The Basics – Photographing toys in water

I’ve been taking photos in and around water for as along as I’ve been a photographer. There is something magical about water; the movement, the sound, the reflections. Being in and around water feeds something basic in my soul. Because of this, it’s only natural that water would make it into my toy photography. Some of my favorite toy images have been taken in water.

While water is beautiful to photograph, it’s not easy to work with. It can be unpredictable; water can steal your LEGO and it can leave you soaking wet. But even with these hazards, the final results are often worth it.

I prefer to photograph in the great out doors so when I talk about water I’m referring to rivers, lakes, puddles as well as the Puget Sound. I have found that the edges around any body of water is usually rocky, muddy, sandy or all three. Not exactly an environment that invites getting down on your knees or stomach for your typical toy photos. Over the years I’ve learned a few tricks about working in and around water plus a few tips to make my life easier.

Tips For Water Photography

1) Lego doesn’t float consistently or at all.  If it does float, it will only move away from you as you’re taking photos. I photograph in shallow water like a puddle or build up a base for my subject to rest on. This can be nearby rocks, a bit of wood, a LEGO base plate (although you will have to weight this down) or a water glass. Whatever method you choose make sure you can disguise the object or remove any shadows with Photoshop.

I Will Be a Fisherman (These figures are positioned on a lego plate and then inserted into the water. I used loose gravel to cover the plate because even though the water was moving, you could still see the edges.)

2) If you’re looking for great reflections you will want to get low to the ground and aim across the water. Once you get at this level you can see that the surface of the water acts as a mirror. You can see the reflection and compose for the reflection rather than the subject.

I love how the dark shadows really let that reflection pop! The rocks around me where bright white and acted as a natural reflector.

3) Safety first! I have found that water can be unpredictable and a roque wave or a fast moving stream can soon send your figure on an unexpected adventure. Be careful; you don’t want to leave any friends behind! You will want to be aware if tides are going in or out. Its also good to be aware of how big the waves are and to keep a watchful eye on your figures. A rogue wave can easily whisk your subject out to sea! I will often watch the water for a few minutes to get the feel of the wave action before I put my figures in place.

Man down! Or is that cats down??

4) Water is very reflective and can cast deep shadows so you will need to have a reflector or portable light on hand. By illuminating the shadows you can eliminate hours of post production manipulation. If you’re working in the bright sun, be careful of unwanted hot spots on your figure. Sometimes its easier to move to the shade or wait for better light, than risk an image where the highlights are blown out.

A lego version of the Mouse Guard character Lieam journeys down the sparkling river in his Lego canoe.
This was taken at Magnuson Park while I was kneeling in the mud near the beaver damn.  If only I had known about reflectors when I took this photo! Then maybe we could see the figure better. 🙁

5) Where the right clothing and have protective gear along. The ground is hard and unforgiving. Once I was laying on rocks for so long to get the perfect photo that my entire side was dappled with bruises. So take it from me, bring knee pads, a small foam pad or a jacket you can kneel on. I also wear water proof shoes. You never know when you will be in the water rather than next to the water.

6) Not all water is moving. Sometime the water will be still and create perfect reflection but you want to create the illusion of movement. If this is the case, use a small twig or rock to break the surface of the water and simulate movement.

(On this photo I used a twig to get the water moving. If you’re asking your viewer to suspend their disbelief, you need to show your vehicle ‘moving’.)

7) Don’t be afraid of winter water photos. Photographing in the winter can create some unexpected bonuses. While water freezes in the cold, so does mud. This makes it  much easier to kneel on the ground. If you encounter a frozen pond in the sun, it will add extra sparkle to your photo. I’ve created some of my favorite photos in temperatures that are near or below freezing.

Galadriel (Bokeh on a frozen pond  can create a magical effect!)

8) It’s not always convenient to travel to the woods or a nearby park for water photos. You can create a manmade pool with a shallow dish and have a little pond ready to go at any time. The biggest draw back of this trick is that you will have to resolve the edges by masking. This way you can create the illusion of an outdoor pond. Extra added bonus: let your ‘pond’ freeze in the winter. You can create an instant ice rink, have figures frozen in ice and boats don’t sink!

Celebrating a job well done! (I used a small shallow pan to create this winter hot spot. The rocks are added to disguise the hard edge of the pan.)

9) Experiment with camera angles, and shutter speed. Your camera angle will determine what kind of reflection you can capture. Also by slowing down your shutter speed you can capture beautiful effects. If you have image stabilization on your camera you can drop below 1/60th to arounds 1/30th and capture the movement of the water. Experiment and see how slow you can go and still keep your figures in focus.

(A shutter speed of 1/30th or lower can produce some lovely effects showing water in motion.)

10) Photographing in and around water can be very rewarding. I encourage you to give it a try and have some fun with your toys!


Do you have any tips you would like to share about working in and around water? 

