I’m not a product photographer either

Through my own creative journey, I’ve learned the hard way that I’m not a product photographer either, I thought it would be fun to throw in my two cents.  There has been Kristina’s aborted attempts at creating a set review, James’s recent set review and Brett’s most recent attempt at working with a marketing firm.

I’m not suited to be a product photographer because I approach photography not as a way to make money, but as a vehicle for self expression.

The important thing is, you have to have something important to say about the world.

Paul Strand

But that doesn’t mean that some part of me doesn’t want more. I understand the allure of receiving acknowledgment for creativity and hard work. At some point the likes and comments from social media aren’t enough. I see other photographers who are being recognized by toy manufacturers. They receive toys ahead of release dates and some even are creating books! A part of me wants this same recognition. Then I come to my senses.

Be careful what you wish for

All of the areas of recognition that I’ve mentioned come with strings. Some of those strings are rather weighty. When you start accepting work for pay or trade the equation changes. Suddenly you’re no longer creating images based on personal whims, but images based on someone else’s expectations. Sometimes its hard to know what those expectations are, and sometimes their expectations are unrealistic.

Let’s face it, the client doesn’t know the limitations of the toys, or how much work goes into photoshop effects. Often the work that is being requested is not commiserate with payment or expectations. It’s the rare client who has low expectations and a large budget. Suddenly what is a fun hobby becomes work.

Creating relationships with art directors or marketing liaisons takes effort. Successful relationships need to be built on trust and experience. And unless you plan on becoming a professional photographer, its hard to justify the time and effort. Of course, if your goal is to be a professional photographer, you will need to put in that time and effort. But I think that for the majority of toy photographers, simply having fun is our main goal.

My own forays into toy photography for a client where not entirely successful. I didn’t enjoy the process of creating a review for the collectible mini figures. I’m so grateful that Brett loves this part of our job! His reviews are always fun and informative! While I enjoyed reviewing Minecraft: The Village, my work was months late. No one wants a review to come out months after the release date! My most recent attempt at photography for LEGO was also a lot of fun. But I spent over 80 hours on the project in exchange for a handful of sets. Not the best use of my time.

Follow your passion.

The best advice I can give you is to follow your passion. Create work that makes you light up. Respect and follow your creative curiosity. Listen to the ideas that are trying to get your attention. Be responsive to those ideas and act on them. Don’t get distracted by false promises of fame or fortune by creating work for someone else for next to nothing.

Create the work that is important to you. Create work that speaks to you and then share it with the world. If you’re looking to move beyond social media there are lots of opportunities to share your work in the physical world. Here are a few that I’ve tried:

  • Coffee shops or Restaurants
  • Craft or art galleries
  • Toy stores
  • Comic conventions
  • Studio or home exhibition
  • Self published books
  • Arts and crafts shows

All great adventures start small and build with each success. Start with your family and friends. If you have their support, then consider widening your circle. Listen to what people say about your work: both the positive and negative. If you plan on selling your work to help fund your hobby, you need to be responsive to your potential customers without loosing your own creative vision.

I admire those who can be product photographers, but I know it isn’t for everyone. If you want to share your work, you need to get creative and find other opportunities to share the work you are proud of. Being a successful creative is more than simply receiving paying gigs. Some rewards are more subtle and often more fulfilling than money.

Have you ever experienced the smile of someone who is reacting to your photograph in person? Have you ever had a conversation with a fan in person while they tell you how much they love your work? Or have you experienced sharing stories about toys with a fellow toy photography enthusiast? It’s experiences like these that are more valuable than pay for a well done product photograph.

I will leave you with this quote by Elizabeth Gilbert from her most recent book Big Magic, Creative Living:

“What is creative living? Any life that is driven more strongly by curiosity than by fear.” Elizabeth Gilbert

This is why I’m not a product photographer, I’m an artist dedicated to living a creative life. One driven by curiosity about my own journey and the journeys of my fellow creatives.


Are you a product photographer, a creative or some combination of the two? 

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  1. Wonderful post, Shelly! Thank you!

    I absolutely agree with you. The passion must bring joy and give pleasure. If it’s limited by other people’s demand or led by their own interests, it’s not a new challenge. It really becomes a work and the big question is: was it our own desire? If it doesn’t contribute to our self-enrichment (I don’t mean money), it’s not passion anymore.
    I loved your article, thanks again!

