We each have our own toy photography journey. Here on the blog, we often share stories from individuals about “Why?” they started taking photos of toys.
Today we share answers to a more intimate question:
“What advice would you give your younger self, if you could send a message back to when you first started toy photography?”
The amount of advice I have for my younger self could fill volumes. Half of the posts I write on this blog are advice I wish I had when I began. So I will try to limit this to the most fundamental bit of advice I can think of, which is this:
You possess the freedom to create whatever you want, so go nuts and create the vision in your head. You are in absolute control of the horizontal and the vertical. Don’t worry about the rules of photography. Don’t worry about what others do, or what others like. Your vision is all that matters. As Adam Savage says, “It doesn’t matter what you make. It only matters that you are making it in the first place.” Or as my mentor Ron Clifford says, “Do what you can’t help but do.”
So do what needs to be done to give life to your vision. If there is a technique you can borrow from Hollywood, steal it. If there is a practical effect you can use, use it. If you need to use Photoshop to make the magic happen, then grab a mouse and cast some spells. Do what it takes to put the vision in your head into the pixels on the screen.
Everything else is secondary. This is the way.
Dear younger self: Follow the joy. It’s 2016, and your toys are coming alive through the lens of your camera. Let your imagination be your guide. Capture the fleeting moments of beauty. Create scenes of whimsy. Never stop finding delight in a patch of moss, the light through a leaf, the miracle of a spring blossom.
Never apologize for the stories your photos are telling: These are your stories. If someone else relates or enjoys them, great! But always remember that this hobby started with joy and that’s your compass.
Dear self, don’t give up when an idea doesn’t turn out.
You will try things that don’t work. But don’t give up. Not all of the joy will come from purely spontaneous “happy accidents.” Learning new photography techniques is worth it. And it doesn’t have to be “work.”
Watch YouTube tutorials that both entertain and teach you. Make friends with people who know more than you do, and listen to their advice. Add something new to your toolbox (physical accessory or technical skill) every month or two, and you’ll see continual improvement.
And for heaven’s sake, do not compare yourself with others!
If you focus on how frequently other photographer friends are posting, or how many Instagram followers they have, and try to “keep up” with them, it will drain all the joy away. If you see dynamic action shots and beautifully lit studio portraits by other toy photographers, simply enjoy them! Comparison withers your vision and dries up your creativity. Avoid it like the plague.
Beware even comparing your own photos with each other. Trust me, you will capture shots that you can put on your wall and stare at forever. Given the chance, people will even buy your photos as gifts for their loved ones. But if you agonize over trying to make that happen every time, what a chore this hobby will become!
You don’t need as many toys as you think. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking, “If I had that toy, my photos would be amazing.” Come up with more ideas for the toys you already have!
Dear self, let your imagination roam, and let your vision soar. Follow your ideas, set them up, point and click, and try again if you need to. Toys are more than bits of plastic. Photography is more than equipment and skill. It is the very expression of life and love and beauty—when you follow the joy.
When I was asked what advice would I give my younger self, I knew immediately what I would say: Have fun! I mean toy photography isn’t brain surgery, yet I take myself way too seriously. It’s easy to get caught up in the numbers / followers push that accompanies social media. But is that why I started taking photos of my LEGO? No! I started because photographing toys is fun!
I will freely admit that this is a high bar for me to meet. I’m naturally a driven and competitive person, so I need to keep the mantra “have fun” front and center. When I put toys together in preparation for a photo excursion, I always ask myself: Will this make me smile? If I can get myself to laugh, I know I’ve hit the mark.
So, younger self…don’t get sidetracked by striving to be insta-famous or any of the other meaningless pressures that come with this crazy social media-driven world. The only thing that truly matters is doing your best work and having fun while doing it. Choose the toys that make you happy. Tell the stories you want to tell regardless of how many likes or comments they get. Set the anxiety and fear of failure aside and do what you want, regardless of what others think.
Life is short, have fun!
I, like others in this post, would definitely tell my younger self: Remember to have fun and don’t worry about likes, comments and reposts. Pretty much all toy photographers begin from a place of joy and wonder, let’s hope, but sometimes as we gain more attention and taste some level of “success,” it can be easy to feel pressure and forget why we started doing this in the first place.
Thankfully, this is usually a temporary state of mind that passes. Sure, I still hope for that validation and positive feedback, but I’m much more concerned about whether or not I’m pleased with my photographs. Typically though, our best work seems to find its audience and get the attention it deserves.
Work toward developing your own artistic voice.
This bit of advice happens naturally simply by continuing to create, but it’s still important to stay focused on shaping our artistic vision. Then again, it’s also perfectly ok if you just like taking pictures of toys and never want to make “art” in that way.
For me, however, toy photography must be more than recreating scenes from favorite movies and comic books. It’s an artistic endeavor that can, and should, rise to the level of other forms of fine art. In fact, it already has—just look at photographers like David Levinthal.
Ask yourself, What am I trying to say in this picture?
I am only just starting to think seriously about this side of toy photography, but I could have benefited from such considerations earlier. As a painter, I thought of these things right from the start, and it served me well.
Finally, I would’ve loved to save some time and get certain technical advice, like: Keep my ISO at 100 whenever possible for crisp images with less grain; get a remote control for my camera to avoid shaking and free my hands to add atmosphere spray, use canned air or hold an extra light; and, finally, allow for some space between my subjects and backgrounds.
There is plenty of advice I would give to myself, but these are most important. If I landed in front of me from five years ago in a winking, wired, steam-blowing DeLorean time machine, I’d step out amid the mist and fumes and say, “Hey, you! I heard you take pictures of LEGO minifigures! I come from the future and verily I say unto you, if you still want to do it, then practice, practice and practice again! And please, don’t limit yourself to LEGO minifigs only, though I know it’s tempting. Try something new. Explore different sizes and different articulation. It’s really refreshing! And move away from home! Toy photography in the outdoors is so much cooler and amusing!”
And then, leaving myself speechless and in a daze, I’d slam the time machine’s door and hiss off to the future to ask my future self: Did I tell him right?
This is what I would tell myself at the beginning of the photographic path, because, first of all, I regret that I did not start taking pictures outdoors earlier and that I focused only on LEGO [I still don’t take enough pictures of other types of toys]. But I’m practicing, practicing and practicing again!
What advice would you give your younger self?
You may see some repeated themes in the advice above, and maybe none of this is what YOU would tell your younger self. So chime in with your advice in the comments!