Reader question: props and shoots

Let’s go behind the scenes of a magazine shoot, shall we? Last week when I posted the Studio City Makeover shoot for HGTV Magazine a reader asked, “What happens to the props that you bring to the house for a shoot? Do they stay there or do you take everything back?” Excellent question. Ready for a 1300 word answer?

Or maybe just a two word answer: it depends.

domino cover emily henderson

styled by Emily Henderson, 2009

If it’s for a magazine where we are featuring a house designed by someone else (not me or the stylist) normally the magazine wants to art direct it and make it, say, “less serious,” “more colorful,” or “not so designed.” So even if the homeowner/designer has great stuff, the magazine might want to change it out a bit just for the shoot. Most of the time designers don’t fully have the budget (or clients don’t want to pay them for their time) to do “the final layer” as I put it and yes, it just needs accessories and styling. It needs that layer of personality through accessories and art.

Often we’ll replace club chairs, rugs, or art if it’s not the right vibe. For magazines you bring in A TON of books, plants, art, lighting, vessels, objects, pillows, throws, frames, and yes, even food. The amount of pretty glass (and often French) water bottles that I’ve purchased is uncountable. Or lemons — but not just any lemons. Lemons with leaves on them. Learn this, future stylists, everything in a more natural state looks better — chunky rustic loafs of bread, a bowl of fruit with their leaves on, when the leaves ever so naturally fall over the lip of the beautifully hand-thrown bowl. Hell, you even want the water carafe or jug of juice to be either 1/3 full or 2/3 full, NOT 1/2 full (HA) and certainly not all the way full. That’s not “natural.”  2/3 is my personal favorite, so yes, I’ll pour it out to be that full. Totally nuts.

I digress.

coastal living david tsay

Photo by David Tsay, Styled by Emily Henderson

Stylists rent most of the props from prop houses or design stores. If you are shooting in New York you’ll rent from amazing prop houses (Lost and Found, The Prop Company) that charge what seems like a lot, but the service they provide is priceless (which I didn’t realize until I moved to LA and there are just buildings full of garbage calling themselves “prop houses”). How much exactly? Often close to the retail price, which seems crazy, right? But think about doing an entertaining story and renting six glasses, six plates, six bowls, etc, and then three different sets as options of those things.

Not only is it crazy convenient and saves you hours, nay, DAYS, to get them all from the same place, but you can also see how they look together, edit them, add to them, take photos, etc, but the rental places have to wrap everything VERY carefully and then unwrap them when they come back (often one week rental) and store them year round. So yes, they are crazy expensive, but worth it because they are taking the financial risk of inventory and they provide that service. I’m not sure why I am all of a sudden a major advocate for prop houses, but since I’ve started selling, I realize how much more goes into having a furniture/prop business.


Photos by David Tsay, styled by Emily Henderson, Coastal Living Magazine

There are pretty much no prop houses anywhere but New York (I don’t know about SF). I mean, OF COURSE, LA has them, it’s Hollywood, but they are full of ’90s sofas or baroque (and bAroke) furniture, and drawers of “spoons” instead of spoons. It’s all props for movie sets where you aren’t necessarily needing that perfect hemstitched linen napkin, or that hand-blown slightly blue water glass. You want a mid-century sofa? Sure. But don’t expect it to be particularly special or cheap. A sofa is normally around $300 to rent, by the way.

 David Tsay, big sur

Photo by David Tsay, styled by Emily Henderson for Coastal Living

But you can also rent from most home furnishing stores. In LA they are called “studio rentals,” left over from Hollywood studio days. They are normally 15 percent to 30 percent of the retail price, and normally just for three days. The smart stores do this (it’s free money), the scared stores don’t because, yes things get damaged, and it causes a big old pain in the arse.

Of course you can’t rent from big box stores, so, uh … yeah … you buy and return, BUT BUT BUT BUT, A) they get credit in the publication and B) I ALWAYS try to keep at least 30 percent of the receipt total, even if I’m going out of pocket. Cindy taught me early on that it’s just kinda rude to use them just because they have good customer service. If I have time to plan (ha) I’ll email my PR contacts at the company and ask for pieces, and if they are interested they’ll send them and we’ll send back afterward (unless we open and use, say, dishes). But there are times when I’m just cruising by an Anthropologie or West Elm the night before a shoot and yeah, I buy $300 worth of things that no, I don’t intend on keeping, and YES I bring back $200 of them. I feel like I’m at some sort of confessional right now. Like I’m purging my styling sins. Please don’t take advantage of the system and instead try to keep something. PLEASE.

Moving on.

