The $5 Photograph

I’ll readily admit I have a lot of supplies for my toy photography – various toys, camera equipment and other gear.

I don’t have the latest and greatest anything, but I make what I have, and what I can further source, work for me.

This concept can be true at any range of your budget. While social media can make it seem like you need a $2000 camera and $300 figure to make it in this field/hobby that’s far from true.

And to prove this and/or give a glimmer of hope to those of you just getting started in toy photography, or even just thinking about getting started, I set out to make a $5 photograph.

For this premise, I’ve assumed everyone has a phone with a camera. The phone I’ve used for the below is my iPhone se. For the rest, I headed to the Dollar Tree. Once there, I got a flashlight, magnifying glass, pack of 8 plastic dinosaurs, bag of marbles, and pack of 4 metallic poster board sheets. All that in total was $5 + tax. (Full disclosure, I already had a flashlight and magnifying glass, so I didn’t waste the money and buy new – but I did verify that these can be bought for $1 each at Dollar Tree.)

The flashlight served as the lighting source, and I used the magnifying glass as a pseuo macro lens and distortion tool. A dusty magnifying glass creates some nice bokeh too. It was a bit tricky working this way – flashlight in my right hand, magnifying glass and phone in my left, then pressing the shutter button with my right thumb, but with a couple minutes practice I got the hang of it.

Check out the results. I’m calling these Dinosaur Dreamworld.
$5 – backdrop, dinosaur, marbles, flashlight, magnifying glass
$3 – backdrop, dinosaur, flashlight
$5 – backdrop, dinosaur, marble, flashlight, magnifying glass
$3 – backdrop, dinosaur, flashlight
$5 – backdrop, dinosaur, marbles, flashlight, magnifying glass
$4 – backdrop, dinosaur, marble, flashlight
See yourself as more of an outdoor photographer? Even better. Skip the backdrop and lighting source – you have the sun and world around you for that.
$2 – dinosaur, magnifying glass

So really this post is a misnomer – that’s 7 photographs for $5 worth of supplies, and I’m sure with some brainstorming I could make even more from this same equipment.

It’s easy to get caught up in buying more, gathering more, going for the best, but with photography, as with any artistic medium, it’s your creativity that takes you the furthest.

So what do you think? Can toy photography be for those with a smaller budget? How do you make what you have on hand work for you?

~ Jennifer Nichole Wells


  1. brett_wilson

    What a wonderful self-imposed challenge; the results outshine the outlay!
    I once took photos of Christmas cracker dinosaurs for a “Raptor Pack Day” when I was on a camping holiday without “real” dinosaurs. Those two wonky, Day-Glo dinos turned out to be great subjects, wonderfully out of place in a natural setting! And they were free inside the bonbons!
    You “full hands” technique sounds like a greater challenge than producing great images on a budget; fingers and thumbs contortionists!

  2. These are wonderful, Jennifer. I’m always amazed at the images I see created on smart phones – toys and otherwise. Honestly, with today’s phones and editing apps I don’t see using a smart phone as the handicap it might once have been. To this point, I’ve opted to bring only my iPhone on my last two vacations – left the 5D3 at home. I will say, though, that I dig that you did all your fx in-camera, using some cheap and readily available items. The results are fabulous!

  3. Let me start by saying I loved this article – It is excellent food for thought, and the concept of doing things on the cheap is both compelling and important, especially for new photographers, as it forces one to learn technique, which is way more important than gear.

    So I would go so far as assume one has a camera *and* a flashlight (not having a flashlight for emergencies is folly). One also should have a light source of some kind (bed side lamp for example), so one shouldn’t need to acquire one.

    Everything else you procured should easily be obtained at a garage sale for 5-10c, maybe .25 cents if you went nuts. The magnifying glass maybe not, but thats not required for toy photography (the iPhone camera, assuming it is truly very similar to the Pixel phone I use is already a decent Macro lens – it does not do the distortion tho, but thats a style choice, and not a necessity).

    If you know anyone with kids, or any grandparent, access to those toys can be obtained with a “do you mind if I borrow this?” Most parents I know would have no issues lending out the cheaper kids toys, and some would be eager to give some to you just to get them out of the house 🙂 (or do what I do, whenever I give my kids presents, I put the previso of “… but Daddy always gets to borrow them to take pictures with”)

    So really, assuming camera and light source, toy photography should be doable without spending any cash at all.

    However, the above is just me being pedantic 🙂 The idea is very sound… you don’t need a lot of money to do good toy photography. Even without a cell phone camera, you can use a point and shoot and get a lot of these effects – one of my most popular images was taken with a $200 point-and-shoot (and many of the features that made it $200 were not required) (I also used a $5 minifig, but I’ve taken dozens of shots with that minifig, so its value is only pennies per shot).

