Learning to Travel with Toys

In my post a couple weeks ago I declared –

that in my upcoming travel toy photos I wanted to have “a reason for the location and [to] find a way to interact with [my] new environment.”

During my 2 weeks out of state, I took a ton of pictures –

most of a touristy nature with no toys present. But, one night I did find myself at a sculpture park, with the perfect opportunity to put to use my 2″ tall plastic, electric dollhouse chandelier that I brought with me. I purchased the chandelier with the idea of creating outdoor rooms, of playing with the juxtaposition of inside v. outside space and therefore a looking out on new opportunities, new starts, open windows and doors.

The sculpture park with all its various structures of sorts allowed for a backdrop to the chandelier. In order to get the electronic component of the light to work, I wired it to a battery pack and was well on my way. For these I decided to shoot with my Olympus TG-4 – a point and shoot camera, but with great macro and other versatile capabilities. While I had brought my DSLR in my suitcase, this quick, on the go walking trip, with chandelier held in one hand, seemed to call for a lighter camera.

As for toys, I had also had brought along a couple guys in hazmat suits, and a few tiny photographers – none of them actually made it in front of my camera. But I did take a couple shots, also at the sculpture park, of a little astronaut – another symbol of new beginnings.

So, while in 2 weeks I only took toy photos one night…

I’m pretty happy with the results. For one, considering my exploration for toy photography was pretty limited when posed around daylight hours and work responsibilities, and for two, because I feel like I actually accomplished the symbolism I set out to capture.

While the past few weeks have been exhausting, there’s something to be said about the inspiration that can be found by changing your surroundings and stepping outside the genre.

As a slight departure to the above, while in Chicago, I also got the opportunity to see the Thorne Miniature Rooms at the Art Institute. They are stunning, intricate, 1:12 dollhouse scale, historic dioramas and while they are 3-D, the lighting in which they’re posed is amazing and could be hugely influential in this small scale photo world we find ourselves in. Here’s one for example.

I took way too many photos of these rooms, and sometimes love the idea finding the best way to photograph pre-setup mini spaces. All of them were behind pretty reflective glass, without a polarizing filter on hand, and taking these images with my phone, I had to get creative when it came to making the odd reflections work within the image.

“I am forever chasing the light. Light turns the ordinary into the magical.”

-Trent Parke

Have you created photos in a new location recently?

~ Jennifer Nichole Wells

A New Perspective

“The world sure seems different from down here, doesn’t it, Scott?”

-Hank Pym, Ant-Man (2015)

I tend to spend a great bit of time and energy hunting new sources of inspiration for my photography. I do this by looking at other people’s photos, getting feedback from and interacting with my peers, or participating in challenges.

The easiest way to find inspiration is to simply add a new LEGO set, minifigure, or accessory to my collection. This usually leads to at least one new photo, or I get lucky and it opens up a whole new series for me to dive into.

That’s exactly what happened when I got my hands on Ant-Man.

I liked the Ant-Man film that came out in 2015, but not enough to buy its licensed tie-in LEGO set upon release. It wasn’t until our friends @Krash_Override and @DoctorNvrmore launched the #jANTMANuary contest on Instagram earlier this year that I finally felt compelled to add the bite-sized Avenger to my collection, and boy am I glad that I did!

Since January, Ant-Man has quickly become one of my favorite LEGO minifigures, and has actually opened my mind to a whole new perspective for my photography.

Not only is he fun to photograph, but Ant-Man is super helpful in finding change between my couch cushions!

Part of the fun of taking toy photos is that you get to play around with scale. I spend a lot of time looking at the world more closely and imagining how normal, everyday objects might look next to my 4-centimeter subjects.

Ant-Man makes me think outside the box, because his scale is inherently different than his fellow Avengers. Ant-Man is supposed to look small, which means that I’m not necessarily trying to skew the objects around him or play around with forced perspective. Because of who he is as a character, that part’s already done for me!

I’m simply placing him in the real world and seeing what kind of adventures the little guy can go on.

