I love when I post a photo to Instagram and people tell me that they knew it was my photo long before they read the caption. My ‘style’ of imagery is so distinctive that it’s immediately recognizable by my followers. But what is style and how did I get mine?

What you want to say + how you choose to tell it = Style.

Think Picasso in his Blue period or Michelangelo and his sculpture David. Both artists had something to express about what it means to be human, but chose very different vehicles to tell that story. Style develops and changes as an artist grows in their skills and their view of the world changes. Style is not set in stone and style is unique to each person’s skills and experiences.

I love this month’s MeWe photo challenge. We’ve been challenged with creating images of Star Wars figures as a way to show off our individual approaches to a hobby we all love: toy photography. Even though the characters are the same, the approach each individual artist takes towards these characters will differ greatly. My images of Stormtroopers are unique to me, because I am unique.

I think it’s easy to equate style with success. Toy photography is filled with a lot of very strong personalities and distinctive styles. And I would be lying to myself if I didn’t sometimes think I need align my style with one of the big accounts in an attempt to gain more followers. Unfortunately there is more to success than being a look alike. Emulating your creative hero’s is a great place to start…but once you start incorporating your own ideas, values and experiences, your own style will emerge.

As a viewer connoisseur of toy photographs, I seek out the unusual and the unexpected in our hobby. Because I know that these artists are pushing this art form into new territories. I like to think that I can tell when an artist is creating work that is true to themselves. When we tell our unique stories in an authentic way, individual style emerges. That is where style comes from.

To steal ideas from one person is plagiarism — to steal from many is research.

– Wallace Notestein

Look inside yourself

One of the first lessons I try to impart to anyone taking one of my workshops is to choose toys that are meaningful to you. The second lesson is to not worry that all the stories have been told already. Because they haven’t been told by YOU!

Style is a combination of our dreams, experiences, influences, likes, dislikes and also our values. The seeds of our style emerges from deep within ourselves. The trick is to understand what leaves an impact and connect those dots. Toys and Photography are two of those dots. Your specific toy choice is another. Your lens choice, location, use of lighting, are more elements that make up your style. These are all parts of the HOW of style. WHAT you have to say comes from deep inside yourself.

I know, you’re probably rolling your eyes by this time. (Yes, I realize I can get really deep down this rabbit hole.) Every photo doesn’t need to be a uber serious! Sometimes taking a toy photo means having fun, telling a joke, making someone laugh or showing the off the beauty of a particularly well designed figure.

My style

My style is heavily influenced by my choice to use the Lensbaby line of lenses. But even before I started using these lenses I embraced a shallow depth of field and lenses with smooth bokeh. I love to see beautiful bokeh dripping across a photo. In another life I might have been a painter, and I try to create photos in a classic Pictorialist style. I also draw heavily from my childhood imagination and children’s book. I want to express an innocence and wonder at the world that I hope I had when I was young.

I’ve consciously chosen to focus on the LEGO minifigure because they simply can’t take themselves too seriously. There is a always a little bit of a cartoon element to their faces. With only seven points of articulation, they aren’t even that poseable! Which is why many of us have resorted to ripping them apart to simulate more poses. (A big thank you to Crazybricks.com for creating Crazy Arms and Crazy Legs that give the lowly minifigure more posing options!) I know that there is a certain segment of the toy community that views LEGO as a kids toy and that real toy photographers eventually move onto more realistic action figures. Which takes me back to my second lesson: choose toys that are meaningful to you. If you want to create authentic images that connect with an audience, you have to connect with your toy first.

Another reason I like LEGO minifigures is for their size. I love getting down on the ground and creating macro photos that reveal another universe through this unique point of view. I’m intrigued by the juxtaposition of the hard machined plastic against the soft lines of the surrounding nature. I will play this contrast up by blurring the backgrounds beyond even what the Lensbaby lenses create and then adding texture and sharpen the subject. I love all the different layers of contrasting elements.

Can you see how my style is a combination of all these influences mixed with ideas that are important to me? This is where my style comes from: what I have to say and how I choose to say it. And I would be remiss if I didn’t add the last piece of the puzzle: practice, plenty of practice!

Variety is the spice of life!

Style is what you have to say and how you want to say it. And my style is only one of many that has emerged from the toy photography community. There are as many styles as there are photographers; each one unique. A few of the members of our MeWe community offered up an image that reflects their style. In addition, each artist reflects on their style, what they’re trying to say and how they want to connect with their audience. What better way to see this concept in action than viewing a few toy photographers side by side!

