Does what kind of toy you photograph define you as a toy photographer?
I’ve been asking myself this question lately because my photography has taken a dramatic turn in 2018. I’m no longer just a LEGO photographer. I’ve finally ventured out and started photographing some other toys. What the heck took me so long??
To really figure this out, I had to crunch some numbers. I didn’t start experimenting with non-LEGO toy photography until August 2015, nearly two years after getting into the hobby. That shot even had some LEGO in it, so it may not even count. I didn’t take my first entirely LEGO-free toy photo until the Seattle Toy Photo Safari in May of 2016. After that, I waited over a year, until nabbing this shot of a Hotwheels AT-ST. I followed that up with a few non-LEGO toy pics in 2017, because of my review of Funko’s Rick and Morty figures, and my first Star Wars Black Series purchase: My all-time favorite droid, K-2SO.
I went back through my catalog of images and found that only 10% of them weren’t of LEGO. A whopping 75% of those shots were taken this year!
Starting with LEGO
It wasn’t a conscious choice to exclusively shoot LEGO for so long. It just kind of happened!
I first discovered toy photography when I stumbled upon the work of Shelly (back when she was with BrickCentral), Vesa, and Mike Stimpson. They were my Mount Rushmore of toy photographers; I strove to be just like them. They’re highly LEGO-focused, so as I studied their work and tried to emulate it, I turned to LEGO. LEGO had always been my favorite toy growing up, so getting back into it after years spent in the LEGO-free “Dark Ages” felt natural and exhilarating.
Those few times I did stray and photograph other toys, I felt like I was driving on the wrong side of the road, or going against my nature. I didn’t see myself as a toy photographer. I was a LEGO photographer! Other toy lines weren’t even on my radar for anything other than collecting.
Of course, as I started discovering others in the community, I quickly realized what a big deal action figure photography was. I loved the work of people like Father’s Figures, but felt that that particular niche was out of my league. So, I stuck with LEGO and was very happy with my work.
Ready, Set, Action (Figure)!
As I grew as a photographer and began pushing my limits, I found myself drawn more and more toward action figure photography, specifically of the Star Wars Black Series 6″ line. I’ve always been a huge Star Wars fan, and was impressed with the stories you could tell with such detailed and articulated figures. I bought myself a Stormtrooper and C-3PO, thinking that I’d only add a few of the figures into my collection. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Immediately I fell into the rabbit hole that is action figure photography and collecting, and I don’t think I’ll ever make it back out.
This year at the Oregon Toy Photo Safari, I found myself torn between my two photographic loves. I must have packed at least 30 LEGO minifigures and a seemingly endless amount of accessories. But on the first day, I only shot my Star Wars figures. I didn’t even bring out my sigfig for a beach selfie! My creative energy was completely devoted to my Stormtrooper and various droids.
I made a conscious effort to photograph a bunch of LEGO on the second day, because I knew I’d feel disappointed otherwise. I don’t make it to the beach very often, so I didn’t want to leave feeling like I’d missed some photographic opportunities. Since arriving back home though, only my action figures have made it in front of my camera lens.
I think I’m more driven to these action figures for a number of reasons:
- I’m practicing new camera techniques and re-learning how to use my lenses. It’s very different shooting a 6 inch figure than a 1.5 inch LEGO minifigure! The distance that’s needed between myself and my subject, the focal length, and even the kind of lens I choose have all changed, and it’s exciting to experiment! I also find that I’m shooting a lot more in portrait orientation than landscape. Perhaps because my subjects are so much taller?
- Articulation!!! There are some stories you simply can’t communicate as clearly with a minifigure. I’ll always love the limitations that come with photographing LEGO, but there’s something very freeing and exciting about being able to play around with body language and posing. The shots I took for the “Choices” and “Action” podcast episodes are prime examples.
- New Discoveries. Once I opened my mind to the possibility of non-LEGO toy photography, a whole new world has opened up to me! I’ve been focusing a lot on the Black Series figures yes, but there are countless other toy manufacturers and toy lines out there! Every day I discover new action figure photographers and skim through their hashtags to find out what kinds of toys they’re using.
Can you believe that we’re halfway through 2018 already?? As I look toward the rest of the year, I know that I’ll continue mixing the toys in my toolbox. I don’t think I’ll ever give up photographing LEGO entirely, but I am certainly finding myself less and less motivated to do so. Perhaps that will change, but for now I’m excited to have a new driving creative force. It’s been fun to push my limits and try my hand at something new, and I feel like I’m finally a good enough photographer to tackle the concepts I have in my imagination.
LEGO Toy Photographer
Do you stick to one photographic subject? Do you think the toy you photograph defines you? Sound off in the comments below!
