Why I Won’t Photograph for LEGO Anymore

This is a personal story. My views don’t represent the views of the Toy Photographers blog, but as the founder and a longtime toy photographer in this community, I’m sharing my experience. It’s up to readers to take away what resonates for you and glean what wisdom you find useful.

I’ve been photographing LEGO since 2012. In late 2017 I had my first opportunity to help The LEGO Group with a social media campaign. Now, two years later, I won’t photograph for LEGO anymore. When I balance the workload against the benefits, I find the experience unfulfilling.

Here at Toy Photographers we have multiple opportunities to photograph LEGO sets for The LEGO Group. Some of these opportunities are reviews and others are for specific social media campaigns. I’ve participated in these in the past, but now I feel that I’m being taken advantage of by the largest toy company in the world.

I didn’t always feel this way

Back in 2017 when my relationship with The LEGO Group began, I was honored and frankly giddy at the idea of my photography representing this world famous brand. LEGO is one of the most recognizable toy brands on the globe and beloved by millions. Feeling honored is only natural in a situation like this.

Initially I had fun photographing for different themes like Ideas, City, and Ninjago and their various social media campaigns. I learned a lot about myself and the craft of photography. But the overall experience of working with The LEGO Group was always uneven. Long distance, cross-cultural communication was often incomplete, expectations vague, and the only “compensation” was a free set and a photo credit. And even the simple act of crediting me was often missing. All of these experiences slowly soured me on the experience and I became wary of even the simplest offers.

Technic Porsche 911

Then along came an opportunity that I couldn’t resist: Create images for the social media campaign surrounding Technic Porsche 911 RSR (set 42096). I have a soft spot for Technic sets so I jumped on this. I knew, at the very least, I would enjoy building the set.

When the Porsche arrived and the build was complete, I set aside some time to photograph the car. I pushed myself creatively because I really wanted to deliver images that The LEGO Group would use. My goal was to create semi-realistic photos akin to what you find in an auto magazine. I plotted my locations, even created an overarching theme: urban Seattle landmarks.

Hell, I even got up before dawn to catch the sunrise! 🙂

I took the set with me to the Utah Toy Photographers meet up in hopes of some iconic Red Rocks photos. My fellow Toy Photographers blog contributor and friend Dave was also smitten with the set. We both found it to be super fun to photograph! In all, I spent more than three days photographing the set in various locations, and another day editing all the photos to the specifications of The LEGO Group’s social media team. A professional would charge upwards of $2,000 for this amount of time and effort.

The results

After all my efforts: Not one image was used by LEGO. In the year-plus since I turned in my Porsche photos I’ve not seen or heard about any of my images being used or received even a word about why this might be. What a disappointment! No wonder I won’t photograph for LEGO anymore.

Of course the LEGO representatives are very clear that there is no guarantee when or if your images will be used. So really I have no one to blame but myself for my unmet hopes and expectations. They are super clear that they don’t care what you photograph, only what format you submit. Their only direction is “have fun.” And by offering such vague direction they undoubtedly receive images that are inappropriate and unusable. Through trial and error we’ve learned about the unwritten rules of no water, no sand, no alcohol and no violence.

Moving forward

Moving forward, I won’t take any more opportunities to photograph for The LEGO Group. I‘m not judging anyone who takes on a set review or a social media campaign offer. There is a particularly giddy feeling when you receive a set directly from Billund. I know how cool it is to see your work in LEGO’s Instagram feed or in one of their social media campaigns.

Thank you LEGO for all the opportunities in the past. I’ve appreciated and learned from these experiences. I wish you well, and I hope you will continue to discover talented photographers who still find these opportunities rewarding—photographers who are happy to work for free and who understand there is no guarantee of return for their time and effort.

So while I won’t photograph for LEGO anymore, I will continue to work with Guy Himber of CrazyBricks. While this situation also doesn’t pay money, I find I’m able to freely explore the idea of product photography from my own unique perspective. AND he actually uses my photos!

One of the many images I created for Guy’s new Kickstarter campaigns (Brick Buddies). This was a collaborative effort with texts and emails before I created an image he was happy with. This type of exchange is much more satisfying to me.

I’ve learned so much from our back and forth process about what he needs to promote his work. I think my product photography has improved through the process. In hindsight, I think feedback and ideas for improvement is one of the areas in my relationship with LEGO that I missed. If I’m going to work for free, I want to be learning. Of course it doesn’t hurt that Guy is always super generous with his in-kind payments of his creative products.

When opportunities come your way, make sure you balance your needs with those of your client. If you agree to work for free, be sure you’re getting something out of it other than free plastic. Because from my experience, these opportunities are always more work than you think.

Cheers and best of luck!

~ Shelly

Would you photograph on behalf of a large corporation in exchange for a toy? What do you think is fair compensation for working for free as a toy photographer?

19 Comments

  1. Matthew Wyjad

    I’m quite happy to receive free plastic to photograph and review. But i would be very unhappy to do it in the context you write about up above. I enjoy writing reviews about Lego sets, and am happy to get them from Lego, but i would be very unhappy if i had to do so under formatting guidelines for their social media for free.