    Where it is harder to skimp out is in models if you are trying to capture scenes from a specific universe (like Star Wars Lego in my case). However you can get by with just a single recognizable minifig, which bricklink can get you for $5-6. If you want some larger models (Lego AT-AT or Millennium Falcon from my recent exploits), you may spend $150-300 on a model, but if you can get multiple shots out of it (which shouldn’t be hard with such an iconic model), your amortization quickly drops that price.

    Not to mention Lego models tend to not drop in value, especially if they are out of print. I spent $200 on my AT-AT model, and if I thought I would never make another AT-AT image again (highly unlikely), I could easily sell it for $250. Easily. So if you factor that it, and have some cash up front to invest, you can actually make money simply by acquiring models, and reselling them when done.

    Tho, getting a $3000 camera and $300 models is still not going to guarantee a good image. I’ve seen really horrible images taken with really amazing gear. What made the images in this article great is the skill and artistic eye of the photographer, not the quality of the models.

    Anyway, if you have a basic camera, and some skills using it, you can make compelling images out of anything – you don’t need a lot of money for photography – if you’re tight on funds, concentrate on technique and skills – those are free to gain if you self-learn, and if you do find yourself in possession of quality gear, you’ll be able to take advantage of it.


    • Completely agreed. I set up this post/challenge in the way I did more to prove a point than anything else. Say you don’t have anything related to toy photography at all and you suddenly want to be a toy photographer – just that’s it’s possible all the way down to the light source for under $5. As for the magnifying glass, while not always necessary, for the details in these 2″ dinosaurs it actually helped a lot, I was trying to shoot closer to them than my iphone camera allowed. And while personally, I shop at flea markets all the time and have a decent toy collection, I don’t actually have friends with kids older than infants, so no cool toys yet.

      You’re totally right about shooting within a certain universe – although I have noticed that the dollar stores here do have disney figures and knock off wwe characters on occasion. Not Star Wars, but depending on your niche. If someone’s coming into this wanting to shoot lego, star wars etc. then of course they should instead invest in those lines. The flea market here has a toy store with $5 1:18 scale Star Wars figures for example.

      Overall, with creativity and ingenuity toy photography is beyond possible no matter your budgetary range.

  4. Jennifer, As always, another excellent post. Considering the amount of interest on this article, I wonder if we shouldn’t create a challenge around the idea of IPhone and a toy you get at a dollar store? I like the idea of the dollar store toy better than borrowing because you can still borrow a pretty sweet toy. The charm of this is taking interesting photos with toys that your reject because they’re cheap and maybe even day-glo. I’ve always been a fan of the phone challenge. Like Dave said there are many great apps, but even more importantly they make you focus on lighting and composition. You cant fudge your photos with a good lens. Great work and thanks for the excellent reminder that photography isn’t about owning the best toys or camera. Cheers!

    • Thank you so much. I love that idea. The dollar stores around here do sometimes have some pretty detailed non-articulated disney figures, but otherwise you find dolls with wide set eyes, dinosaurs with excess plastic, etc. I would love to see what others could come up with with that parameter.

  5. Jennifer, this is a great idea! It never occurred to me although the first thing I do when I hatch an idea is take a trip to the basement to rummage through my childhood toys (my brothers and I shared a H0 railway set part of which ended up in my place).

    Plus, I do anything to avoid buying another lens. Fortunately the trusty Nikon AIS 55/2.8 ‘Micro’ lens does a great job.

    I think that – in addition to your thoughts – toy photography kind of kindles the kind of creativity you associate with bricolage. Which I very much enjoy.

    I also like Shelly’s idea of a 1$ picture challenge. In fact I set out to find a toy for 1 EUR – but this town does not seem to have as many “1 Euro shops” as I thought any more. But I will keep digging. Then ‘seriously’ photographing with my phone would be a premiere!

    • Thank you so much. To be honest, it doesn’t often occur to me either. Although, largely when I acquire more toys I try to do it relatively inexpensively. I shop at flea markets a lot. It’s more I see so much on social media – namely instagram – about the latest and greatest toy, camera etc. And then while there are some gorgeous images, there are also ones that are simple close ups of impressive plastic figures. My point being, with creativity and drive, you don’t need tons of money to practice this art. And in that I love your mention of bricolage – my favorite aspect of toy photography is being able to create and transform whole new worlds.

      P.S. I’m quite jealous that you and your brother had an HO scale set growing up. How wonderful that it ended up in your hands.

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