This has been incredibly freeing, and has allowed me to shoot on the fly if need be. Rather than build sets and backgrounds to complete my photographs or scale things down to fit my needs, I can lean on a shrinking superhero instead and utilize the real world around me as-is. Now I’m looking at the world, and at my photography, from a new angle.


Has a particular photographic subject allowed you to approach your photography in a new way? Let us know in the comments! 


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Making Toys for Toy Photography

There are various way to approach the creation of new photos. Personally, I like to think of an idea then figure out what toys and other props would be best to make that vision a reality.

Sometimes I look through my collection, other times I’ll browse online or in shops, and sometimes I’ll make my own objects. I don’t typically make the precise, detail oriented, gorgeous work you’ll see of miniaturists or customizers, but I do make simplistic models that fit my end goal. I like to think of the camera lens as a tool of transformation. Through it, I can make my simple sets come to life.

Is it still a toy if I make it myself?

Well, I’ll leave that up to you in the end. But I’d like to think a small trinket posed with other toy or toy-like items still falls into the range of toy photography.

When I say I make my own toys, here’s what I mean.

First up, I’m sure this is something we all do from time to time, building sets using paper, cardboard, foam core etc.

My other standard supplies include polymer and air dry clay, glue, and odds and ends found around the house.

Then, more technologically, I sometimes design and/or source 3D models to print and paint.

And most recently, I’ve been creating molds for play-doh and hot glue lego mini figures. For years I’ve had the idea of creating an image that shows a figure crumbling. A metaphor of the mind, shown visibly. I never quite figured out a way to do this, and then I thought of play-doh and how it gets all crumbly when it dries. I liked the symbolism of a lego figure rather than a more realistic human for this, an icon of an icon of sorts. As I started the molding process, other ideas came to life for this type of ‘toy.’ And so a short series of images began.

I’m not quite sure this is my end all be all crumbling image, but it’s a start. And the best way I knew how to make it was by making the toy I needed for it.

“With any means available, [tableau photographers] create photographs intended to convey their philosophic and moral views of the world and themselves.”

– Fabrications by Anne H. Hoy

Long story short, I find what I need to make the photo I’m envisioning, and sometimes that comes in the form of creating my own toys.

~ Jennifer Nichole Wells

Do you ever make your own toys or other photo props? Why and how? 

And then there was light

“Light comes in flickers, defining the darkness, not dispelling it.”
Neil Gaiman, Neverwhere

Although lighting is crucial in the Noir series, I never payed attention to how exactly I proceed. I do not know much about light. I only have a general idea of the look I want to achieve. And then I kind of play around, which at the end of the day leaves me with lots of pictures that are ‘same but different,’ as they say.

However, since the lighting in this series has been commented on a couple of times, I tried to pay more attention to the process. Here’s what I think I do:

It all started with ideas about lighting

At one point for example, I wanted the central person to be illuminated by light falling out of a door or a window, casting a long shadow. That’s how Noir started, and you can tell from the first pictures of the series that in the beginning, there was the light, and then the story followed.

First the light, then the couple. But they are cute, aren’t they?

But in the run of the course came a shift of attention towards story telling. I still wanted certain pictures, but now I’d try to better integrate them into the narrative: For example, I wanted that car down the slope; so how could it be a more or less plausible part of the story?

A slightly more systematic approach

Shifting perspective like that, light at times became a different matter. I started thinking in ‘scenes’ (like “woman getting on the bus“). With that, I imagined light sources as they would be in reality: Light from the sky, street lamps, lights shining out of buildings, car lights. And I decided for a basic, all-over source of light to set the mood: Is it a sunny day? A clear night with a full moon? Do we have street lamps on?

Down those well lit streets: I later found out that using these lamps rarely makes sense – unless you want them to be part of the picture.

Then I tried to ‘translate’ the real world light sources into the minuscule H0 scale. I set those ‘naturalistic’ lights to see how they work: Do they make the important parts of the picture visible? – A question like that means that I work my way from darkness toward light, rather than lighting everything and then trying to arrange the shadows.

