I like a toy photography challenge

If you haven’t noticed I like a challenge. My attempts to bring Chima to the attention of the Legography community is certainly my most famous and fool hardy pursuit. This next week I’m going to try to accomplish a more realistic challenge: I’m only going to take photos of my mini figures with my iPhone 6S.

Some of you will be groaning when you read this because you already only use your phones to take amazing toy photographs, but for me this will be a real challenge. It’s been about a year since I’ve had to rely on my phone for toy photos. I’ve been leaning pretty heavily on my DSLR and dedicated macro lens to capture my set-ups. But this week that’s going to change.

The look on my face as I struggle to take photos with my phone.
The look on my face as I struggle to take photos with my phone.

I’m taking my two kids for a tour of our nations capital, Washington DC. Since this is primarily a family adventure, I want to dedicate my big camera to capturing our shenanigans. But that doesn’t mean I will be leaving my plastic friends at home. I plan on bringing along one small bin of mini figures and a few accessories. I will keep it pretty simple with figures from classic space, a few appropriate collectible figures, my signature figure and a couple of aliens for good measure. I’m limiting myself to whatever I can fit in one small satchel that will also double as a purse; nothing more. I’m famous for over packing the toys, but I’m going to be disciplined about this trip . I want to see how creative I can be with only a few toys, a simple camera set-up, a bounce card and a little off camera lighting. (If I had the time I would get an adaptor for my phone so I could attach it to a tripod but alas, I just thought of that!). 🙁

There is only you and your camera. The limitations in your photography are in yourself, for what we see is what we are. – Ernst Haas

Since I’ve left Instagram for the time being, I wont’t posting my efforts to social media. When I return some time late next week, I will present a gallery of my photos and you can see how I did. In the mean time, have a great week and don’t forget to have a little fun!

~ Shelly

If you have experience with photographing toys with a mobile phone I would appreciate your tips and suggestions. Feel free to leave your sage advice below. 😀

I realize that this isn’t an original idea; I believe Boris tried something similar on his summer holidays. I wonder how it went? 

Getting a photograph is a process

How many times have we talked here about the choices we make during editing, about reviewing and re-editing older images, about planning months or years to get that one image that we can’t get out of our mind?  Many!

Why? Because photography and chasing those illusive photos that make you stop and go “Wow!”, is a process. It’s a process that takes both time and patience.

The depth of field is probably too shallow; they’re too separated from their surroundings.

I was reminded of this a few weeks back when I had an image in my head that involved the characters from Mouse Guard embarking on a journey in a boat. This photo set up required an hours drive out of town, a 1 1/2 mile hike to the top of a waterfall and a little luck on the lighting. (Have I mentioned that for me toy photography is often an excuse to go adventuring?) The night before I set up my figures in their required pose and the next day I packed them carefully into my backpack, grabbed my camera and my daughter and headed out for a photo adventure.

I like that they are moving out of the frame and looking back.

One of the benefits of photographing in the digital age is that you aren’t worried about the expenses associated with burning through many roles of film. In the days before digital photography, photographers tended to be more conservative with pressing the trigger because there was a real expense associated with developing the images and eventually printing them to paper. In this age of digital photography we have no real limitations to how many photographs we take of a subject, except time and card size.

I hope you take maximum advantage of this amazing benefit and really examine your idea and its subsquent set-up from all angles.

Not as much reflection as I might like, but I do like how the mouse is directly engaged with the viewer. Of course the focus isn’t as spot on as I would like. Those mice faces are tricky to focus on.

Its easy to get too set on that image in your head, the one that has been banging around for days, weeks or even years. Yes, it might be the perfect idea and photo, but what happens when you change angles? What happens when you approach the scene from a different height, move closer or change the lighting. Sometimes this extra effort doesn’t yield anything better than the original idea, but more often than not, I leave with an image I never could have imagined – in fact its much better than what I imagined.

Those colors on the surface of the water get me every time!

Rarely do I set up an image, take a few photos and walk away. I’m constantly moving around my subject, approaching the tableau from different angles, playing with the lighting and seeing how that changes on my camera’s screen. Sometimes micro adjustments in view or focus can turn your subject from a lifeless bit of plastic to a living breathing creature.

Is this the happy medium? There is good depth of field, at least one mouse’s face is in focus and with all the extra space in the background, they really feel like they are on a journey from the back of the photo to the front. I wonder where they are going?

