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Through the Shutter

Prop Up Your Pictures

December 14, 1986|ANN PURCELL and CARL PURCELL | The Purcells are professional photographers.

Certain colorful props can add zip and visual vitality to your pictures.

The straw hat with the bright pink ribbon worn by the blonde model in Vogue or Glamour is not there by chance. Some clever photographer, art director or fashion coordinator chose it to give the picture that special something. You can be an art director with your own pictures by choosing the right props.

Several years ago we bought a bright red umbrella in a Paris boutique along the Champs-Elysees. That umbrella has traveled with us to such exotic places as Rio de Janeiro, the Dead Sea in Israel, Glacier Bay in Alaska and to our tenting camp in Kenya.

The umbrella has added a splash of bright color to many of our travel pictures. It is a prop, something useful or colorful for location pictures. It can brighten a rainy day, but the umbrella can also be carried open to shade a person from the sun.

Signature Umbrella

Many scenes tend to be monotones, especially those with large areas of green foliage. To some extent we may have overdone the red umbrella in our pictures. In fact it has almost become a Purcell trade mark and is recognized by many picture editors.

Anyone can buy a brightly colored umbrella and use it as a photography prop, but there are many other useful props for pictures.

Props fall into two categories, those you carry with you and those you find in the field. Hats and colorful clothes can be very helpful on location. In choosing your wardrobe (or your companion's), keep in mind what will show up well in a photograph. That floppy straw hat with a colored band is chic and an item worth packing. Red sweaters or T-shirts show up very well in color.

We have often found a colorful bunch of flowers helpful to place on the table when dining alfresco in Paris. They make a fine background for a bottle and two glasses of white wine and voila!-- you have a still life that might appear in the pages of Gourmet magazine. Your bunch of flowers can also be used as an out-of-focus foreground when photographing buildings that are basically gray and colorless.

Anything Goes

Props can be anything: books, bicycles, kites, sunglasses, cameras, food or even cars. Enhance the environmental flavor of your photograph with a bottle of wine, a loaf of French bread, a beach umbrella, balloons, silk ribbons, candles, a globe of the world, etc.

We carry mirrored sunglasses and use them on models (or ourselves). They will turn anyone into a cool cat with the Matterhorn or the Arc de Triomphe reflected in the mirror surface of the glasses. Use a close-focusing lens and get your subject to shift position until the desired reflection is centered in the glasses. Focus on that image, cropping tightly on the person's face for a striking picture.

Our favorite picture with the red umbrella was taken at the Dead Sea in Israel. It showed the model floating on the surface of that salt-saturated water, wearing a red hat and shading herself with the umbrella.

That inland sea is the lowest point on Earth. The mineral-laden waters are reputed to have therapeutic qualities. There is no doubt that it is relaxing to float on the surface, and the density of salt is so great that you can't sink.

The high rate of evaporation over the Dead Sea creates a scene where the sky blends with the water, creating a hazy pale blue background. Our picture with the red umbrella showed a relaxed figure that seemed to float in space. Without the umbrella there would have been no picture, but with it we created a striking magazine cover that has been used time and time again.

No Limit to Props

Props should suit your purpose and your photographic environment. When possible and appropriate, they should be brightly colored. For some pictures, that aspect is secondary to the prop. The list of props is limited only by the photographer's imagination.

Placing the props skillfully in your composition is an exercise of great control over your artistic product, in much the same way that a painter creates a composition on canvas. To some extent you are constructing the image to your own specifications, a technique often used by advertising photographers.

As you travel on your next vacation, carry a few colorful and imaginative props with you in addition to your cameras. Props used creatively can help you create more effective travel pictures.

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