5 Amazing Things About the San Francisco Toy Photography Safari

The Lead Up

Ok, so I was super nervoucited. (Thanks to a seven year old at my son’s school for teaching me that awesome word!). I’ve been collecting LEGO minifigures and taking pictures of them for almost two years now, and I was vaguely aware of Toy Safaris from mentions in my Instagram and Google+ feeds as well as a few blogs I follow. I had little idea of what to expect, so my mind was spinning with “who’s gonna be there?,” “what will it be like?,” “which toys will I bring?,” “will I be the only dullard using an iPhone 7 and relatively ignorant about photography?,” and “will this event hit my list of the top ten most awkward things I’ve ever done?” (Please don’t ask about that list… trust me.)

The Launch

Thursday evening. Rush hour traffic. Google+ Headquarters. How could I say no? Pamela from Google greeted us with warmth and headed us to a secret room a few buildings and floors away. I walked in. I saw pizza, salad, beer, and boxes of LEGO. Oh, and about twenty people who had camera bags and, you know, the range of expressions you see at a meet and greet. The promise of new LEGO helped calm my “goodness this is awkward” nerves, and I was relieved when Carter Gibson, Shelly Corbett, and other luminaries welcomed me. The room seemed to have no obvious serial killers who live in their mom’s basement or egos the size of the world’s biggest LEGO build. So far so good, I thought. I don’t typically enjoy casual conversation with strangers and it was odd to be having it with the real human beings who, it turns out, actually exist behind the many toy photography accounts I follow on social media.  We ate, talked, took some pics, traded toys, and promised to see each other in the morning. I drove home thinking: Ok, I can do this. And did I mention free new toys?

The Sharing

We shared toys and laughs and ideas and we even collaborated on photos. Collaborating on a toy photography shot was all new to me and it was such a fun (if slightly intimidating) way to push beyond my comfort zone. Julien (Ballou34) gets virtually all of the credit for this scene and our shots of it were fun to compare. As a group we also shared some of our histories and connections and dreams. And I’m so grateful for how much these wonderful people shared with me about their art! Ballou34 taught me so much about the use of light and aperture. Maelick (Reiterlied) taught me to expect the unexpected and take things a little less seriously with his photo bombs of an adorable LEGO dinosaur. Shelly taught me about water shots and how to get these adventurous 2″ figs to float. Kiwi (Wikitoybox) taught me about the magical world of resin poop. Dennis (krash_override) and Melisa (lizzybelle9) shared incredible custom toys. Cindy (coneydogg) and Leila (brickandmordor) reminded me to laugh. A lot. Still in disbelief? Check out this fantastic video of the event created by Travin (saiyanranger).

Life’s a picnic… no matter where you are. (Photo collaboration with Julien Ballester)
The Photos

So it turns out we took photos. Lots of photos. I loved our time at Sutro Baths best. It’s an amazing spot in San Francisco right on the coast of the Pacific. I adore taking nature pics, and especially shots with water. I also love concrete and decay. So this was basically a perfect spot for me and my toys. In fact, the whole safari gave me a toy photography lens on the Bay Area. It was fun to see familiar spots through that angle and really cool to shoot in places new to me. Each person had so many toys (and a lot more than just LEGO) and such fun ways of traveling with them. As I mentioned, this is one generous group of beautiful toy geeks. I loved the privilege of watching others set up scenes, shoot, chat about scenes and shooting, and then shoot some more.  

Surfs up at the Sutro Baths.
Josh, Austin and Eric in action at Fort Baker.
The Goodbyes

So I’m this fifty year old gay guy all married up to this incredible man I’ve been with for nearly half my life. We have a fantastic seven year old son who we adopted into our family just last year here in the Bay Area. As you can imagine, I’m not out drinking beer with grownups very often anymore. I walked into this adventure a little apprehensive and walked out delighted. I went deeper with my photography. I had time to focus and experiment. But much more than the pics and minifigs, it is hard to describe how connected I feel to this group after a weekend of shooting plastic. Most of the group had joined together for previous safaris in Vegas and Seattle (and others in Hamburg and London and/or beyond). I was new to the group and yet welcomed in like I’d been along the whole time. I’m in awe of the kindness, generosity, humor and talent of this group. I’m also certain I’ve made some lifelong friendships. And to think it all started with a few LEGO Simpson minifigs and an iPhone 5.