Play around – don’t rush the photograph – and whatever you do, don’t forget to have fun!

Photography is a process that should be savored and enjoyed from the first sparkle of an idea to the final printed images – because frankly, its magic.

~ Shelly

I hope you take this weekend (or your next day off) and go out and have your own photo adventure. If you do, feel free to share the experience with us below. 


For what it’s worth – this was my original idea

The Basics – How to Buy a Camera

I can’t believe I’m writing this post. But I was asked nicely, so how could I say no?

Before I get started I want to be very clear, I’m not an equipment geek, I don’t collect cameras and I don’t like to sit around and talk gear. I’m sure it’s lots of fun, but I would rather talk content than technical specifications any day.

At-AT Migration
At-AT Migration (the story is more important than the tool)

With that said. I completely understand that there are many toy photographers who got their start shooting with their phone or a hand me down camera and when presented with the concept of purchasing their first DSLR, the choices are more than a little confusing. There are so many wonderful brands, styles and choices that its hard to keep them separate. Do you want a full sized DSLR, a mirrorless (and its little sibling, the micro four thirds) or would a compact point and shoot be your best bet? For me the hardest part about choosing a camera is that I’m asked to look into a crystal ball and divine how I will be using this camera body well into the future – a nearly impossible task.

I’m going to simplify this post and only address camera bodies with interchangeable lenses. I’m sure there are wonderful point and shoots on the market and some great toy photographs have been taken with them. All I have to do is look to the work of @brett_wilson (who only recently moved to a DSLR) or @bricksailboat (who has used a Canon G15 for several years) to see that good photographers work with what they have and don’t let their equipment slow them down.

I can’t tell you which camera make and model on the market, out of the hundreds that are available, is going to be the best choice for you. I would strongly recommend you read a few technical blogs or listen to a camera podcast, if you don’t know where to start. You can also ask your toy photography friends what they’re using. Any toy photographer will give you the low down on what works for them. Chances are if it works for them, it will work for you.

Before you start looking at camera bodies take a look at the lenses you plan on using. Think of lenses as your brushes and the pixels, like film before digital took over, as your canvas. Lenses come in many shapes, sizes, styles, focal lengths and of course price tags. Every photographer eventually has a few preferred lenses and a couple of specialty lenses just for fun. Rarely do you use that kit lens the manufacturer is selling with the body. Sure they’re a great place to start and everyone needs at least one 50mm lens in their kit, but if you’re a toy photographer, you might prefer a 50mm macro lens, a 100mm macro or even a good wide angle prime lens. I will paraphrase a quote I heard on a camera podcast recently that rings true: You marry your lenses and your camera is your mistress.

A few questions before you start shopping

When you’re not taking photos of toys, do you like to photograph landscapes, portraits, or concerts? Are you thinking of trying to make a little money on the side photographing weddings, product photography, shoot video or just practice some guerilla street photography. Its probably not going to come as any surprise that each of these styles may require you to make some hard choices in your camera body. Knowing what is import to you will help you make that final choice.

Lets get specific

With that said here are a few specifications I look for in a camera body:

  • Does the camera have Manual, Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority modes? This is mandatory and also pretty standard.
  • Does the camera shoot both Raw and Jpeg? – I want to retain as much information as possible for post-production so I like to shoot in Raw format. The camera I currently use captures both formats at the same time which I find incredibly luxurious.
  • How many Megapixels can your camera capture – basically the more megapixels you have the more details you can capture which makes it easier to print large images. If you don’t plan on printing your image larger than say 8 x 10 or even 11 x14, then the number of mega pixels shouldn’t be a deal breaker. Most hobbyists don’t need a file bigger than 8 megapixels; especially if you’re capturing snapshots or uploading your images directly to social media.  Remember the larger your file sizes, the more money you will need to invest in storage.
  • Weather sealed – you would be surprised at the situations I find myself in and I don’t want a few drops of rain or a few grains of sand chasing me back inside because I’m worried about my camera.
  • Full Framed Sensor – I want a camera with the largest sensor I can afford for a couple of reasons 1) it has better low light photography performance and 2) it can maximize the shallow depth of field.
  • Multiple Focal points – this is a personal choice. For still imagery you may not need that many. But if you’re a street, concert or sport photographer – you’re going to want as many as you can afford.
  • Does it feel good in your hand?- I’m amazed at how few people take the time to really test the heft and comfort of a camera. Go to the camera store and pick up the camera you’re looking to buy and really play with it. If it doesn’t feel good, you won’t use it.
  • Interface – is the camera manufacturers interface intuitive? Are the menus easy to use or is the design a mess of menus buried under sub menus? Again, if you can’t bond with your camera and know it inside and out, you will never be able to get the most out of it. What could be worse than struggling with your camera to get the settings right while the light is fading around you?
  • Flash – If I want to add additional lighting to a scene I won’t use a flash. An integrated flash is actually a minus for me; it could go off accidentally and ruin a perfectly good photo.

