LEGO City changed my life

OK, maybe LEGO City didn’t exactly change my life. But by taking a deep dive into this under appreciated LEGO theme, I learned a lot! For two weeks all I did was think about, and photograph, City sets. Through this activity, I was able to get a fresh perspective on my work and on the work of others. While these sets are aimed at boys 6-11, there are still plenty of interesting stories to tell.

This unexpected deep dive into LEGO City came courtesy of Kevin Hinkle and Kim Thomsen of The LEGO Group. Recently I received an email asking Boris Vanrillaer of Stuck in Plastic, Will Heron of TexLUG and myself, if we would be interested in working with the Lego City marketing team. Who was I to say ‘no’ to such an opportunity.

The Challenge

Our assignment was to create three photographic story lines that utilize specific sets. Our photos will be used to support an upcoming YouTube marketing campaign. We were given three ‘perils’ and were asked to come up with a ‘solution’ for each. These ‘perils’ were:

1) Help! Sticky green slime is oozing everywhere.
2) Help! Hairy creatures have invaded!
3) Help! A giant asteroid is headed straight for us!

Our own creativity was our only limitation.

Unlike Jennifer, I’m not one to write down my ideas. But for this task I got out a notebook and created lists. I made lists of ideas, potential scenes, story lines and possible characters to include. Since I was pursuing three ideas at once, these lists were invaluable for keeping my thoughts from spinning out of control.


While I didn’t earn any money for my efforts I did learn a few valuable lessons.

What I learned

The first lesson I learned is that studio photography is much like painting your house: 90% prep and 10% photography. In other words, tedious. I spent almost all of my time gathering props, setting up scenes or arranging my cast of characters. When I had an idea, I would spend 10 – 30 minutes (or more), tracking down the necessary props. Omg! So tedious! Give me straightforward outdoor photography any day! I prefer going for a hike, finding a pretty bit of moss or some glorious diffused light.

In the end, I was only able to complete a few of my ideas. There are only so many mini figures that will comfortably fit into a photo frame. I learned that some ideas look better on paper than they do in the camera.

Another bonus of this project was that I could brush up on my photo skills. Even though I bought a new camera body last fall (based on a blog post I wrote), I never bonded with it. This project was my chance! I learned how to program all the special buttons, I set up Wi-fi and I even learned how to tether my camera to my iPad. Go me! Now when I’m out in the field, my camera works for me, not against me.

What I really learned

What I really learned is that studio photography is really HARD! I came away from this experience with a new found respect for all studio photographers. Even in my ignorance I could tell how incredible Avanaut’s work is. What I hadn’t grasped, was how impressive the quieter studio photos are too. Ingenious lighting, small tricks of composition can be difficult to pull off in a confined or limited space. Now when I see a well lit, well composed studio shot, I appreciate what has gone into the photo. This was a humbling experience.

The other big take away from this project was my new found sense of energy and excitement about photography. By taking this two week deep dive, I was able to break the stranglehold American politics has had on my life. I’m finally able to concentrate on all things photographic again and it feels good! While I can’t stop the madness, I can look forward to the upcoming San Francisco Meet-up, get ready for summer, enjoy the occasional sunny day and of course plan excellent content for this blog.

LEGO IS Pretty cool

Ok, maybe LEGO City didn’t exactly change my life; I may have overstated that just a little. My life didn’t change, but it did shift. I now see studio photography, and my own photographic journey, in a new light. I’m grateful for this opportunity that Kevin and Kim offered me and I look forward to exploring these LEGO City sets further and creating new stories.

Stay tuned…


I will leave you with one last image that didn’t fit into my slide shows…

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  1. A project which wicks away the awkwardness of a new camera frame, or maybe shows a route to lighting objects differently on a new environment, is definitely worth tackling. Not knowing your camera like the back of your hand is a drag.

    You master the delicate school of on-location toyphotography brilliantly. I am absolutely certain you will find and transmit equal joy with desktop work as well. Like with this project. It really can be fun. Honest.