Often smaller design stores will let you borrow items for a shoot if it’s for a publication or a big blog. This is just for the shoot, you have to bring it right back and credit the hell out of them. For a company to get an item in a magazine or featured in a big blog is a big “get” for them and it’s so good for their marketing and PR. It’s free advertising, basically. In fact, I was at a local LA design store the other day and I asked to borrow a blanket for a few hours for a shoot to feature on my blog and they said “We don’t do that.” I wanted to get all Julia-Roberts-in-Pretty-Woman-Big-Mistake on them. But then I checked myself, slapped myself emotionally on the face, and chanted “Stay grounded you self important ‘blogger’,” which tends to work. Anyway.

bon appetit cover

Photo by Misha Gravenor, Styled by Emily Henderson

But that doesn’t answer your question: what happens to the props after a shoot?

Well, if they are rented or borrowed they are returned to the prop house or store. If they are purchased but can’t be returned, then the magazine and the stylist “take care of it” in which case the editors or stylist kinda divvy it up. Obviously this is a massive perk. The amount of times I’ve answer the question, “Where’d you get this?” with a “It was left over from a shoot” is countless. Some magazines (Martha Stewart) have a prop house and they are crazy anal about every single toothpick being inventoried, but many know that storing and maintaining that prop house is actually more expensive than the props themselves so most magazines don’t do it.

peonies centerpiece

Styled by Emily Henderson, for Martha Stewart

BUT, I’m in an interesting position where I’m designing the house, with real homeowners involved, and styling the shoots. So it’s my goal to style and shoot it with everything they like and with pieces they can keep. Then, essentially, they “shop the shoot” and kinda buy everything they want and it stays in the exact place that I styled it in. It’s not like I get them all their furniture, then for the shoot I bring in all these amazing accessories that they can’t actually have. That would be mean.

… Well, actually, I have. I had one client once that couldn’t spend one more dollar and needed so many accessories. I still needed to shoot their place for my blog so I brought in accessories, moved things from room to room so it felt “full” and “finished,” and yes, took it all with me before they even saw them. That is not ideal. But I wasn’t going to shoot an unfinished space nor was I going to not shoot it because I made so little off of the project that at least I needed to get blog content. I digress. This glass of wine sure is making me chatty …


Photo by TeriLyn Fisher, Styled by Emily Henderson

With Bri’s house, Ian’s house, Rachna’s house and well, most of the houses, they keep as much as they want and it’s normally 90 percent of the pieces. Rachna’s husband wasn’t psyched about a piece of art that I brought for the shoot so of course I took it with me instead of charging them for it. In a bedroom shoot last week (stay tuned) we could NOT find the right throw for the end of the bed so we borrowed a $500 blanket that we never had the intention of keeping. We accidentally left it styled on the bed and I went back that night to get it and the homeowners WHO LOVED IT were so bummed it was $500 and I felt terrible.

So there are cases when they are removed, but for the most part I try to buy things they love and can afford, and they buy them from me after the shoot. It is SOOO much easier than getting approval for each individual accessory, trying to tell them where it’s going to go, what it’s going to go next to, why it works, etc. I love to just style it how I love it and hopefully they love it too and buy everything.

I’m on word count #1257. That’s a lot of words to answer that question. But it’s clearly not a simple answer.

Any questions?

  1. Wow! What a great insider view of your profession! It’s like “confessions of a stylist!” No, but seriously! Don’t feel bad about returning things to Anthropologie. EVERYBODY has! Am I right, ladies? Now I’ll be looking for those little food details in magazine spreads; 2/3 full orange juice container, fruit with the leaves still on, and rustic bread. I would agree that food does look better in its natural state – imagine a painting of lemons without the leaves! So blah!

    Thanks for sharing all of this info with us!

  2. I love this article…. I just had a shoot yesterday for a condo I designed. The client was a bachelor who spent a shit load of money on furniture, lighting, wallpaper, etc but wanted to spend 0 dollars on accessorizing. I desperately need to update my portfolio so I hauled tons of my own stuff one, borrowed art, did A LOT of buying and returning. So much work. But hopefully worth it…

  3. the real secrets of styling, and like the differences between NY and LA, fascinating, thank you.
    my question: food styling: did you have to tweak, ie., place the bacon bits on the bon appetit cover?

  4. Jane

    Dear Emily, Your blog is outstanding in so many ways! But mostly because as an above average interested person in interior design, I learn so much here! Such an interesting insight and also totally understandable approach. As for the 500 USD blanket – oh well ;) more often than not the really nice stuff we tend to fall in love with instantly is on the pricey side I think. xox Jane

  5. Absolutely adored this post and learned so much from it. It’s amazing how much thought you put into a reader question…this is one of the many reasons we keep coming back! Good tips about the lemons and the water jug…I’ll have to keep those in mind. I’m styling my bar cart right now that I will hopefully shoot this summer.

