I belong to a local photography club. Every month we have a photo competition with an assigned subject. During the winter months, one of the assigned subjects was action figures. This subject is great for indoor photo opportunities, but I don’t really own any toys, and the fact I don’t own them might also show my lack of interest in photographing them. Until…I found some inspiration online that helped spark a creative side I did not know I have. The importance of having a portfolio or some way to organize your photos cannot be underestimated here. The fact that pros shared their action figure photos for the world to see helped to inspire me. More to come on this later… I have also learned many important lessons that action figure photography has helped to teach me, some of which I’d like to share with you. As you read on, you’ll see that taking photos of action figures can be an inexpensive way to learn more about lighting, posing, and all-around good photography habits.
Here are a few questions to ponder before jumping right in. Is action figure photography expensive? How will learning lighting on a small scale help me on a larger scale? Also, an action figure photography help me explore my creative side?
Taking pictures of action figures does not have to be expensive. Some action figure photographers spend a ton of money to purchase large-scale or highly detailed action figures. I would not recommend starting off this way. Invest the money in making a detailed scene that makes the photo come to life. I started off with fifteen-dollar Toy Story action figures. Believe it or not, these twelve-inch figures are highly poseable and look fairly realistic for such a low price point. Maybe you have action figures lying around at home that has been loved by your children. Those are free and can be used to make great photos as well. Side note here: notice I said “make” great photos. That is something I’ve thought a lot about recently…the difference between “taking” and “making” photos. The photos that stand out are usually the ones someone spent time creating, versus quickly snapping a picture of something they saw. Of course, this is not always the case, but it might be something worth considering. Now, back to purchasing items for action figure photography. A dollar store is a great place to find inexpensive items to set up a scene. Foam core makes great walls for a diorama. Next, you can use wrapping paper or scrapbook paper to glue to the foam core to create realistic-looking wallpaper. Once the walls are set, think of what you want the action figures to be doing. Placing action figures in a room, standing or sitting without them doing something, is nothing more than taking a picture of an action figure inside of its box…not very exciting. After you have a vision for what they are doing, consider the props you want to include to help the figures come alive. For example, if the action figures are watching TV on the couch, one of them might be holding a remote out toward the television, while the other is scooping popcorn into their mouth. You can find items at a dollar store to help create props, too. This can help to keep the cost down. Once you have an idea of what you want the figures to do, but you don’t have a clear vision for it yet, consider the storytelling aspect of photography. Every photo should evoke an emotion and/or tell a story.
What is the story behind the photo? Some of the best photos have a story to go along with them. The story might be about why the photographer took the photo, or where they were when they shot it. But, usually, the best photos tell the story for the photographer. An action figure standing in a scene, looking straight at the camera, does not convey a sense of purpose in the photo. So, think of the story you want to tell. The story can be something as simple as the action figure doing something it wouldn’t normally do. For example, going back to the Toy Story action figures I have used—the whole idea of toys playing while no one is watching is intriguing to me. So, I began to brainstorm ideas of what Woody would do while no human eye is watching. From here, I looked to see what other toys I already had to utilize in the scene. I found large Legos, Mr. Potato Head, and a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. From here, I picked a place in the house that had a neutral background (to eliminate distraction) and a spot where I could either use some natural light, or I could easily set up a flash that would be able to bounce to create soft light. The kitchen seemed to be the best spot to check all of these boxes. After that, I thought about what Woody and his friends would be doing in the kitchen. See how I am creating a story. Preparation is key in action figure photography. If you are stuck here and you cannot think of what you want the action figures to be doing, do not despair, seek help. There is nothing wrong with looking to the work of others for inspiration. That is exactly what I did. Is this called copying? Well, I did not use the same toys in my photo (except for Woody), the scene was different and the lighting was not at all the same. I look at it as inspiration. So, Woody is in the kitchen with his friends. He grabs the grape jelly and yellow mustard, as well as the cell phone charger cable he sees lying around. Next, he builds a set of stairs out of Legos, which he climbs to tie the cable around the two bottles to create a tightrope. What does he do next? Yes, of course, he grabs something to juggle while walking across the tightrope. And, where are his friends while all of this takes place? Mr. Potato Head and Michaelangelo (he’s the purple one, right?!) are staring up at him with their hands stretched toward him, almost as if to say “tada”.
Alright, that is the overdramatized version of the scene I created, but the point is, the photo leaves the viewer questioning and thinking about what transpired in order for Woody to end up where he is. The photo shows Woody doing something, not just being “an action figure”. Suffice it to say, creating a story for the viewer draws them into the photo and evokes emotion that leaves them desiring more, or at the very least thinking, wow, that’s one creative photographer. Another important aspect of photography that often leaves people in awe of photos is creative lighting.
Practicing lighting a small scene in action figure photography can be an invaluable lesson to help light scenes with actual people. Picture a scene with three walls, where three action figures, Buzz, Woody, and Jessie are playing a game of Catan. They are seated at the living room table with the board game laid out in front of them and not to mention a few snacks to go along with it. Who doesn’t love a good old-fashioned Hershey’s bar to snack on during game night? How should one light this scene?
