Skeletor stokes the flames.
So, you say, “Hey Rid, you’re awesome and super cool and I want to have your babies.” Wait, no. Nobody says that. let’s start over.
So, you say, “Hey, Rid, I like Figure Photo of the Day. How do you take really awesome pictures like that?”
And then, the moment you hear things like “F-Stop” or “White Balance” or “Photoshop,” your eyes glaze over and you fall down the stairs. Or maybe you just don’t have enough money for an uber-expensive super camera. So, you know what? Let’s talk toy photography on the cheap. How do you take good toy photos with:
A: A point-and-shoot camera
B: No fancy software like Photoshop. In fact, no cheap software. Just Paint. MSPaint.
Believe it or not, it’s possible! In fact… I do that. I have a fairly cheap camera, and I make a weird point of not using image editing software as kind of an odd personal challenge. You won’t take anything Matthew K-worthy with these pointers, but here are some tips on how to make halfway-decent pictures:
The first picture taken with my current camera.
Okay, so you’re going for a cheap camera. That’s cool, just understand what “Cheap” is. A Sony Cybershot will cost you anywhere in the neighborhood of $100-$300. That’s cheap. It’s also good for toy photography, though you may find your other stuff to be a little poor. Canon also has some good, cheap cameras, but we’ll stick with Sony, because…gasp…that’s actually the uber-cheap camera I use! But basically, you want your camera to have the following, AT MINIMUM:
-A macro function, or at least the ability to focus on small things.
-Options that let you change the White Balance. In uber-layman’s terms, that means, “You can change how things look so they match the lighting.” Ever notice how normal house lights make everything look yellow in a camera? There should be an option to fix that.
-The ability to hold down the shutter and take several photos in a row. Trust me on this one.
-A tripod, or at least something to rest the camera on sometimes.
Anything else is gravy. You want gravy, though. Gravy is good. Mmmmm, gravy. But seriously, you can take good pictures without anything else, but you WANT other settings – trust me, they can be fun, and can really help you take better photos.
Lit by a pen light and a bright monitor.
This is the biggie. Lighting will make or break your photo. You will want your studio to be in a place with:
-Easy access to sunlight, but not sunlight that you can’t block if you want. Normal curtains can actually handle this.
-GOOD indoor lights. Normal incandescents aren’t always very good. Have some of those if you want, but try to get some bright, white lights, too.
-A bright desk lamp. Sometimes you want things to be even brighter.
-A smaller spotlight – something strong, but not large. Use things like this for added mood emphasis, such as a night shot with only one character illuminated. You can usually find cheap LEDs that accomplish this role. if you have an iPhone, the flashlight is actually PERFECT. Keep in mind that you will likely want to direct and move this light to different locations.
-A small light that’s not quite as bright as the spotlight. A gain, mood lighting, and sometimes it can balance the spotlight.
-Colored lights. This is another time when cell phones are useful – you need a bright light with changeable colors, as sometimes you will want some red, orange, or blue influencing your picture.
Black dropcloth, no terrain.
By “Photo Studio,” I mean, “the place where you set stuff up.” There are several ways to do this. The guys at OAFE use a gray t-shirt draped over the floor and wall to form one even, unbroken background. Lots of people use black dropcloths (or t-shirts) for similar effect. You can also try to construct a lightbox, but… well, look that one up on the internet and DIY. You want this space to be large enough to accomodate your toys. Look for the biggest thing you want to photograph, and plan it around that. Try to make sure you can take a good photo backed a little bit away from the subject, without any of the “Real world” showing. That’s really all you need – toys are still life, after all.
Focus, Spidey. FOCUS.
Focus, focus, focus! Since you’re dealing with tiny-sized still life, learn exactly how your camera focuses on things, and work with it. Likely, it will want to focus on one particular part of a figure – mess with your camera angle if you have to. Back uyp and take it from afar. Or even “Cheat” it – focus on one thing, then move the camera to try to encompass other parts in the focus field. Do what works, and do not rest until you FOCUS properly on your given toy. Remember, your focus tells people where to look.
The terrain here is from: A statue, a Star Wars figure, a japanese model, a board game, a Mexican bootleg, and another toy.
So, you don’t want your toy drifting in the black void of t-shirtness? Well, then! What will you put them on? For this, I don’t really have a hard and fast answer, since it’s waaaay up to personal preference. But look at it this way:
Terrain supplied by three toy lines.