    • Thanks for the words of encouragement Vesa. I have to give myself the time to master my own study style. It took me five years to get outdoor toy photography down, so it will take some time to develop this new thread. I enjoyed parts of the challenge, so I will concentrate on those. The ideas are percolating up. 🙂

      As for the camera, I love my new Sony and I have faith that we will become the best of friends. Although I haven’t given up on my Canon quite yet. 🙂

  2. Congrats to rising to the challenge. Looks like you’ve achieved great results. I haven’t bought a Lego City set for such a long time. But on occasion I’ll dip into the pool if they have an interesting minifig. And of course, no one pays attention to the age suggestions on the box right?

    I received a Lego gift from friends for a birthday once, it was for 11-14s and my friends included a little note on the box about how they’re sure it refers to IQ more than age so it’s perfect for me. 😛 How rude!

    While I rarely do too much special lighting, the likes of Avanaut, I find the studio work easier than shooting outdoors, so maybe it’s a matter of what you’re used to. I intend on making more images in the outdoors, though winter is falling here so it’s getting a bit cold out there. Brrr.

    • Thank you for your kind comment. I did have fun and it did break the ice for me and this new photographic frontier. I think that is what I like about photography, there is always a new skill to learn, each branch has its own skill set.

      Your comment made ma laugh. I will remember that the next time Im shopping for sets. Iq level. lol!!

      Winter may be falling but that is no excuse not to go out side and photograph. Im sure you saw plenty of my images in the snow and rain and they were all take out doors in the rainiest winter on record in my region. Think about that; Seattle was the rainiest its ever been in over 120 years. I still got out and walked 3-5 miles a day and photographer toys outside. There is no such thing as bad weather, only poor clothing choices. 🙂

      Thanks again for your comment!

  3. I love the images and stories you created Shelly. My favorites are definitely the ones involving the “giant hairy beast” – cute cat 🙂 I really like the way you posed all the minifigs in these photos – especially the police officers giving each other a high five. All the photos are dynamic and you really brought the minifigs to life.

    I would consider 30 minutes of setup time to be a good day 🙂 I often spend hours building scenes, hunting for parts, posing minifigs and then trying to figure out how to light the photo but I prefer that to sweating outside with the humidity and giant bugs 🙂

    I hope you’ll do more photos like this. I really enjoyed seeing these!


    • Thank you Lynn! Positive comments from the queen of the indoor photo, make some very happy! I really did try to bring my figures alive. I wanted them to be interacting the same way I would din my outdoor photos. I was also aware of who this campaign would be aimed at: those 6-11 yo boys and I wanted it to be something they could relate to and / or be inspired by. I think Im over my studio aversion because i already have some ideas percolating about how I can create a series of images. Maybe something stepping away from Lego? If I do, you know I will write about it! Thanks again Lynn!

  4. That green ooze is awesome! …Jell-o?

    Love that furry beast too. I always like shots with Lego interacting with animals – pets seem to be enthralled with minifigures.😂

    I too have had a steep learning curve with indoor studio shots. One of my favorite shots was was a simple setup with just a light on a flash card (robins VW beetle). So indoor shots can be quite simple to setup.

    • Thanks Joe, I’m glad you liked my first real foray into study photography. I think I can up you on the simplicity, I used all natural light. Im not studio lighting expert so I set up my ‘city’ in a place that had an abundance of natural light (I was playing to my strengths). As I move forward I will continue to the K.I.S.S. principle. Its all I know! 😀

  5. priovit70

    I’ve never thought I’d read a post like this from you, Shelly. This is totally different from what you’ve done until now. And I love it!
    As I love to spend half the time searching for that missing piece I absolutely need for that photo. Nah, that’s not true, I don’t love that…
    You are right, indoor shoots are 90% prep. But I have everything under control… yes, I wish! It’s so confortable for me! I love go hiking and take my minifigs with me, but it’s kind one thing or the other. I can’t always do both. And most of the time I can’t take all the photos I want…
    Anyway, my favorite one is the story with the green slime. It’s hilarious! And I love the alien riding the asteroid just like in “Doctor Strangelove”… Oh boy! That was the best!

    • Luigi, I admire your little set up for Benni and Mr Robot. I look at that and I am green with envy! Truly its brilliant! Maybe I will get there when I try this again. Im glad to know my experience go 90% prep resonates with you, an accomplished studio photographer. In time I hope to have a permanent set-up I can drop my ideas into. Maybe next winters project?

