Toy Photography is another form of FanFiction

In certain circles legography is considered product photography. We’ve tried to define toy photography as still life, travel photography, tableau-vivant as well as the catch all narrative / action. Lately I’ve come to think of toy photography as a form of FanFiction.

What is FanFiction?

FanFiction is when someone takes either the story or characters (or both) of a certain piece of work, whether it be a novel, TV show, movie, etc. and create their own story based on it. Sometimes people will take characters from one movie and put them in another, which is called cross-over. – The Urban Dictionary

Sound familiar?

When I look through my Instagram feed, I see recreations from movies using LEGO that are barely distinguishable from the originals. I see LEGO storm troopers hunting for Pokemon on the DeathStar. I see genre bending crossovers of every style imaginable; stories and situations limited only be the artist’s imagination. Once you start looking at toy photography through the lens of FanFiction, its hard to imagine it as anything else.

Even Boba can't outrun the corporate intellectual property lawyers.
Even Boba can’t outrun the corporate intellectual property lawyers.

Lego with its many licensed intellectual properties is ripe for creating photographic fan fiction and crossover fiction. (There is something very satisfying about seeing Lego Friends combined with the Star Wars universe.)

Certainly the photographs created by Vesa within the Star Wars universe that focus on the stories taking place outside the main story line can be seen as FanFiction. Mike’s photos representing storm troopers in every day situations can be viewed as a form of fan fiction where these familiar characters inhabit a more ordinary  universe.

I personally feel that many of the photographs I create fall squarely in the realm of FanFiction. When I recreate the world of Chima as one of peace rather than war, is that not FanFiction? When I expand the world of Mouse Guard showing the characters at play in the forest, rather than battling, is that not also FanFiction?

Lieam in canoe - reedited

Creating FanFiction is a great way to show your love of a particular story line, a fun way to expand your favorite universe with new stories and characters or tie up loose ends left by the original author. Where would the Star Trek franchise be without FanFiction? Several of the best known writers of Star Trek FanFic have gone on to write for the franchise’s movies and tv shows. The Star Wars franchise was kept strong by its legions of fans who kept the universe alive for the ten years between Episode III and VII?

FanFiction is nothing new, even Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is based on an earlier  poem by Arthur Brookes titled : “The Tragic history of Romeo and Juliet.” Other famous fan fictions are Pride and Prejudice and Zombies based on Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice; Neil Gaiman’s “The Problem with Susan” fills in the gaps left by the final book in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe series; and of course Fifty Shades of Grey started out as Twilight FanFiction. If you identify yourself as a creator of FanFiction, I hope you can see that you’re in good company. (I didn’t make any of this up!)


In the past year we’ve spent time trying to define toy photography and what we create. I think its important to know where we fit into the larger world of creatives. If we can define it, we can promote it more successfully. If you’re one of the many people who are interested in selling your work, it’s much easier to do so if you know what it is you actually DO.

Luckily we live in a time where FanFiction is increasing in popularity. There is no shame in creating or recreating the stories that you love. While the issues of fair use still overshadows the discussion, there is still plenty of room to create a name for yourself as a purveyor of FanFiction. All you have to do is look to the success of Matthew Callahan who was recently nominated for a Hugo in the category of Fan Art for his work recreating real life battle scenes using Star Wars action figures.

Even if you’re accused of making one more cute Storm Trooper photo (How can you not? Lego Storm Troopers ARE cute!) don’t stop taking those photos. You’re a FanFiction artist, part of a long and proud tradition of artists taking their favorite genres and story lines and giving them a personal spin. Who knows, maybe you will become one of the those legendary fans who turned pro.

FanFiction for the win!!

~ Shelly

If you consider yourself a FanFiction artists, how does your world differ from or expand on the original? Do you partake in cross-over fan fiction? If you do, which franchises do you use and  why? 


