Outdoor Toy Photography with Intention

I like to create photos like some people like to cook – a little of this, a dash of that, stir the pot and then see what comes out of the oven. While outdoor toy photography definitely has a chance effect about it, similar to experimenting in the kitchen, that doesn’t mean that outdoor photographers, like myself, aren’t crafting our photos with the same attention to detail as all  photographers.

As an outdoor photographer I carry my entire studio on my back; this includes an extra lens (usually a 50mm Lens Baby besides my trusty 100mm), bounce cards, filters, a couple of rocks and additional lighting. While I might not need any or all of this equipment on a typical outing, its great to be prepared for any situation I might encounter.

One of the biggest challenge the outdoor photographer encounters is a light source that changes quickly. While the sun can often be fickle and inconsistent, you can’t beat it for a light source. Those deep golden rays that accompany the Golden Hour almost always turn any good-looking photo into something magical. The bokeh created by the sun bouncing off water (or any reflective surface) never ceases to amaze me! The patterns of light and dark created by any background when shot with a short depth of fields is always a miracle of bokeh and patterns that I like to play with. The light created by the sun creates an incredible variety of colors, tones and textures that can be found just about anywhere that you would take a photograph of a toy outdoors. The possibilities and combinations are endlessly fascinating!

Sure the sun is always changing its orientation and you have to work fast; that’s part of the fun and challenge of outdoor photography. Its imperative that you’re comfortable with your photo equipment so you can adapt to the quickly changing conditions. Speed is your friend.

The sun was fading fast, the wind was biting and I was sinking into the mud. I feel lucky I managed to capture this image; it’s becoming a personal favorite.

A nice even cloud cover is the equivalent of good studio lighting; a bright overcast day can be the ideal situation to shoot toys in. You’re saved from those annoying reflective surfaces and you’re given the gift of even lighting. Personally I like to aim for sunny days and then hang out in the shadows. When I place my figure in the shade with a bright sunny background directly behind him, this is equivalent to studio backlighting. This type of lighting is commonly used to outline the subject and separate it from the background. With the help of a reflector, I can bounce a little fill light onto the figure to illuminate the front and help bring detail into the shadow areas.

Lieam in canoe - reedited
I was shooting directly into the sunlight for maximum bokeh which  left the figure nearly lost in the shadows. With the help of a bounce card, I was able to illuminate the figure enough to capture some detail in the shadows.

I have learned the hard way that I need to have a good idea of what I want to shoot before I head out into the field. I try to spend 2-3 hours at home setting up little scenes that I want to capture. I think about the stories I want to tell in conjunction with the terrain I will encounter. I always pack a few spare figures that might be fun for a quick portrait or two. Sometimes I have a particular story line I’m trying to move forward; sometimes I just want to take a photo. Its nice to have little scenes ready to go so when I find that perfectly lit bit of moss, when the light is especially nice or I find the perfect water location – I’m ready to take advantage of the situation quickly.


Of course this type of speed isn’t always conducive to those lengthy set-ups required for a flying shot. This might be why I shy away from those types of special effects shots. Even if I don’t often create images with amazing effects or utilizing a little photoshop magic, that doesn’t mean that I don’t like to bring a little ‘action’ into my photos. Water is a great way to bring motion or ‘action’ to a still photography. This can take the form of a slow shutter speed used to capture the flow of water, real rain drops to disturb the surface of a pond or even a stick used to create strategically placed ‘waves’ in a still body of water. It’s these little details that can bring your toys and your photos to life.

Donatello in canoe
A lot of trial and err, with he added pressure of fast failing light, I managed to achieve ripples that implied the canoe was moving forward.

An aspect of outdoor toy photography that I enjoy more than any other is serendipity. This can take the form of an especially appealing puddle, an interesting rock or spot of moss, a rainy day or that beautiful light of the golden hour. There is a certain unpredictable nature to outdoor photography that’s undeniably addictive and frankly, endlessly fascinating.

Fallen Angel – An image inspired by the location

I’ve often said that it would be rather presumptuous of me to think that I could somehow image all the amazing possibilities that can be captured by a camera. I see my job as being open to the possibilities and to be inspired by my surroundings.

Regardless of the techniques I use to create my images, I keep coming back to ‘what is the story’? I want my images to have a lasting impression of a moment in time or a slice of a story where the viewer can fill in the details. Whether you want the viewer to feel a strong emotional response, or appreciate the beauty of your favorite toy, or even enjoy a quick laugh, you’ll want to use all the tools at your disposal for maximum effect.

Just like cooking, you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet; embrace the weather in all its varied glory. Get down in the dirt and mud and see what you can see through your camera lens; always work with intention; be open to the serendipity of outdoor photography.  You never know what’s going to happen or what combination is going to  help you to create that perfect photo!

And while your at it…don’t forget to have fun!