Some features that are commonly available in the newest cameras that you might find handy:

  • Wi-Fi: This is especially important if you need to quickly upload your images to the web for either clients or social media. If you don’t have  consistent access to a computer this is a handy feature.
  • Electronic View-Finder – EVF’s have come a long way since they were first introduced, it’s really amazing to see your depth of field or exposure change in the view finder before you take the photo. With optical view finders you have to take the photo and look at the results on your view screen before you can make your adjustments.
  • Image or Sensor Stabilization: It’s nice to have a little assist for hand shake or if your like me, you like to push hand help photography to below 1/60th of a second.  To have some form of stabilization built into either your lens (often referred to as IS, VR or OS) or your camera body (usually found in mirrorless systems), is a great feature to have.
  • Swivel view screen:  This is definitely a feature I can take or leave but many toy photographers swear by it. Personally I like the challenge of getting myself in awkward positions so I can look through the viewfinder. You’re on your own with this one. 🙂
  • 4K video: If you’re thinking about using your camera to pursue a career in video, you may want to explore this option more. If you use your camera to occasionally capture personal or family moments on video, 4k is not only overkill, but it will cost you in terms of additional storage space. Its cool, but wouldn’t you rather spend that extra money on a new lens?
A final word

A word of caution on entry level DSLR’s, they aren’t built to last. I’ve know two toy photographers this year who’ve been put out of commission because their camera bodies stopped working. After looking to send them in for repair, it became apparent that it would be easier and cheaper to buy a new body. Rather than purchase an entry level DSLR, maybe consider a sturdy little mirrorless camera.  Or add a macro lens to your iPhone. Or better yet, upgrade your budget and look at a lower end pro-camera.

The best camera is the one you have with you. In this case an iPhone 5S.
The best camera is the one you have with you. In this case an iPhone 5S.

Whatever camera you eventually decide to purchase, remember your camera is only a tool. It doesn’t take the photos – you do. Even the worst camera in the right hands can be used to capture amazing photos. Conversely, the best camera in unpracticed hands is simply a point and shoot.

If you’re still not sure which camera to buy, try renting a camera body and your dream lens. There’s nothing like spending some quality time with a camera to really tell if it’s the right choice.

I hope you found this post a little bit helpful. As I stated at the beginning, tech talk is not my forte. 🙂


Whats your favorite camera and lens combination for taking toy photographs and why?  Please leave your comments below and lets continue to learn from each other.  

PS. I will confess that during the research for this post I fell in love with the Sony Alpha 7II, a full frame mirrorless camera body. I won’t be giving up my trusty Canon 5D mrkIII anytime soon, but the idea of photographing with vintage glass makes me get just a little bit excited. Sony’s mirrorless system will accept any camera lens (with an adapter), has stabilization on the full sized sensor and shoots 24 megapixel files, all of which makes it a smart choice for what I want to do. Before I pull the trigger (maybe next year) I will be renting this body and testing it out to make sure I like it. A strategy I highly recommend before spending any amount of money on a pro-camera. 

Requiem For Esteem

Requiem For Esteem

Finding Inspiration In Words, Again

I recently had to leave town for work. After packing my bags (including the now mandatory for any journey off the property, LEGO minifigures), I grabbed a book from our bookshelves (I’d just finished the latest BricksCulture magazine cover to cover) for the plane flight and the few days away.

This was a random selection. The colour of the spine stood out amongst the other books it was buried amongst. The size of it was convenient for travel. It was within arm’s reach. Or so I thought.

Upon settling into my seat on the plane, I opened the book to begin reading, after I’d dutifully payed attention to the safety demonstration of course! The book in my hands was Hubert Selby Jr.’s Requiem For A Dream.

Hubert “Cubby” Selby Jr. (1928-2004) is one of my favourite authors. And Requiem For A Dream (1978) is one of my favourite books.