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The Basics – Selective Focus

Selective focus is another tool you should add to your photographic tool bag. When you’re a landscape photographer being able to focus to infinity is important, but is that skill really important for toy photography? What happens when you play with the focus point on your toys? Can you tell a better, or different story? In the fast paced world of social media, can you create an image that stands out when it’s initially hard to read? Lets find out…

What is Selective Focus

Selective focus requires a shallow depth of field. This means photographing using  a wide open (or nearly wide-open) aperture setting. Something in the f2.8 – f3.5 range rather than the other end of the spectrum; f11 – f16. You can also effect your depth of field with a longer focal length on your lens or getting closer to your subject. Both a longer lens and getting close to your subject will shorten your focal plane.

A shallow depth of field allows you to blur the surroundings. When you’re able to do this, you can pick out one part of the image to bring into focus. You can isolate one aspect of the image that you want the viewer to focus on; to see first.

Even though you’ve isolated one aspect of the image to be in focus, you shouldn’t ignore the rest of your composition. By changing the angle you can draw your viewer into the image. You can also create pleasing blur around your focus point that will allow the viewers gaze to roam and linger on your image. Even though the image may be primarily blurred, you want to create a reason for your viewers gaze to wonder through the image.

Which tells a better story?
Option A: with the fairy unicorn in focus the story revolves around the chase and the details of the figure.
Option B: with the butterfly in focus, the story revolves around his presumed escape.
More Examples of Selective Focus

I asked my friends in the Toy Photography Moderators group to contribute their images of selective focus. When you’re looking at these images think about the following questions:

  • How does the focus change how you relate to the image?
  • Do you find yourself slowing down to look at the image closer?
  • By leaving out the details, can you tell a more complex story?
  • Do you need to see a toy clearly to recognize their identity?
  • Is there still a feeling of depth in these images with a shortened depth of field?
  • Are you drawn into the image by following the path of focus?
Ninja by Julie Blair
Thanks for 55 years Spidey! by Jason Nvrmore
I find your lack of faith disturbing. By Tony Tulloch
Mondays by Brett Wilson
Boba Fett by James Garcia
Misunderstood Children By Jennifer Nicole Wells
Stormtrooper by Kristina Alexanderson
Move beyond focus

I would encourage you to play around with what is and what isn’t in focus. Decide in advance what you’re trying to say with your image. Once you determine that, you will be able to decide what your primary focal point should be. Play around with angles and point of view. Mix it up. Make your audience work for it. I assure you, they will thank you for it.

And once you get comfortable with selective focus, considering moving into blur photography.

By Tom Milton

Because who says anything has to be in focus to tell a good story.


While this post is primary aimed at photographers using DSLR cameras, you can emulate this effect by using the Tilt Shift option on your editing app. There are also stand alone apps like Big Lens that will help you emulate this effect. Don’t be afraid to experiment! You’re creating art; there are no rules. 🙂

And if you’ve made it this far I encourage you to sign up for our weekly email round-up. Or join our G+ Community were we hold monthly contests with prizes for the winner! 

The Basics – Your Own Web Site

Do you have your own web site?  I was recently surprised by the number of toy photographers in our community who don’t. I feel strongly that in the shifting quicksand of social media platforms every semi-professional photographer and artist should have a personal home on the internet. A place where you can control how your work is viewed, present a carefully curated representation of your work as well as supporting information. A personal web site can also act as a central hub for all your social media accounts and can grow and change with your own artistic needs.

You’re the boss

If you’re only showing your work on corporate social media platforms, then you’re probably presenting your work in a random fashion. If you’re like me, I generally post my most recent work, a contest entry, or an idea I’m working through. On my personal web site I showcase my work in small groups that follow a specific theme. I also highlight images that are my current favorites.

By creating your own web site, you control first impressions. You can organize your images in groups, by theme, by style, by subject or in any way that makes sense to you. Unlike the fast past world of social media, a web site can be a place for fans to take a longer look at your work. Where potential customers, and even marketing representatives, can get a complete view of your style and even personal and biographical information.

Another benefit of creating a home on the web for your best work, is that you can present images without the distractions of likes, follower counts and +1’s. Honestly, I feel that this (meaningless) information attached to your images, will only alter how your work is perceived. Your work should be judged on its own merits without the distraction of unnecessary and irrelevant numbers.

Facebook is not a website (nor is Flickr)

Any social media site that you may be posting your own images to, is not a substitute for your own web site. You do not have control over these platforms. As we’ve seen on numerous occasion, corporations can change the user interface at any time. Your account can also be deleted and your images banned without your consent. Basically, you’re not in control of who or how your work is seen. This is not an effective, longterm strategy to promote your work.

Social media sites like Facebook, Flickr, G+ and Instagram are only tools in your promotional tool box. They are not a substitute for your own web site.

Show you’re serious about your work

Having a site dedicated to promoting only your work, indicates that you’re serious about your work. What looks more professional: sending a publicists to Instagram or to your own website? One is a hodgepodge of images posted in no particular order while your web site is a clean, organized and carefully curated selection of your work.

Create an identity as unique as you are

When your work is seen on Facebook, Flickr, Instagram or G+, there is nothing unique about the presentation of your work. You’re just one more image in someones else’s user interface. You want to create a web site as unique as you and your work. A place that sets your work apart.

