When it comes to toy photography, you’d be hard-pressed to beat shooting in front of a beautiful natural setting or an expertly crafted diorama (like in Dave’s excellent dio series). Unfortunately, we don’t always have access to either of those scenarios. Sometimes, we just need to make do with what we have available.

Fortunately, when it comes to crafting toy worlds, beauty can be found in even the most mundane of places. In this post, I’m going to give you some tips on building worlds from items you can find in your rubbish bin.

Raid your recycle bin

Ok, so we’re not exactly digging in the trash here. Instead, let’s take a look through your recycling bin. We are hunting for plastic packaging or take-out containers with interesting ridges, patterns, or lines.

Straight lines with repetition work well for an industrial, man-made look, while wavy lines tend to give a more organic type of feel. You never quite know exactly what you’ll end up with though until you get them in front of your camera.

Wash before use

My assistant, Penelope Leia

Before you even think about bringing out your camera or toys, you’re going to want to scrub and scrub and scrub those containers clean—not just to get out leftover food bits, but also to eliminate any stubborn odors.

Trust me on this, lingering smells can quickly contaminate your workspace and toys, so it’s best to put in some elbow grease before putting these containers to work.

Catching color

1.6 seconds at f/3.2, ISO 100

Here is where the magic happens. The thing that makes these containers pop as backgrounds is the way they catch light. Those patterns and lines I told you to look for create an eye-catching combination of highlights and shadows, and make for some interesting-looking backdrops.

Set up your take out

Rotisserie chicken container (with bonus, upcycled smoked-salmon reflector on the left).

The first step is to lace your background into your scene. You’ll want to do so in a way that it fills your frame. Some contains may be difficult to prop up, but I’ve found building some makeshift stands out of LEGO does the trick.

Hit it with light

Hamburger container

With your background in place, grab a light source, and illuminate it.

You can use any light source to do this, such as a flashlight or your cell phone. My go-to lights are the Lume Cube 2.0 and Manfrotto Lumimuse 3.

No matter what light you choose, the important thing is going to be positioning. We want to get our money’s worth out of those patterns, so experiment with your angles and intensity.

4.0 seconds at f/10, ISO 100

Adding color to your light source will give you the best bang for your buck. You can do so using some photography gels or any other translucent material you can place in front of your light source.

Cameras settings

4.0 seconds at f/7.1, ISO 100

With your backdrop lit and in place, it’s time to bring your subject into the frame. You’ll want to arrange your scene and set your exposure so your plastic background is slightly out of focus.

Take-out sushi

This will depend greatly on your gear and the size of your subject, but a good rule of thumb is the closer you get to your subject the shorter your depth of field. So, the closer your camera is to your subject, the more out of focus your background will appear.

2.0 seconds at f/11, ISO 100

If your background isn’t going out of focus, and you can’t adjust your aperture, try moving your background further away from your subject.

Beyond backgrounds

There’s a lot more toy-photography DIY you can do with upcycling. I’ve salvaged everything from diffusers to reflectors from my recycle bin. Heck, I even found a second life for some “sushi grass.”

3.2 seconds at f/6.3, ISO 100
Sushi grass (background is from the LEGO Star Wars advent calendar). The giant Moai statue is from a pet store. You can read more about that here.

Have fun and get creative.

Find and create your own worlds

While it’s exciting to buy and play with new stuff, it can be extremely satisfying when you challenge yourself to see what you can pull off with items you already have. So be sure to give your garbage a second look before you take out the trash.