! Until I started photography I didn’t realize how many different kinds of cool faux fur fabrics there are available. They are great for laying a baby or small child on and it gives them something soft and cuddly to snuggle in.
The longer the fabric the better. I typically buy at least three yards if I find a fabric I’m in love with. That way I know I’m sure to have as much as I need and can always cut it later if I so chose. If your fabric is long then you are much less likely to “run out” of it.
As you can see in the photos below of the little girl, the extra fabric ripples down on the ground below her. It reminds me of waves or a pool of water. In the image of the expecting mother the fabric doesn’t reach the ground but billows in the wind behind her. In both images the fabric is creating a sense of movement in an otherwise still photograph. Because I had a long piece of fabric I was able to use it on two subjects that were very different in size.
So there you have it! Fabric is a great tool to add to your photography prop kit. First of all, it is beautiful and second of all, you can’t beat the bang you get for your buck. My pieces of fabric are some of the most inexpensive props I own. But I wouldn’t be caught shooting with out them on hand. As always, I hope that sharing the lessons I have learned in my photography journey helps you on your own. Good luck!