A Portrait With A Prop

I don’t often bring props into my portraits: they have to be there for a reason. In this case, the prop belonged to my subject, and it was the perfect way of visually revealing a little about the man himself.

This is Alex McAleer, who is better known as ‘Alex The Mind Reader’. I photographed him as part of the Champions of Magic series. His shoot in our studio is the reason why we have a signed playing card stuck to our ceiling…

Picking the right prop

This was one of the craziest shoots I’ve ever done. There were random props everywhere, including doves, wands, hats, swords, a fake pistol and a portable Nespresso machine.

His act is mind reading, which you may have predicted from his name (see – you’re a mind reader, too!). One of the props he brought along was a phrenology head. This object was once used by doctors, scientists and psychologists in Victorian Britain to study and diagnose illnesses of the brain.

I thought this might make an interesting and relevant addition to his portraits, so I asked Alex to pick up the head and look at it. As soon as he did this, I had a clear idea of what the portrait could be.

Lighting the scene

I wanted lighting on Alex’s face and the face of the prop. To achieve this, I used two studio strobes in strip boxes to the rear of the scene: one either side, each facing in towards Alex and the prop.

The background is dark grey seamless paper, but it looks nearly black because there is no light striking it.

I love the intensity between the two faces in this portrait. It really does look like they are reading each other’s minds, even though one of them is made of porcelain!

Lighting Diagram

Camera Settings

  • Focal Length: 50.0mm
  • Shutter Speed: 1/250sec
  • Aperture: f/4.8
  • ISO: 100