Sticks and Stones

This week I learned that sticks and stones don’t just break bones, they also make excellent additions to your indoor photo studio!

I’m certainly not breaking any new ground here. Many have already employed the use of dioramas and intricate little faux-ecosystems for their toy photography. You need look no further than Brett’s continued use of moss or Shelly’s great portable dioramas she grows for her workshops.

Anyone who follows my blog posts knows that I bounce back and forth between shooting in my studio and out “in the wild.” While I’ve definitely become more comfortable with shooting outside in the last year or so – thanks in no small part to attending toy photo safaris – I still prefer to play inside.

I attribute this to a number of reasons – the ability to control the entirety of my environment and lighting, the absence of curious strangers… I also like to simply “get in the zone,” and try out new things as I shoot. I’m not one to plan that far ahead when it comes to my photography. More often than not, you’ll simply find me mixing and matching minifigure parts or staring at my ever-growing shelf of Black Series Star Wars figures. My stories tend to come from this kind of focused “playtime” – something that is much harder to accomplish on an outdoor excursion where I’m limited to whatever toys and gear I packed with me. And that’s not to mention the variables that come with location, weather, time to day, etc.

Rock On!

A couple of weeks ago I found myself feeling fed up with the dry summer heat and clear blue skies, and taken with the desire to capture some snow photos. I’ve dabbled with creating my own indoor snowscapes in the past (and even tried shooting real snow close to home last Winter) but wanted to up the ante. I recently re-organized my office/studio, and ended up with a nice big, empty table from Ikea to make messes on. With more room to play and the itch to get creative, I grabbed a tote bag and took a trip to my go-to outdoor photo spot: The gazebo around the corner from my apartment.

There, a drainage ditch is bookended by piles of rocks that were the perfect size for toy photography. I stole borrowed a few of them, brought them home, washed away the dirt, and used Brett’s snow recipe to create a perfect little snowscape!

By simply sprinkling some of the homemade snow onto the rocks (on top of a white poster board so that I wouldn’t need to cover the entire base with snow), my studio had completely transformed. I spent several hours, across several days, taking a multitude of shots I’m extremely proud of. By utilizing different rock placements and depths of field, I managed to capture a variety of scenes to play in, like this minifigure on a mountain peak:

How Echo Base got its name

Having this new setup made me feel even more adventurous, so I tried some new techniques I hadn’t employed before. Things like stringing characters up on wires and blasting the snow with air blown through a straw, coupled with a perfectly-timed remote trigger on my shutter. You can check out a quick behind-the-scenes video of this process on my Instagram page.

If a toy falls in a forest…

Satisfied with my snow setup, I wanted to see if I could replicate that success with an indoor forest diorama. Again I grabbed my tote bag and trekked around my neighborhood – picking up sticks and fallen leaves that I could later use for trees and foliage. I also made a trip to the store and bought some potting soil and preserved moss.

My studio looks more and more like a hardware store every day…
I cut open my tote bag to use as a base, so that I wasn’t covering my table in potting soil and sticks.

The forest setup I created was a bit small for my 6-inch Star Wars figures, but some clever camera angles and shallow depth of field did the trick!

When it came to LEGO-sized subjects, the forest was an even bigger success:

“Friday was pizza day, the best day of the week” – The Aquabats

Building Tiny Worlds

Living in the Pacific Northwest gives me the advantage of having plenty of beautiful forest scenery to shoot in. Still, I often find it frustrating to find the perfect location for the photo I have in mind, or timing my expedition so that the lighting is where I need it. By shooting indoors and building a forest of my own, I eliminate all of those challenges.

I think I’ve awoken some kind of creative beast within myself. Will I never go outside again?? I of course will, but I foresee myself spending even more time in my studio now that I’ve experimented with creating dioramas.

If you need me, I’ll be building my next one – a desert to complete the Hoth/Endor/Tatooine trifecta (luckily I already own the sand!)

-James

Have you ever created an indoor landscape for your photographs? What materials did you use? How did your photos turn out? I’d love to hear about your experience in the comments!

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5 Comments

  1. Wonderful post James! I really like how you’ve created an outdoor environment for these shots. I especially like the snow photos. I often get tempted to try something like this but I am hesitant to make a big mess on our kitchen table. I must get around to trying it some day though. I could see my minifigs having a great time in that snow – especially during the hot summer months 🙂

    Lynn

  2. Totally can relate what you have written on this blog! I have all manners of texture in my store room:
    Bags of cement dust (moon surface), dirt, soil, beach sand (Tatooine) , finely grounded orange plastic powder(I’m sure I will use this someday!), expired flour (Hoth). I make sure I have a sieve ready at all times for making those super fine texture. And just recently collected red rocks with moss growing on top of it.

    However, as Lynn mentioned, I have to be super extra careful not to create a mess indoor every time I decide to use these materials, especially the cement powder, which is so fine that pouring them out, you can see the dust flying immediately in the air. Not to mention it’s probably toxic too . Anything for art!

    On top of these, I have two pots that does not grow any plants, but for me to stick in twigs to create my forest. Having these organic material certainly adds more dimension to the photos.

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