How do you choose the toys you photograph?

Again this week I will be revisiting an older blog post with a few updates: How do you choose the toys you photograph? The topic came up because of a recent DM conversation I had about the differences between LEGO and other action oriented toys. As toy photographers, what we choose to photograph, as much as how we choose to photograph them, define our personal styles. So I want to know, how do you choose the toys you photograph?

January 1, 2017

This past weekend I meet up with some local toy photographers for an afternoon of companionship, conversation and photography. As I was looking around at my friends hard at work, I was struck by the variety of toys they had brought along as subjects. There were dinosaurs, Star Wars action figures, Bratz dolls, LEGO minifigures, custom figures, anime figures, and plenty more I couldn’t identify. Which brings me to my question – How do you choose the toys you photograph?

I’ve always wondered why some photographers are attracted to certain toys and not others. Some photographers swear by anything from a particular universe like Star Wars or Harry Potter, some photographers only use one or a very limited selection of toys creating a unified look, while others use any and every toy that crosses their path to create playful and irreverent images. (Sunny I’m looking at you!)

July G+ Challenge: Shelly Corbett

My own toy photography journey began with the LEGO minifigure and they continue to be the cornerstone of my photographic exploration. Occasionally I find myself attracted to a particular toy, like Danbo, T-Rex, kodamas, Muppets and I add them to my collection. I have fun photographing these other figures and find them a welcome break from the LEGO world.

But no matter how far I stray from the LEGO minifigure, I always come back to them because I haven’t found anything that surpasses them for sheer story telling flexibility. Plus their diminutive size is a real bonus; you can pack an awful lot of minifigures into one travel case.

The Problem with LEGO

Of course the trade off with these particular toys is that you can’t achieve the level of realism that you can with many of the multi articulated action figures that are popular with collectors and photographers alike. Seven points of articulation are no match for 16 (or more!) when it comes to flexibility and pose-ability. You will never confuse a LEGO mini figure photograph with a hyper realistic scene. No matter how cleverly you light the little piece of yellow plastic or how much debris fills the air, it’s still a child toy. In defense of my beloved minifigure, what it can’t achieve in realism it more than makes up for in fun.

So the question I want to know from you is this: what attracts you to the toys that you enjoy photographing the most? Is there a nostalgia element that inspires you? Is there a practical reason that makes one toy more appealing than another? Do you enjoy playing in a previously established story line or world? Does the design of a toy inspire you creatively? Do you like to photograph whats new and hip in the toy world? Maybe it is the uniqueness of custom toy that inspires you? Possibly you like the ultimate challenge which is creating unique images from a toy that is readily available to all?

How do you choose your toys?

There are so many good reasons to photograph toys, but what is it about your favorite toys that inspire you? I’m genuinely curious what motivates you. I’m hoping your answers will help me to understand why I might gravitate to the toys that are my favorites. In the past few years there has been a push in the toy photography community to more and more realistic images. I feel so old fashioned sticking with the humble LEGO minifigure. In fact, I feel like my own reasons for photographing toys are rather old fashioned and quickly becoming irrelevant.

Thank you for reading this and all my other posts! I look forward to reading your answers. 🙂


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  1. For me, it all boils down to storytelling. It started as a fandom thing, wanting to play and imagine a scene from an existing movie or show, or creating my own scenes that fit with the characters and their stories. I enjoy creating a scene, narrating a moment between two characters. Sometimes I like creating a scene and letting the viewer (and myself) wonder what the story is.

    When deciding between LEGO and 6″ action figures, it’s often more about time. It takes longer (usually, for me) to set up a scene with the 6″ figures. They have so much articulation, and the nuances of their body language and eye sight-lines makes all the difference in creating the photos I want to make. The LEGO figures I find much less demanding. I can deal with lighting and setting and a little bit of posing (or sometimes a lot, if it’s windy, ha-ha), and BOOM I’m done. LEGO also seems to leave so much more to the imagination, which is exactly what I want for certain photos.

    I love the questions you pose here, Shelly (in many of your articles). It’s interesting to dig into the reasons behind my art when so much of what I do is instinctive.

    • Thank you for your wonderful comment Teddi. I agree that the LEGO minifigures are faster to pose. I hadn’t thought of it that way before, I wonder if that is why I like them so much? The 6″ action figures need a lot of TLC. And your point about the openness of interpretation is another plus with the LEGO minfigures. Not a lot of backstory when you move away from he licensed figures. What ever has driven you to both your themes, I like how your feed bounces back and forth between the two.

  2. It’s a good question and I like the richness of the variants of answer that you offer, Shelly. 🙂 Thank you for sharing your preferences! 1) As for me, I often choose the toys that are made with much realism and vivid “mood”, sometimes it doesn’t depend on the quantity of the points of articulation. I mean LEGO and I was very surprised when you said… “old fashioned”!))) Maybe an absolute classic? 🙂 2) Sometimes I take the photos of the action figures (for example, from favorite movies) and even collected 1/6 scale funny gangsters who look incredibly realistic. 🙂 But the ready set of accessories/costumes and the theme of the collection don’t require much creative efforts, thought their faces are interesting enough to be an object of photography without any additional ideas. Beside that, this size of the figures supposes the outdoor photography or the hand made accessories in the case of the work in studio. This example is connected with one of your variants – “the inspiring design”.
    Thank you for the interesting theme again!
    Happy weekends!

