Horror and Toy Photography

The longer I’ve been an artist, the more phases and routines I’ve gone through. Lately, it’s been watching horror movies while I photograph.

I’d honestly never been much of a horror fan until recently, though it had nothing to do with the genre itself. I’ve always appreciated horror movies, but always found myself too skittish to truly enjoy them. That changed sometime this year, as I began actively seeking out horror that I thought I’d actually like.

It was through watching films like last year’s It remake or 2014’s It Follows that I truly discovered what kinds of horror interested me. Since that discovery, I’ve been checking out many classic horror films I missed out on. And it just so happens that at the same time, I’ve usually been photographing toys.

Sometimes this leads to full-on homage, like this Shape of Water tribute

I mentioned that I go through phases. As I’ve changed as a photographer, so have my habits. Usually this happens gradually and out of necessity. If I have a particular photography routine, it’s because it’s nestled in the “sweet spot” where I can fit this hobby into my sometimes hectic life.

Last year, my routine changed dramatically when I went through an unexpected career change. A new job meant new work hours. I work a nine hour day on Monday through Thursday, so on those days I tend to not want to add photographing to my plate. As a result, my “photography days” typically fall on the weekend. That’s when I feel the most creative, when I truly have the time to get lost in my work, without feeling guilty that I’m shirking on any more important responsibilities.

When I do photograph, I like to have some kind of background noise. Here is where I truly go through my phases. For a while, I listened to podcasts when I photographed. This started when I switched from working in-person to working from home, and therefore lost my commute – aka my primo “podcast listening time.”

Later I switched to watching episodes of the original series of Star Trek , which I had never seen (I know!). Then it was listening to audiobooks. And this year, when I discovered a new film genre that I liked, I started watching horror movies. It worked out perfectly because my wife doesn’t typically like them, so I have to watch them when we’re apart. The only time that really happens during the week (she works from home as well, luckily) is when I’m in my office, “in the zone,” taking toy photos.

Art Imitates Life

I bring this up because for the first time that I can remember, the routine has bled into my toy photography itself. I’ve been taking more and more photos inspired by the new films I see. I’ve begun injecting my toy photography with horror. I’d only ever done this once or twice in the past, and usually in a comedic way.

I think it’s because of the fact that horror is essentially brand new to me. For the first time, I’m being inundated with macabre imagery and heightened tension, and fear as the dominant emotion instead of happiness (I tend to watch a lot of comedies, animated movies, musicals, and Star Wars movies). This newfound appreciation for horror filmmaking techniques has taught me new things about adding tension and darkness to my own work. Here are some examples:

Using mystery to tell a story

By focusing on the claws, I’m keeping the majority of the Rancor out of focus and thus more mysterious. This enhances the creep factor and tells more of a story than something with a wider depth of field.

We all know what Darth Vader looks like, so hiding him in the shadows here diminishes many of his features. This makes the viewer resort to their own memory and imagination to fill in the details. I also think this image tells more of a story. Is he beckoning, or Force-choking?

It’s all about Atmosphere

As the increased popularity of Atmosphere Aerosol has shown, fog is a very popular tool for toy photographers. In a way, we’re lucky to be working on such a small scale, because we can produce smoke and steam effects relatively easily and safely. I don’t have Atmosphere Aerosol, though I’ve long wanted to try it out. That desire was re-ignited for me once I got a Lume Cube, and learned more about what light could add to a photo and its story.

Instead of buying fog in a can, I found two ways to create it myself at little cost. The first solution was sticks of incense. They’re incredibly cheap at the grocery store, and relatively safe when it comes to flame. And unlike using something like steam for fog (which I’ll get to in a second), incense provides a steady yet relatively small stream of smoke to manipulate and insert into a photo.

My second smoke solution was a handheld steam cleaner.

Handheld steam cleaner by Comforday

My wife actually suggested it when I complained that incense didn’t provide enough coverage for dense fog or mist. She had bought the steam cleaner for how great it is around the house. She let me borrow it, and I’ve since hidden it in my office hoping she’ll forget. Because I never want to give it back! I’ll let her borrow it from me next time. I love it because steam is free – just add water, let the steam cleaner heat up, and blast away. The nozzle allows me to point the steam where I need it to go, and as an added bonus, it steam cleans your toys while you shoot!

By shining light in just the right places, you can make the steam really pop in your images. This took me a lot of trial and error. I had to fine tune the shutter speed depending on how crisp I wanted the fog or smoke to be. I also had to take a series of shots in burst mode, to capture as much variety as possible to choose from later. Smoke is highly unpredictable, after all. And because I was shooting at a fast shutter speed, I had to compensate for the lower exposure by adding more light into my scene than I would have otherwise. This process was a lot of fun. I love problem solving and finding creative solutions!

Shooting for Black and White

I’ve always loved black and white photography, but have rarely shot that way myself. I think this had to do with how little I understood lighting. I could never effectively make my black and white photos interesting, because I didn’t know how to manipulate the light to change the mood. Now that I have that understanding, I’m finally able to capture black and white photos I’m happy with, like the Vader shot above. Thanks to the lighting – which brings out the smoke but turns Vader into a silhouette – this photo is finally as creepy as I wanted it to be.

I won’t be shooting exclusively in black and white, as I’m still learning about how color can be manipulated and controlled. But I’m happy to now be exploring yet another new avenue for my work.

At the end of the day, that’s what I enjoy most about this new phase of my creative routine. I may be giving myself more nightmares, but I’m seeing some pretty great movies, and expanding my photography skills as the same time.

-James

Has your work been influenced by horror? If so there’s still time to enter our Halloween contest over on G+, or take shots about fear for the next themed podcast episode with Kristina! If reading is more your speed,  subscribe to our weekly email round up so that you never miss a post!

7 Comments

  1. I really like the black and white version of your creature image, but then I’m a child of the original and appreciate the ‘more faithful homage’.

    I may look at using my steam cleaner for the fog effect. Thanks for the the tip, I haven’t done much in the way of practical effects so far.

  2. Amazing post!
    Horror movies are not my cup of tea either, that’s why I’m not very inspired by the Halloween/horror thematic (that, added to the fact that here in Europe it’s not in our culture a lot)
    Maybe I should try some classics too.

    I love the somike effect on the Maleficent one!

  3. I don’t really do horror anything. Maybe an occasional scary picture, but I stay away from true horror. Horror is just not something I can totally agree with as a Christian. However, I like what you’ve done James, creating pictures with a spooky/creepy effect but without all the gore and other nasty stuff that horror shots could contain.

    I’ve used a diffuser for a mist atmosphere before, but it creates a very indistinct foggy effect. I’ll have to try out some of the smoke effects sometime! It looks great.

  4. Lizzi

    Brilliant post James! I just paid quite a chunk of cash for some Atmosphere Aerosol and have had no success with it whatsoever so your tip about the steam cleaner (which we already have) is brilliant! Will certainly be giving that a go!

  5. Erik C Naville

    I always wondered about using a vaping device to get a smoke effect. I see lots of folks out blowing huge vape clouds in public and in cars. I wonder how well it would photograph though but just like everything else trial & error would probably make it work.

  6. I’m thrilled to find an alternative to shelling out more bucks for the canned smoke of Atmosphere Aerosol. I suppose the canned version is still the best (and safest) tool for outdoor “on location” smoke, but really like the idea of trying incense or steam for shots at home. Thanks for sharing this, James!

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