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My Think Tank Mirrorless Mover 30i is full to the brim with an almost entire kit ready to sling over my shoulder, or pop in the boot/trunk of my car. The only things missing are a tripod (large for car, mini for shoulder) and my current favourite photogenic toys. Please note: I also carry a cleaning cloth, tissues, blower, and a makeup brush to keep the camera, lenses, and toys in good condition. I have not included these items in the photographs below.
Lights are a must for me and I have two different types that I like to use in my portable kit. The first is actually a pair of solar powered power banks with 20 built in LEDs. Of course the bonus here is the ability to run my camera from one of these, or recharge my smartphone. The second is a pair of flexible neck LED lamps that can run in conjunction with the power bank LEDs, or on their own. Both these types allow me to control light even in outside environments; although they do struggle in bright sunlight.
For those bright Aussie full-sun moments I find reflectors a better alternative to LEDs, and I have found that homemade Corflute reflectors are just the ticket. The reflector in the centre unfolds to also act as a wind breaker. The three reflectors on the left attach to the Toy Photographers’ Reflegomaster (right) for ‘on lens’ reflected light, thus allowing you to keep both hands on the camera. As I use manual focus lenses, I find this very handy. If you would like more details on the Reflegomaster join us on the Google+ site for instructions on how to make your own. My Reflegomaster has a 55mm filter thread, so I have a step-up ring for my 49mm filter threaded lenses (bottom right).
I always carry a Geckopod and small ball head with me, just in case I need a little more stability. Like the Joby GorrillaPod this handy little stand can attach itself to small poles and tree branches; as well as even, or slightly uneven surfaces. I keep a few Lego minifigure stands with me, just in case I cannot get a little person to stand on their own. To the left I have handful of, what I call ‘mongrel blocks’ (non-Lego) to help raise or stabilise characters or vehicles. I don’t use Lego as I don’t want to lose it. Also, the assembly at the bottom has been doctored to fit a ¼” furniture nut that accepts the screw thread of the ball head. It has been Kragle-d together with super glue; something I would not do to Lego bricks. A few appropriately sized wooden skewers, rigid plastic tubes, and fold back clips (not shown) are a boon to hold things down/across/up/wherever.
To finish off the complement of non-camera/lens accessories is a comfortable amount of Blu-Tack (or adhesive putty) I normally carry small amounts in plastic containers. The three stakes to the right can be used on small vampires, but they generally work best to help hold single Lego minifigure legs in sand and dirt. A battery adapter (to be used with a power bank) hooded magnifier (from an old slide viewer) and spare lens/body caps are on hand just in case. An achromatic close-up lens from and old film camera (centre right) will allow macro photography up to 1:1. To be honest, I have never used it for toy photography, but I sometimes encounter interesting bugs when down that low, and I like to snap them too. This lens is perfect for the task and saves me from bringing, and changing to, a macro lens.
This now brings me to the heart of the kit: the camera and lenses. I have a Sony A7 full frame sensor camera and four Olympus Zuiko, OM mount, manual film lenses. Having a Sony full frame sensor allows me to use these lenses without a crop factor. Mirrorless cameras of all types can be used, but I prefer to use these lenses at the field of view they were intended. All four lenses are attached to the camera body by a Pixco OM-NEX/M helicoid adapter. The benefit of this type of adapter (and the Pixco is the only one I have found) is that it telescopes into a flexible extension tube, but still allows for infinity focussing when fully retracted. Beware: it is possible to introduce dust onto your sensor with with something like this adapter, as it changes the air pressure between the lens and sensor as you wind it in, and out. The hoods below the lenses help control lens flare. It should be noted that the Olympus OM bayonet mount and flange distance will also allow you to attach these lenses, via an adapter, to Canon DSLRs. However, I have no experience with this combination and cannot comment further.
The Zuiko 28mm f2.8 allows me to shoot larger figures, or sets, but still maintain an expansive background to allow the whole scene to tell the story. The more forgiving depth of field also helps. There are two other options in the OM range at this focal length; an f2.0, which is rather expensive; and an f3.5. I feel the f28 is the best compromise between image quality and price.
I find the Zuiko 35mm f2.0 to be my ‘go to’ lens and it is on the camera while in the bag, to allow me the greatest flexibility in the fastest set-up time. The Zuiko 35mm f2.8 is a cheaper and lighter option. It also matches the 49mm filter thread of the other three lenses. As it is for general photography, this is one of the best focal lengths I have found for toy photography and the close focus distance of 30cm (12”) saves me from extending the helicoid adapter in many cases.
It would be hard not to include a nifty-fifty. The Zuiko 50mm f1.4 is my favourite film lens, and it is almost as flexible as the 35mm focal length for toy photography. I find it works best for outdoor shots where I have more room to move. At f1.4 it gives razor-thin depth of field to allow subject to background separation. In the OM range there is also the options of an f1.2, f1.8, 55mm f1.2, and two macro / general purpose 50mm macro lenses.
The Zuiko 85mm f2.0 is an outstanding portrait lens for both real life subjects and toys. The bokeh is lovely and it provides good separation from subject to background up to f4.0, even with larger figures such as teddy bears. It works very well for single toys 5-10cm (2-4”) tall, but only with the helicoid adapter in the extended position. The poor minimum focus distance of 0.85cm (2.8’) is otherwise limiting. A close-up lens or filter will also help, but will decrease image quality. If you are shooting with plenty of space to play with, then this will work very well for larger figures as the working distance means you have less worry of your shadow getting in the way of your image.
I have a love for the old manual film lenses, especially Zuiko, as there is a less clinical feel to the photographs as those from modern lenses. This makes it easy to produce dreamy and ethereal looking images that are pleasing to the eye and help the photographer stand out from the crowd. If you don’t mind manually focussing and changing apertures then they may be for you. Although I find the Sony A7 more than competent for toy photography, I see it only as a platform for my collection of Zuiko lenses, allowing me to find my own style with a bit of vintage panache.
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