The joy of toy photography
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The joy of toy photography is fun & learning too

(Editor’s note: Dave DeBaeremaeker photographs toys. His work is amazing and, believable. In this guest post, Dave shares the experiences of why he began photographing toys, and what he learned along the way.)

Humans are creative creatures.  Ever since the first finger painting on the wall of a cave, humans have endeavored to express themselves thru imagery.  From those first cave paintings, the imagery improved over time to the hyper-realistic Renaissance painters. Later, when cameras were invented, the desire to express and create with photography soon followed.

Learning photography takes time and resources

In our modern age, the tools to express ourselves have never been more abundant. Some methods are more accessible than others. Finding the time and resources required to learn new styles and techniques with our cameras can be a significant stumbling blocks.

Beth

Beth the lonely guitar girl by Dave DeBaeremaeker
Lonely guitar girl

This is Beth.  I took this photo of her this past summer in Newmarket, Ontario. To get this shot I had to drive 14 hours from my home in North Carolina.  Studio time had to be arranged. The model had to be booked. Props had to be gathered. Lights had to be placed. The background had to be set up.

Only after all of that time, expense, and energy had been invested was I able to pick up my camera and start to craft an image that fit my vision. I had to do all that within the time Beth was willing to stay in the studio, so time was short and I had to work quickly.

Now, full disclaimer, I made this shot during some free time at a portrait workshop. The posing was mine. The time required to hire the model, get the props, and set up the lights, was taken care of for me. It would be possible to get a similar shot without having to travel the 14 hours from home and pay the workshop tuition fee, but I would still need studio time, access to lights, locate and hire a model, source the props etc. All of that said, I would still be at the mercy of the model’s time in order to get the shot.

Hulk

The Hulk is a great action figure for toy photographers.
This 6″ Hulk action figure from “Thor Ragnarok” was ordered from Amazon. It came right to my house. I didn’t have to talk to anyone. This scene is in my backyard, 30 feet from my door.

I set the scene up in the morning then spent a relaxing afternoon getting the shot. Part of that time was spent playing with my kids. Another part of that time was also spent experimenting with a new smoke generator that I used to get the fog effects. Through it all Hulk was patient and willing to wait as long as required for me to make the shot I wanted.

The difference between the two experiences is as different as night and day. The results — an action shot of a model and one of the Hulk doing something interesting, is very similar.

Toy photography as a learning tool

I am a firm believer that making pictures of toys is an excellent learning exercise for photographers.

Every beginning photographer I know has expressed frustration at not being able to practice the craft. The reasons are varied. Normally they break down into:

  • They can’t find, or afford, models
  • When they do find models, there is not enough time to experiment and learn
  • They don’t have time to work with models because of their jobs or their responsibilities for their family

Toys solve all of these problems

Can’t find, or afford, models

One can get highly poseable and accurate action figures for less than $20 in any toy store and hundreds of places online. Finding suitable action figure toys to shoot is easy. If you are a parent, your kids’ toybox likely has something in it you can shoot. If not, take your kid to your local Walmart, Target, or toy store, and pick up one for you, and one for them. For less than a restaurant meal you can have a happy kid, and a model of your own that you can shoot freely for the rest of your life.  Not a bad deal.

Not enough time to practice

Toys are infinitely patient, so you can feel free to take all the time you need to get the shots you want. Need to tend to your kids, or rush to work, between setting up a shot, and clicking the shutter? No problem! The toys will wait for you. For my own work with toys, it is not uncommon to play with poses one day, lighting the next, shooting another and finishing the shot on a fourth day.

Not able to get out

Most people I know in this situation have some time throughout the day to dedicate to photography, but they don’t have the flexibility to get out and shoot at preordained times.  Either they have small amounts of time throughout the day, or they have to be home for child care, and can’t leave the house. The best sunlight may be at golden hour, but if the kids are asleep and one can’t leave the house, it’s hard to take advantage of that light.

Toys are small and can be shot anywhere. This means you don’t need a dedicated studio space. Studio lights can be flashlights or speedlights. If you want to practice natural light you can fake it with a desk lamp. This means that for most people toys provide the flexibility to practice no matter where they are.

Even the busiest of folks have 10-15 minutes of time throughout the day of free time  It is not enough to get out and shoot things in the real world. It is easy to use those 10-15 minute blocks of free time throughout the day to practice toy photography.

It’s not perfect

Of course, shooting toys isn’t a complete solution. For example, while one can pose some action figures into almost any way they want, action figures don’t provide one the practice of guiding a live model into those poses. Photographing toys does allow for one to play with angles of light. It doesn’t allow one to play with full-scale studio lights.

Toys will allow the practice of many techniques allowing one to remain creative, even when resources are limited. So I hope the next time you find yourself wanting to pick up your camera and create something, but cannot due to time or resources, you’ll consider digging through your kids’ toy box to create photography of toys.

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