How to Take Fun and Engaging Pictures of Toys
Toys are fantastic props for photography, and allow you to capture shots that would be expensive, dangerous, or downright impossible to achieve with live subjects.
Taking interesting pictures of toys is easy. They are, after all, made to be entertaining! Of course, not all pictures of toys do much to catch the eye, and there's a wee bit more to the magic of good toy pictures than waving a camera in the general direction of a doll or stuffed animal. But not much more!
A few simple guidelines can help you take great pictures of just about any toy. Conveniently, these rules and techniques apply to other photographic subjects, too, and toys, being very patient models, are a great way to practice. Photography is relatively new to me, and I love trying out new techniques using toys as my subjects. They never fidget, and they're not disappointed if they pose for a set that doesn't turn out as awesome as expected.
You can take intriguing, eye-catching pictures of toys with beginner-level photography skills and any camera. Use your DSLR or the three megapixel camera on your old cell phone, any editing software you like or none at all. As an added bonus, "experimenting with toy photography," is a really productive-sounding way to phrase Saturday afternoons spent playing with action figures.
All photographs taken by the author.
What Makes Your Toys Special? - Toys Have Personalities
When you imagine your toy in its natural habitat, what does it look like there? Toys, especially toys with faces, have personalities. Treat them as though they were dear friends sitting for portraits or daring stuntmen hired for an action shot, rather than as objects within the context of our larger world.
In practical terms, this usually means getting in close and choosing your lighting carefully. The tiny chef in the picture above is only about an inch tall, and cheaply made. To my eyes, he's a cheery little fellow with a quirky grin. Without the right camera positioning and some careful lighting choices, though, he's just a nondescript plastic trinket. Placing the camera low and close lends him stature, and lighting by carefully aimed flashlight lets me show him as I imagine him at night, capering unobserved through my darkened kitchen.
Choosing Toys to Photograph - Go With What You Love
The easiest way to choose toys for your pictures is to simply opt for the playthings you know and love. Your favorite doll, action figure, model car, or decoder ring is already rich with significance to you. You already know its style, and can easily choose a setting and pose that will accentuate its best qualities.
I'm a zombie nut, and I love using my toys to bring my apocalyptic daydreams to life with my camera. I don't have the time or energy after a day at work to stage and shoot a dramatic zombie scene with human actors, but with dolls and figurines it's a simple matter of a few minutes arranging and lighting my treasures.
Think About Your Angle - Experiment with Positioning
Many times, a toy's special appeal pops into focus when it is photographed from an interesting angle. For dolls and other humanoid toys, a head-on shot centered on the face can have the same dull, flattening effect found in uninspired portraits of humans. With toys, it's easy to try angles that would be awkward to manage with a live model.
Instead of relying on your camera's built-in flash, use a small, hand-held flashlight to illuminate your subject and add creative highlights. Taken off-camera, lighting can add a lot of impact to any scene. At full scale, fancy theatrical lighting can be expensive and difficult to arrange. For dolls and small toys, though, a small flashlight is all you need to set the perfect mood with lighting.
Toys with a Dark Side - Creepy Clowns and Dastardly Dolls
Anyone with an active imagination and an affinity for horror movies knows that toys can be very, very creepy. Toys aren't just for cheerful, cartoonish photographs. Let a flashlight brush over its features in a darkened room, and just about any doll can give you goosebumps.
This lovely lass, so calm and innocent by day, has stared shivers down my spine on many a gloomy evening. I have yet to capture the true depth of her creepy side with the camera, but my attempts are growing ever closer.
Have a Lot of Fun - This is the Most Important Rule
If you want a toy to pose nicely for you, play with it. Toys and fun go together like... well, toys and fun. If you're not sure how best to showcase a particular toy, spend some time goofing around with it in front of the camera, and just pause at random intervals to take a picture. For fun and unique pictures, capture your toys relaxed, at play in their natural habitats.
More Toy Photography - Artists I Love
Given what fun and versatile photo subjects toys can be, it's not surprising that they've been used to wonderful effect by a wide range of talented artists. Here are some of the artists who inspire me to work to improve my photographic technique... and my toy collection.
- The Stormtroopers365 collection by StÃ©fan on Flickr.
A photo featuring toy stormtroopers every day for a full year, and they're all fantastic.
Tiny people in brilliant landscapes made of food. An amazing toy photography series by husband and wife team Pierre Javelle and Akiko Ida.
- Brian McCarty
Brian McCarty has a downright sorcerous knack for sneaking his camera into the secret world of toys.
Do you follow any great toy photographers, or enjoy photographing your own favorite toys? Share your tips, stories, questions, and general thoughts on toy photography here.