Harry Goldfarb
“This is our only chance to make it big.” – Harry Goldfarb

Yet, this isn’t a literary blog, it’s a toy photography blog. So how does this seemingly random grab for a book as I left for the airport relate to toy photography?


“Being an artist doesn’t take much, just everything you got.”
– Hubert Selby Jr.

As I type this, I have three draft posts that I’m struggling to finish. I have an impending exhibition that has thrown a few curve-balls my way of late, zapping my motivation. I’ve been ill, thanks to my smalls’ deciding to share their colds with me before I left for the conference, just in case I forgot to miss them. I’ve found myself straining to find the drive to photograph LEGO.

And this is where this book, and it’s author, has rekindled that inspiration.

Selby had no formal training as a writer.

“I knew the alphabet. Maybe I could be a writer.”
– Hubert Selby Jr.

Yet he is considered highly influential to more than a generation of writers, and went on to teach creative writing as an adjunct professor in the Master of Professional Writing program at the University of Southern California.

Selby broke the rules of what was expected from a writer. With little concern for proper grammar or punctuation, he used unorthodox techniques in most of his works. He indented his paragraphs with alternating lengths. He replaced apostrophes with forward slashes. . He did not use quotation marks.

“Everything about it was wrong. That’s why it worked so good.”
– Hubert Selby Jr.

Sara Goldfarb
“Harold, I’m gonna be on Television!” – Sara Goldfarb

So, if this untrained man can launch himself into a chosen field and succeed, can’t we do the same with toy photography? After all, who here has had formal training in how to take photos of plastic? If this man, who broke all the rules of what was expected, went on to be a respected author amongst his peers, couldn’t we break the rules of what photography, and even toy photography, is expected to be? And, if he then when on to teach others what he’d learned, can’t we do the same and share what we’ve discovered along the way?

“Writing, like any art, is a continuing process of discovering the infinite possibilities of life. A blank piece of paper can be terrifying. It can also be exciting when ideas, images and sounds come together and sing off the page.”
– Hubert Selby Jr.

Yes, Hubert, yes we can.

Thank you Cubby.

Robot competition – follow-up

Our first photographic competition has come to a conclusion and the winners have been notified. With nearly 100 photos from 33 entrants, I consider this competition a great success!

Thank you everyone who entered! We were impressed by the quality and the variety of images submitted. Needless to say we had difficulty narrowing down our choices to the eight finalist. In fact we ended up choosing nine images for inclusion in our article on Robots for the magazine Bricks Culture.

How Did We Choose?

I presented the images to the four judges – Boris, Mike, Vesa and Brett – with only numbers attached to the images, no names. We are a small community and I know most of you and I wanted this to be a blind judging; I wanted your work to speak for itself. All the judges had time to review the images and choose their top 10 favorites. These 40+ images (not everyone limited themselves to ten) were added to a spread sheet and the images with the most votes were discussed and evaluated on both their photographic merits as well as how well they illustrated various ideas presented in the article. If you’ve ever had to judge a BrickCentral contest, you will have some idea how difficult our task was.

The Best of the Rest

As you can see from the gallery of images below, the competition was sharp. We had to leave some amazing images on the table. Each of the judges had their favorites, but in the end we think we showcased a wide range of talent, creativity, building and photographic skills. Our goal is to share our amazing toy photography community with a wider audience through Bricks Culture. We are excited to introduce other LEGO fans to the quality and creativity that is so evident in our ranks.

I want to thank you all for helping us with our mission. You make it so easy!

~ Shelly

Stay tuned for our next contest to be announced mid October. Trust me, you’re going to LOVE it! 

I, Photo-bot

Recently I had the unexpected experience of having to pick out from my collection 12 photographs that I wanted to sell. Or that I thought would sell. Or that I thought people would like enough to buy. Or that I simply thought were good enough to frame and offer to the world. It was nerve wracking, because I have never given serious thought about selling my work. Up until now I have never had to make decisions based on anything other than asking myself if I am proud enough of this piece to post it online. My photographs have always been for me, and something I shared with other people that I mostly do not really know. In simpler terms, I never really had to doubt myself before (regarding photography) in a way that would bring back verifiable results.

But the chance to test that prevalent online comment, “I’d buy that as a print,” came along, and I took it.