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I am the complete opposite! I started with the black series and ended up shooting more Lego minifigures lately. Coincidently, I have been working on and off on a blog post similar to yours but the reverse!
That’s awesome! Can’t wait to read your thoughts on the subject. I’ve also loved your LEGO photos so I’m glad you eventually branched out.
I’ve been taking pictures of any toy that grabs my interest for a number of years – mostly vintage toys as we have been cleaning out our house which has been in my husband’s family since 1963 and his mom saved so many toys and was a collector herself. Lego has gradually taken over because I started my own collection in recent years. I will probably branch out with other toys as I go on – watching you and the others at the Toy Safari was intriguing enough to get me looking at other toys. Exploration is always fun! 🙂
Toy safaris are dangerous for that reason! I love that you photograph whatever grabs your interest. That certainly keeps it exciting! I look forward to seeing what toys you branch out with 🙂
Oh James. What a wonderful post! I love the journey you’ve shared with us and your passion for your work. You really push yourself to great success. Go James! PS: I’m stubbornly LEGO still; stop being so pushy. 😂👊❤️
Thanks Doug, you’re too kind!
Think of me not as being pushy, but as offering a warning. Once you fall down the rabbit hole, there’s no going back! 😜
I did the very same thing. I swore up and down that I would never get action figures since I thought they were all cheap crap, but thanks to a friend, I tried the Marvel Legends line and now I’m saving for the $200+ Hot Toys Iron Spider. My wallet hates me now. 🙂
I am terrified of buying a Hot Toys figure, because I know how amazing they must be to photograph. Now THAT is a rabbit hole I can’t afford to fall face first into! As much as I’d want to. Maybe once I get bored of the 6″ figs I’ll move onto those. It’s honestly only a matter of time.
Great post James. I’ve been thinking a lot about this exact topic since returning from Oregon. Maybe you’ve just saved my bacon and helped me write a post for this week?!
And based on the shots you’ve shared here, and on your feeds, I’m certainly happy you’ve branched out to shoot more than just LEGO.
I have also been going along a similar journey. I didn’t really think about it until I had to add a whole new category to my portfolio site just for action figure photography. It is all I’ve shot in the field in months… tho I do still do LEGO shots in studio.
My first action figure was a 20″ Deadpool. However most are the 6″ Black Series or Legends series. Both are working quite well for me.
I have noticed the difference in lenses – with the larger stuff I no longer feel the need to grab a macro lens right away, which is nice, especially in the field where I prefer to only bring one lens with me if I can get away with it.
The points of articulation are a toughy – I went from 7 to over 30 on some of my figures, and it has taken me a while to get used to checking every little detail 🙂
The fact that you can’t assume accessories don’t cross over from figure to figure is also a new feature that I didn’t have to deal with LEGO.
OTOH the detail is much higher, and the possibilities are almost endless. It has added a whole new dimension to my work, and the freedom of creativity is refreshing.
Still, tho, LEGO has that nostalgic feel that action figures don’t seem to capture for me – at least not so far.
As I do a lot of inside photography (in little makeshift studios) and I find that Lego suits this scale so well. Lego is my predominant muse, but bad influences like @doctornvrmore have put me on the path of non-Lego toys. I find that my 3.75″ poses are awkward, but I am hesitant to fall down the same rabbit hole as many others to enjoy the articulation of 6″ figures. I have met another bad influence in @spideygoeshygge and have fallen in love with what he can do with these figures. I feel that resistance may well be futile.
“Does what kind of toy you photograph define you as a toy photographer?” Superficially, maybe. Like how the clothes ones wears may superficially define a person to some. In my opinion, though, it’s the stories one tells that makes the lasting impression, has the most impact and ultimately defines you as a toy photographer.
I’m split pretty close to halfway between 6″ figures and LEGO, with a handful of other odd ones now and then. They each have their charms. But it’s not just the difference between articulation and size. I find myself drawn to different toys based on the fandoms that are available. For example, as a fan of Star Wars, you can choose either one. But as a fan of Firefly, 6″ Funko figures are about the only option. Doctor Who is all over the place, with a few LEGO minifigures and a variety of other options. The game Overwatch has some really fantastic characters, but the few figures that are out there are gonna cost a fair amount more than the average $20 Star Wars Black Series fig. Le sigh.
One of the things I have my eye on is the world of customs. There’s something so fun about having a figure that is unique, or a favorite character that isn’t available unless you customize it into existence yourself. As others on the blog have expressed (looking at you, Eva), sometimes you don’t want to play with someone else’s licensed character, you want to tell a story all your own.