  6. Thank you! That was so interesting to read, because I’ve been wondering about that myself forever (well, since I’ve started reading all these designery blogs anyway!).
    Also, I am wondering about why I never thought to just ask.

  7. This might just be the best post I have ever read. I am a new designer and I have several projects that I need photographed, but you are SO right, the client never has the budget for those last details. Thank thank thank you!


  8. What a great look behind the scenes! Honestly makes me feel better about my own home not always being photo shoot ready. :)

  9. Holly

    I can’t tell you how completely grateful I am for this blog – I learn SO much here and it made me brave enough to actually do something about my living space, which I’m now so much happier with. And even when I don’t learn anything, it is just so much fun! (You should always have a glass of wine when you blog… ha, ha!) Thank you :o)

  10. What great insight into the styling world! Thanks for the many, many words—I love everything you have to say! In fact, if you feel like grabbing another glass of wine and typing up some more words, I would love to know how you got into styling and how you suggest students break into the field. :-)

  11. Stella Conrad

    Love love love this kind of post! Fantastic background info, so great to have the inside scoop. Brilliant.

  12. It is definitely easier to return an item to West Elm than the flea market ; ) For my vintage “leftovers”, I try to sell off what I can on craigslist and just move on. Sadly, I have to accept it as a cost of being in business and building my portfolio. However, you are so right, it is particularly a bummer when the profit on a project was low to begin with.

    Love seeing your recent projects.

  13. Donna

    I worked for a publishing company years ago and loved walking through the room that held the accessories for photo shoots…shelves and shelves full of goodies!!!

  14. I love this sort of information. I once saw a room on the homeowner’s blog and then the same room in a magazine and the whole carpet had changed–it was very confusing to a lot of people, but I figured that the magazine changed the carpet for the shoot to fit their style better.

    • Emily

      There are some houses (in particular this brownstone in the West Village owned by a magazine editor) that i’ve shot in like 5 times and every time we’ve made them so different. Now i can still spot it in magazines, styled different every time. Its so funny. I don’t think a lot of people would notice, but you really can transform a space with the styling, for sure.

  15. wow — extremely interseting – I had no idea. thanks for sharing the inside scoop.

  16. Facinating! I’ve had 2 photoshoots done of my home and neither magazine provided a stylist or really changed much of what I had already styled. I have another coming up soon – I do wonder if this is a US-centric thing? Or do they do this in the UK as well and I’ve just not been privvy to it? Regardless, it makes incredibly interesting reading and so grateful for you sharing the knowledge! x

    • Emily

      Oh, that is interesting. It could be that you did a really good job, OR that the magazines are less controlling there. Send links to your house! It must be awesome if two magazines have shot it. Share!

  17. Ale

    Thank you so much for such an informative post! Read the whole thing and got so much out of it, it has been “pinned” for further reference. It made me wonder about something else though…who pays for the photographer? I am considering a move into Interiors Photography and wonder who foots the bill for the photographer. In the case of a magazine shoot, I am assuming them, but then do the designer/stylist get to use the photos as well?

    • Emily

      The photographer gets paid by the magazine and they technically ‘own’ the photo with the magazine, its kinda confusing. And yes, we stylist have access but we technically have to ask permission for usage. Its an outdated system in my book. I’ll work for a year on a house, and a week styling it and then i don’t get equal credit to own it? Weird. But when i hire a photographer i make sure that we have shared ownership and i don’t have to ask for permission. Most photographers are totally cool with this and know that its weird that they get to ‘own’ everything.

  18. Eagle Eye

    Thank you so much for answering my question in such depth (I’m feeling pretty special right now!)!

    This is really just fascinating, I know nothing about being a stylist or a designer – and all of this information is just great!
    (Sorry for my lack of English skills – had a long day – although this post definitely made my day :-) )

    • Emily

      THAT WAS YOU!!! I couldn’t find the comment. Otherwise i would have put your name (Eagle Eye? That’s an excellent name) in the post. Thanks for asking. Clearly it was a popular question. :) Got any more?

      • Eagle Eye

        Hah! Thanks! Eagle Eye is because I’m an art historian and can always spot a good parking space!
        Although now I’m feeling the pressure to think of a 1500 word question! I’ll keep you posted (maybe after my papers are done and my brain returns?)
        Thanks again for the awesome answer to my question!