Four days before some unexpected spots opened up in an acquaintance’s craft market for local artist, the organizer messaged me about setting up and selling some prints. I was excited for the opportunity, but woefully unprepared. Prior to this event I had only ever shown work in a gallery at an Alice in Wonderland themed event. That was a different kind of preparation altogether. It had a theme, for one, so I could only pull from my Alice photos (which was all I was doing at the time anyway) and I had no intention or realistic expectation of selling anything, or maybe I just didn’t care. A market though, that is different. A gallery is there to show, but a market is there to sell. That is how my mind perceived the opportunity.

*** What do you think? Are galleries more about exposure than selling? Are they just fancier markets? Would you prepare for a gallery showing the same as placing your product in a store?

I had to put my print order in the very same night if I wanted to participate and so I limited myself first to only photos from 2016. This would ensure that anything I picked was taken with my DSLR and the file sizes would be big enough to print the size I needed. (For my gallery showing, I was only using my phone and some photos did not make it because they looked horrible when printed larger than 4×6.) I knew that I wanted to bring a broad representation of what I have been up to so I started looking in my Lego, Metroid, TARDIS, HO Scale, and Alice folders. And that is when I had my first realisation.

I do not capture photographs with an 8 by 8 frame in mind. Yet, all I had available were twelve 8 by 8 frames. This immediately made some photos ineligible. Having to crop to a square completely changed certain photos in ways I could not justify. And that just opened the floodgates. As I considered if I could “get away” with certain crops I started looking at my proudest works and wondering if they were good enough. “Do you deserve a frame? I only have 12,” I kept asking myself. It was an exercise in self-doubt, disguised as consumerism that I had not come into contact with before precisely because I have never set out to sell photographs.


Is this good enough?

Free Crutch
Free Crutch

Does the crop change this too much?

Light Bringer
Light Bringer

Would someone buy this?

Shine On
Shine On

Would anybody like this enough to pay money for it?


Would I pay money for this?

Perhaps because of the way my experiences fell, I was not this thoughtful about my gallery showing. Those photos were a simple matter of, is this file size large enough, and do I like this one? No self doubt, no fretting about what the consumers would want. It was much preferable to what I felt choosing photos with the express intent to sell.

*** Have you ever shown your work in a gallery, and did the idea of sales affect which photographs you chose for that showing? Have you ever picked out photos with the largely sole intent to sell them? What process did you use to choose what you would present for sale?

In the end, I want to tell myself I remembered the innocence of my gallery showing and I picked photos solely based on my creative vision, much as the way I capture them. But I know I didn’t. I know I thought about the consumer because when I look at my end choices there are still a few that I feel betrayed by. There are still a few that I know I included because they did well on Instagram, even though they are not my favorites.

But hey, bright side, finally found a good use for how to use likes on Instagram!


Instagram, I love you but you’re bringing me down.

Instagram, I love you but you’re bringing me down. What happened to you? Ever since you changed your algorithm, you haven’t been the same.

Whenever I go to my phone and see your bright pink logo I’m drawn to you, like a bee to a flower. But once your open and I begin scrolling through my feed, I feel that something is amiss. I used to spend many hours in your company, scrolling through beautiful photographs, being inspired by the creativity of my friends. Now as soon as I open you up, I become so disoriented, so appalled by the  busy interface, presented with photos that are hours and even days old, I immediately turn you off.

First lets talk about how you look. There is so much going on, I don’t know where to look. What happened to your sleek, simple layout that showcased the photographs you where designed to share? Why have you incorporated this ‘snapchat’ clone onto your interface? Where there really millions of Instagram users clamoring for this addition? I realize there is a big push to highlight video across social media. No, wait, let me correct myself, there is a big push by Facebook (your big brother), to prioritize video. It seems that simple photography is going the way of the written word; pushed aside in favor of the latest trend adopted by the pre-teen set. Because who doesn’t look better with a dog face or emojis plastered across their selfies?

Oh Instagram, how could you be enticed by the lure of video? You were designed to be a photo sharing platform. A place for photographers, both serious and amateur, to share their work. Isn’t finding inspiration from each other and connecting across the globe through our mutual love of this beautiful medium enough?

Because of you Instagram I have friends all over the globe. Some I have met in person, others I can only dream of meeting. Until that time comes, I assumed that we would always have you, Instagram, as our go-between. Now I’m not so sure.