No one makes art in a vacuum. We all have stories to share about our work and our toys. By creating your own web site you can present the “why?” of your work. Create an artist statement and tell the world why you do what you do! Create a blog and tell the stories behind your own artistic journey and your photographs. If you’re exhibiting your work, keep a list of upcoming shows so your customers can find you. Start a mailing list, you never know what you may want to promote in the future.

Let your fans get to know you. In my experience, people are more invested in artists that they know.  They want to make a connection with the artist creating work they already love. By offering personal information you can begin to create a stronger connection with potential customers, fans and even marketing and PR firms.

Just go for it!
Its easier than you think

Creating your own web site is easier than you think. You don’t need to know how to write code and you don’t need to be a web designer. There are plenty of templates available that allow you to drag and drop your images into place. Companies like Wix, Weebly, Squarespace and Jimdo exist to streamline the process for small businesses and artists. The advantage of using a company like Wix, Weebly, Squarespace or Jimdo is that you can be assured that your page will look great on a mobile or a desk top device equally.

Don’t try to make your web site perfect from day one. If you’re like me, your web site will never be perfect, it will always be a work in progress. Launch your web site with enough images and information that your fans will get the basic idea. Be sure to include your contact information and links to your social media platforms. Even Rome wasn’t built in a day!

Less is MOre

When creating your own website remember less is more. Don’t overload your site with ten different styles of photography with each section containing twenty plus images. Only present you best work. Rotate and update your site with your new favorite images every few months. Keep you site lean and mean. Make it easy for interested individuals to quickly get a sense of your work, your professionalism and most importantly – get a hold of you.


Make sure your site has eCommerce capabilities. You never know, one day you may want to sell your work. If you’ve already been selling cards and small prints on sites like RedBubble and Society6, you’ve probably already experienced your fair share of take down notices. Why run the risk of running afoul of large corporations when you can easily send potential customers to your own sales site. Yes, I understand its harder to fulfill your orders than to simply receive a commision check. But on the upside, you get to keep all the money.


Like everything in life, creating your own web site has a price. You will pay both in design time and hosting costs. I can’t tell you if this will be a good return on your investment. But if you have dreams of taking your work to a new level, like product photograph or direct sales, investing in a web site is an important tool. It’s a place where you control how your work is viewed.

In other words, its priceless.


If you would like to share your own experiences creating a web site, please feel free to add your thoughts in the comments. We all learn from each other! 

If you have a web site that you would like us to link too, please let me know in the comments. If there is enough interest, I will create a resource page of individual toy photographer web sites from our community. 

The Basics – Close-up filters

What is a close-up filter? Close-up filters are basically reading glasses for your camera lens. They are a nifty, and extremely inexpensive, way to turn any lens into a macro lens.

You heard me right. You can change the focal length of your lens by simply screwing on a close-up filter. Think of them as reading glasses for your lens.

I love my 90mm Sony lens. In fact I adore it, but it never seems to get me as close as I want to be to my subject. While I love the incredible details in LEGO mini figures, i’ve been unable to capture them adequatly. It is these small details and flourishes that inspire me to photograph these toys. Continue reading The Basics – Close-up filters

Who is your audience?

Who is your audience seems a rather silly question to be asking. Obviously if you’re posting your photos to social media your audience is your followers. Two years ago I wrote a post called An Audience of One. This was a post reaffirming that the most important person that I’m taking photos for is me.

In that post, I also gave a passing nod to my followers who enjoy my photos and comment on them. But honestly, I would not have considered the reactions or needs of these fans when I set up my photos. Recent events have made me reconsider this position. Continue reading Who is your audience?

The Basics – Breaking Rules

I remember when I first met Kristina she was looking for a fellow photographer who liked breaking the rules. My reaction at the time was confusion, because I didn’t know what those rules were. Recently I came across a list of basic photography ‘rules’ and I was pleasantly surprised. Both by what the rules are and were I fell on the spectrum of rule breakers. Continue reading The Basics – Breaking Rules

The Basics – Exposure Compensation

Every DSLR camera owner has his or her preferred camera settings. Many photographers swear by the Manual setting, while others love to use Shutter Priority or Aperture Priority. They each have their advantages depending on what your personal creative vision is. Continue reading The Basics – Exposure Compensation

Forced Perspective?

Um, I think it’s just perspective when you’re lying in the dirt photographing toys?

The forced perspective technique sways our perception with the use of optical illusions to make objects appear larger, smaller, further away, or closer than they actually are. It manipulates perception through the use of scaled objects and the correlation between them and the vantage point of the camera. Continue reading Forced Perspective?

A Reminder To Remember

Baader-Meinhof? I’ve been seeing a lot of that lately?

Your friend tells you about an obscure “mathcore” band they’ve only just discovered.

Later that afternoon, you stumble onto one of their albums as you flick through vinyl at your local record store. Then you see a poster for their upcoming tour through the train window on your way home that evening. Hang on a minute, that’s them playing in that car commercial on TV, too! Continue reading A Reminder To Remember

The Basics – Working in a Series


(ˈsɪəriːz; -rɪz)

npl -ries

1. group or connected succession of similar or related things, usually arranged in order

What happens we you apply this concept to photography? What happens when you decide to create a Photo-Essay? Continue reading The Basics – Working in a Series