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.

The San Francisco Toy Photographers meet-up has come and gone

The San Francisco Toy Photographers meet-up has come and gone. A years worth of planning, organizing and a fair amount of worry, paid off in another epic weekend. There’s no way I can share with you the many moments, both small and large, that bonded this group together. We laughed, we shared toys, we shared equipment and we inspired each other in so many way.  I will do my best to impart a little bit of the magic of our four days together.  Continue reading The San Francisco Toy Photographers meet-up has come and gone

My One Photo that Changed it All

This is the story of the toy photo that set me on my path. From this photo, I never looked back. This, is my one photo that changed it all.

My first post on Toy Photographers was my Why statement. Why I do what I do – photograph, of all things, toys. And in that I touched on my college WWII project.

The longer it’s been since I made that project, the more I realize how defining it has been to my future photos. Continue reading My One Photo that Changed it All

While The Cat’s Away

While the cat’s away, the mice will play. That’s what they say. Well, that’s what Bernie Horowitz says anyway!

toy safari: Gary Larson
“You, Bernie Horowitz? …So YOU’RE the ‘they’ in ‘that’s what they say’?” – Gary Larson

Toy Safari Blues

This past week, Shelly’s been off, gallivanting around in San Francisco at the Toy Photo Safari. And while she’s been away having an amazing time, I’ve been stuck here, keeping the home fires burning, slaving over a hot computer, looking after you kids!! Continue reading While The Cat’s Away

Where Do Toy Photos Belong?

“Never have I found the limits of the photographic potential. Every horizon, upon being reached, reveals another beckoning in the distance. Always, I am on the threshold.”

-W. Eugene Smith


As we struggle with Instagram’s constantly changing algorithm many toy photographers are trying to figure out where in this social media world they belong. Of course I’m going to vote for Google + and the Toy Photographer’s Community, but really our images can fit anywhere that any other photo can. Continue reading Where Do Toy Photos Belong?

To Delete, or Not to Delete?

Jennifer’s recent blog post about image recovery shed some new light on a dilemma I’ve been facing since the day I became a photographer. In a bit of a technical snafu, Jennifer nearly lost a bunch of photos she’d taken – which is a pretty big fear of mine. As a result, I find it incredibly difficult to delete photo files – even long after the final shot has been posted! Continue reading To Delete, or Not to Delete?

A Raptor Chapter that we hope doesn’t end

The Raptor Pack Day

April the 22nd, just like every 22nd since 2013 was Raptor Pack Day; a day where the Toy Dino Squad invite us to share our dinosaur photographs.

I’ve played along in the past. I’m a forgetful knucklehead and the 22nd either slips past me, or it’s on 22nd that I’m reminded by seeing someone’s dino post (usually the 22nd for them on the other side of the world so it’s the 23rd for me?), but when I do remember, or I’m reminded, I join in. Continue reading A Raptor Chapter that we hope doesn’t end

Learning Lego

The Beginning

Quite a few months ago a friend asked if I’d ever shoot Lego. I said ‘probably not’ and went on to explain that something so recognizable in an image makes it all about that item, whether for or against, you can’t have just a message all on its own.

Rethinking

I was being a bit narrow minded. Continue reading Learning Lego

Gathering more than just photos

May 6th, 2014. When @zenith_ardor got a LEGO Tauntaun for his birthday and I’d just ordered one online, @smokebelch2 joked that there was “gonna be a Tauntaun showdown”. His taunts morphed into a photo gathering, the #tauntaunshowdown. An impromptu get together that spawned many more photography gatherings.

Together with @east_mountain, the four us started ‘hosting’ themed photography gatherings on Instagram from time to time.

There was nothing official about these gatherings. They were just a bunch of friends inviting others to join in and post photos based around a given theme, on a particular date or weekend. The unofficial tagline for these gatherings is “No winners. No losers. Just fun.” Continue reading Gathering more than just photos

Growing little worlds

A strolling Brett gathers mo moss

“Growing little worlds” sounds like a cheesy song title, but it’s a way to create little living habitats for toys to roam.

I was intrigued to see Luigi’s ‘Killer Score’ and ‘The Are Not The Droids’ setups, in particular the scale, or lack of, that he utilised to create these shots.

It was interesting to read Shelly’s post on the outdoors being studios. I especially liked reading that Kristina had shown Shelly that you ‘can do a lot with very little’. Continue reading Growing little worlds