The rise of toy photography as a photographic niche is due in large part to you! You made it possible for us toy photography nerds to find each other. By sharing our work, we encouraged others to follow. There was a sense of safety knowing that we adults were not alone, that there were others out there just like us, still playing with and photographing their toys. Instagram you made this community possible, you gave us an immeasurably valuable gift. I don’t want to lose what we’ve created playing on this lovely platform; but for the life of me, I can’t see a way out.

Instagram I love you, but you’re freaking me out.

In early June you initiated a new update; you said you wanted to curate my feed for me. I know you think you know me better than I know myself, but frankly I find that insulting. I know you mean well, I know you think you have my best interests at heart, but I can’t help but find your attitude over bearing and over protective.

My morning routine often began by scrolling through my feed, seeing what my friends on the other side of the world had posted while I slept. Now the thrill is gone when you present me with photos that were posted 12, 17 and 21 hours ago. Really? Is that what you think I want to see, yesterdays news? I know you told me that

“the order of photos and videos in your feed will be based on the likelihood you’ll be interested in the content, your relationship with the person posting and the timeliness of the post.”

But what is this based on? How are you determining what I want to see? Is it based on my last 10 likes? My last three comments? Are you showing me the photos of the people who’s photos I value the most?

Considering how many times I find myself giving a particular photographers feed multiple likes, sometimes going back two weeks of missed photos, I can only think that you don’t know me as well as you think you do. I know you’re withholding photos from me, are you withholding my photos from my friends as well? The precipitous drop in likes, comments and new followers to my feed, suggests that you are.

Maybe I’m wrong, Maybe your right.

I know you think this new algorithm is going to keep me more engaged with you. At least thats what you told your friends the marketers and advertisers. But I have news for you, it doesn’t. I used to be able to scroll back to the photos I saw the day before and be pretty sure I saw everyones posts for the day. Now that you serve me a curated feed, I seem to only see a small percentage of the over 500 people I follow. Because I have to spend more energy hunting for the feeds I know I’m missing, hanging out with you Instagram resembles work, you’re not fun anymore. I grow frustrated easily, my time is limited, so I leave rather than stay. So much for your theory that I would hang out with you more.

Instagram, I love  you, but you’re bringing me down.

While you’re trying to impress your new friends, the marketers and advertisers, I think you should know, I’ve found someone else. My new friend G+ has been treating me very well and even my old friend Flickr, while not very flashy, has been showing off my photos to good advantage. I know they aren’t hip and cool like you; maybe you’re simply too good for me.

Its hard for me to turn my back on all the good times we’ve had together, but for my own peace of mind I’m going to take a break. I’ll keep checking in, hoping you’ll change back to your reverse-chronological order (or at the very least make it an option). I know you won’t miss me, because I’m only one of many core users, not an influencer, marketer or advertiser.

Instagram I hope we can part friends. We’ve been through so much together, so many changes; I feel like we grew up together! But this last change is too much for me. I hope it was worth it for you; I hope you got out of it what you where looking for. As we go our separate ways, I want you to know that I will always look back fondly on the five good years we had together.

~ Shelly (@xxsjc)

Feel free to leave your own comments about Instagram’s latest update below. 

PS – I will still occasionally post on Instagram, but I won’t be active their like I used to be. I’ve found a good social media home with the fine folks at G+. You can find me there, making new friends and continuing to grow a new toy photography community. Also my apologies to James Murphy and LCD Soundsystem for highjacking their lyrics to New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down. 

At Ray Gun point
Free will?

Technique: iPhone Lighting

I’ve always used a dedicated camera to take my photos. Phone cameras were not suitable for serious picture taking when I started out, and for my sort of photography a proper camera is always going to win out over a phone. Lighting with studio flash is just a non-starter with a phone camera.

However, In the back of my mind I’ve always had a feeling I could do a lot of the stuff I do with my big camera using the camera in my current iPhone 5s. I don’t use a lot of fancy lighting techniques that require flash, and I’ve got enough random light sources lying around that I could probably get a close approximation to my most common setups.

Last weekend I decided to take a photo with my main camera, and then try and take something very similar with my phone to see how close I could get.

My flash setup with the DSLR was quite simple, a single SB-800 flash shot into a diffused Speedlite Pro reflector. It’s a setup I use when I want to get the light really close in so I can get a sharp falloff into shadow.


The set for this shot was the fireplace in my back room. I used my favourite robot with his LED eyes lit up, which makes the exposure a little more complicated.