  19. Sammy

    Wow! Great post. Thanks for sharing. You should drink and blog more often! ~HA! It’s good when you’re chatty. : )


  20. Thanks for sharing the behind-the-scenes details. I guess I’ve known for a while that most spaces in magazines are changed for the shoot, but when I’m looking at the shots, I usually forget about it. Or if I think about it, I’m wondering which items are the homeowner’s and which were brought in.

    It would be fun to have a stylist come into my home and see what she/he would do. I agree that it’s that last layer that’s usually missing in most homes. I know I could use a few extra touches here and there!

  21. Betsy

    Hi Emily, I thrift a LOT and when I am on the fence about something, I always ask myself, “Would Emily Henderson buy this”? Well, tonight, I found something that has totally confused me… a padded, velvet covered parsons table with a mirrored top. It’s awesome and tacky all at once. Thoughts? It’s $10.

    • Emily

      UM, for $10 you have to get it. It sounds terrifying, but also kinda awesome. I mean, i like velvet, i like parsons tables, and i like mirrors … so there is a good chance that its intentions are at east good. :)

  22. sg5785

    Fascinating! Getting all the accessories, making everything perfect, and then having the client walk in… now the only question is, do you think the same approach could work with my wife? Well, I’d better keep all the receipts :)

  23. Jihane

    Thank you for the post, very interesting AND funny !

  24. cheryl

    Posts like this one train the eye. Very helpful. Stores stand to make money even if items are returned because readers will fall in love with a prop they see in a photo. Seeing Michelle Armas’ work on your
    website in a shoot photo led me to purchasing two of her pieces. Same goes for a vase from Elephant Ceramics that West Elm carried for awhile.

    Still challenging to place objects in my home so they look natural and happy. Leaves left on lemons, a glass 2/3 full, plants help a ton.

    How do you toss or place a throw so that it works?

  25. sue

    fab post emily… this is the kind of stuff that keeps me coming back for more!

  26. i really love this post! i don’t think you have done one of these longer posts in a while of sharing secret tips. the tips you gave are really “secrets from a stylist”….ha!

  27. Caitlin

    Um, I’m not trying to be a debby downer here, but I was kind of bummed out by the breezy disclaimer that stylist buy a bunch of stuff, use it for a shoot, then return it. It just seems a bit dishonest to me, because the next person who buys it is buying “used” merchandise as “new” even if it was handled really carefully.

  28. Crystal

    You are so open with your information, and that is very cool! Fascinating post. I think the stores get the pay off in advertising even though you often buy and return.

  29. Staci

    Thanks for providing such an honest answer to the question! To piggyback off of Caitlin there, it really sucks in the retail world to take back merchandise, like she said, not for the next person to buy it but for the sales team that needs to make certain daily quotas.
    I *do* appreciate the part about contacting the small business and making your intentions clear that you are borrowing it and will credit, or contacting the corporate office and giving them a heads up so they can send you the item or letting a local store know.

  30. Hi Emily! My first comment here, though I have been a fan for years… Thank you for posting this! I have been in the design “world” for about 7 years and recently broke free on my own a few months ago. I’ve been wondering about all of this and your post has really helped me! You are my biggest design inspiration. Keep it up! Hope to work with you someday! XO -Caitlin

  31. Also, I disagree with the other Caitlin’s comment. Big box stores are getting credit and free advertising and quite frankly, can take the hit. If someone is worried about getting a “second hand” vase that had it’s picture taken, I think that’s wasteful and lame. It’s not like clothes or toilet paper! Geez… It is tough though for small stores which is why they should work out a policy for designers/stylists. I worked at an independent furniture store in Orange County for 5 years, City Life Home Furnishings. We had designers come in and cherry pick accessories for installations. We wouldn’t count the sale or commission until they paid their sales order when returning all of the unwanted merchandise. Often they’d return 25-70% of the merchandise but all together we’d make around 10K per month which is a lot for a small independent! So it’s a good thing! It also gets the store’s name out there!

  32. Wow!
    Thank you so much for sharing this. I do residential design and I do pretty well with getting the client the basic plans and products. I really struggle with getting the space 100% styled and often I bring accessories to the shoot and cross my fingers they like what they see!!
    Thank you for sharing your stories and strategy, so helpful!

  33. Gayleen

    I miss Domino Magazine. The special editions they have put out lately are just recycled pictures from when they were in print….so disappointing.

  34. Pingback: Shelf Styling | Volatizing The Esters

  35. 1vaoHl This is one awesome post.Much thanks again. Really Great.

  36. Rp3ZbK Thanks so much for the blog post. Much obliged.

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