  1. Shelly,

    Thank you for this article! I was actually just discussing this topic with my brother yesterday. He is a professional landscape photographer and was asking questions in regards to me selling prints with other products (toys – mainly Lego) as the main focus. I think there is a valid point to be made that if Lego and other companies go down the route of legal action against some of their greatest fans – it’s a bad route. I brought up that in fashion photography, especially clothing it would be hard to list all the products that are being displayed in any image. Such as someone hiking in the desert and they happen to be wearing Nike or have a North Face pack. Does this mean that Nike and North Face own that particular image? If this were the case then it would be a nightmare for all photographers. My brother had an encounter with a park ranger a few months ago, where they told him that he could not even display or sell his photography of a national park!? This is ludicrous. Do the national parks now want a “piece” of the artist market that photographers capture in the beauty of the park and landscapes in their own creative ways!? I feel it will be an ongoing battle to determine who owns the copyright of a particular end product, but I feel as a toy photographer myself that my inclusion of toys in my photos adds to the value of those products and actually helps sell more toys for the Big Inc. I feel the toy photography community has created and added something new and unique and if we are not selling the actual Lego or action figure as our own design and product, then it is easily within the fair use bounds.

    • Joe thanks for your thought comment. We have covered “fair use” policy several times in the past year. You can search for Fair Play on the site to find all four articles. Like you I think that it is in the best interest of all parties (both photographers and toy companies) to keep on friendly terms. In the defense of LEGO they are doing their best to support us, but not all parts of the company agree. Sometimes those takedown notices come from over zealous lawyers. LEGO, Hasbro, Side Show Collectibles and ThreeA are all toy companies that are working with toy photographers, so they obviously see the value in what we do. Of course as soon as any corporation starts to smell a money making enterprise piggy backing on their Intellectual Property, the situation can change drastically. And that is the crux of the issue – who gets to make the money? Personally I think it is in the best of interest of toy photographers to keep pushing the boundaries, make sure they have a good IP Lawyer in their back pocket and make sure that any image they create is substantially transformative. I also recommend finding ways to sell your work that does not involve third party resellers, because they will never go to bat for you when the lawyers come calling. I don’t want to see a situation where the multinationals own everything – including the view and the clothes on our backs! Cheers! Shelly

  2. Mary Wardell

    I was part of the world of fan fiction back in the 70’s and 80’s as a writer and publisher and I have to agree with this premise – we are creating new stories in the fun universes that lego has helped us step into.

    • Mary, thank you so much for weighing in! It’s great to hear from someone who direct experience to the world of FanFiction. I’m new to this world, but in my option, it seems to be the best fit that I’ve found so far. 😀

  3. This is an interesting idea and appears to be an excellent fit (a hallmark of a great idea!). I do wonder though about the nature of fan fiction and source intent. I cannot speak for all of the original creators but I have always viewed fan fiction coming from ‘fixed’ sources where there was no intent that the consumer of that content would behave in an interactive way.

    What I mean when I say this is that something like Star Wars was originally released as movies. It wasn’t common for people to have access and means to produce and distribute movies back then and so there was no expectation people would do so. Books were released to expand the universe and again, no real self publication/distribution at the time. Next comes the toys as a way for people to act out the movies. There was no ambiguity with the toys. You were getting a character figure. It had a role.

    As an aside, I think it’s worth noting that even today the Star Wars toys still fall victim to their roles. There are some exceptions but by and large in toy photos stormtroopers patrol or are in a fight, Jedi use force to throw stuff, Vader chokes people, Yoda sits and pontificates… Why are we not seeing these characters outside of their roles more?

    The same, I feel, happens/happened with Harry Potter. Except for the writers of fan fiction, most things maintain their roles. And then there’s Lego.

    My argument for Lego not being fan fiction is that it is a toy with intentional ambiguity. It’s a toy with the intent that the consumer will generate the content. In that case, are you making fan fiction, or are you engaging with the toy as intended? I’m not sure. The question can then wiggle around quite a bit because of the licensing that Lego does.

    To that point though, I would note that Lego Star Wars figures do seem to break out of their roles more often. Is that the effect of the intentional ambiguity of Lego itself?

    In the licensing of these properties, did Lego write the fan fiction first and we are just here picking up the pieces?

    • I will admit freely that most of this I could not follow. With that being said I will attempt to comment back in some way that does not make me look like an idiot.

      Most of the examples of FanFic that I found and referenced here in this post are about fans filling in existing story lines with more back story, side stories or tying up lose ends left by the original author. In most of the case, the character still behave in similar ways as in the original story lines. For most FanFic (50 shades of grey not included) the fans do not reinvent the characters, they WANT to submerse themselves in the world that they love.

      I don’t think its necessary for anyone who enjoys playing in someone else’s IP in the guise of fan fiction, to reinvent that character. “Falling victim to their roles” seems rather a dire statement.