Sisters at sea – Sausalito Marina.

Doug Gary

So how about you? Whether you’re a toy photography fan or a photographer, what toys first grabbed you? What sorts of shots do you love?

In the shadows.


  1. Doug!!! I loved reading about your experience and seeing these images. I’m so glad you braved the seemingly intimidating experience of a toy safari! Totally not intimidating, right? We’re just a bunch of silly toy geeks out to have a good time. 😉 All levels, all kinds of toys, any type of gear.

    These weekends always zoom by too fast and I’m left wishing I had spent more time talking to people even though at the time I was like, “I’ve been talking too much and need to spend more time photographing today!” LOL

    But I agree when you say lifelong friendships are made through these events. Even if some of the interactions over the weekend were brief, the connections are lasting and gives a more intimate perspective and deeper appreciation for each other’s work.

    I’m really happy to have finally met you in person! You guys should come visit us in Portland, so we can show our beloved “Boy Toy” around the city! And, Darlin’, I’m totally going to ask about your top ten most awkward things list. 😉


    • Hi Leila! Thanks for you fun and hilarious comments. Yes, I’m so glad I joined the party. It’s been fun seeing posts from you and others since that I remember being shot during our safari. Yes, we will come visit and please let me know next time you two are down here. I’ll brush off that top 10 list before we hit Portland. Love to you, Doug

  2. brett_wilson

    What a great review of the weekend!
    As someone who is yet to make the massive trek to the other side of the world for one of these, this is a great way for me to prepare for next year! I’m so happy, and a tinge jealous, you had a great time. Maybe we’ll see each other next year and you can help out a rookie like me?
    Thanks for sharing your story mate.

    • Hi Brett! Thanks so much for reading the post. You should absolutely make the trek when you can. I’m all in to join again next year and I’d love to join one in your neck of the woods someday, too. You’ve been warned. Let’s do this. All the best, Doug

  3. Tony Tulloch

    I’m even more ‘jelly’ of you guys now that I’ve read this, and I will be trying to find a way to cross the seas to catch you next time.

    My first toy was a SigFig I used to show a universally recognised macro subject for lens reviews. Soon after a friend recommended Shelly Corbett’s work and I was sucked into this community driven creative vortex.

    I don’t really have a style (or at least I don’t think I have) but I do love Lego minifigure photography because of the skills needed to convey the message convincingly.

    • Hi Tony! I love how this started for you. I don’t know that I have a single style either. I know that part of the fun for me is trying different things and seeing what happens. And yes, many of us blame Shelly for deepening our journey into the vortex. I hope to meet you someday. In the meantime, I really enjoy your photography and your presence here. Thanks for stopping by this post. All the best, Doug

  4. A great tale of adventures with a bunch of cool people. I too am jealous. Hoping to make it to the next Photo Safari.

    Where I live, in Ohio, we have our own small, fairly intimate meet-ups (IG #OhioToyKick #OTKspring2017). But I remember the first one, 2 summers ago, totally relate to your son’s friend’s word “nervoucited!” lol. It was weird to find these people that enjoyed toyphotography like me… but would they like me! lol. Friendships were formed and we have been having adventures for going on our third summer this year.

    Thanks for sharing this eloquently written story of your nervoucited weekend!

    P.S. How about those Dennis and Melisa Kustoms!? 😀

    • Hi Jason! Thanks for reading and commenting. I’ll have to check out those hashtags. I spent the first 16 years of my life in greater Cleveland and still visit Northeast Ohio when I can. Maybe I can crash your party someday. I’m so happy to know that’s happening and that you’re involved. I’m excited to check out your posts from the recent one. And yes, those customs are amazing. Thanks for the very kind words, too. All the best, Doug

  5. Doug, Im so glad you took the leap of faith and gained in for the weekend. I feel like I’m the worst host remembering Thursday evening. I was so frazzled just getting to G+ HQ that I was remise in making sure everyone was introduced properly. But as they say there is always room for improvement! Plus, I know that everyone is always so warm and welcoming so I wasn’t worried about you. It was a fabulous weekend and I look forward to next year and even more adventures. It was lovely meeting your partner and son too. Tye is a dear, keep him close! xo

    • Doug Gary

      Shelly, Thank you again again for everything. You created a fantastic weekend. I am hooked on these gatherings and excited for many more to come. See you soon… somewhere. xo

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