      Im so glad you appreciate my Doctor Strangelove reference! I will have you know I built that rocket. It was a rare moment of building and I have never tried to accomplish a ‘sphere’ before. I was rather proud of myself. 🙂

      • priovit70

        Thank you so much, Shelly! The Outpost Alpha setup drastically reduces the preparation, obviously. But I need a little piece that can’t be found, every time! On the other side, it could be a little tedious, eventually. I’ll bring it to Skaerbaek for sure! With some innovations…
        Your next winter’s projects sounds very good to me! Couldn’t think differently! And you should definitely be proud of yourself! It’s a hell of a rocket!! 😉

    • Thanks Stefan, Im glad you enjoyed my little stories. Im happy with the results, but I will need to streamline my process if Im going to do this again. For me photography is more than the end results, its the process. I would rather hike in the woods than hunt through prop bins. But maybe in time I will get better at it. Thanks again my friend! 🙂

  6. Fantastic piece, Shelly! I love the photos you took – it may not be the setup you’re used to, but your style still comes through rather nicely! I especially loved the cat photos (getting a cat to do ANYTHING you want is a feat in and of itself) and the alien riding that bomb a la Dr. Strangelove is BRILLIANT and hilarious.

    I’m really excited to see what you do next now that you’ve played a little bit in the studio realm. It can be quite daunting but extremely rewarding to step outside your comfort zone. After shooting outdoors more often, I’ve definitely noticed how much harder it is to shoot inside or how tedious it can be to set up a scene. I’d like to say it gets easier, but I’m not sure. Perhaps you just get more patient?

    In any case, great job with these! I’m sure the folks at LEGO were very happy to see what you came up with 🙂

  7. What an amazing example of what can be accomplished in shooting outside your comfort zone. I for one need to get outside of mine more often and your images are a great reminder of that. Lego City has intrigued me as of late and maybe I’ll find a way to delve into some shots of it soon. I absolutely adore your cat monster. Another tactic I’ll have to try is getting my cat involved with my images (in a productive way that is – all he does now is try to rub om my camera lens or knock over my figures).

  8. Hah! Love the series with the green ‘blob’! That’s a series that will appeal to kids and adults alike!

    It’s nice to see you do your magic in studio-surroundings. I never thought you would have seen studio-work as challenging.
    Most of my photography takes place in a ‘studio’ in my basement. Initially this was because I had to be at work during day light (in the winter 😉 ) and the weekends were to busy to spend most of my time on photography. In the beginning It was kind of frustrating, never could get any lights the way I liked it, I had no photoshop skills, etc… In the beginning I couldn’t depend on ‘beautiful’ photos (like you and your colleagues made) so I had to depend on the stories and titles of the photo’s. Yet, over time, I got better at the technical stuff and gradually understood lighting, my equipment, etc more and more. And I’m still learning. An epiphany a week one might say sometimes haha.
    My outside work is mostly confined to my backyard and i look forward to expanding my territory in the future, that will be the loss of my comfort-zone, and I’m already looking forward to it.

    (Oh, and on a side-note, love the photo’s with your cat too. The only pets we have are two bunnies in the backyard. Eversince they tried to eat Dwaas once, I’m kind of scared to try and use them again for Lego-photography, LOL).

    • Dwaas! Thanks for joining the conversation. Yeah, go figure, me a studio photographer. Photography is so many different things, it can be outdoor, studio, macro, landscape, architectural, food, HDR, large format…etc Each one requires a slightly different skill set. Sure understanding the basics of our camera, dof and aperture translate across the different genres , nut after that you need some skill that only comes from practice. I will get there some day, just not today.

      Im so glad you enjoyed the green blob series. I think that was the one I had the most fun with. I started with the cat and that was hard to get my groove. I started to relax during the green blob and obviously I enjoyed the plane series the best because I could go outside. I don’t think the story is as strong, but it was more within my comfort zone.

      I hope you will leave your yard some weekend. Find a park off the beaten path or go on a hike if you want to get away from people. But I can assure you, that if you do run into people, you will bring a smile to their face as you take your photos. Our hobby brings the kid out in every body.

      See you over at Foolish Lego!

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