    I break the “no sand, no water, only Lego” with my reviews for two reasons. 1st toyphotographers.com is about photography of all toys Lego and otherwise without creative limits. 2nd it makes the photos unusable for Lego even if they wanted to. If they want to use photos that meet their specs they can pay a fair price. A review tailored to the community that promotes the set based on the needs and interests of said community is fair return for the cost of a set to Lego (which does not cost them retail price).

    Now the issue of credit…. make you decision about how much you think this is worth. It might get you some respect and perhaps envy from fellow Lego photographers and a few more followers (likely more fellow lego photographers). However i do not think that letting Lego use your photos for free, just for exposure is a real career building move. I think it just ends up being another merit badge that you collect as a hobbyist. One that i would be happy to collect… once…. but i think only once. And only if they asked nicely.

    I also think them sharing on IG is very different from them sharing on their website. IG is like show and tell in kindergarten. IG feature with credit is a friendly hat tip. But using photos on their business owned site feels different.

    • Matthew in your comment you outline many of the pros and cons of this arrangement. There are so many different ways to look at this issue and many more landmines. I respect and encourage anyone to take these reviews on and give them a try. You will learn much about the process of product photography and working with a major client through these opportunities. But for me, it became too much. Probably because I have problems with boundaries already. 🙂

    • Dave I had such a great time running around in Utah with you. Thanks for the great memories.

      And thanks for the compliment on the photos – I had a fun time with the project and Im proud of what I created.

    • Thanks so much Fresca! I really appreciate your stepping up and saying that. Its hard to make work without any feedback. I wish LEGO had used at leas one of the images, and if that wasn’t possible, at least an explanation why. Oh well….I still love what I created.

  2. Oh my god. Shelly! You gave me such a fright! At first I read “Why I won’t photograph Lego anymore”, I didn’t notice the “for” there. Such a shock and surprise! So I’m glad it’s another matter 😀

    I understand you. It’s disappointing to not see your work used. Lego has such an amazing opportunity to use us, toy photographers, as a resource for their photos, and lots of us would gladly take photos for them in exchange for a bunch of plastic, but it really requires them to use at least one of our photos. Otherwise the whole thing feels pointless. Seems like they don’t value us very much. Fortunately, we can get a bunch of plastic in exchange for a review, which is a pretty good deal 🙂 Because I can do any photos I like, I can write what I think, it’s fun and it’s no pressure 🙂 It’s usually not much learning, but it’s definitively creative 🙂 I’m so happy and thankful that I had the opportunity to write a review for this blog 🙂 It’s fun 🙂

    Also, seeing your photos, makes me regret that we live so far from each other, I would love to try Lensbaby lenses, they look like so much fun! I haven’t seen them here in local shops where I could rent them for a day or something, so I’m still thinking if they would be right for me 🙂

    • Jana

      Lol… so sorry to give you a fright. No I’m not leaving my Lego photography behind. I love it too much!

      Reviews are wonderful to do! I agree they can be fun and creative. I think they are a better fit for most photographers because the transaction is more straightforward: you can have this set if you write a review and post it within x number of days. Do what you want, say what you want. In fact I almost didn’t publish my post because I don’t want to jeopardize these opportunities for our community. They are valued and appreciated. I withdrew from these only because I can never get them done on time!!

      I’m sorry you don’t have access to Lensbaby where you live. If we ever get this pandemic under control I’ll come to Europe and I’ll bring a few lenses for you to play with. But just so you know, these were taken with a prime 14mm rectilinear lens. Which is also super fun to play with!!

  3. What strikes me reading your post, is how you use words like “work” and “product photography”. This is very surprising because not that long ago you were talking about David DuChemin’s podcast “touch the heart”. As someone who, for years, has been following what David DuChemin writes and says, I see a huge contradiction between that previous blog post and this one. I don’t want to say they’re incompatible, but I don’t think that work and product photography make the best recipe for photography that touches the heart. In particular, I don’t think that product photos of cars found in magazines are photos that really touch the heart. They do create a desire to buy, but I don’t think that’s the same as touching the heart.

    I don’t want to hypothesize that LEGO didn’t use your photos for that reason. But from what I know, they are looking for genuine toy photography, not for professional product photography. That is why they don’t give guidelines (or don’t pay). Otherwise, the biggest toy company would simply hire people who are more qualified than you and me 😉

    All that said, I understand and partly experience some of the same frustration you describe… The water and the sand (when the set to photograph is a submarine…), or not knowing why my photos were not used. But to be honest, does that truly matter? I don’t aim at living from my toy photography so I think it shouldn’t matter. I’ve had images used by LEGO, I’ve had many more not used and still don’t know why. Yes, it’s frustrating, but in the end, I aim at creating images that move me and touch my heart before LEGO’s employees or customers. I haven’t been always successful at that. That means I’ve had to also put some personal rules on what I accept to photograph. But I try to set my objective on taking photos for me. If I can reach that goal, I haven’t lost anything. It’s actually LEGO who has lost the opportunity to use an image that I truly like and enjoyed creating.

