Where does the magic reside?

Everyone has their own reasons to photograph toys. But where does the magic reside? Does it reside in recreating your favorite scenes from iconic movies? Or maybe it happens when you delve deep and pull from your own experience? Maybe you believe the magic resides in creating your own stories and mythologies? Or does the magic reside somewhere in your equipment?

New Toys

Many months ago I wrote a blog post on how to buy a camera. This was a dangerous topic for me because after my research I had instant camera envy. Luckily I had a birthday approaching so I could justify scratching that particular itch. I splurged and purchased a Sony Α7. My reasons behind this move into mirrorless cameras (is this an upgrade or a downgrade?) is the appeal of vintage lenses.

I enjoy the amazing bokeh that Joseph Cowlishaw captures with his collection of vintage lens and Tony is often extolling the virtues of the Olympus Zuiko Lenses: especially the 50mm f3.5 macro lens. While I’ve played with and enjoyed the Lensbaby, I was ready to strike out in new directions. Vintage lenses seemed to be a good way to go. And while I don’t believe that the magic lies in my camera equipment, I think certain equipment can help you get a little closer.

When Tony swung through Seattle for an all too brief visit, he left behind a Zuiko 50mm f3.5 macro lens with adaptor for me to play with. He knew I was interested in pursuing this direction of photography. Lucky for him, my own lack of confidence has kept me from exploring vintage lenses. While I don’t think the magic of photography lies in the equipment I do think there is something magical in the photographic process. I’ve been a photographer for over 30 years, and I can still be blown away by what the camera sees.

The Magic of Bokeh

Part of the magic of photography for me is capturing with a camera what is unseen by the human eye. Toy photography holds my interest because I’m interested in exploring the magic of imagination. I want to return to a time when my toys were alive and magic ruled my childhood world.

One of the tools I use to capture a feeling of magic residing in my photographs is the use of bokeh. I love a little bokeh. To be more accurate: I LOVE bokeh. I love photographing towards the sun and capturing the light refracting off water to see what crazy effects will be created. My camera is almost always set on a wide open aperture so I can capture the swirly background bokeh of trees and a blue sky that remind me of a watercolor painting. I’ve always said that I’m really a frustrated painter masquerading as a photographer. There is something to all that other worldly bokeh that lends itself to the magic of toy photography. There is a magic in all that bokeh that helps me to cross over into the land of imagination.

Would Mr Tumnus seem so real if you knew the mud pit that I actually took the photo in?

Or does the sparkles and circles of the white bokeh remind you of a world that you can only access through a mysterious wardrobe?

Lens Flare

JJ Abrams isn’t the only person who is a big fan of lens flare. Because I’m not looking for an image that is based in reality, I employ lens flare to push the viewer into a world filled with magic and where the toys are alive. Sure toy photography is about telling stories but it is also about photography. Photography is about capturing light, playing with the light, refracting it and bending it to your will. Its fun to play with the light. With toys as a subject, reality doesn’t need to be a consideration, so why not push the boundaries of light? Is there magic in perfectly capturing an image? Or does the magic reside in the flaws and aberrations?

Which image do you prefer? 

I used my hand to shade the lens to get the lens flare effect I wanted.
A more traditional angle with beautiful swirly background bokeh.

Where does the magic reside?

For me, the magic of toy photography lies in capturing the unseen light. It means opening my shutter up all the way to see what the world looks like when it is covered in bokeh.  I want to see the light flare and create rainbows across my image. My toys are not of this world and I want the images I create to reflect that. While I’m not a person who believes that your equipment will determine the quality of your imagery, I might make an exception for this Zuiko lens. Like the Lensbaby, the Zuiko captures a reality that is twisted in a way that suits my own sensibilities.

So maybe the magic doesn’t reside in the equipment, but it can certainly help you create the images you want to. In the past I’ve mentioned that lenses should be treated like brushes. I’m thrilled to have another brush in my tool box. I will place the Zuiko 50mm f3.5 next to my Sony 90mm, Lensbaby, Lens Ball and leave a little room for a Petzval lens. It feels good to know me collection of interesting glass is expanding. Who ever said that toy photography had to be realistic?

In Closing

Where does the magic of toy photography reside for you? Does it reside in a practical studio effects? Or maybe there is a particular background you find inspiring? Maybe you enjoy the way light filters through smoke or a perforated divider? Do you have a piece of equipment that you swear by? Or maybe you have a certain Lightroom preset that trips your creative trigger. We all have our personal magical sweet spot. The place were our toy photography magic lies.