Diffuser set on top of foam board walls with light shining at an angle from above
Well, consider what the lighting would look like if this were a real scene with people playing in their living room. Do you want the lights to mimic overhead living room lights, or do you want the light to come from another source like a window? Of course, there isn’t actually an overhead light or window in the scene, but here is where playing around with lighting can teach you how light functions. For this scene I described to you, I used a Litra Torch because of the ability to easily adjust the intensity and angle of the light within the scene. In addition, I shined the Litra light through a diffuser to spread the light more evenly, avoiding harsh light and/or shadows.
Behind the Scenes: camera to the left, diffuser to the right, Litra Torch 2.0 & wired remote in the middle
This still left me to figure out which direction the light should come from and how high or low to hold the light to perfectly light the set. Before firing the camera, I looked to see where the light was falling and where there were heavy, dark shadows. Then, I moved the light around, front-to-back and side-to-side, while watching to see how the light changed in the scene. I specifically watched to see how the light affected the eyes of the action figures. Just like I would want the human eye to be lit in this type of scene, I also wanted the action figures’ eyes to be seen. Once I got the light where I thought I wanted it, then I began to take test shots. Taking time to see where the light falls with the naked eye before jumping to taking photos can save a lot of time and frustration when the photos just are not coming out how you’d like them to. I learned a bunch about light by “playing” around with it. I might have played with the light more than I did with the action figures.
Speaking of playing, let’s touch on posing. Here is the part where you get to play around with the figures before photographing them. But, before you do, looking at images of humans doing the action the figure will be doing can help make the photo look more realistic. You can also do the action yourself and take notice of your hand position, stance, head angle, etc. The slightest adjustment to the angle of the hand can take a photo from looking staged to a more natural and realistic-looking one. Next, consider the angle. When posing action figures, positions that look great from one angle might not look so great from another. Before introducing the camera, look at the posed figures from multiple angles, horizontally and vertically. Once you believe you’ve found a vantage point that looks good, then place the camera in that spot and use live view mode (if your camera has this setting) to see the scene “through the camera”. The advantage to using live view mode first is to be able to see all parts of the photo with both eyes while looking for distractions within the scene. At this point, you can even take the photo using live view mode, if you prefer. If not, at least you have viewed the whole scene almost as if it was an actual photo. One thing to look out for when you pose is overlapping objects, especially the arms of figures that cross over each other. I cannot tell you how many times I posed the figures from above, only to find out when I lower my viewing angle, the arm of one figure is in front of another. Their arms are typically away from their bodies, up in the air or out in front of them. This is why there are instances where one part of a figure’s body might cross over another and it typically does not look good.
This helpful hint might not fall under a specific section, but I want to share it anyway. To create the scene with Buzz, Woody, and Jessie playing Catan, there were a few other props that were needed in order to create the reality you see in the photo. In the background, there are photos of the characters. To create real-looking photos, I printed the framed photo on real, semi-glossy photo paper. In addition to that, I wrapped the printed photo around a small piece of foam core and glued it to the back to create a 3D framed photo. These are the small details that can add to the photo. Behind the table, there are boxes of actual games that I also printed, then folded to create a realistic-looking game box. These small touches are not super expensive, but they can be time-consuming. I could go into more detail on how I created all of the props in the scene, but I will leave that for another time. Sometimes, all of the small details add up to a lot in the end because they help create a feel that would otherwise be missing. In this case, a realism that portrays real toys, playing with real toys.
As I mentioned earlier, an important piece of all of this that made it all possible is showcasing photos. First off, I would not have had the creative vision for this photo (and several others I am currently working on) without someone taking the time to showcase their work. I cannot always pull ideas out of thin air and often look to others to help spark my creativity. Thankfully, someone took the time to put together their best work to share with others. Through their work, I was able to find enjoyment in a type of photography I would have otherwise discounted. But, in order to choose the best work to send out into the digital world, being able to properly organize photos and choose which ones to share is crucial. For me, using a Work in Progress (WIP) folder, as well as a Final Edits one, helps me to keep my photos organized. There are times when I have edited a photo, but there seems to be something missing. For some reason, I cannot put my finger on it at that moment, and going back to the photo at a later time will save me the hassle and embarrassment of publishing a photo before it’s ready. On the other hand, the Final Edits folder will contain photos that are ready for the world to see or just a handful of people I choose; it’s up to me. What makes this all possible is a great service called SlickPic. Through SlickPic, you can organize your work into folders and choose who you would like to share them with. You can even choose to make the photos private so they are only visible to you. Once you’ve chosen photos you want to share as a part of a portfolio to gain clients, SlickPic will be there to help you create a professional portfolio website. You can choose from many different layouts or you can leave it to a SlickPic designer to do it all for you. It is really that easy. Now that I have created several images using action figures, what do I do with them? First, I upload them to SlickPic, then I decide on when to share them with the community. SlickPic has a community of photographers I can share my work with. It is a great place to gain exposure and possibly gain business. It is a great place to showcase your photos for the world to see or only a small community of people (if you so choose). SlickPic is designed so you have the control to choose. I don’t know about you, but I have taken many photos that sat on an external hard drive for years, hiding away, until SlickPic gave me a place to organize and share those photos. Now, I enjoy taking pictures even more because I feel as if they have a purpose.