    • In defense of Shelly’s wording – Taking commissioned photos for a company is product photography however. Lifestyle images of people at picnics with little ones using a specific brands products both touch the heart and lead to sales. There’s not as much seperation between the two as you may imagine. And I think the Technic line really draws on car lovers who are emotionally drawn to car ads, so emulating that style makes complete sense. This being that I’m a professional product photographer who shoots toy photos in my free time and am married to a car guy who loves the Technic line.

      Shelly these images are great, I’ve had a similar experience with a couple brands. Keep your head up. I totally respect your decision to not work with them anymore. With the success of their company they truly should be paying and providing specific guidelines in the first place. The fact that this isn’t in place makes me weary of them.

      • When David DuChemin talks about touching the heart, he means first touching the heart of the photographer, not people looking at an ad. It’s about creating work that is first and foremost personal. When you create work for someone else, whether it’s product, wedding, architecture, or any other kind of commercial photography, you start putting your commissioner before yourself. Not saying it can’t be personal, Shelly brilliantly manages it with her CrazyBricks photos. But by focusing on what others want so they will use our images, don’t we run the risk of making our photos less personal? I think that’s the reason why LEGO doesn’t give strong guidelines or much feedback.

        (Of course, none of this is really relevant if Shelly wants to become a professional product photographer. Except if I missed something, in years of reading her blogging though, I don’t remember she ever expressed it as a goal, thus my surprise of using such vocabulary.)

      • Tourmaline

        Thanks so much for your kind comments and support. Kristina and I debate what is toy photography all the time. She’s finally convinced me that we often cross into product photography. It’s foolish to delude ourselves into thinking that our images don’t ultimately sell a product.

        I really enjoyed taking these photos (I’m also a huge fan of the technic line) and felt my images were true to the car and the audience. I had a great time putting my own spin on it using the 14mm lens. I guess that was my biggest creative risk.

        And yes I’m weary of any company that doesn’t pay / compensate their Influencers. I’ve hooked up with Lensbaby in a more official capacity and they already do so much more than Lego every did!

    • Maelick

      It pleases me to no end to know you still read the blog. Thank you!

      I think the world has more shades of grey in it than you’re giving it credit for. I love DuChemin’s creative point of view and I reflect on it when I’m creating my personal work.

      Maybe Lego is looking For more creative toy photography than what I gave them? Of course I think I mentioned in my post that feedback is important. If we’re not giving them what they need, then why go to the effort of including us in their campaigns? As for your idea that I wasn’t creating work that spoke to me – I think you’re making a judgment there. When I approached this project I wanted to create a series of photos that reflected my fair city. This car in front of some iconic locations. Not all of them worked out and I learned so much from the process. I still consider this project a success.

      I recommend another podcast to listen to. The b & h podcast I interviewed Duane Michaels recently. It was a great conversation about being a photographer and the difference between work and passion projects. Worth a listen.

      Thanks for your comment, joining the conversation and adding a valuable point of view.

  4. Your car photos are amazing Shelly! I especially like the one you took at sunrise (I can’t imagine being awake that early!) 🙂 That’s such a shame that they didn’t use them….. I can understand why you are frustrated (I would be too!).

    My feeling on this topic is that if LEGO wanted to share a photo on IG that I’ve already taken and they contacted me, I’d probably say “Sure”. But once rules are involved: “Provide X number of photos by this date, formatted in this way”, then it starts to sound like a job. In that case, you deserve more compensation than just a free set.

    I’m so glad that you have found a better opportunity with Brick Buddies 🙂 I love the photos you’ve posted so far 🙂

    Lynn

    • Lynn,

      Thanks for the kind compliment! I’m glad you appreciate the sunrise photo. I learned so much making the effort to catch the early light. While it’s not my favorite thing to do I’ve done it several times since with excellent results!!

      Even though Lego says do what you want, it always feels like work. I’ve done enough volunteering in my life that unpaid work is not foreign to me. But when the company has record setting sales it’s hard not to feel some compensation is in order.

      Im so glad you see the distinction between asking to repost an existing image vs here’s a set and please have the photos back by x day. I wish Lego could see that too. They appear to want it both ways.

      Super fun to work with Guy. Much more collaborative and he’s super generous with his product as well as vocal praise. Both go along way in my book 😊

  5. Shelly, Thanks as every for sharing your insights through and after your challenges. I learn so much from you and through — I’m grateful. I’m bummed to see that you were left without the quality and quantity of feedback that might have made your labor of love a little easier and more fun. Your pics are amazing and I well remember seeing you and Dave play with that car in Utah. I appreciate the comments above, too. So much love and depth in our community. Hope you and everyone are all staying well and sane. Here in the states, November 3rd fast approaches! xo

  6. Thank You for this post Shelly.
    I remember my excitement when LEGO Ideas team reached for me about my pictures of Anton from Old Fishing Store set. Of course I gave my pictures to them, but none of them were used. So I can even more relate with You, when You were asked by LEGO to shoot for them and then they didn’t use the pictures. For me it’s a counterproductive behavior. The money is different story.

    So I really understand your feelings and decision.

    All best!

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