    Kind Regards,
    Ann. 💛

    • Thank you Ann, I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I think there is plenty of room to make money at photography, but once you start down the road of product photography, the emotional component changes. Ive been doing this too long to want to do someone else’s work. I do this for me and that is my passion. Im glad I’m not alone in that regard. <3

  2. Love this article! I have a degree in illustration, and I consider my career in toy photography the closest I’ve actually come to having the career in illustration I imagined I’d have when I was in art school. Note that I could have majored in fine art, there are many parallels between illustration and fine art drawing or painting, but for some reason have always gravitated towards creativity in the commercial realm. Through toy photography I am creating images that tell a story. I’m controlling every component of the image to achieve that, just as I would with the acrylic paints or color pencils I used to use years ago. From concept development, to acquiring props, to setting up the shot, to taking the photos, to editing my images in the computer, every facet of the process is an adored piece of the puzzle for me. I love every part of the process.

    I finally have the experience and maturity to know exactly what I want to do with my life and career, and just as important, what I don’t want to do with it. I have turned down way more “opportunities” than I’ve accepted. I’ve been asked to take static catalog photos of toys using white backdrops (thanks but respectfully, no thanks) as well as countless “opportunities” to receive free toys in return for images. (Just say no!).

    I’m not sure if I am a product photographer, if I am, great. But I feel more like a product storyteller. Whether I’m shooting for myself or a client – the constant for me is telling a story, and creating motion and emotion where none exists. Once I realized that this was my actual mission, I swallowed my fear and apprehension and opened myself up to creating images for clients that went well beyond the action figures I was used to photographing. First it was fashion dolls. Although, admittedly, those were just a step (or three!) away from the action figures I was used to shooting. But then I was asked if I would want to try and create images for UNO and Scrabble. The easy response would have been ‘heck no, I’m a toy photographer’ – talk about lack of articulation! And if I’m being honest it did take a little effort to wrap my head around it. But then if I go back to what really excites me about image making – stories, motion, emotion – then all of a sudden I’m able to frame it differently. My new mission allowed me to embrace the challenge and attack the assignment with enthusiasm and excitement. And I ended up loving the images I created for these games as much, if not more, than any action figure image I created. For me that was a wonderful and welcome validation of my mission statement, because even though I stated it, I never had a chance to test it!

    I’ve been very fortunate in that I am given creative control when it comes to my client work – from overall concept through final image. This may not be unusual or unique though for creative toy photographers because I think if one’s vision and creativity forms their personal work – and if a client is drawn to that work – then it’s reasonable to assume they are drawn to your vision as much as your images. So they are hiring you for your creativity and imagination as much as anything else. Not sure if that makes sense!

    I honestly don’t know if anything I’ve said here applies to the topic at hand. But I do wholeheartedly agree with ‘do what you’re passionate about’ and ‘don’t sell yourself short’ which applies to toy photography and life in general.

    • Mitchell, thank you so much for joining the conversation. I want you to know that I admire what you are able to do with toys and for your client. Im continually amazed at your creativity, and the stories you’re able to tell. Im glad you’re finding much deserved success. For me, it has never worked out that way. My path has taken me in a different direction, one that may not have the same monetary success, but one Im happy to be on. Thanks again for giving us your perspective, I think it’s so important to see these issues from many view points! 😀

      • Thanks, Shelly. We may be on different paths, but they are probably more alike, especially in philosophy, that you might realize. You are a professional through and through, and your networking and relationship building skills are enviable! Your recent journey to the LEGO House is testament to that, as of course is this blog. I hope we will have an opportunity to collaborate on some fun projects in the future!

  3. Sacha

    I have once been asked to photograph someones MOC (a huge MOC) and it was hard for me to do for several reasons.
    First one: I was shooting in a room with too many distractions.
    Second: I felt that I had to shoot in a way, that wasn’t me – this one I can work with.
    Third: I felt a pressure on when I had to deliver the photo.

    Result: I was far from happy about the result.

    I might say yes, if someone ask me again, because I can’t judge from one single experience.
    well.. I was asked in Skærbæk by one of my RLUG-friends if we could do a workshop in the spring on how to photograph big objects – I guess I have to practice before I can decide if I’m up for the job or not.

    • Sacha, you are more than up to the job. I think with a little practice and experience you can do this. I have never seen a group of people in more need of photography help than LEGO builders. I think you could make a little side money simply going to fan events and photographing MOCs for these guys. If you have any questions, Im sure we can find the answers somewhere in this group for you. You go girl!!

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