Stylized Photography | Composition + Staging

With the rise of Instagram, Pinterest, and consumer-generated editorial magazines, stylized photography is an incredibly indispensable and lucrative skill to have if you are interested in a career in interior design or advertising/branding. Because stylized photography and prop photography are such a broad topics, we’ll be focusing on still life photography taken with a cell phone. In this three-part series, I’ll be sharing the key to photo composition, tips and tricks for the perfect shot, and how to stage and style props. Ultimately, this guide will build up to photographing a still life scene: a summer dinner party.

I started high school in 2004, before the Dawn of the iPhone. Hardly anyone – aside from the spirited yearbook club – took pictures, and I am grateful for that because I religiously wore a pair of black and green board shorts in land-locked Arkansas, and that choice doesn’t need to be photo-documented.

Growing up, my dad got the camera out for special occasions – birthdays, Christmas, recitals – but he also captured my sister and I doing unremarkable things like practicing piano or petting our cats. While in high school, my dad began taking my sister and me on vacations every summer. Our first trip was to Los Angeles, California. I took the obvious photos, like snaps of The Getty and the Hollywood sign, but I also documented the trip by taking photos of the hotel bed – there’s something to be said for crisp white sheets and a dark wooden headboard – and meals I wanted to savor long after we finished eating. My dad remarked that I had a good eye, which I brushed off because I was 15 and like, duh, he doesn’t know anything.

Fast forward to 2012 when I got my first iPhone, only five years after they debuted. I downloaded Instagram a few months later as a space to record small moments in my life, like grabbing coffee with a friend or a summer night at the drive-in movie. After all, all the small moments in our lives are our lives.

I have never pictured (see what I did there?) myself as a photographer, but I have always been very intentional about the pictures I take. And after I began working as an Engagement Specialist at Community Care College, I received the opportunity to explore stylized/prop photography for our colleges and salon. This is where my fascination with stylized photography began.

When the team and I sat down to discuss the editorial calendar for July, one of my co-workers suggested I write a post about stylized photography for our Interior Design blog. I immediately chided my ability to write something that would be valuable (or even entertaining) because I have only been focusing on stylized photography for a year and, honestly, because I can be susceptible to self-doubt. I don’t claim to know everything about stylized/prop photography, but I have learned a few things along the way, and I would love to share those lessons and tricks with you.

The key to good composition is to examine every detail in the photo, and then arrange or place those components in a way that complements the subject itself. 

FRAMING: When a subject is framed well, the eye is naturally drawn to the main point of the photo. Look at the photos below. When you first glance at the photo on the left, what is the first thing you see? If you saw the gift wrapped in glitter-gold ribbon, then you discovered the focal point. With stylized photography, your goal is to highlight a certain product or prop. With the photo on the right, where does your eye naturally focus? The book, right? I took this photo for an Instagram contest with Camille Styles. The prompt was to share how we were using her new book, Camille Styles Entertaining, to inspire our next gathering or show our own interpretation of the book’s philosophy. Because it was the holiday season, I wanted to tell the story of an afternoon of gift wrapping and baking in preparation for a cookie swap I was hosting the following week. When you’re staging your subject for a photo, it’s important to fill the frame – be careful not to crowd the subject – to complete the image. Ask yourself, “Does this element add to the overall image I’m going for?” I could have gotten my point across with the book, the gift wrap, and the plate of Christmas treats, but adding the small Christmas trees gave my photo context and contributed toward the final photo. In the second and third installment of this series, I’ll be sharing how to create a theme and tips to make a photo feel finished. I ended up winning the contest, so arranging the props a thousand different ways and taking the photo a couple dozen times really paid off, too.

Framing

REPITITION: They say doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is the definition of insanity, but that doesn’t apply to stylized photography. When shooting stylized photography, half the fun for me is re-arranging the props and taking multiple photos from different angles and perspectives to achieve the perfect shot. To be transparent, all the stylized photos on my Instagram feed are taken more than once, sometimes as little as twice, but often as many as fifteen times. Ten minutes can easily pass before I realize I just re-arranged the props four times and perched, craned, kneeled, and squatted over the area I’m shooting. Don’t be afraid to eliminate, add, or move your props around and always try out a few angles. After all, the magic shot could be waiting when you move one prop two inches to the left or lower your cell phone/camera three inches toward the subject.

CROPPING: Always crop, never zoom. In cell phone photography especially, the zoom feature is a digital zoom and not an optical zoom, so pinching your fingers on the screen to zoom in/out will actually cause you to lose image quality. Zooming isn’t worth sacrificing the caliber of your photo. If you need to eliminate a distracting background or want a more detailed shot, get close to your subject. In both photos below, I wanted a bright, summery background to help the six-ingredient stir fry and the ice cream sandwiches really pop. Summertime in Oklahoma gets really hot, so I like to spend as little time in the kitchen as possible, and more time eating cold treats on the back porch. I don’t have any colorful surfaces in my home, but there is a bright yellow broken chair out back waiting to be chopped for fire wood. If I hadn’t cropped these images, you would see the splintered armrest and the concrete flooring of the patio. Be intentional with your cropping and you will keep the integrity of your photo. (Here’s a fantastic post about cropping and framing by stylist Emily Henderson that I would highly recommend checking out.) In the second installment of this series, we’ll dive deeper into backgrounds and how you can make the most of any backdrop, even if it is a broken chair.

Cropping

RULE OF THIRDS: A guide to composition and styling wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the rule of thirds. For seasoned photographers, this advice might elicit a few groans, but it’s an established principle of photography for a reason and is definitely worth exploring. When positioning your phone (or camera) imagine a grid of two horizontal lines and two vertical lines and arrange the subject(s) of your photo along those lines or at the intersection where the lines meet. This technique creates complexity, balance, and provides a challenge to creatively use the negative space. The best part about this technique? It doesn’t have to be perfect. Instead of placing your props directly in the center of the photo, move them off-center. In the photos below, the composition of the ornaments and cocktails are much more interesting than if these items had been placed squarely in the middle of the photo. The larger photo features the rule of third grid – the faint line you see over the image – while the inset shows what the image looked like on Instagram.

Rule of Thirds GridIn the second installment of this series, I’ll be sharing tips and lessons I’ve learned since focusing on intentional, stylized cellphone photography. We’ll discuss lighting, backgrounds, editing, and I’ll let you in on a few tricks I’ve learned along the way.

If you’re in the Interior Design program at Clary Sage College, now is a great time to begin taking photos of your projects and accomplishments for your portfolio. Your portfolio is the best visual tool to show potential employers and brand partners your education, skills, and ideas. Having purposeful, staged photos of your work will only enhance their experience of discovering your talents.

I’ll be back next week with the second post of the series. If you have any questions in the meantime, drop ‘em in the comments – I’d love to get a conversation going with you.

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