Clothes & Props Can Make a BIG Difference in Your Portraits!

by Scott Stulberg

I have been fascinated with capturing portraits of people since I was pretty young. It is pretty addicting when you realize how different people can be captured by your camera and also how much control you have over the the final outcome. Whether it is a family member or friend or a beautiful child in some far-off distant land, it really is such a great feeling when you know that you’ve captured something special.

One of the things that I talk about in my class, Eye to Eye, Capturing the Face here at BPSOP, is the importance of props and clothing, two things that can make a huge impact in your final image. So many people do not realize how important it is to try your best to find the right clothing or even add something like a hat or a scarf with your subject and how different you can make your subject look. This is something that is so critical and can help push you to create much better photographs of people whether they are portraits or full-body images and it doesn’t really require all that much work.

“This a mock up cover of my cousin Maya who loves wearing different clothes and props for our fun shoots that we have been doing forever”

When I know I am photographing somebody locally, I try my best to meet them and pick out the clothing for the shoot. I also try and look for any hats, turtlenecks, good-looking tops, scarves, jeans and anything else including jewelry that might really give me what I want from that particular person. Just having them show up to a shoot with what they have decided to bring is not really the best recipe for the best outcome. More often than not, they just show up with what they have on them and with nothing else to change into. This is not really the best way to get different looks and feelings from them as you need a variety of clothing and props to capture your subject in different ways. Whenever possible, it’s best to meet up with them before the shoot and look at their wardrobe and this also includes guys and children, because they might have great things stashed away that can be fantastic for your shoot. My wife Holly and I always have them try on many things well before the shoot and then we have them pack all clothes and props that we want to bring the shoot. This is definitely the key to getting some of your best images of your models and family and friends.

In the image to the right,  of my friend Leah who I love to shoot, I asked her if she had any turtlenecks and she brought a beautiful oversized red one to the shoot, which you can see in the image and we played with it a bunch during the shoot to put it over her head and it ended up giving us a completely different look than if it was just across her shoulders. We wanted to try and capture something different and could never have gotten the look and feel in this image without that oversized turtleneck. And the red color was absolutely beautiful and worked so nicely with her skin and hair color.


In the above image,  before I brought my neighbor and her little daughter to UCLA, where I love to photograph, I looked at some of her scarves and picked out one that I thought would look great on the mother as I knew that the black sweater that we picked out would be very neutral and I wanted to add a little bit of color to make the image pop. The pattern and colors of the scarf were perfect and gave me just what I wanted but I also asked her to look away right when her daughter was staring straight at me. The combination of everything gave me something totally different and just what I was looking for. But I really feel it’s the little added color that made this image pop!


In the next image of the little boy with the mohawk, I wanted to get something completely different of him because of his wild look and I also knew that he really loved music and loved being a DJ. I grabbed some of his headphones and asked him to put them on and also hold them and give me a big smile and then look directly in the camera. He has such a powerful presence that I wanted to capture who he was and with that Mohawk and those headphones, it definitely was a great moment and shows what props can do for a shot and even what a particular haircut can ad to an image.

image_5Sometimes you have to try different things on the fly and hope that you can create something special at a particular moment. I used to go sailing pretty much every weekend when I lived in Los Angeles and we always had different people on the sailboat quite often. Little Melissa used to love coming and has such an adorable face and one afternoon when the light was beautiful I saw that she had a great looking blue sweatshirt and  I asked her to step onto the steps of the cockpit and I pulled the hoodie over her head and asked her to look down. I waited until another sailboat was in the distance and the then framed the image so that I only captured part of Melissa’s face and sweatshirt but also the ocean and the sailboat on the left side. I love the feeling that it conveyed but it was really the blue sweatshirt that I think adding so much to the feeling of this image.

I love the color red, especially on women and children, as it has to be one of the best colors to make your subjects pop and to make the viewer’s of your images stick around for a while. That’s because the color red is so powerful to the senses and often you’ll see photo contests that ask for something to do with the color red. In these next images, all of them have the color red in some way whether it is clothing, or a scarf or even umbrella. I look for anything that can really make a statement and that works well with my subjects; any good props or clothing as I’m always drawn to anything with the color red. You can see in these next images the diversity that you can capture but also the power of the color red with your subjects.  The impact of red can be seen in the red Sari that I bought for Holly on the beaches of Thailand and also on the red Sari of the girl walking the steps in the blue city of Jodhpur in India. The red of the parasol in the monk in the boat in Burma meshes so nicely with the red of his robe. Even the red shirt of little Clayton went perfectly with the red of his hair.  The color red is magical for people and often is just what the doctor ordered!




I also love great jackets with beautiful hoods and often Holly and I will look in antique stores, old clothing stores and just about anywhere hoping to find something special and unique for our models. I love beautiful fur collars whenever I can find them and in the following two images of my friend Sidney, who we love to photograph, you can see two different ways that we use the same jacket. The first one is outside in the forest with available light in the open shade and photographing her straight on. I pulled the fur collar all around her face, making sure that I could still see a little bit of hair on her left side. The combination of  the hood with the fur and the angle of having her lean against the tree, along with the soft light gave me just what I was looking for. Something soft and intimate and showing off her gorgeous face.


And in the next image, we went inside our home and wearing the same jacket, we had her lead against a large window, trying to capture her reflection. I love doing things like this as trying to capture reflections can be difficult but pretty rewarding. I also asked her to give me a totally different look, something powerful and at the same time I wanted to hide one of her eyes with the fur.  Always thinking about different ideas and different setups will keep your images fresh and exciting. Thinking outside the box is crucial for shooting portraits of people, whether they live nearby or abroad.


This last image that I photographed in Burma long ago,  shows how much props and clothing really can help change the whole dynamics and feeling of what you are trying to capture. My friend and I met little San San and her mother while traveling through Bagan one afternoon and I asked her mother if we could come back the next morning, where we would have better light and photograph little San San. We also asked if she could bring a pretty dress and that next morning when we showed up, her mother had bought her a brand-new dress which was so kind of her and also brought a beautiful flower for her hair. It made such a difference and we then asked her to put on some fresh Thanaka face paint, which is what most of the women and children where all throughout Burma. After that was done, I knew we had something special and I brought her up on top of the temples, and I shot in close with my wide-angle, what I call close focus wide-angle photography, and being very close to her face with a wide-angle lens, I was able to capture the breathtaking beauty of the temples of Bagan in the background. The result was an image that I love so much and one that is framed  huge in our bedroom.  But it was all because I knew what I wanted and did not just shoot in the wrong light and say okay to what she was wearing the day before.image_19

When you want something special you have to think what it will take to capture it. You have to push to create and capture it. And clothing and props to me are just as important as the right light and the right location. They can make or break the shot and the more you put into it, definitely the more you will get out of it! Don’t just settle. Go the extra mile and you will be rewarded with people noticing how you capture others!

BPSOP Instructor: Scott Stulberg

Scott Teaches: Eye to Eye: Capturing the Face

“I just wanted to thank you for another wonderful class. I have to confess that each week when I read the new assignment, my first reaction was mild panic and a deep certainty that I would not be able to produce anything worthwhile that fit within the parameters you had set. But before I knew it, the ideas started to flow, and I quickly became obsessed (no, that isn’t too strong a word!) with exploring the possibilities. I can honestly say that the photos I produced in response to your assignments are among my favorites. Thanks for bringing out a creative side I didn’t know I had!”

Barbara Geiger
Understanding Color

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After the click

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