5 Amazing Things About the San Francisco Toy Photography Safari

The Lead Up

Ok, so I was super nervoucited. (Thanks to a seven year old at my son’s school for teaching me that awesome word!). I’ve been collecting LEGO minifigures and taking pictures of them for almost two years now, and I was vaguely aware of Toy Safaris from mentions in my Instagram and Google+ feeds as well as a few blogs I follow. I had little idea of what to expect, so my mind was spinning with “who’s gonna be there?,” “what will it be like?,” “which toys will I bring?,” “will I be the only dullard using an iPhone 7 and relatively ignorant about photography?,” and “will this event hit my list of the top ten most awkward things I’ve ever done?” (Please don’t ask about that list… trust me.)

The Launch

Thursday evening. Rush hour traffic. Google+ Headquarters. How could I say no? Pamela from Google greeted us with warmth and headed us to a secret room a few buildings and floors away. I walked in. I saw pizza, salad, beer, and boxes of LEGO. Oh, and about twenty people who had camera bags and, you know, the range of expressions you see at a meet and greet. The promise of new LEGO helped calm my “goodness this is awkward” nerves, and I was relieved when Carter Gibson, Shelly Corbett, and other luminaries welcomed me. The room seemed to have no obvious serial killers who live in their mom’s basement or egos the size of the world’s biggest LEGO build. So far so good, I thought. I don’t typically enjoy casual conversation with strangers and it was odd to be having it with the real human beings who, it turns out, actually exist behind the many toy photography accounts I follow on social media.  We ate, talked, took some pics, traded toys, and promised to see each other in the morning. I drove home thinking: Ok, I can do this. And did I mention free new toys?

The Sharing

We shared toys and laughs and ideas and we even collaborated on photos. Collaborating on a toy photography shot was all new to me and it was such a fun (if slightly intimidating) way to push beyond my comfort zone. Julien (Ballou34) gets virtually all of the credit for this scene and our shots of it were fun to compare. As a group we also shared some of our histories and connections and dreams. And I’m so grateful for how much these wonderful people shared with me about their art! Ballou34 taught me so much about the use of light and aperture. Maelick (Reiterlied) taught me to expect the unexpected and take things a little less seriously with his photo bombs of an adorable LEGO dinosaur. Shelly taught me about water shots and how to get these adventurous 2″ figs to float. Kiwi (Wikitoybox) taught me about the magical world of resin poop. Dennis (krash_override) and Melisa (lizzybelle9) shared incredible custom toys. Cindy (coneydogg) and Leila (brickandmordor) reminded me to laugh. A lot. Still in disbelief? Check out this fantastic video of the event created by Travin (saiyanranger).

Life’s a picnic… no matter where you are. (Photo collaboration with Julien Ballester)
The Photos

So it turns out we took photos. Lots of photos. I loved our time at Sutro Baths best. It’s an amazing spot in San Francisco right on the coast of the Pacific. I adore taking nature pics, and especially shots with water. I also love concrete and decay. So this was basically a perfect spot for me and my toys. In fact, the whole safari gave me a toy photography lens on the Bay Area. It was fun to see familiar spots through that angle and really cool to shoot in places new to me. Each person had so many toys (and a lot more than just LEGO) and such fun ways of traveling with them. As I mentioned, this is one generous group of beautiful toy geeks. I loved the privilege of watching others set up scenes, shoot, chat about scenes and shooting, and then shoot some more.  

Surfs up at the Sutro Baths.
Josh, Austin and Eric in action at Fort Baker.
The Goodbyes

So I’m this fifty year old gay guy all married up to this incredible man I’ve been with for nearly half my life. We have a fantastic seven year old son who we adopted into our family just last year here in the Bay Area. As you can imagine, I’m not out drinking beer with grownups very often anymore. I walked into this adventure a little apprehensive and walked out delighted. I went deeper with my photography. I had time to focus and experiment. But much more than the pics and minifigs, it is hard to describe how connected I feel to this group after a weekend of shooting plastic. Most of the group had joined together for previous safaris in Vegas and Seattle (and others in Hamburg and London and/or beyond). I was new to the group and yet welcomed in like I’d been along the whole time. I’m in awe of the kindness, generosity, humor and talent of this group. I’m also certain I’ve made some lifelong friendships. And to think it all started with a few LEGO Simpson minifigs and an iPhone 5.