-Terrain that comes with other toys. This can be anything – big bases, small stands, little walls, or even just junk if arranged correctly. Learn how to situate unrelated stuff near each other so they look like one piece of unbroken terrain. Learn how to conceal things like foot pegs (I don’t even do this all the time). Learn how to take tiny pieces and fit them together like a jigsaw puzzle. A toy came with fake fire? Good! Now your toys have fire! Another one comes with part of a back alley? nice! Combine it with some other bricks, and you have a street! Be creative. Pay attention to scale, but don’t let it dominate you.
-Or you can build your own terrain from scratch. Have fun with that.
See the reflection? YOU CAN SEE ME
-A picture, photo, drawing, or painting. If it’s a photo, PLEASE watch the gloss. Light shines off glossy stuff, and that can ruin the immersion of your photo very quickly. Mess with your lighting until it works.
Backdrop supplied by Dell
-A picture on a screen or computer monitor. This… is difficult. You will be constrained by a few things – your monitor size, taskbars or other things, the border of the screen, and your keyboard are things that you wil have to deal with. The shot’s angle will also become insanely important, otherwise the background will look distorted. You can’t position your subject too closely to the monitor, or you will be able to see the pixels in your photo. But you can’t pull it too far away, either. And finally, a computer monitor is backlit – you will have to light up your figure, or it will look wrong. That spotlight I mentioned is good for this, but you must aim carefully to keep it from reflecting on the monitor itself.
Of course, you could always shoot outdoors…
Forest not to scale.
6. OUTDOOR TOY PHOTOGRAPHY
If you are taking a toy photograph outside, it’s a little different from the interior of your enclosed, safe studio (or coffee table, or tv tray, or whatever). Choose a time of day with the correct lighting to match what you want – that could mean noon, evening, or the middle of the night. Try to find a way to keep the teeny-tiny scale of a toy from being obvious – keep it far from normal-sized foliage, for example. use forced perspective if you can. Or if you’re really lucky, find some small stuff that looks big. That’s really all there is to it, it just takes awareness of your surroundings.
This didn’t take any creepiness at all!
And a complete lack of shame. “Hi, neighbor! Oh, why am I crouching under the bushes in the middle of the night? Just taking pictures of this Predator!”
No foot pegs here!
7. DEALING WITH KIBBLE
Kibble! Foot pegs. Foot pegs on figures. Stands. Labels. Buttons. Levers. Do whatever you can to conceal them, but don’t make it too obvious – remember Mammon (photo of the day!)? He had little foot pegs underneath his treasure chest (meant to plug into a base). I concealed those for a reason. Again, there’s no hard and fast rule, just be aware of things that make toys look like toys.
Balancing act provided by hanging on to the bars.
8. POSING YOUR TOYS
Don’t be afraid to cheat. Balance your toys, have them secretly hold onto things, or even hold parts of them just off-frame. Do whatever it takes to hold the pose that you need, without making the “how” part obvious. Also, feel free to mess with camera nagles to give the illusion of certain poses or action scenes.
The product of patience and about 112 photos.
9. TAKE LOTS OF PHOTOS
See that piece of advice? That’s most of it right there. Aside from practice (PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE), you might find that it takes a hundred photos to get one good one – but that good one will be AWESOME.
Picture taken at front door window
10. BE AN OPPORTUNIST
If you see a good photo opportunity, go for it! Sometimes that means crouching by a yellow window for the fifteen minutes in the day that the sun shines perfectly through it, and pretending it’s a Predator ship.
Lens flare = fog!
11. DO THINGS WRONG
See my advice? Break it sometimes. Use funky lighting. Use weird angles. Mess with stuff. Stick with a plain black dropcloth. Take a photo of stuff on a desk or in the kitchen. Angle your spotlight toward the lens until it produces a flare, and go with it. Do whatever looks best for each toy.
That’s really it – a lot of practice, and seeing what works. You just have to keep trying until you find a method that produces good photos. These pictures are only as good as the photographer – there are limits if you have a poor camera, but they might not be as restrictive as you thought. In fact, I guarantee they aren’t. Keep trying, have fun, and I hope to see your submissions soon!
No, I did not take him into outer space.