Three is a Magic Number

Three is a magic number… for me. Like the three legged stool, The Marx Brothers, The Three Musketeers, the three primary colors and the original Star Wars trilogy. I feel there is a special power to anything that come in threes. Not one, not two, not four and definitely not five – the magic number is three.

I believe in the power of three so much that I often photograph my mini figures in sets of three. I even collect major accessories in threes and I leave emoji comments on Instagram in threes.

Three Just Makes Sense

Why photography one Enderman, when three is so much better?

Aliens always come in three’s right?

A flock of (3) seaguls.

I’ve taken plenty of photos with only one mini figure as a subject. But these often feel like the plastic equivalent of the thousand yard stare. You know that blank, unfocused gaze seen on the faces of people who’ve been in combat or have been seriously traumatized. To combat this effect, I add an accessory to extend the story possibilities. Of course, I can always have my mini figure doing something, like riding a bike, so that it isn’t staring blankly at the camera.

Obviously I’ve taken photos of couples and pairs of mini figures. But it isn’t easy for me to break this habit of three. When I was taking the following photo at the San Francisco toy photo safari, I had to fight the urge to put in another classic spaceman. I’m glad I only used two, but the internal struggle was real!

Rarely, if ever, do I photograph more than three subjects in a frame. Because if three is a crowd, then four is a mob and don’t even get me started on five. I would go crazy if I had to set up five mini figures. I can see it now. I’m placing the last figure and my hand accidentally hits one of the other figures. Next thing I know, they fall down like dominoes. I don’t have that much patience.

Yes, I know this behavior is rather eccentric. I know I’ve set a rule out that I follow that doesn’t make a lot of sense. But this is how I role: Three is a magic number.

And if you don’t believe me, check out this classic video by School House Rock: 3 is A Magic Mumber.


Do you have any habits, photographic ticks or superstitions along this line? Or am I the only crazy one?Β 

Cats are always better in threes!

Why have one Warg, when three is so much more satisfying!

Are three pandas a gang?

I could go on, but I think you get the idea. πŸ™‚

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  1. Brickprawnz

    Nice take on the number of subjects one should have per photo! Now that I think about it, there is something satisfying about pictures with three subjects in them, something that makes the picture feel complete. And I totally get the pain of dealing with five or more subjects hahahahaaha

  2. Great post Shelly! I completely agree that 3 is a magic number but I find that fitting three minifigs into one frame (with a macro lens) can be a problem for me. Then trying to light the whole scene is even tougher! So I often stick with one or two minifigs. Plus I always enjoy the relationship that often comes from two minifigs – either as a couple or as best friends πŸ™‚ I love that photo of the 3 pandas though! I can see that having 3 minifigs in the frame makes a more interesting composition and I loved the way you posed them πŸ™‚


    • Lynn, Im glad you like my latest musings. I can see how two would be a great number of you! You seem to have such a wonderful way with couples. I might even suggest you right a blog post telling everyone how two is the best number! Now that would be fun!

      Im glad you like the Panda Gang photo. It was one of the images I chose to print very large and frame for my first gallery show. It still makes me happy two years later. πŸ™‚

      • Great idea! I think that’s something I could definitely write about (two being the best number). I just finished my work deadline on Friday, so I’ll give it a try this week πŸ™‚


  3. Jason Nvrmore

    This is a great post… I honestly have never really considered the number of figures in a shot as a design element. Usually I am quite hung up on the story I want to tell… and to be completely honest… sometimes I like to challenge myself to put a lot of figures in a shot to see if I can make it work. I have see a great many people use lots of figures in huge scenes; fights, etc… and I am usually in awe of how they got them all in there, how they got the focus to work and got them all not to fall down (as THEY ALWAYS DO when I am setting up a shot, dominos indeed).

    As my novice status as a photographer continues to show, I really can’t say when I am considering the creation of a photo that I have looked at the number of figures involved as a design element. I usually am thinking about how many figures are needed to convey the story I have in mind… and also, I will not lie, sometimes it’s just to show my collection off a bit… Case in point: I have A LOT of Joker figures, I love the Joker and usually grab as many different versions of him in plastic that I can… so, that begs, in my mind to do big group shots… and they don’t always work… but I do have fun putting them together and messing with the focus.

    I have done shots with only 3 figures (actually I did one with Jokers a couple years ago I was rather proud of) but that wasn’t because I was thinking of 3s as a design element– I simply had three Jokers in my possession at that time! haha!

    Thanks for adding a new element to consider when doing my toy photos… don’t be surprised if you see me experimenting with this three thing a lot in the near future either.

    • I envy any toy photographer that can manage to get more than a few figures in a photo. Im always impressed with the results. I think for me, three is enough, but there are so many ways to approach toy photography. Sometimes you need more figures sometimes less. – every photo has its own rhythm.

      Those guys you talk about with their multi figure action photos with figures flying every wich way? I have only two words for you: baling wire. You can wrap it around the figure and jam it into the ground for flying action photos. Or you can drill holes into your figures and place the wire directly through (into) your figures. I think this is a cool trick and one that would lead to less editing, but I could never drill into my figures. The gage of wire you use will depend on how heavy your figures are. Its worth trying out if you have trouble keeping your 6″ and larger figures in place. I hope this helps.

      And don’t dwell too much on the number three. Thats my hang-up, it doesn’t have to be yours. πŸ˜€

  4. Nice post Shelly. I wonder what specifically draws you to three. I tend to have just one figure – a symbol of a personal/solitary journey, but then my images tend to have an isolated feel to them. But I’ve done quite a few with 2 as of late. I tend to only do more as a counting strategy if that makes sense – like in my ‘Survival’ series I have 5 photos, one with 5 items, one with 4, one 3 and so on. On that note though, I have been brainstorming some images in which the frame will be broken into thirds. So there is something to the number three, but I can’t quite put my finger on it.

    • Jennifer, See, three is a magic number! I can tell you are hearing its siren song! I think I get hung up on an arbitrary symmetry. One figures is brought with so much symbolism, two is all about partnerships (and Im not about to go there!) And four is a crowd. So this leaves me with three. A very arbitrary number that is another red thread through my work. For someone else that number might be one or two. I like your survival countdown. What a great metaphor! I look forward to seeing what you come up with your broken frame series. Im sure it will be amazing. πŸ™‚

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