or a quick look at toys and food photography

Ever since I was a boy, the holidays always hinged on two undeniable absolutes — there was going to be food and there was going to be toys. As I approach 50 years old, nothing has really changed. I unwrapped a few toys this past Christmas morning and, like most of us, I indulged a little more than I ought to have. But I’m grateful for this bounty for all the right reasons — because I’ve been blessed with good health, warmth and comfort, and family, and on top of that, these gifts have also allowed me to find fun and exciting ways to stretch those creative muscles (unlike my actual muscles, which are still not talking to me after that extra helping of stuffing and those two slices of pie). But you never know where creativity will strike and merging toys and food can open all sorts of fun and creative photo opportunities.

I approach the process in a couple of different ways — the most common being sudden inspiration. I was recently in the dollar store, for example, and I saw a Bounty bar. I suddenly thought of pirates. And since I have LEGO pirate at home, well, the only option I had was to buy the candy bar. Alternately, I might have a toy laying around and suddenly it sparks an idea. I have a LEGO minifig who is an old-timey gold miner. I was looking at him one day and I remembered the old Gold Rush gum that I used to buy as a kid. It came in a little bag and looked like little gold nuggets. I’ll admit, it was not my favorite candy, but it was the logical choice for the minifig. The quest to get some was more difficult than I anticipated, but I found a store that sold the candy, bought a couple of bags, and my vision came to be.

I’m also a huge fan of hilarious puns — though if you ask my wife, she’ll tell you they’re not so great. But what does she know? Her judgement is questionable, considering who she chose to marry. And sometimes the joke is just sitting there, waiting to be brought to life. So, a can of black beans, a Gillman creature minifig, and a little play sand brought to life a scene from the classic film Creature from the Black Legumes. See? Hilarious! 

I use a lot of LEGO in my toy photography, but we’re not limited to any one type of toy. A lot of toy photographers use action figures, dolls, even HO scale model railroad figures, though I guess technically these aren’t really toys. But I figure they’re toys if I play with them. And I do. So, they are. These little figures have their limitations — they have no articulation and are sculpted to very specific poses of regular people doing regular things. But again, therein lies the potential for inspiration. A little one-inch painter on a ladder can be painting anything, so why not the design on a Starbucks cup?

A construction crew can be shoveling and jackhammering anything, so what if it’s a granola bar? A tiny skier could be hitting the slopes anywhere, so it only makes sense for them to be swooshing down a hill of sugar or even an open-faced Oreo cookie. See? It doesn’t make sense, but at the same time it kind of makes sense. There’s a playful absurdity to it, and if that doesn’t define playing with toys, I don’t know what does!

So why a granola bar and not, say, a chocolate Easter bunny? Why sugar instead of, say, baking flour? The truth is simple. ‘Cuz! It could easily have been any of these foodstuffs, or any of a dozen other options. You could also add more, take some away. For the sugar skier, I wanted it to read like it’s a tiny person on a hill of spilled sugar. The sugar bowl, the spoon, and the figure are all relatively small, so it makes for a tight, simple composition. Sometimes less can be more. Would it have worked with a spilled bag of flour? Maybe. And maybe I’ll try to redo the shot using other ingredients someday. Time will tell. 

So, if your mother always told you to never play with your food, you can just tell her that she’s not the boss of you anymore, and then maybe even put your thumb on your nose, wiggle your fingers, stick out your tongue and say “Neener, neener!” But then you better run, because no matter how old you are, you’re not too old to be put over her knee! 

Next time you’re at the grocery store, the dollar store, or even scrounging for a snack in your own pantry or cupboard, think about your toys and get inspired. How can your toys and your groceries coexist? You might be surprised at what you can come up with. There’s no downside to this entire scenario because when you’re wrapped you get to eat the food. And you can rest assured that in my house, a ski bunny never skied the same Oreo twice. 

So, pull out those toys, raid the cabinets, and get snapping! Oh, yeah… and bon appetite!