      I’m not asking you to agree with me, you are certainly welcome to your own opinion. But just because a toy was designed for children to play with does not mean it can’t be fan fiction. In the hands of an artist it can be whatever the artist wants it to be.

      Thank you for contributing to this lively discussion.

      • I don’t think there is anything to agree or disagree with regarding fan fiction really. It is all a matter of preference. Much like there are almost an infinite number of ways to photograph toys, there are countless ways to express fan fiction. There is nothing inherently wrong with playing in an established world, even expanding it. That is what a video game is after all. My preference for fan fiction though is to see those characters used in an entirely new way though.

        This would be a great thing I think to discuss in person, perhaps at the next photo meet up, or maybe I’ll continue in a blog post. I have a clear idea but I do not think I have figured out how to translate into written words quite yet.

  4. Excellent post Shelly! I think it’s a great way to describe Legography. Legography is definitely not “product photography” since most photographers put their own creative ideas into each photo. LEGO creates these awesome minifigures and we are able to take them, make characters out of them and stories for them. I’m going to keep taking cute minifig photos and flooding Flickr with them 🙂


    • Lynn, I’m so glad you enjoyed this post! I thought I resolved the “problem” rather well! We are definitely not product photographers (at least most of us aren’t) and Fan Fiction seems to land us in a nice middle ground. I love your cute Storm Trooper photos! Please don’t stop creating them! I will be sure to look for them on Flickr and other social media platforms. 🙂

  5. Hasif Rahman

    Hi ! First of all, sorry for my comment not related to the post above. The thing is, I need help. After google a lot about Lego / Toy Photography, I still don’t have the answer.

    I’m currently using a full frame camera with a 40mm lens. I was using it more for Street Photography. But this year, i’m interested with Lego / Toy Photography and I’m having problems to shoot Lego minifigure with the 40mm.

    I know there are no best lens for any type of photography but can you help me, give me an advise or tips what’s the suitable lens for Lego photography?

    Really need the info.

    Thanks =)

    • Hasif, No worries, all questions are welcome. When you are looking for information about toy photography you should google Macro photography. It is the closest genre to what we do, and the tips and tricks for photographing flowers and bugs work just as well for toys (or at least LEGO sized toys).

      Whatever lens you choose should have a “macro” setting and be able to remain in focus when only a few inches from eh subject. If you decide to use a wide angle lens, like Mike, you will have more options to incorporate the surrounding backgrounds. Many macro photographers use a 100mm macro lens (or equivalent). This allows you to be far away from your subject (this allows light into the image) but still have your subject fill the frame. With the long lens you can also achieve nice bokeh when you set your camera to a wide open aperture 2.8 -4.

      If you’r not sure which way you want to go, you can usually purchase an inexpensive 50mm macro lens. This is agree place to start, especially if your subject is a 6″ or 12″ figure. I still use my 50mm when I’m photographing larger LEGO models and figures.

      I hope this helps. If you have any follow-up questions, let me know. 🙂


    • Leila @brickandmordor

      Hi Hasif,

      Here’s an article I found really helpful:

      Basically, extension tubes combined with a non-macro lens will allow you to shoot at a macro distance. So you wouldn’t necessarily need to buy a new lens right away to get started with macro photography. You could just add an extension tube to your existing lens.

      I normally use a 100mm macro lens on my full frame DSLR, but I came across this article because I’ve been researching ways to be able to use a wide angle lens for a LEGO stop-motion project I’m working on. I purchased a 35mm lens and added a 12mm extension tube to it. The image result was great! I could fill my frame with the LEGO figure and still include the background even with a shallow DOF. However, the range of focus became extremely limited in that with the extension tube on, the lens could ONLY focus on objects that were between 1-3 inches away from the lens. Only. If I wanted to back up another inch from my subject using this lens/tube combo, it was impossible to get it in focus.

      Like the article says, using an extension tube is a cheaper way to get a “macro” lens because you can just add it to your existing lenses, but there are definitely limitations. If you want full range of focus and can afford it, I suggest buying a dedicated macro lens. My 100mm macro lens is the best thing I ever bought! It cost about $600.00 though, but the extension tube was only $75.00.

