How do you choose the toys you photograph?

This past weekend I meet up with some local toy photographers for an afternoon of companionship, conversation and photography. As I was looking around at my friends hard at work, I was struck by the variety of toys they had brought along as subjects. There were dinosaurs, Star Wars action figures, Bratz dolls, LEGO mini figures, custom figures, anime figures, and plenty more I couldn’t identify. Which brings me to my question – how do you choose the toys you photograph?

I’ve always wondered why some photographers are attracted to certain toys and not others. Some photographers swear by anything from the Star Wars universe, some photographers only use one or a very limited selection creating a unified look, while others use any and every toy that crosses their path for a colorful and eclectic look.

My own toy photography journey began with the LEGO mini figure and they continue to be the cornerstone of my photographic exploration. Occasionally I find myself attracted to a particular toy, like Danbo or T-Rex, and add it to my collection. I have fun photographing these other figures and find them a welcome break from the LEGO world.

No matter how far I stray from the LEGO mini figure, I always come back to them because I haven’t found anything that surpasses them for sheer story telling flexibility. Plus their diminutive size is a real plus; you can pack an awful lot of mini figures into one travel case.

Of course the trade off with these particular toys is that you can’t achieve the level of realism that you can with many of the multi articulated action figures that are currently for sale. Seven points of articulation are no match for 16 (or more!) when it comes to flexibility and pose-ability. You will never confuse a LEGO mini figure photograph with a hyper realistic scene – no matter how cleverly you light it or how much debris fills the air. In defense of my beloved mini figure, what it can’t achieve in realism it more than makes up for in fun.

So the question I want to know from you is this: what attracts you to the toys that you enjoy photographing the most? Is there a nostalgia element that inspires you? Is there a practical reason that makes one toy more appealing than another? Do you enjoy playing in a previously established story line or world? Does the design of a toy inspire you creatively? Do you like to photograph whats new and hip in the toy world? Are you inspired by a custom toys unique character? Or are you challenged by creating unique images from a toy that is readily available to all?

There are so many good reasons to photograph toys, but what is it about your favorite toys, that inspire you? I’m genuinely curious what motivates you. I’m hoping your answers will help me to understand why I might gravitate to the toys that I favorite. Who knows maybe your answers will lead to another interesting blog post?

Their have been many wonderful guest authors on the blog lately, that it reminds me that we can learn more from sharing our different experiences than only listening to me conjecture. With that in mind, I hope you will leave your thoughts and ideas on this subject in the comments.

Thank you and I look forward to reading your answers.

~ Shelly


  1. AliceinCleveland

    When I think about the toys I like to use the most, the absolute most (the Alice Madness Series), the reason is because I like juxtaposition. One of the biggest motivations for continuing toy photography is the juxtaposition of toys (a symbol of safety and peace and hope) being out in the world (the world – that hyper dangerous thing that is pretty much always trying to kill you). The Alice Madness series is a juxtaposition in genres. Alice in Wonderland is usually considered to be a “childhood” story and horror is usually considered to be “adult.” The marriage of these two things in this series of toys is what makes them so appealing to me, and a perfect fit for toy photography.

    I would even say that juxtaposition is one of the valves of the heart of toy photography and that is my motivation to continue. As toy photographers we capture this juxtaposition every time we produce an image. It may not be the goal, but it is present. Juxtaposition is play in a dangerous world. Juxtaposition is trying to make Lego figure seem alive. Juxtaposition is those hyper realistic toys (I think the brand is Hot Toys?) Juxtaposition is being an adult but playing with toys anyway. Juxtaposition is the ongoing “Why” series, isn’t it?

    This is what inspires me about the Alice toys I use, but also just about toy photography in general. Right now, at this moment, toy photography is sort of “forbidden” because of the juxtaposition it entails. Do you see this when you present it to other (non-toy photographer) people? Do you see people smile at your work, compliment you, but then shy away from trying it themselves? The hesitation to lay down in public with a toy is a very prevalent feeling, even in our own community. As adults, we aren’t supposed to play. Toy photography puts this juxtaposition in peoples’ view. When you present a photo to someone you are presenting something forbidden. People, generally, aren’t always comfortable with that.

    It is in those uncomfortable moments though that I think we are all faced with thinking about why we do it and perhaps build our confidence step by step.

    • Shelly Corbett

      Such a great response! Boy, I’ve missed this. 🙂

      You’re right about the juxtaposition, it is what drew me into this crazy world in the first place. It is both silly and thought provoking depending on the situation. Your Alice series was wonderful that way. You were able to capture so much subtlety from simple toy figures. I know there is a movement towards realism, but I think that takes away from the subject. The impact of the toys are more powerful when we keep them as toys. Once the initial impact of “wow thats a toy” is over you are back to square one. The double edged sword of juxtaposition is more powerful and keep the viewer questions their own reality far down the road. There is a staying power. Really great thoughts on the subject, thanks of joining in!

  2. I’ve made most of my work with HO scale train model figures. I like their size, for the ease of creating whole scenes around them, their vague facial features for a chance to allow the lighting and environment create more of the mood/emotion of the scene than the figure’s face, and the plethora of accessories your can get in this scale. That said, I still use action figures, dollhouse accessories and almost any other toy as well. But for those toys, something still has to draw me to them. I love my pose skeleton by rement for the juxtaposition of creepy/cute and dead/alive, and at 1:18 scale I still do okay creating scenes around him.

    • Shelly Corbett

      Jennifer your work is new to me, but I was blown away by what you are able to convey. I love your HO work, so evocative! The lighting, the environment, the mood – so beautiful! I’ve seen the pose skeletons before, but I’ve never seen anyone create such a delightful world as you have with them. Keep up the magic, because I can’t wait to learn and be inspired by you! 🙂

  3. Stefan K

    I do like my Lego cos of the size. Can pick some minifigs and do something outside or indoors. Recently I found it fun to try to use the workers more, they are hard working guys 😉

    • Shelly Corbett

      Stefan I too think the city workers are under appreciated! They are such a fun bunch, those bright orange outfits, always willing to lend a hand! I look forward to seeing what kind of fun you boys can have together! 😉

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