The Joy Of Toy Photography

I’ve been giving a lot of thought to where lies the joy of toy photography. What drives me to create images with toys for the last six and a half years? What is the attraction to this crazy hobby and will it last? As I approach seven years working on this project I’ve been wondering if its time for a new challenge. After all these years, does toy photography still bring me joy?

What comes next?

This summer has been very busy with toy photography. My time has been dominated by preparing for my first big arts festival as well as working on two major projects for The Lego group. I’m happy to report the show was a success and that Lego seems pleased with the work I created for their marketing campaigns.

Now that I’ve completed my assignments and met my personal goals, I’m left wondering what comes next?

Lego-Chima-Love-Toy-Photography
Finding their way…home?

If truth be told, I’m an accidental toy photographer. I fell into this fun hobby through a confluence of several events: a well-timed gift of collectible mini figures, joining Instagram and emerging from a mid life course correction. In the early days, toy photography was simply a pleasant diversion. I had no goals except to reconnect with the act of photography.

Soon my own creative drive kicked in and a few amazing opportunities came my way. Before I knew it, toy photography was dominating my life. Between postings images to social media every day AND writing about toy photography every week it didn’t take long before I was thinking about toy photography all the time. While it’s not always easy to keep up with social media or think of blogging topics, this is still a process I enjoy.

Why Toy Photography?

During this entire process I never stopped long enough to ask myself ‘why’? I never bothered to ask myself if I was having fun? Maybe I’m simply addicted to social media? I know some part of me enjoys the challenge of selling what I create’ but is that enough? One of the reasons I enjoy our “Why?” series is I’m often looking to see if I see myself in other toy photographers.

Here are a few of the most common reasons that attract people to toy photography:

    • Express creativity
    • Bring toys to life
    • Escape from reality
    • Tell stories; both our own and established ones
    • Relive childhood memories
    • Enjoy collecting toys
    • Relieves stress
    • Explore photography from a different viewpoint
    • Its fun
    • It’s surprisingly therapeutic
    • It’s an excuse to ‘play’ with toys
    • Enjoy indulging in an active fantasy life

I’m sure my own reasons are somewhere in this list. Although, I have to add that I enjoy the social aspects of the hobby as much as anything else. I will be honest and say I hate the new and improved Instagram, but I’m grateful for the many friends I’ve made over the years. I doubt this is true for everyone, but for me, toy photography will be forever tied to the social aspects. Comments and interactions have a funny way of  developing into online friendships. And those online friendships have a way of morphing into real life friends. My life is made richer by these opportunities. (Case in point: the many messages of condolences and concerns I received when I loped off part of my finger the other day. Thank you everyone who reached out.)

Lego-Chima-Love-Toy-Photography
On a clear day you can see for ever…

The Joy of Toy Photography

As my focus has shifted to selling rather than creating toy photography, my relationship to my work has altered. I’m spending more time reviewing older images and thinking about their potential salability.  I’m spending as much time editing older images as I am creating new ones.

As I work my way through my portfolio of images, I’m really taking a trip down memory lane. Each image has a personal story. With every re-edit I relive the day that I took the photo and remember the friends or family I had with me. This has been an unexpected and joyful trip.

But all the fun hasn’t been in the past. Last week, Eva (@greaterbeast) and I went to one of my favorite locations, Denny Creek. Our goal was to get away from the city, reconnect with the outdoors and simply take a few toy photos for the fun of it. There were no dragons, no Voltron, no distractions…just two friends playing in each others toy boxes. For me, this was a much-needed break and an opportunity to reconnect with what I’ve been missing; the joy of toy photography.  All summer long I’ve been meeting one challenge after another and it’s been too easy to forget what drew me to this crazy hobby in the first place: the friendships and the humor.

Lego-Chima-Love-Toy-Photography
New Recruits

The Next Step

I have no idea what the future will hold. But I’m certain that I will be taking more toy photography breaks in the future. It’s too easy to get caught up in chasing the next new toy, posting to the never ending circuit that is social media and of course pushing the work to the next level. While all these goals can be fun and challenging, they don’t sustain me for the long haul. I came to this hobby because I needed to recharge my batteries. If I don’t keep the fun front and center, I think this hobby might crush me.