Sisters at sea – Sausalito Marina.

Doug Gary

So how about you? Whether you’re a toy photography fan or a photographer, what toys first grabbed you? What sorts of shots do you love?

In the shadows.

Think big, shoot small?

“To speak out once for all, man only plays when in the full meaning of the word he is man, and he is only completely man when he plays.” (Friedrich Schiller, Letters Upon The Aesthetic Education of Man)

Last year my pictures had to be radically abstract. This year they are all about miniature people. What happened? And am I being inconsistent in my photography?

It’s about pictures

I have always tried to be very clear about one thing: My photography is not ‘about’ the things I photograph – in fact, I could not care less in many instances. It is ‘about’ pictures because I like pictures. This notion is also supposed to help me escape a certain kind criticism: It has been said that photography is the death mask of reality and that it is not able to surpass the reality it depicts. I wanted to go beyond that. I aimed at pictures that are independent of the time and place they show. Continue reading Think big, shoot small?

One year, 365 photos: a toy photography project

Every year I try to have some kind of a photography project. That might be 100 themed photos, 52 weeks projects (1 photo a week) or a 365.

A 365 is where you take a photo every day. I did it last year and I woke up on January first and decided to do it all again. This time, a toy photography only project though.

Am I crazy? Probably. Continue reading One year, 365 photos: a toy photography project

What is photography to you?

What is photography? And why am I doing photography?

These are questions I come back to over and over again. When I look it up on wikipedia the definition says that photography is:

as a way of capturing light, to a light sensitive sensor“.

But that answer doesn’t capture what photography is for me.

Continue reading What is photography to you?

New Year’s Revelations

Finding what you didn’t know you were looking for, until you’ve found it.

I’m sure we’ve all been there.

You set out to take a photograph with a clear idea in mind. It’s crystal clear. Just right.

Then, as you start to shoot, you discover something new. Your envisaged photo, albeit still wonderful, is overtaken by this newly discovered purpose. All that you’d hope for when you set out, is still there. A hope. A promise that will one day be honoured. Continue reading New Year’s Revelations

It’s 52 week in a year

I want to share my thoughts about my upcoming photographic projects after reading Shelly’s blog posts about the five words that she is letting define her year 2017 . As always, I’m inspired to do a new project in the beginning of the New Year and this year maybe even more so. I still haven’t decided if I’ll do a 365-project or not.

My first 365-project was completed in 2011 and it was all about toys, I called it CClones. I have done two other 365-projects but they have been all about self-portraits (Ser du mig? (a.k.a. Do you see me?)). Continue reading It’s 52 week in a year

Why? – The Origin story by Ballou34

Have you ever asked yourself why you were doing the things you do, the things that you like, the things that motivate you?

That is the question Shelly asked me. And to be honest, it is not an easy task.

It’s like asking Bruce Wayne why he became Batman or Anakin Skywalker why he became Darth Vader…

Origin stories

What is my origin story?

Maybe let’s start with some information about me. My name is Julien, I am 28 and I work in aeronautics, as an engineer, in France. So nothing directly related to photography or toys, for that matter.

I have been a big fan of Lego since my younger age and I came back to the brick a few years ago, collecting minifigures, mainly from the Star Wars and the Super Heroes universes.

At the same time, I have always enjoyed taking pictures, especially during my trips or during air shows. So I have a lot of pictures of aircraft, architecture and landscapes (some still available on my Flickr account). For me, photography is a way to escape from the daily world and flee all my problems. When I am taking pictures, I am focusing on the moment and nothing else matter.

What about Lego photography?

