“How do you take photos like that?”.
If there’s one question I get asked online more than any other, it’s some variation on this. Sometimes it’s “what lens do you use?” or “how do you make your backgrounds?”, but the point is always the same – people like the idea of picking up a camera and snapping their ‘bots, but they’re not always sure how to get the best results.
A related question I’m also asked is “when will you do a blog series about toy photography?”. I’ve been threatening to do such a thing for years, and seeing how I’ve just started this new TFSource gig it seemed like the perfect opportunity to finally give it a go!
After all, toy photography is a wonderful hobby. It’s a fun way to explore and remain engaged with your collection whilst learning loads of new skills. I love taking photos of toys, so I’m hoping that if you do too then this will prove useful.
So here’s the plan: regular articles that explore the different aspects of taking photographs of your toy collection. No need to worry if you don’t currently know your aperture from your elbows – we’ll be taking it step-by-step and trying to keep things as simple as possible.
Fact is there’s always something to learn, no matter what stage you’re at. I don’t consider myself an expert but I can say that I’ve picked up a few useful tricks along the way just by having a go and seeing what works and what doesn’t.
So before we get to some of the more technical aspects in future articles, I thought it was worth exploring a few useful pointers of how best to approach toy photography as a hobby, or even just as a casual thing to try for fun!
First – make the most of the gear you already have. I’ll admit I groan a little when people looking to get into photography of any kind immediately ask what expensive camera kit they should be buying in order to take the best photographs.
Here’s the thing – top notch equipment will absolutely help to improve the quality of your snaps and enable you to do new things, but it won’t take a great photograph for you. You still need at least basic knowledge and ability to begin with or it’s a waste of money. Conversely I’ve seen some incredible stuff done with camera phones or entry-level DSLR cameras with kit lenses that didn’t break the bank.
There’s a danger that if you rush out to spend your cash on a top-of-the-range whatever-megapixel camera then it’s just going to lead to frustration, as it will inevitably come with hundreds of settings that just don’t mean anything to you yet. My honest advice? The time to buy a more expensive camera is once you can already take a good photograph.
Start small, experiment with what’s already at your disposal and get the best results you can before upgrading when the time is right. You’ll learn more and your bank balance will thank me. We will talk about specific camera equipment in a future article, by the way.
Second – remember that every photograph you take is made through choices. Those choices are decided by you, the photographer, not the camera you’re using or any other factor. Literally everything that the audience sees in the final product is what you decided to put there before you clicked the button to snap the lens.
Everything from the background, other objects in the frame, the angle used, the cropping and framing, the lighting conditions, the colours involved, the pose of the toy… these are all choices at your disposal. If you paint a picture with a brush then you are consciously in control of every stroke on the canvas, and photography is no different.
Lots of toy photographers shoot pictures around their houses with everyday objects evident in the background (including me!). However, it’s how you frame those photos and what you choose to include that makes the difference. You don’t need to be an expert to understand that taking a picture of a toy with your unmade bed or dirty washing prominently in the background is not going to be an appealing backdrop, so have a think about where you’re choosing to shoot your pics before you get snapping!
Likewise, if you’re finding that your photos are too dark or poorly-lit, have a think about where you could choose to take them that might offer you more light. Or if you’re finding that you’re not particularly happy with the final pose or composition of your photos, try to play around with the framing or how you’ve set the toy up until you get the result that you want. There will always be options available, but the point is that you have to make the right choices to get the pictures as you imagine them in your head. Remember that you are the one in control – the one making the choices.
Third – practice. Yeah, yeah, I know it sounds boring but it’s true. Taking great photos doesn’t happen overnight. In fact, when you get going it’s likely you’ll be disappointed with much of your output. And that’s OK!
Great photographs are born out of continuously improving based on our mistakes. Cliché yes, but entirely accurate. There’s a learning to be garnered after every click of the button, so be sure to consider what’s working for you and especially what’s not (and how best it could be improved on for next time). I can honestly say I still do this all the time.
Equally, great results come from experimentation. In these days of digital photography, there’s no harm in trying something just to see if it works. If there’s one fact I’ve shared with people that I think often surprises them, it’s that I sometimes take dozens of photographs that no-one ever sees before finally achieving the one that I’m happy with. That’s just part of my process!
The important thing is to keep learning as you go, instead of just pressing the shutter button over and over and hoping for a different result from the same thing. Take the time to improve your understanding based on the results you’re achieving.
Fourth – evolve your own style. What is it about your pictures that makes them distinctive? Why do they stand out to people looking at them and catch their eye? You may not start off with this in mind, but have a think about how you can evolve and hone the style of toy photography you’re working on as you go.
Do you want to try for very static, composed and technically-proficient shots, or would you prefer the idea of more energetic pictures that give the feeling of an action sequence taking place? Do you fancy a studio setting, or are you excited to try your hand at outdoor or round-the-home photography? All of these elements will contribute to what makes your pictures stand out to people, after all.
Whilst there’s definitely some learning to be had from trying to emulate or recreate what other photographers have achieved in their pictures, there’s little joy to be had in a carbon copy output of someone else’s work, so try to think about what makes your images unique.
For my own part, my photos have evolved quite a bit in the five years or so since I started taking robot shots. I began with a very at-home style that became well-known because of the presence of my carpet! Since then I moved on to a more neutral grey background involving a studio-style set-up, before evolving again to experiment with more colourful backgrounds and using more visual foreground elements.
Ultimately there’s no right or wrong, and you’re certainly not beholden to sticking to one style once you’ve started, but it’s important to think about what will make your work stand out a little.
Finally – have fun! Yes, I know that should go without saying, but you’d be surprised how much frustration can come from a hobby like this too. There is quite a heavy technical aspect involved, but that shouldn’t stop you enjoying yourself and getting creative as you go! And the better you get at the technical stuff, the more you’ll be able to let your imagination run wild and recreate it in your camera.
So anyway, that’s enough for this time. We’ll have plenty of opportunity to explore each of these ideas in more depth in future articles, just as we’ll be learning about aspects such as camera settings, practical set-up, lighting, backgrounds, cropping, post production… you name it.
Next time we’ll be looking at the different types of cameras and lenses that you can use, and the varying results they will give you. Hope to see you there for another round of More Than Meets the ISO!