Lego-Chima-Love-Toy-Photography
Death from above!

With that in mind, prepare to see a whole lot of Chima / Chimjago images on my feed for the next six weeks ( images sure to kill my like counts!). My good friend @Bricksailboat has challenged me and my little tribe to a #BirdBattle. We have not had a good Bird Battle since the Las Vegas toy photography meet up four years ago. I will be dusting off my Chima figures and getting them battle ready. Because when it is all said and done – this is where the joy of toy photography is for me.

Being silly and creating images that appeal to me and my own goofy sense of reality. Preferably with like minded friends.

Shelly

What attracts you to toy photography? Where do you find the joy in toy photography? What keeps you motivated and challenged? 

And if you want to win a complete set of UniKitty! Collectible Series #1 you will want to join our G+ Community and enter this months contest. The theme is the number one. You can interpret this intentionally vague theme any way you see fit. So far the competition is keen! 

26 Comments

  1. Lizzi

    Fantastic post Shelly! I think I need to re-find the fun as well! I’m really looking forward to your Chima pictures as whilst I’ve never been into the series, the figures are simply wonderful and a visual feast for the eyes! Have lots of fun with the bird battle! 👍

    • Thanks Lizzi, It seems I’m not the only one feeling the magic is gone from our hobby. I wonder if it is this constant quest to rise to the next level (whatever that is!)? Or the push to get the most followers, likes and comments? Whatever it is, we aren’t the only ones feeling it. Chima is a lot of fun! If you can remove some of the armor, they are the best woodland creatures! Because they have been so unpopular, you can usually pick them up for a next to nothing. *sigh* Sometimes I feel like I’m the only one who loves them! <3

  2. Great post Shelly! Like Lizzi, I’m trying to re-find the fun also. I find that I’m pushing myself too hard to create elaborate backgrounds and fancy lighting and it’s taking the fun out of it. One of the reasons I started doing this in the first place was as an escape from stress, not to create more stress 🙂 I still think that minifigs are fantastic photo subjects though because they seem to be cheerful, optimistic and unaffected by the stresses of everyday life 🙂 Their smiling faces always cheer me up 🙂

    I’m looking forward to seeing your Chima photos! But what did you do to your finger? Are you okay?

    Lynn

    • Lynn, Im glad to hear im not the only one feeling this way. Photographing LEGO mini figures should be fun, relaxing, a break from the ‘real’ world. Not an endless push of one upmanship. I hope you can find your way back to the fun and silliness of our hobby. I for one would welcome seeing photos of the gymnasts out on a shopping trip or one of the other cute couples enjoying a relaxing afternoon.

      As for the finger, I managed to slice off a sizable chunk while cutting down mat board earlier this week. Nothing left to stitch so they covered the wound and Im hoping for the best. But as the PA said: it’s not coming back :/

      I hope to see your photos once you feel your own inspiration coming back. 🙂

      • Shelly,
        I’m sorry to hear about your finger. That sounds so painful! I hope the wound heals quickly…. Thank you for the encouragement. I actually did take some “Cute Couple” photos last week (from the Harry Potter minifigs) so I’ll be posting those soon. As for the gymnasts, I gave them a break this year with all the terrible things happening in USA Gymnastics right now but I think enough time has passed and I’m ready to photograph them again 🙂

        Heal quickly!

        Lynn

  3. I’ll be happy to see your Chima photos resurface. I almost equate Chima with you. Maybe your likes will drop but who cares? If you were after that, just post yet another Star Wars pic. I suspect you are not.

    I frequently drop out of minifig photography mostly because I don’t feel like shooting toys for a while. Other times, it’s because what I see on Instagram sometimes is so uninspiring that I don’t even want to switch to my Four Bricks Tall profile. This is why I’m thankful to those photographers who produce wonderfully crafted photos instead of “CMF chasing” – shooting only the latest series.

    Bring on the Chima. I welcome them, and your photos in general, on my feed.

