Have you ever purchased an action figure, looked forward to taking photos of it, only to find it didn’t look nearly as good on the screen as you’d hoped? Today, we hear stories from several photographers about their experiences with hard-to-shoot figures. Challenges may include, but are not limited to:

  • The figure is too shiny and reflective.
  • The colors on the figure don’t contrast enough to stand out well.
  • The camera has difficulty auto-focusing on the figure’s face.
  • The figure is so much bigger (or smaller) than other figures in the scene.
  • The figure is a static statue without articulation.

Dave and the curse of the Batman

It was a year and a half ago that I first picked up my only Batman figure. I remember that moment well because I bought it in Las Vegas on my way home from the last in-person Toy Safari in Utah. Since then I’ve taken it on many trips, but it has never managed to inspire me enough to see time in front of my camera.

The drought is a bit weird. Batman is actually one of my most favourite superheroes, and has been since Micheal Keaton put on the cowl. This figure is the Dark Knight movie Batman from one of the best superhero trilogies ever. So it’s odd I never found inspiration for him.

Part of the problem is that Batman has a very specific setting. He’s almost exclusively found in the gothic city of Gotham, which has a very specific look and energy. It is found in only a few specific spots in the world, but I had not been to any of those places since picking up the figure. The other tricky thing about shooting Batman is that he is almost completely black (except for the face). That makes him hard to shoot, as most flat light either overexposes things or makes them flat. Neither appeals to me.

I finally cracked the secret of the Bat by pulling a page out of famed car photographer Tim Wallace’s playbook, and lit the figure to accentuate the details in his suit. Then I dug deep into my photo archive to find a suitable background (which I found in a shot taken in downtown Chicago—which makes sense as Chicago is the location for the Dark Knight’s Gotham). Putting the two together finally broke the curse of the bat.

I found the process of lighting for details so appealing that I took another shot with a light to highlight the symbol on his chest piece.

~ Dave DeBaeremaeker / @therealstudiodave

Teddi and Big Papa Groot

I have a large Marvel Select Groot figure that has great photogenic potential. But when I took him out to the beach, I discovered he’s not as easy to shoot as I’d hoped.

Groot’s body is so busy with shapes and lines! None of my shots turned out the way I’d hoped, and I realized he would do better with different backgrounds or a different lens. When I tried some indoor shots with him around Christmastime, I discovered other problems. At 10 inches, he is so large I needed to get creative when pairing him with smaller figures. Rocket Raccoon on his shoulder or arm is classic from the movies, so I went with that. But his eyes are so dark that they always needed editing to really show up well in the photo. The red poinsettia flower helped bring out his eyes in the second shot, but really—that’s not a solution. The plain background in the third shot is nice, but I was still learning about proper lighting and his eyes were still pretty shadowed.

As time went on, however, I started exploring customizations like painting and weathering figures. Why not give him a new paint job and see if that would help? I dry brush-highlighted parts of his facial ridges and body, and repainted his eyes. I took some artistic license and chose colors that would stand out well on camera.

After belatedly checking what Groot’s eyes actually look like in the movie, I now realize that they aren’t screen-accurate. So I may do another repaint to fix that—or I may embrace this new character I’ve created and let him be of the same species as Groot but a different character. I really like how much better his eyes show up, and the personality they give his face. You may also notice that I darkened the line of his mouth and warmed the tone of his brown body. I find it much more natural than the sort of muted grey-brown (sometimes with yellow tones on camera) he had before.

~ Teddi Deppner / @teddi_toyworld

What’s your hard-to-shoot figure?

We’d love to hear your story of overcoming the challenges of a figure you found difficult to photograph. How far would you go to “fix” a hard-to-shoot figure? Would you completely customize their paint job?