Hi! I’m Adam, a software engineer on the Illinois side of St. Louis. I got into photography because of my wife’s interest in it. She enjoyed taking photos of Disney parks and during a meet up, I met Alan Rappaport (@alanrappa) and that’s when I learned about toy photography.
How long have you been a toy photographer and what attracts you to this hobby?
I’ve been involved with toy photography for just over 4 years. It keeps my interest because it’s definitely a creative outlet. And the childhood joy of collecting toys is an added bonus.
Where do you get your best photography ideas?
I have to say my wife. She’s never shy about throwing ideas out when she gets one. My personal favorite shots are mashup/unconventional ideas. There’s no rhyme or reason when those pop into my head. I may just see something on TV or in a store and think, wouldn’t it be cool if so-and-so interacted with that.
Tell us about your process
When an idea pops into my head, I form a mental picture of how the final image will look. From there, I start grabbing figures and props to set up the scene and frame it all in camera. Once I take the pic on my DSLR, I transfer it to my phone and start editing. From there it can go through 1-5 apps to get from the raw image to the final edit. I should note, that it’s extremely rare when my final image looks how I want, so it’s a treat when it does.
What photography editing software do you commonly use in your image creation and how does it help you express your ideas?
I always use the Lightroom mobile app on my phone to edit all aspects of the raw image. From there it may go to Photoshop mobile as I prefer the healing tool there over other apps. Or the Photoleap app if I’m blending images together. I’ll even use the Infinite Painter app to add light glows or additional color to my photo. The last app I always use is Snapseed. I’ll use this app to throw a watermark somewhere and maybe add a few additional filters to set a mood.
What is your current equipment set-up
- Canon 5D Mark III
- Canon 100mm f/2.8 Macro lens
- Manfrotto Tripod
- 2 LumeCube 2.0’s
Do you have a ‘high-end’ and ‘low-end’ set of gear for your photography?
A majority of my shots, whether indoor or outdoor, are done with my Canon 5D Mark III and 100mm Macro lens. So I’d say they’re all done with high end equipment. I just recently upgraded my phone to the iPhone 13 Pro and started using it for a couple toy shots while traveling. I must admit, I was very impressed with the output. Although, I think I’ll always prefer my DSLR because of the ability to control more aspects of the shot.
Tell us your favorite photography environment
I’ve fully embraced the indoor studio bandwagon. In the Midwest, it seems nice days are few and far between. I like shooting outside when the opportunity presents itself, but on cloudy days, light can be a problem. Which is why I’d say I’m an indoor shooter. I like creating scenes where I can control lighting aspects.
What are the essential tools in your toy photography arsenal
- Bamboo bbq skewers for holding figures up.
- Blue Tack for any and everything. It’s the duct tape of toy photography.
- 14 gauge wire for posing and levitating items in the shot.
- 1-3 lights
- Atmosphere Aerosol for adding atmosphere and catching light rays
If I’m shooting outside, I always have, and this may be a surprise, a pair of scissors. It’s inevitable that some grass or something needs to be snipped out of the shot.
What kind of reaction are you looking for from your viewers?
I guess I’d have to say Joy. It’s sappy I know, but I just hope someone out there stops for a second and smiles as they flip through their Instagram feed.
What has been your most treasured feedback?
The times when I’ve gotten a share or a comment from a big account who’s work inspires me. And of course the rare treat of a celebrity interaction because their character or likeness is in my post.
Toy photography can present some unique challenges. Tell us about some of your more memorable ones and how you have overcome them.
My main challenge is always trying to translate what’s in my head into my camera. I don’t consider myself a real photo-technical person. There’s still lots of aspects of photography I don’t know well. One particularly difficult shot was my Buzz Lightyear in the Iron Man HUD photo. It was a shot I wanted to do practically and all in camera. So many days were spent learning and attempting to create the HUD image in GIMP. Then several days were spent using that image with the Pepper’s Ghost practical effect. I had to overcome several hurdles including getting everything in focus and lit the way I wanted.
There are a lot of toys out there to choose from to photograph. What is your favorite toy line and why?
As a frugal Star Wars fan, my favorite line is the 6 inch Black Series line from Hasbro. For around $25 a figure, you get good articulation and lately, good likenesses to on screen characters. They pose and photograph well. And you can buy a bunch for the same price as a much higher quality ⅙ scale figure. Not to mention, the good days where you find those figures on sale for 5-10 bucks.
What is your favorite toy photography-related memory?
My favorite memory is when I took my Hot Toys life size Baby Groot to Disneyland. Shooting him around the California Adventure park garnered a lot of attention, so I got the opportunity to talk about this hobby with strangers. It was also really cool to get to interact with Starlord and Groot at their photo-op’s in front of the Guardians ride.
What are some common mistakes you see in other people’s images and lighting set-ups?
I certainly don’t consider myself to be any sort of elite level photographer, so I try not to openly judge others’ work unless asked to do so. That being said, I think posing is a big one. I always try to physically act out the pose I want my figures to be in. Something I see from a lot of new accounts is unnatural walking/running poses. If the left leg is forward, the right arm should be forward as well. And eye contact is key, pay attention to where the characters are looking. That’s something I always try to focus on.
What are the most important tips that a new hobbyist should know if they are interested in pursuing toy photography?
Shoot what makes you happy. Don’t worry about posting what’s trendy or trying to guess what complete strangers will like. I’ve been told by several people I’d have all these followers if I just shot this or that; pick a lane and stay in it kinda thing. But a few of those people are no longer around and I’m still here having fun. And don’t associate your worth to the algorithm. Most of my personal favorite shots have gotten the least interaction on Instagram. If you like your shot, post it.
You can see more of Adam Burkes images at @burkeheadtoys
Awesome interview Adam! That Buzz Iron Man HUD shot was so impressive when I saw it. The fact that it is all practical is even more of a feat. Keep posting what makes you happy!
Such joy reading your feature Adam and I can sense the fun you have with this hobby. You’re definitely one on the wonderful people I’m glad to have known in the toy photography community. Your mash ups are so much fun to enjoy. 😊
Thanks for telling us more about you and your work/play with toys.