    • Thank you Anna for your continued support and your excellent comment. Its nice to know the Chima images will be appreciated by a small but loyal fan base. Yes, I too dread when a new series is released. I know that the majority of images that I will see are these figures. I was talking to Brett the other day and told him that while I like to get the figures when they come out, I usually don’t photograph them until a year later. That way, they look fresh. Maybe heading back to Chima is my own way of rebelling against the HP series? Oh well, It’s time to get my army rallied!

  4. Great post Shelly – thanks for sharing it. I think my favorite aspect of toy photography is the dual functionality of toys and photography. I can take some inanimate object and breathe some kind of life into it. It’s creation in a pure form… and once that’s been tasted it’s hard to leave it alone. I guess it’s a bit hard to describe – but photographing toys brings me a lot of joy – especially if I can spread some of that joy to others through a smile or a chuckle. I’m all about that!

    • Joe Im so glad to hear that someone still feels the simple joy of bringing toys to life! This is the feeling I want to recapture. Im hoping going back to my old favorites, maybe looking into a new (to me) lens, etc, will bring the basics back into focus. Like you it is the joy of practicing my photography skills combined with toys, that can be so addictive. In the mean time carry on and keep making us smile!

  5. I read the article with a sense of panic, thinking you are writing a goodbye blog. Happy to see that you are not stopping anytime soon and I look forward to your Chima photos. In fact, because of you, I am thinking of hunting some Chimas to shoot too! Carry on shooting!

    • Sunny – honestly your panic was warranted. But as is often the case, my post did a 180 half way through the writing. I do love the social aspects of our community. Im saddened that my ‘toy family’ is smaller than it used to be. But the flip side is that while its much reduced, it is also much stronger. So yes, Im hanging in there! Im looking forward to an amazing weekend – I will try to post a story but at minimum I will write about it next week on the blog. I look forward to seeing you post Chima photos! It will be awesome to have more members in this small, but exclusive club!! xx

  6. Like Sunny wrote, i was a bit worried this was a ‘goodbye’. But since is not (yet) then keep on shooting those Chima figures. They are almost your trademark. Chima in water is the “Shelly at her best”.
    Honestly i’m totally aligned with Anna’s comment and at the moment i’m in a mood of “i need to improve” because i feel i can build better worlds for my minifigs, i know they deserve it and i want to live a story through their printed eyes.
    And, by the way, do not dare to say ‘goodbye’ without ever having met me in some toy safari!

    • Marco I would never say good by before we had a chance to enjoy a weekend of toy photography goodness. I think its easy to lose sight of what important in the hustle and bustle of social media. Im glad you are finding a focus for your own creativity. I look forward to seeing how you push the boundaries of photography and story telling. Keep on being awesome Marco!!

  7. Mitchel Wu

    Love and appreciate your honesty, Shelly. I think a big part of the pressure many put on themselves is trying to post daily, or even multiple times daily. In the early days, when one is just starting out, that seems easier to do because you’re just thrilled to be creating images and sharing them, building your own community and trying different things. But then as time progresses you develop a style and following and become more technical and sophisticated with your work…and with that you begin to see a range of quality within your own work – some better, some worse. Suddenly posting daily becomes a laborious act while trying to maintain a high level of quality and that earlier joy you had begins to erode. Classic burnout. My own solution to this is to not be a slave to Instagram (or whatever social media you’re on) and post only when you feel like it. Because if you’re like me, posting less is the only real option, because we will always continue to strive for better story telling, better technique, better this and better that – and that takes time. There was a month last year where, because of a heavy workload, I only posted one new image. That was crazy! And even today I average a lot less than when I first started. But that’s okay, especially if it means you’re spending time developing as an artist. My work overall has become a little more technical and complex, but I recently shot a super simple image of Patrick Star (from Spongebob) standing in some water, leaning against a rock. Although considerable thought went into it, It was by far the simplest setup and image I’ve had in a long time, and it turned out to be super fun.

    • Thank you for your comment Mitchel, you bring up a lot of good points. I will confess I haven’t been a ‘slave’ to social media in a long time. Those early days are long past me. I haven’t felt the need to post every day in ages. IN fact when the best of whatever month comes along Im hard pressed to find images to choose from. But I feel that with each post comes a responsibility to respond to comments and an opportunity to catch up on what Ive missed. All of this takes time, which at the moment is in short supply. This also ties into the even bigger question: How do I help run a blog about toy photography when I don’t have time to keep up with the trends within the community? This is actually a bigger concern than my own sporadic postings.

