My One Photo that Changed it All

This is the story of the toy photo that set me on my path. From this photo, I never looked back. This, is my one photo that changed it all.

My first post on Toy Photographers was my Why statement. Why I do what I do – photograph, of all things, toys. And in that I touched on my college WWII project.

The longer it’s been since I made that project, the more I realize how defining it has been to my future photos.

The Series

5 images. A car, a car and a house, a man knocking on a door, a man handing a woman a box, and a woman standing alone with the box. Simple. Mostly.

I made the set with a model train N scale car, figures (about 1 cm tall) and house, scale model scenery and real dirt. Never had I delved into the world of train scale before, so when the items arrived in the mail the night before the project was due the heat was on in learning how to work with these tiny objects. I set up the scene on a foam block on my bathroom counter and lit it with my desk lamp. For the car images I used my kit zoom lens and for the figure close ups I reverse mounted my 50mm lens. I’d never reverse mounted or shot macro before either.

With all the research beforehand and all the difficulties during shooting I never once thought I should go another route. This was the narrative I needed to do and this was how I needed to do it.

Going Forward

This was the moment I became a toy photographer. I had found my niche, my passion and photography became so much clearer. Yes, to complete college assignments there were a few times I had to shoot full scale real people or places, but every chance I got I turned back to toys. I remember thinking, now that I had found where I needed to be photographically there was little point to learning these other methods – that’s a whole other cocky college kid problem in itself, but I think it helps narrate how set I was on this venture.

The one specific photo I’ve held dear from this series is the featured image here. It really made me realize how transformed toys can become through the camera lens and my goal through the rest of college was recreating that. And honestly, I don’t feel that any of the images I created in college after came near to what I accomplished off-handedly that first time.

In the 4 years since graduating I think I’ve been more successful. More focused. I was a very do what you have to do to get the grade and try no harder student. Since graduating and realizing I don’t have the same support system, I’ve been a lot more focused on continuing to improve my ideas and technique.

Not only do I continue to return to toys, I also have taken with me the theme of war. War motifs without action- using war as a metaphor for disaster, destruction, devastation, isolation, depression, etc.

So there you have it. My one photo that changed it all. What’s yours?

~ Jennifer Nichole Wells


  1. Tobias M. Schiel

    Jennifer, this is a great story, well told (if I may put it that way) – and if I remember correctly, it was the featured photo that drew my attention to your blog, to toy (or mimiature) photography, and as a consequence, here. I can very well see why you hold this picture dear.

    I wonder if one day I will be able to say which one was the picture that changed it all … but all in all I might be less clear about the direction I am taking. For now, building small worlds is great. But will it ‘always’ be?

  2. Thank you so much. It’s wonderful to hear that this image drew you to my blog and subsequently here. I think it will definitely always have a special meaning for me.

    At the end of my comment to you on ‘Think big, shoot small?’ I said that in imagining my photos I almost always think toys. But as with the question you’ve asked at the end of your comment here, I do sometimes think, will this always be the case? One day will I imagine a different way to create the photo I want – a way that doesn’t involve toys? I don’t see that happening anytime soon, but of course it is always possible.

    I think it’s more than okay to not have a clear picture of your direction. Experimentation leads to growth, which is what I think most of us are looking for with our photographic work.

  3. To me, the best toy photography brings the toys to life; my favorites are the ones I find myself staring at, waiting for a figure to blink. But your photos go one step further: they speak. You breathe life into your subjects, and in return they tell their story. All I can add is, bravo!

    [PS – I’ve shot a number of N-scale figures – they are a challenge! Many times I found myself wishing I’d gone for HO, but the interaction between N’s and real-world items is way too much fun!]

  4. Jennifer, this is a great story! Thank you for sharing your journey. I wish I had one image that was my touchstone or lightbulb. But I never found one. I have so many forks in the road that have led me to where I am that it’s hard to point to the eureka moment. Maybe in time you will feel the same way. This one launched the boat, but the next one taught you something else that led you in another direction. I love that about photography, its one big learning adventure. I will enjoy watching you grow and change on your own journey. Cheers!

    • Thank you Shelly. While these certainly set my path, there are so many more that have effected my journey. I don’t have a grand picture of those yet, but maybe one day. While it makes for a nice story I don’t think it’s necessary to have a eureka moment – as you’ve said photography is one big learning adventure in which we all find our own paths – and you’ve found an overwhelmingly wonderful one.

    • Thank you so much. With the cars I truly got lucky. I wouldn’t say that for many shots, but for these that’s exactly what it was. I’d say the ones with the people are more indicative of what my skill level was at the time. It certainly helps that the car shots turned out well though – otherwise I can’t say they would have set me on my path.

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