    • Thanks Ann for your thoughtful reply. I find it interesting that you collect 6″ figures. I think of you as mainly a LEGO photographer with a healthy dose of handmade accessories. Whatever your reasons, or whatever toys stoke your creativity – I find your work to always be inspiring. I look forward to seeing where this new wave of creativity takes you 😀

  3. Mary Wardell

    That’s a good question, Shelley – my primary love is working with Lego minfigs, a passion that began a few years ago when I realized how much they fit right in with my love of miniatures. There’s a lot of flexibility available with those little guys. I began photographing other toys when we were cleaning out the house after my mother-in-law passed away. True, I started out taking pictures to go on E-bay, but then I found myself combining toys and occasionally doing a story series. I’ve seen the trend toward the action figures but no matter how much I try, I’m not attracted to them for my own photography. (I do enjoy the use others make of these figures) All that said, sometimes I am simply drawn to a toy or ornament (have you seen the Mario Kart & Link Hallmark ornaments this year?) Thanks for the article – it made me think.

    • Mary thanks so much for joining the conversation. Im a big fan of Hallmarks keepsake ornaments. I will confess I have a few on my tree 😀 Isn’t it amazing that a few casual photos and the next think you know you’re a toy photographer! What a slippery slope we slide down! We all take such divergent paths to the same creative place. And it must be a good one because we tend to stick around! 😀

  4. This is a wonderful post Shelly with very thought provoking questions. For practical reasons, I like LEGO minifigures because they are small and I don’t need a large background or too much space. But I fell in love with them because of their level of details and also their facial expressions. There are so many cute smiles and happy expressions. I like the fact that LEGO minifigures aren’t supposed to be realistic… we can escape into their fantasy world of colorful bricks and all the pretzels and hotdogs they can eat. Plus the variety of settings, buildings and backgrounds we can build for them is endless…. so they become the perfect photo subject 🙂


    • Thanks for joining the conversation Lynn! I hope I didnt make you think too hard! Toy photography should be fun and relaxing. Like you Im attracted to the LEGO for its size. And the happy faces. Sometimes I want to jump into their world – it looks like so much more fun! And yes the detail on the figures is impressive. I think hat is why I like the Chima figures – the level of detail on the head pieces and outfits is rich and satisfying. Onwards and upwards my friend!

  5. I started out with Lego because of the nostalgic element as well as the sheer possibilities with mixing and creating figures. More recently I have been shooting lots of new action figures. I primarily avoided this for a long time because of cost. Lego is much more affordable than action figures – especially if you get into the more complex articulation and detail. What finally tipped the scales for me was not only an affordable figure (revoltech stormtrooper) but it was seeing so many talented folks using those figures in creative ways. After shooting action figures and such I will always have Lego as a favorite. Lego minifigures are such a size that they just make the bokeh backgrounds much more creamy and rich. The larger the figure I feel there is something lost in the quality of bokeh. So for me, Lego will always be for awesome bokeh.

    • Joe Thanks for adding your own story to the comments. As someone who is transitioning over its nice to hear your thoughts. There is certainly advantages to both figures. Im glad you wont leave the world of Bokeh completely behind – I love seeing you photos. They are always an inspiration for me.

  6. Ian

    Interesting question and something that I’ve not really thought too hard about in the past… For me the type of toy I’ll photograph is an easy one – it’s always slot cars. Mostly 1/32 scale versions of historic race cars.

    But, thinking about it now, I suppose there are some criteria that – to a greater or less extent – subconsciously I apply to what I choose to photograph. Which car/model I pick to photograph in particular is driven by my interest of the original car, the quality/detail of the model, the car’s livery, whether I can find a reasonably priced version of the car, if I think I can take a genuinely interesting photo.

    And of those, it’s my interest in the original and whether I think I can take an interesting picture that’s the strongest motivators.

    • Ian thank you for adding your perspective to the conversation. We don’t get a lot of toy car photographers commenting; it’s a refreshing change of pace. I like your comment about thinking about the final image. I think that is an important step in the process – imaging the final image. Obviously your love of cars runs deep!

  7. Janan Lee

    “What is it about your favorite toys that inspire you?” – another great post and question Shelly!
    I’m looking at my figures in front of me now to see if there’s a pattern. I would say I started with specific Marvel and Star Wars action figures, either for design or character that can lend itself to interesting stories. However, my LEGO pile is growing and interestingly, for my recent getaway trip, I packed mainly LEGO! The open background story of the minifig, array of accessories and their portability are real draws. So I’m actually heading in the opposite direction from some!

    On my shelf, I also spy the “Space Scientist” figure by Acid Rain World, “White Ninja” by Articulated Icons and Krashes’s TV head (whom I’ve named Tiny Todd.) These are some of my favourite figures to shoot as their stories are open books to be written with their appearance setting the context a little.

    In fact, I’ve a couple of preorders coming in Dec (hopefully) and one is an Elf Ranger and another, a post-apocalyptic infantryman – interesting base contexts for playing and imagination! 😀

    Shelly, I do not think your reasons for photographing toys “old fashioned and quickly becoming irrelevant” – they are timeless artwork.

  8. brett_wilson

    What a wonderful, thought provoking post Shelly!
    As I considered your question, I wondered, do I choose the toys I photograph, or do they choose me? I’ve never been a “completionist” when it comes to collecting toys to photograph.
    Sure, nostalgia does come into the equation when I’m choosing toys to photograph. I know their backstories, and therefore their stories emerge more readily. Or they’re tales are easier to twist into some new thread?
    The questions you raise here are quite timely, as I’ve been chosen by a new toy to photograph. Well, after I complete the little side-project required to create it that is! But I’ll keep that hush hush until a later post! 😮

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