      Im glad you’ve come up with your own recipe for a good social media balance. But I will confess, I feel you make my point for me in your last few lines. While your work has grown more complex and technically challenging – this doesn’t make it better. Maybe the simple image of Patrick tells a better story that connects with the audience than all the water splashes? And as you’ve already said, just because an image is ‘simple’ that doesn’t mean a lot of thought hasn’t gone into the image. I think a lot of photographers are more interested in the technical aspects than telling a compelling story. It is the stories, not the technical achievement that keeps me interested in toy photography. Ultimately I’m a pictorialist, not a modernist. 😀

      • Mitchel Wu

        I’m here to make points for you, Shelly, haha! I’ve gone blue in the face saying that it’s about the story, and that I’d much rather see a technically mediocre image with a wonderful story than a technically excellent image with all the effects, bells and whistles but no story. The former is instantly impactful and memorable, while the latter may have initial impact but is ultimately forgettable. (BUT when story and technique/effects are combined effectively – look out!)

        “While your work has grown more complex and technically challenging – this doesn’t make it better.” “Better” is obviously a subjective term – that probably would have been better had it been posed as a question, lol. For me, ‘better’ means improving in all areas – story telling as well as the technical (composition, lighting, effects, editing, etc.). While you enjoy creating ‘simple’ images (and do it beautifully), I enjoy creating images with stories (and humor) that often includes action and some kind of effect. Is one better than the other? Being subjective it depends on who you ask, but one is definitely more interesting, challenging and gratifying for me to make. And ultimately isn’t that what really matters?

  8. As usual, I find your perspective on this hobby so refreshing and helpful, Shelly. You’re further down the road than I am, but I find a lot of your comments compatible with my thinking and philosophy. I’ve been trying not to get caught up in only posting certain kinds of things, but instead continue to explore and have fun with it. I’ve decided that if I want something to be a more serious “portfolio” of my best work, if I want to turn my work into something more consumer-oriented (comics, wall art, etc), it won’t be on my Instagram gallery. A website, another portfolio site of some sort, but not Instagram. There, I’ll just continue having fun and being inspired by my fellow toy photogs.

    Really glad (as others have said) that you’ve still found the joy and aren’t shifting away from toy photography.

    • Teddi Thank you for your kind words. Honestly I can see your work shifting into a graphic novel of some kind. I think you’ve taken the concept of Fan Fiction into some interesting territories. I love the stories you’ve created with the two Rebels character, creating your own continuing love story. I also love the extended story arc ofRay Z Tenny…may his travels be many! And like you I think its important to work somewhere other than instagram or G+. Those are fleeting platforms, bound to be replaced by something else in the future. But until that happens I hope we can continue to have fun and connect with like minded peers. Cheers my friend!!

  9. brett_wilson

    Fun is fundamentally why I started and it’s why I continue. Sure, there’s personal and technical growth somewhere in there too. But fun will always be my reason why.
    I look forward to seeing some Shelly goofiness over the next few weeks in your photography. I saw it firsthand in Seattle and Oregon, and it’s one of the many things I miss about you.
    Bring on the Chima Bird Battle!

    • Thanks Brett. Although Im not sure about my goofiness in Seattle and Oregon…. those were stressful weeks and Im sure I wasn’t at my best. Im lookin forward to the bird battle – Im planning my strategy now! Paul has no idea what havoc will be wrecked upon his feeble forces!

  10. Shelly, please know that for many of us, your pictures, your posts, and your presences bring joy. I think you know that I’m regularly inspired by you and being able to count you as a mentor and a friend is fantastic. Thanks for this post and for yet again finding and pointing others to inspiration. #chimaisjoy

  11. Similar to what Sunny said, I thought to myself, “is she going announce something?” Thankfully not!
    For me, I got into toy photography for the fun but it gradually became about being a part of this great community and also contributing to being a positive influence in the SoMe world.
    It resonates with me what you said about having breaks from time to time. We do need that relief. I’m glad to hear Eva and yourself had a nice time out in the woods!

    🙂

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