Once I have the important parts of the picture in broad light, there is something else to consider: Does the light evoke a sense of drama? Is the atmosphere anything I would expect? When I arrive at this stage, switching off lights can be as important as switching them on. Some of the later pictures in the series were supposed to be lit by the miniature street lamps. But once I had lit the scene, I just switched them off to see if they made any difference. They didn’t. So I put them away altogether, giving me more maneuvering room for the camera.

Not quite what I had planned: I went for a ‘plain’ daylight scene, but it lacked drama. So here’s what looks like a quite sunny late afternoon to me.

Proceeding like this, I might end up with something very different from what I started with. Sunny might turn into extremely shadowy and vice versa, just for the sake of composition, visibility, and drama.

Same but different… I used the same light source in all these pictures and only changed the light by moving the lamp around.

I considered adding a list of light sources I use but then decided against it. Because it is too much fun to grab any source of light you can get hold of and play around with it. I would not want to spoil that for you!

Did you ever play with light? Did you ever try out different sources of light? Do you have a favourite?

~ Tobias M. Schiel

The $5 Photograph

I’ll readily admit I have a lot of supplies for my toy photography – various toys, camera equipment and other gear.

I don’t have the latest and greatest anything, but I make what I have, and what I can further source, work for me.

This concept can be true at any range of your budget. While social media can make it seem like you need a $2000 camera and $300 figure to make it in this field/hobby that’s far from true. Continue reading The $5 Photograph

Recovering From Your “Best” Photo

Earlier this week, Brett discussed what it’s like to chase after your “White Whale” shot, that one perfect photo that’s been floating around in your head for a while and sometimes feels completely unattainable. It’s something I resonated with deeply, as it’s a struggle I face all the time in my own photography. Then it got me thinking…

What happens when you finally take that shot? How do you recover from your “best” photo?

Photography is, of course, subjective, so how you define your “best” shot may vary. For me, my “best” photo is the one I take and think, “Wow! This came out exactly how I wanted it to, and might just be the best picture I’ve ever taken!” Continue reading Recovering From Your “Best” Photo

New Beginnings

In the next few days I’ll be flying out of state for some on the job training for my new position. I won’t have a ton of free time, but I’d like to be prepared for when or if I do. So here I am as a not-travel/outdoor toy photographer contemplating what to bring and what to shoot.

I want to make photos there that I couldn’t here, to have a reason for the location and find a way to interact with the new environment.

“The whole point of taking pictures is so that you don’t have to explain things with words.”

-Elliott Erwitt Continue reading New Beginnings

Chasing “that” shot

For forever and a day I shall chase that White Whale

We’ve all spent time searching for that shot; the elusive White Whale, the Holy Grail that thwarts us. Chasing that shot is a fruitless, all-consuming quest. Or is it?

Drown like Captain Ahab
Trying to slay that Great White Whale
So tied up in their own rules
People jump ship and they fail
Jello Biafra with the Melvins – Lessons in What Not to Become

I’ve got a handful of shots in my mind that I’ve wanted to capture for some time now. Some of these have haunted me for years, taunting me with their imagined exactness.

Many of them come out with me in search for their ideal locale, more times than not returning empty-handed. They scoff at the bland parodies of their imagined precision. Their jeers at my bids to replicate them follow me to every fresh attempt.

Thwarted by their lofty expectations and demands, I usually sit before yet another lacking Lightroom import. Continue reading Chasing “that” shot

Hey Ho! Let’s Go! [Outside]

Taking pictures outdoors is a great and funny thing. You choose from the seemingly ordinary reality the pieces that are becoming new worlds through camera lens and thanks to your imagination. It could be another planet, the Wild West or other exotic place. Besides, you can catch some sun, breathe fresh air, meet other people… erm, wait.

Yeah, meeting other people. It’s difficult to avoid them when taking pictures outside, unless you shoot in the Death Valley or in distant areas of Antarctica [I’m sure there may be some people to be found there though]. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a misanthrope [or at least I’m in reasonable proportions] and people do not bother me unless they go through the frame. However, both the toyphotographers and passers-by have different sensitivity. And that sensitivity does not always overlap. Continue reading Hey Ho! Let’s Go! [Outside]