Well, I had been a follower of several of you for some time before I launched myself and I really enjoyed your pictures. And one day, it clicked. Why not make myself a picture with Lego? I have a camera and I have minifigures.

I started taking pictures at home, in my living room and after posting them online the feedback was so positive, it motivated me to continue. Quickly after my first pictures, I launched my first photo project, the #100_shadows project. With a goal of 100 pictures, it gave me purpose.

#100_Shadows (a small extract)

I also figured out that It could help me improve my technique as a photographer.

One thing you should know about me is that I am a self-taught photographer and I have always learned everything by myself (Photoshop, Lightroom, photography techniques…) and when I find something that motivates me (a project of some sort), I push myself beyond my limits to reach that goal.

So, to improve my Lego pictures, I started taking pictures manually (now I don’t use the Automatic mode of my camera anymore). I bought some gear (tripod, light, reflectors,..) and quickly learned how to use it.

I hate to push to the world pictures that I don’t like. I am very critical over my own work and I have difficulties to upload a picture when I am not a 100% satisfied but seeing the feedback and discussions we can have on social media, I may be too difficult with myself… If I were only listening to myself, you would not see a lot of my pictures. But with those exchanges and reading about other photographer troubles, I am learning a lot. That is something I found really interesting with this community. You can talk about your problems and learn something new everyday.

After learning to create a small studio with lighting, I decided to go further, to harvest the power of the sun and I left the comfort of my house to explore the world and take pictures outside. New challenges, new goals, new experiences.

Why?!

Back to the Why?

Legography, as a project, liberated me. In my daily life, I am someone who is really shy. But, since I started taking pictures of Lego, I don’t mind lying on the ground in the middle of a crowd to get my shot. People are looking at me, people are talking to me, but I don’t mind (a little bit at first…). I have even crossed borders to meet some of you during the last Stuck in Plastic toy Safari. This was such a great moment. I can’t wait to renew the experience.

Legography is also a way to tell story and share emotions. It is often easier for me to transpire my feelings through the medium of photography rather than in person (my shy side, once again). I can create characters and have them evolve in a unique environment. You don’t see the world with the same eyes when you spend so much time on the ground.

Legography, and toy photography in general is a medicine and every one can use it. Its good for you, either as a maker or a follower/watcher. When I make pictures or when I look at your creations, it quickly brings a smile on my face. I have some pictures from our toy safari picture exchange hanging on the wall in my office. When I have a bad day at work, I spend some time looking at them, remembering the good moments and I immediately feel better. And same as HerrSM, I believe that photography helps me not turning insane but he tells it much better than I can, in his own words.

Legography can also be a disease (but a good one – if you can consider a disease can be good) which can change people. I have seen photographers completely opening themselves through toy photography, and I am an example of that. Now, I have also friends and colleagues who carry toys with them and take pictures of them during their trips.

The picture maker

Toy photography being a cure, it is also contagious. “You”, the community, gave me the disease, and since then, I have myself spread it around. Let’s continue the contagion.

~ Julien / Ballou34

PS: Thank you Shelly for this opportunity to write once again for the  blog. It is always a pleasure to write for this wonderful community.

Portrait vs Poor Trait

Is it a poor trait of the LEGO minifigures?

It was noted, as we were deciding which images to include in the next BricksCulture magazine article last Sunday/Monday (a bloody hard task I might add due to the sheer awesomeness of all the submissions), that the majority of the photos submitted were landscape format.

This got me thinking. Continue reading Portrait vs Poor Trait

The ambiguity of stuff

ambiguity

[am-bi-gyoo-i-tee]
noun
doubtfulness or uncertainty of meaning or intention

stuff
[stuhf]
noun
material to be worked upon or to be used in making something

Whilst fleshing out the next BricksCulture article about Star Wars, we touched on the subject of the Stormtroopers and their adoption by the LEGO photography community. These endearing characters have become a favourite amongst us as subject matters. Despite their faces being hidden behind their buckets, a raft of emotions can be portrayed with these much-loved characters. Continue reading The ambiguity of stuff

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?