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’.

I had some questions about how I set up my recent ‘Sticks and stones won’t break my bones, but surface rust will hurt me’ photo of an old car wreck in the woods.

old toy car in the woods
“Stick and stones may break my bones. But surface rust is a bugger to combat.”

These questions tie in nicely with getting an insight into Luigi’s use of limited space, Shelly’s proclamation that studios can be outdoors, and Kristina’s message about doing a lot with little.

As I’ve written about, my Easter weekend was spent exploring our property in search of moss; to photograph, and to harvest!

I picture things a certain way.
Then go back to it another day.
The green mind said it’s okay…

Dinosaur Jr. – Green Mind

When the summer sun isn’t belting down onto the ground, we have some amazing moss growing on our property. It hides under trees, in the paddocks and even pops up in the gravel of our backyard. However, try as I might, I could never get a decent photo with it.

The background was never right. Shooting under trees where the moss grows, the light was never right, even with the use of a reflector. And lying on the gravel in our backyard is just too painful!

Can you dig it?

These frustrations, coupled with only having the moss grow naturally for half of the year; I decided to take matters into my own hands. Well, my own hands and a garden trowel.

Growing little worlds: Collected moss
Collected moss. The smaller saucers are mosses collected from the gravel in our backyard. The tray holds mosses dug out from the paddocks.

By digging up this moss and planting it when the growing is good, I can dictate the background. I can control the lighting. And, when I remember to water it, I can use the growing little worlds I’ve created for toy photography all year round. Take that nature!

Growing little worlds: Planting the little world
Planting the little world. I’ve learned that cutting out a curve at the front of the planting tray lets me get lower angles.

I have a couple saucers of moss growing at present. Last summer I ‘lost’ a few trays when I went away and forgot to water them.

Growing little worlds: Filling in the gaps
Filling in the gaps. One of the other things I love about moss is it can be torn or cut to fit any gaps in the landscape.

One of the great advantages of shooting toys with moss is the scale. I’ve been frustrated in the past trying to match the scale of the surrounding to the subjects. But when you find something that works, you don’t need much of it. As Kristina pointed out, you can do a lot with very little. A saucer of moss is more than enough of a setting for LEGO to play on.

Stick ‘em up!

I remember being taught the ‘ways of trees’ by my good friend @zenith_ardor years ago. Timothy creates some amazing dioramas with wood, nails, branches, plants and dirt. He taught me that a well-scaled stick or branch makes the perfect toy-sized tree.

Growing little worlds: Planting trees
Planting trees.

Sometimes I simply drive the sticks into the moss I’ve planted. Voila, instant forest!

Growing little worlds: I've learned to check the positioning of the trees though the lens as I plant them.
I’ve learned to check the positioning of the trees though the lens as I plant them.

Although I’ve quickly learned that just one wrongly positioned stick, once re-positioned, leaves a nasty crater in the landscape. So, I usually have the camera handy when constructing the forest to check positioning. And sometimes I position these ‘trees’ beyond and before the mossy scene, leaving it intact, and giving the impression of trees in the foreground and background.

Growing little worlds: Lone Scout
Lone Scout.
This created little world has the ‘trees’ ‘planted’ into the moss, and some added in the foreground beyond the “world’s edge”.

Under the pergola in our backyard, we have a table built from old farm fence posts, complete with the holes that once held fencing wire in place (see the planting photos above). These holes make ideal ‘planting holes’ for the miniature trees. And once the “trees are planted” into the table, the diorama can be positioned to be framed by the trees and capture the light just as imagined. Of course, when the holes don’t align with the vision, Blu-Tack also makes a great temporary base for these trees.

Growing little worlds: "Brians!" - dyslexic zombies
“Brians!” – dyslexic zombies
By moving the camera angle ever so slightly, the trees line up different and one diorama can produce plenty of varied shots. Or you can shot from the opposite end? Or the sides? The “created” world is your oyster!

And you could have it all
My empire of dirt

Johnny Cash – Hurt

Who’d have thought that photographing toys would’ve led me to roaming our paddocks with a trowel and a bucket? I’d never imagine that taking photos of toys would lead to me sketching landscapes to create. I’d never have guessed that some of my weekends would’ve been spent planting moss into plastic trays to create those LEGO sized landscapes. And I really would’ve never imagined audibly exclaiming ‘eureka’ when stumbling upon a ‘great patch of moss’ hidden under a tree’s shade!