~ Shelly

If you’re an outdoor toy photographer how do you approach your craft? Do my experiences seem familiar? What tricks do you employ to make the task easier and faster?

Sleepy Sapceman
I knew I wanted to find a soft and inviting spot for this little scene. I was thrilled to find this ledge covered in moss that looked like the perfect spot for a tired spaceman to catch a few zzz’s.


  1. I love the magic of outdoor photography that can transform a photo into something totally unexpected. My latest outdoor session resulted in this kind of magic thanks to a very cool dead tree trunk lying on the ground. But it’s also for this reason I find it really challenging to take toy photography outdoor.

    Most of the time I have a precise photo idea in mind, it turns out as something not as good as what I initially wanted. I only have one photo for which I knew in advance precisely what I wanted and the result turned out to be better than what I expected. But now that I think about it, it took me more than a full week spent outdoor to get it…

    Anyway for me what works best are loosely defined ideas mixed with a good dose of improvisation. I can spend a whole afternoon outside and not get any decent photo, but if I manage to find a spot that inspires me to shoot one of the minifigs I brought with me, it feels like winning at the lottery.

    • Shelly

      Your experiences mirror my own. Somedays you get lucky and find a spot with fabulous lighting that never ends. Ok, maybe not never…but you know what I mean. Other times you end up chasing your idea for days or weeks trying to nail that internal vision. I’ve written several times about specific shots I’ve ‘chased’ over many months until I get a photo I’m satisfied with. I don’t think this is something that only outdoor photographers experience. All you need to do is look at Vesa’s last two posts and see he is doing much the same thing, except in his studio. I will confess that when I successfully land a photo, I also fell like I won the lottery. A glorious feeling for sure! 🙂

  2. I really enjoyed this post Shelly! Since I’m always in awe of your amazing images, I found it fascinating to read your thought process. I was especially interested to read that you spend 2-3 hours at home setting up scenes. That’s a lot of prep work but it pays off because your photos are always gorgeous.

    • Thank you Lynn for your kind words. It is especially gratifying that you thought it was a good read. Coming from a wonderful writer as yourself, that is very high praise. Thank you again!

      Yes, It amazes me how long it takes for me to get figures together for a photo shoot. I think that this might be why I don’t rush into shooting a new series. It takes me a while to get my head wrapped around figures, new story lines and think of interesting stories to tell. I do love the challenge!

  3. You have no idea how much this post resonated with me. I’ve been shooting outdoors in earnest since the Seattle meet-up and there were several times I had a lot of self-deprecating thoughts about whether I could actually do this or not. Normally shooting silly things in my room, I can bang out something useable in an hour or so, but I was completely unprepared for the realities of shooting outdoors! Like how I can walk and shoot for hours and hours and be lucky to get even one decent photo that day. How somehow the perfect figure for the most perfect spot is sitting at home on my shelf. How I can lug around a backpack full of toys and not be able to use a single one of them to any effect. It’s been frustrating but extremely fun exploring things out on my own. And you’re totally right. When you finally get those gorgeous shots, it’s so rewarding and surprising, it drives you on.

    I’m hoping once I scope out my local areas more I’ll know what sort of scenes to expect and can be better prepared with what toys I pack. Thank you for this post though. Sometimes I’m so inside my own head, this was a good reality check.

    • Thank you for sharing your experience; I can relate! All I can say, is keep going, it does get easier. I’ve written many posts about how I chased a particular shot over several months:




      As you can see an idea sometimes takes more than one go to execute. You might find the right location but not have the right figure with you, or you have the right figure, but the location or lighting doesn’t quite work. Over time you will learn to love the chase, at least I did.

      It’s gratifying to hear that you have taken that momentous step away from your indoor studio! This is very exciting news indeed! I can’t wait to see your images as they begin to appear on your IG feed. Keep us posted on your progress!

  4. Leila (Brickandmordor)

    Great post. Damn, Shelly, your work is always SO GOOD! The intention you put in totally shows and it’s beautiful. I too try to prepare specific figures to match the environment I’ll be in, and I usually just have loose ideas/themes.

    I love it though when I have a specific theme, and it turns out way better than expected, like my recent rainbow unicorn. Especially when prep time is zero. We managed to squeeze in a quick shoot up at Rocky Butte for golden hour on Saturday. My schedule was tight these last 5 days, so it was a rush-home-grab-and-go situation. I was inspired to post something for gay pride weekend, thus, Rainbow Unicorn made her magical appearance. 🙂

    • Thank you Leila for your kind words. I think I have more time to prep than you because I’m not going to school and working full time! To say your plate is full is an understatement! I think your work is amazing no matter how much perceived effort you’ve put into an image. You continually inspire me with your boundless creative energy! Keep up the awesome work my friend! May the Rainbow Unicorn always bless you with her awesomeness! 🙂

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