I’ve told you were some of mine are, won’t you share where the magic of toy photography resides for you?

~ Shelly

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    • Im glad that the toy community has room for so many different styles. (Or at least I think it does.) I like how you push the boundaries of the stories your toys tell and the world they inhabit. May the world or PS continue to inspire you and help you find the magic in this fun hobby!

  1. For me, the magic is the ability to try things out. Toy photography is my sandbox; it’s where I go to play with new photography and post production techniques.

    Sure, I might find a few people willing to stand under a garden hose in chilly weather so I can capture water spray in a photo, but minifigs are always at the ready and don’t need to be toweled off immediately.

    And I might be able to convince a dancer to come in at night so I could shoot stroboscopic flash photos or I could make it a practical effects challenge. Animating a minifig is not that easy!

  2. For me the magic is bringing the minifigures to life and giving them a personality, so that we forget that they are toys. Lately, I’ve been trying to add different lighting and techniques to my photos – the Brickstuff lights are great for that! I’m hoping that makes my scenes feel a little more realistic.

    I’m always inspired by the magical lighting and scenes that you create Shelly! 🙂


      • Thank you Brickstuff! As Shelly mentioned, I’m on Flickr (DigiNik13) and IG (Handstand30). I’m still experimenting with my Brickstuff lights but I think I’ve posted 2 photos already on Flickr using Brickstuff lights. I have 2 more photos that will be included in a 6 Image Narrative on this blog and one photo coming up for Halloween 🙂 The lights are amazing and I’ve been enjoying using them!


    • Lynn I thin you do an amazing job bringing your toys to life and giving them such wonderful personalities. I want to live in your world!

      I look forward to seeing what you create with indirect lighting with Brickstuff lights. I can see your sets becoming another character in your imaginative world. 🙂

  3. Great write-up Shelly!
    I am right there with you on the bokeh and leaving the aperture wide open. There is definitely magic in the old glass and the epic bokeh circles – (my favorite Dino shot is the first).
    I think the magic for me also resides in the humor. If I can get a good chuckle out of someone then it’s a definite success. I love all the smiles and chuckles I get while navigating this toy photography world – that’s my favorite.

  4. For me the magic happens when I can imagine a story before and after the picture. And specialy if I ask anyone else, he will have a different story in his mind. So for me the magic depends pretty much on the setting itself, more than a technique or material.

    • Thank you for your comment. Its nice to know there are others out there who think the story is important. Especially that which precedes and follows – those unseen moments. I hope that you will continue to find magic in your photographic pursuits. 🙂

  5. Astrid

    What an interesting and thought provoking article 😍 What is magic for me? Definitely light plays a big role … and sometimes, when a radiance or glow emanates from the picture, so that you want to sink into it … then that’s magic for me.

  6. Shelly this article is a piece of art in itself! I’ll come back to this one again and again, I’m sure. Pondering the question of where the magic lies and hearing your impassioned personal example of capturing light in ways beyond the human eye’s abilities awakens such fire in my soul!

    If I were to try and answer your question about where the magic is for me, I suppose the closest I can come (because it’s a great question, and I don’t have a simple, single answer) is to say this: I’m always searching for that moment when the image transcends a mere photo and comes alive.

    • Thank you so much for your reply Teddi. Sometimes I think Im talking to myself, or worse, my outlook on photography is outdated. I’m glad we have connected on our passion for the unattainable and mystical. There are no single answers when talking about the creative journey. There are no goals, only the way.

  7. Janan Lee

    What a great question Shelly! I can say my reasons for toy photography are to create positive images drawn from actual story lines or imaginary subplots and mash ups. I can also say that I do love bokeh (especially the creamy painterly sort.) There’s this corner of my kitchen bench where the morning light shines through, filtered by the blinds, and I’ve taken many shots from the same position but with different utensils laid out in the back. Due to bokeh, the results are also pleasing surprises! My go to “paint brush” now is the Helios 44-2 with extension tubes if necessary. It’s not a fancy vintage lens but the bokeh is beautiful!

    Recently, I read a book which quoted J.W. von Goethe’s suggestion on 3 questions to be asked about any work of art:
    1. What was the artist trying to do?
    2. How well did he/she do it?
    3. Was it worth the doing?

    These questions struck me and I think on some rare occasions, I can say, “Yup, I think I got it.” Those are the magic moments, at least for me.

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