Some added bits about growing little worlds

It’d be remiss of me not to thank my wife at this point. She’s an avid ‘green thumb’, and her advice and knowledge concerning all things green and growing has been immeasurable in my growing little worlds.

I should also mention that we aren’t encouraging you to rush off to the nearest national park and start hacking away at the earth! Nor should you be lifting moss from any private properties! But if you can legitimately and legally get your hands on some moss, maybe think about growing little worlds of your own?


Do you create your own ‘toy-sized’ environments? Do ‘living dioramas’ little your backyard as well?

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    • brett_wilson

      Thanks Lizzi. Yes, fairy gardens! That’s what they remind me of too. That and little terrarium gardens in glass jars, created with my mum when I was a kid. rekindling childhood memories AND creating somewhere to photograph toys. Bonus!

  1. thereeljames

    I love this post so much! I’ve built a few little landscapes in my home office before, but never really considered actually PLANTING my own landscape… I usually just resort to grabbing a bowl full of dirt or a few sticks. This is far more ambitious and exciting. I’m going to have to search for moss on my next photo walk! Brilliant idea. I’m already brainstorming ways I can have a few of these on my patio.

    Thanks so much for sharing this and writing such an in-depth piece on it.

    • brett_wilson

      These little worlds would thrive on a patio. Just keep them watered and watch the afternoon sun! I’ve lost a few in the past when I don’t do these things. 🙁
      I can’t wait to see what you create.

    • brett_wilson

      Summer here is brutal too. That’s partly why I’ve resorted to this method. Shade in my backyard and remembering to water these little worlds ensures I have moss to photograph with even when the summer sun is baking the rest of the paddocks.
      Thanks for you comment mate.

  2. Wow, I’m amazed. This is a fantastic idea. I’ve never thought of growing my own little forest for my minifigs. Thanks for the wonderful ideas! I’m very tempted to try this some day soon…..


    • brett_wilson

      Thank Lynn. As I mention, my wife is the “green thumb” in our relationship, but she’s taught me that temptation won’t grow anything, planting will. Get planting!
      I’d love to see your photos in a little world you’ve created! 😀

  3. Oh you cheeky little cheater, I’ve always pictured you laying out in the mud to get these awesome shots. 😛

    Love the knowledge you’ve shared. Love that you have such an array of moss types in your locale and you’ve laid them out so nicely in your little moss plot.

    I’ll definitely be trying this out when I can find a valid source of moss. I think I need to plant some trees in our backyard to encourage their growth. It just one of the shameful things about our urban spread here in Australia, we have sweeping plains replaced by houses whose land allotment leaves no room for the growth of nature amongst the homes and they just look like barren lands, no shade to be seen and no place for mosses to grow.

    Thankfully our land size is a little larger than most, we’re still trying to figure out which trees we want to cultivate on our little patch of suburbia.

    So much goodness in this post, thanks for sharing your insight.

    • brett_wilson

      Isn’t a lot of toy photography about cheating reality? Plus my laundry bill dictated this was a better option than laying in the mud!
      I get a suprising little kick out of landscaping these little worlds (with guidance from the wife!) with the different mosses we have. Who’d have thunk toy photography would have me flicking through all the landscaping and gardening books she brings home from a shift at the library, thinking “I wondering if I can do that, smaller?”!
      Thanks for all your kind words mate.
      Oh, and if you have any “real size” planting queries, let me know and I’ll pass them on to my wife; her green thumb has a tinge of gold when it comes to solving peoples’ gardening questions. 😉

  4. Zao

    Wow good post Brett! During winter, I often create dioramas on my desk for my photography. Usually, I use a grass mat that I bought online (I think it’s the same as Mike Stimpson), some tree for train dioramas and my tablet for background! Sometime I’m limited for the number of different environment I can create, but it works fine when I can’t go outside! It’s a great idea to use moss. I should try it!

    • brett_wilson

      You really should give it a try! It’s incredible how creating these little worlds can inspire ideas. Even as the first piece of moss is planted, my brain is already racing with ideas. I like your idea to combat winter! Very inventive!

  5. priovit70

    What a post! First of all, thank you for mentioning me!
    The results are so impressive! You almost make me want to grow one of those, but I’m too lazy for that! Plus, no green thumb here!
    Anyway, thank you so much for sharing it! Awesome! Really awesome! :O

    • brett_wilson

      Thanks Karine! You need more space? These little worlds don’t take up too much space. Plus, as well as being a great place to photograph toys, there’s something soothing about playing with dirt and plants!

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