Why I Am a Toy Photographer – Adam Ford (@adamfigurephotography)

I didn’t come to toy photography as a photographer. I’m sure anyone with an eye for photography can tell that. 

The toys came first

Some toy photographers are photographers first. The toys come second. For me, the toys came first. I’ve been an action figure kid my whole life. It started when I was given a set of Star Wars figures for Christmas in the late seventies. Though my toy stash has waxed and waned over the years, playing with toys has always been a part of my life. 

Photography came much later for me. Up until recently, the best photos I could claim to have taken were a handful of out-of-focus share house snapshots and a JoyCam Polaroid of my favourite flannel shirt (long story). 

A photo of two vintage She-Ra dolls standing under a grey wormwood bush in front of a lawn of overgrown green grass. One doll has hair cut harshly down to her scalp. The other has long, flowing blond hair like a barbie doll.
“Your world is very beautiful, but it’s time for me to return home to the Punk Rock Dimension.”

For most of my life, cameras were something other people used. It wasn’t until I got my first phone with a built-in camera that I started taking photos regularly. At first I was just capturing memories and moments. Photos of the toys on my shelves and desk were naturally part of that mix. Eventually, inspired by the talented photographers whose work I saw online, I started being more deliberate when taking photos of my toys. 

Play, colour, storytelling and a little bit of subversion

I like the play of toy photography. It reminds me of the way I used to concentrate for hours as a child, setting up stories starring Skeletor or Princess Leia or Optimus Prime. It lets me tap into my imagination and act out the stories I see in my mind’s eye, just like the stories I used to act out in my childhood home and backyard. 

I like the colour of toy photography. It reminds me of the way my eye has always been captured by cartoons, movies and comics featuring brave, strange and brightly coloured adventurers who speed, fly and somersault across the page and screen.

Mostly, though, I like the storytelling of toy photography. I like the way I can use photography to illustrate tiny stories about strange, weird and visually arresting characters. I also like that it gives me an excuse to write those stories in the first place!

“I found myself distracted by the beauty of my surroundings and the gentle chorus at the back of my mind.”

I particularly like to use these stories to subvert the violence and aggression implicit in these muscular, athletic and often militaristic figures. These toys are typically designed to hold onto tiny swords and guns so they can act out imaginary battles. I like to undercut those assumptions and intentions by having my little plastic people act out moments of quiet repose and romantic contemplation instead. 

Superheroes, monsters, barbarians and robots are generally famous for fighting each other. Toy photography lets me help them to be nicer than that. I like being able to tell stories about these heroes and creatures being kind or shy, sweet or gentle, thoughtful or even loving.

Managing my learning curve

Learning to take a decent photo has been a challenge for me. Up until now I’ve stumbled along as a photographer. I’m proud to say that I’m at a point where I’m happy with most of the photos I put out there. I like to think I am getting better at using things like framing, focus and lighting to help me get the shots I want. 

I still have a lot to learn, though. At the moment, I only use an iPhone camera, but I’m beginning to feel the limitations of this approach. I’ve started thinking it might be time to get serious and buy an actual camera. I’m even thinking about making the time to formally acquire some skills by taking a course or two. I’m excited to see where these steps might end up taking me.  

“He could feel the strength of twenty silverbacks coursing from shoulder to fingertip.”

The Toy Photographers community has been a great support to me as I consider taking these new steps. Joining this community has been both an education and an inspiration. I was especially inspired by the meetup in Melbourne, which was my first toy photographers meetup. It was a great opportunity to watch experienced toy photographers at work and to pick people’s brains in person. 

In the meantime I’ll keep plugging away, trying to hone my skills as best I can while using photography to explore my love of these fantastic little plastic characters and discover new ways to tell the stories I want to tell. 

You can see more of my toy photography at @adamfigurephotography and read more of my writing at theotheradamford.wordpress.com.

6 Comments

  1. What a great post Adam. I really enjoy your photography and it is interesting to learn more about you and your path to this point. Like you, I started with a phone just a few years ago and had never done photography before. It’s a fun journey. And here’s to your subversive mission. I’m with you. And the world needs it!

  2. Great read Adam

    It’s all about clinging onto that childhood, something I’m certainly not embarrassed of and the unlimited imagination that this hobby entails.
    With every image a story can be born, a tale told, an emotion stirred.
    Long may it continue. Great work Adam

    🤟🏽🤖🤟🏽

  3. Vince

    Great write Adam! And great meeting you over the weekend! Now putting your perspective into mine, I found that cycling actually came first for me, followed by toys, then photography (using a phone then, as well!)! Only when I got my first camera did I separate my cycling from the rest! 😆

    • Nice to meet you too, Vince! I’m fascinated to hear how you combined toys and cycling! I can see a nice long weekend ride, pack stuffed with figures and lenses, to a remote mountaintop location on a blue-sky spring day…

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