      Unfortunately, I discovered that the electronics in that 35mm lens wasn’t compatible with my Dragonframe stop-motion software, so I ended up returning it. However, I was able to find a workaround by combining the 12mm extension tube with my 50mm lens and got comparable results! The regular 50mm is horrible at macro photography because the minimum focusing distance is about 18 inches. With the extension tube on, I am able to focus on a minifigure about 9 inches away, which works well enough for my project.

      Hope my experience is somewhat helpful to you! Good luck and welcome to the world of toy photography!

      • Hasif Rahman

        Leila :

        Hi ! Thanks for the info sharing. Currently I’m using a Canon 40mm pancake lens on my 6D. Maybe i should try with the extension tube first before I go for the Macro 100m.

        When you said,

        “I could fill my frame with the LEGO figure and still include the background even with a shallow DOF”

        That’s what I want actually. Include the background in photos, and not totally only the Lego figure.

        All this while, I’m using the 40mm to shoot the Lego figure and I had to crop it in photoshop / lightroom, but the result is not that…what i want.

        • Leila @brickandmordor

          Yeah, I’m not surprised you’ve experienced frustration shooting toys with that setup. That 40mm lens is just not made to focus on close-up subjects. You could experiment with an extension tube paired with your 40mm, but just remember those limitations I mentioned earlier.

          I saw your question to Shelly asking if the Canon 24-105mm F4 IS USM would be good for toys. If I may chime in on an answer to that, I would say, if your primary goal here is LEGO (“macro”) photography and you have the budget to buy the Canon 24-105mm F4 IS USM, then you may as well just invest in a dedicated macro lens, either the 50mm or 100mm. That Canon 24-105mm F4 still has a fairly long Minimum Focus Distance and you will not likely be able to get close enough to a mini figure to have it fill the frame.

          Plus, using a prime lens with wider f-stop will give you higher quality images over that f4 zoom.

          Don’t let all those close-up photos of bugs and flowers fool you! “LEGO photography” IS “macro photography”!

          Sounds like you’d probably appreciate the 50mm focal length more than the 100mm if you want to include more of the background. Just remember it needs to be a dedicated “macro” lens so you can get up close to the LEGO.

          Good luck!

  6. Hasif Rahman

    Shelly :

    Wow, thanks for the info. I don’t have any experience with macro lens. I was like, macro is for insects and flowers. I don’t know that it can be use for minifigures. I’ve google “macro lens” and most of it showing insects with big eyes and bokeh.

    I’m the type of person who loves to involve the background and not totally bokeh. I want to create a photo with a story in it and not totally like “portraiture”, just the face, if you can understand what i mean. For example as per this photo posted in this blog.

    1. Can i get this kind of photo using 100mm Macro? or is it from a prime lens or zoom lens?

    2. I’m thinking to buy Canon 24-105mm F4 IS USM, can i use it for Lego Photography?


    • Hasif,

      Ok if that is the style you are going for you can get it a few different ways.

      1) use a small aperture on a 100mm macro lens, something between f8 and f16. You will probably need to use a tripod since you will have cut out so much light. Just lengthen your shutter speed to compensate.

      2) Use a 50mm macro lens, you won’t get the sort of creamy background bokeh like you can get with a 100mm

      3) Learn how to use focus stacking. This is mounting your camera on a focus rail on a tripod. Take several images moving the camera into the image focusing at several points within the image. Then combine this image using a computer to achieve the right amount of focus through the image.

      If want a zoom lens for macro photography you might look at the canon 24-70 F/4 IS. This article has a nice explanation of canon lens for macro; you might want to look it over.

      And, Just like Leila says, toy photography IS macro photography. Dint let the photos of bugs and flowers fool you. The tips you can find there work great for all types of toy photography.

      Did you read this post by Mike? Canon doesn’t makes wide angle macro but Im pretty sure you can find a different manufacturer if you want to go this wide. Try Tamron or similar.

      I hope this helps!

  7. I love this post because it’s totally spot on for me. While not all my photos of toys are destined to be fan fiction, it’s something that I’ve been doing since the beginning. In particular I’ve always been very inspired by toy photographers that can create stories that bend existing universe. That’s what I’ve tried to do first with my Yoda photos by giving his minifigure the personality he had in Episode 5 (and that has been more or less ignored by LucasFilm since then) and then exaggerating this personality more and more over time by including other characters such as the Simpsons and Admiral Ackbar.

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