The basics of set dressing – Part 1

main image set dressing

When you are shooting photos or video the right location is always important. To make your story come to life we can add specific items into the set. I have done a lot of set dressing in the past and will share with you the basics of set dressing. This way you can start implementing the knowledge into your own work. Even when you don’t have the ambition to become a set dresser yourself, it is very useful to know what props work and why.  

What is the story

The basics of set dressing all begins with understanding the story. Whether you’re a filmmaker or photographer every creator tells a story. Understanding the story will help you create the right style and mood. You can start deciding on how you want to capture every element. Think about the actors or models you need and the lighting and location. Also, the items we call props will play an important role in making the story become believable to the viewer.

Materials and shapes

An important aspect of set dressing is picking the right materials and shapes. Depending on the story and location you are working with, some materials will fall away or stand out too much. Especially within photography there should be a good balance in the diversity of materials and shapes. For example, imagine the interior of a dark wooden house. Nature like materials will bring a good balance to this location. Organic round shapes will work well and won’t be too distracting. Harsh shapes like squares are not organic and can disturb the balance of the overall look.

Movie UP Still image

Set dressing in UP

While the movie UP is an animation, the set dressing is still something that has been thought about in every single frame. This movie is a great example to understand the strength of good set dressing.

The image above is a still frame from the movie. If you have seen this movie, you know the man is very strict and grumpy while the woman is very warm and brings joy into his life. So not only is the man build up from squares, by looking at the shape of his ears, head, hair, hands, glasses and clothes. Also, his chair, mug, table and lamp are bulky looking objects. This is a great contrast in how the women looks. Together with the props on her side of the room. Clearly a lot of thought has been going into making this. Even when you realize it or not, the unconscious mind of the viewer will pick up on these visual pieces of information.  

Picking the right colors

I have a separate blog fully dedicated to colors and how they work within art, so please click here to read that. Picking the right colors can add on to the balance of the overall look and feel of your set. Combining multiple colors that complement each other harmoniously. The saturation of colors is very important to think about as well. Using soft colors instead of hard colors can make a huge difference.

Less is more

This is something I always aim for. Less is more, because the more props, materials, shapes and colors you add, the higher the change will be that the viewer gets confused. They will not be able to understand your story anymore. Therefore, I like to minimize the number of colors to three. Also, try to do this with the materials and shapes. The number of props can always change, depending on the story and location but the most import props are often not in a high number.


I hope this will help you understand the importance of set dressing. If you want to know more, please click here to read about the full process of the art department from start to finish. Do try it out for yourself and see what works best in your point of view and story. Also, make sure to check out my Instagram by clicking here

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