I hope you will enjoy this selection of images. And while you’re viewing these examples I invite you to reflect on what makes your photography unique. How do you express yourself using toys and photography. What is your style?

“I try to take simplistic shots with usually a rule of third composition. I also like to shoot my toys doing things out of their role too as for me, toy photography is all about having fun and I try to portray that in my images. I mean when would Vader ever be under a blossom tree chasing butterflies haha?

My style come naturally as I started with lego at the beginning of lockdown and used a macro lens which lends itself beautifully for a dreamy, simple look so I carried this over to action figures. I’m not a big fan of clutter, and if there is intentional clutter (such as diorama pieces which I recently started to make) I try to make it out of focus to keep the subject the main focus.”

Mark Phillips

Due to the fact that I live in a temperate zone [someone should write a dissertation Impact of the climate zone on the style of photography], my style, in simplification, is divided into two sub-styles: outdoors and studio photography. And because in my zone we are currently enjoying the charms of Spring, I present an outdoor style, which in my case usually consists of: moss, massive bokeh or lens flares, often rust. Robots are also quite frequent subject of my toy photography. I also try to imbue my photos with a bit of humor. With varying success.

Tomek Skog

“When working on my toy photos, I often find myself focusing on enhancing the image through color correction when editing. I always want to make the subjects pop in my images and be easily identifiable. The individual life savers having a distinct color and flavor along with packaging contrast greatly against Vader’s all black attire. Of course, lighting does a lot of the heavy lifting during shoots (the light on Vader’s mask as he holds the individual candies with the force will never not be one my favorite parts of this photo) but a little color enhancement goes a long way. Life is already grim and dull so why not add a bit of color to make things more bearable? Plus, we’re playing with toys to make art! Might as well have some fun with it. Even when the subject is as serious and no nonsense as Darth Vader using the force to satisfy his sweet tooth. Although, I’m not sure how he would go about eating them.”

Vincent Mazzella

“I created this photo for Nurses Week featuring my mom and dad as “Luke” and “Leia” like characters. I believe my style is a mix of street photography by  recreating capturing the “decisive” moment and placing figures into real world situations. Before, I did toy photography I spent a lot of time doing sports photography and when I started toy photography it was purely taking two mini-figures with me everywhere I went and documenting their adventures. This photo is a perfect representation of my style. It’s capturing a fleeting moment, of people I love.”

Sabrina Perry

“I’m still working on figuring out my “style”. But looking back over the toy photos I’ve created, the images that resonate with me the most are those I’ve created outdoors, with minifigs involved in some crazy adventure or in some cool travel location. Those images bring me the most happiness, and they are the most fun (and sometimes the most challenging because of the unpredictability of weather, lighting, or location) for me to create. My pack of toys for a photo outing almost always includes something from the Star Wars universe – minifigs, vehicles, or animals, because I can create something with them in almost any scenario … even if it has ZERO to do with Star Wars.”

Chellie Hyre

“Over time, the photo style I’ve developed has a darker, cinematic look and is most often outdoors. I add a touch of vignette to the edges and go for a rich color palette. I like a highly blurred background that keeps the crisp focus on the subject and provides a pleasing color scheme. The subjects are often made to do something a little different than their usual role in whatever story franchise they come from. In this example, a Star Wars Rebel leader is playing guitar in a natural setting.”

Teddi Depner

“My toy photography images tend to draw from my own personal experiences and I like to celebrate the daily ordinary “slices of life.” Mando and Grogu have a beautiful father son relationship which I wanted to show in this playful image of hide and seek. I love the use of soft goods and have traded Mando’s hardy beskar armour for some comfy streetwear. The scene is also made out of DIY diorama and props.”

Janan Lee

While I never set out to shoot with any particular style in mind, I prefer to shoot outdoors and take advantage of the available light. I gravitate towards solitary figures and the occasional duos that create what I think of as “one shot stories”. Once I have an image I like, I then spend a lot of time color grading and adding a sense of atmosphere; or what I think of as more “feel” to the image. If I had to label my style I would call it sinematic realism. Over time a style has emerged that I refer to as cinematic realism. My favorite compliment is when I’m told: “I knew it was yours before I saw your name.”

Matt Rhodes

In conclusion

It doesn’t matter if you’re just starting out on your toy photography journey or your style is fully evolved. As we artists gain more confidence, gather new inspiration, our styles will subtly change. But if we try to create images based on our values, and create images that inspire and please us [our primary audience] …then undoubtedly each artists unique style emerges!

What do you think style is? Do you agree its a combination of what you have to say and how you say it? What is your style?