This is what I ended up with straight out of the camera. It’s lit mainly with the flash, but with a longer manual exposure to allow the eyes to illuminate. My normal shutter speed when working with flash is 1/250th, but that’s nowhere near long enough to see the eyes light up.

It needs some work. There are stray cat hairs, the top of the image is too bright, the white on the bottom of the feet where I forgot to dirty-up the robot stands out. Anyway, I did some editing in Photoshop, and this was the final result.


It’s OK. It captures the feeling I was going for.

Now, let’s get something like this with my phone.

For a start I need a light source. I’m going to use a SAD (seasonal affective disorder) lamp. They’re great continuous lights. Guaranteed to be daylight colour balanced (as that’s the whole point of a SAD lamp!), and not counted as photographic lighting equipment, so priced very reasonably. I picked up my LED SAD panel from Amazon for around £30. Photographic spec LED panels do not sell for £30.

As luck would have it my LED panel is almost exactly the same size as the Speedlite Pro kit reflector. With the lightsource size the same, the quality of light and shadow characteristics should be identical.


This is it in action.


Now I was hoping to use the built-in camera app to take this shot, but that idea went out the window after the first attempt. This scene is very low-key, or dark, as most people would say. The iPhone camera tried to compensate and ramped the brightness way, way up.


OK, so I’m going to switch to Camera+. I don’t know if this is still regarded as one of the best camera apps for the iPhone, but it lets me control the exposure, so it’s fine for me. I later worked out you can double-tap on the built-in camera app to control the brightness, so I probably didn’t need a 3rd party app after all.

I still need to keep the exposure long enough to get the eyes lit up, so I focus on the eyes to get the initial exposure, but the main LED panel is throwing a whole lot of light at my scene and blowing it out. My LED panel doesn’t have a brightness setting (these sort of useful features are why you pay the big bucks for real pro-level photographic panels), but I can make it darker by sticking stuff in front of it! I ended up putting an Ikea placemat and the Speedlite pro diffusion panel in front to calm the light down to a sensible level and keep the eyes glowing.


I can make small adjustments to the light intensity by moving it closer or further away. OK, now we’re getting somewhere.


The position of the phone camera on the edge of the phone lets me get really really low. The shot I ended up favouring was impossible with my DSLR. There’s no way I could get that low with my Nikon without stacking the whole set on some books (which I have done many times in the past).

This is what I ended up with straight out of the camera.


We’ve got some similar problems to the initial shot from the DSLR. Cat hair, top is too bright, feet are too white. All fixable in Photoshop in the same way I did for the DSLR version. So, after a bit of fix up, here’s what I ended up with.


I’m pretty pleased with that. I actually prefer the phone version to the DSLR shot. The low angle give a different feeling to the photo.

It’s not perfect, the phone version doesn’t stand up to closer inspection. It looks like the camera picked quite a high ISO setting so there’s a lot of noise reduction blur. What I should have done is manually set a longer shutter speed in the hope the camera would choose a lower ISO. I’d also use some form of tripod or support to steady the camera. Definitely room for more experimentation.

– Mike

Welcome Brett Wilson!

On behalf of Boris, Vesa, Mike and myself, I want to officially welcome Brett Wilson to the Stuck in Plastic team!

Yes, I realize that’s a really weird statement to make since Brett has been writing a weekly post for the blog since April of this year. He has been one of many guest posters that have been gracious enough to share their knowledge, wisdom and experiences with this community. But in the last few months he has moved beyond being a very reliable guest poster to being a reliable and insightful member of our little group.

Brett has always been a leader within the Instagram LEGO community. If you’ve been on the platform for a few years you may remember his frequent calls for wonderfully inventive themed toy photography weekends, such as #coolmetalplastic and  #jabbasjamboree, that he promoted with help of his friends, @East_Mountain, @Smokebelch2 and @zenith_ardor.  Recently, here on Stuck in Plastic, he made a similar challenge involving bringing the #Legogirlstothefront. He has also teamed up with fellow Melburnians @CheepJokes, @TheShortNews and @LLWorld to host a toy photographers meet-up called #Brickstameet. It’s this type of creative leadership that makes Brett a perfect addition to the SiP team.

Writing for a blog is not an easy task. I know because I watch my fellow blog mates struggle finding topics to write about that they feel will benefit the community. Whenever I ask a fellow toy photographer to contribute a “Why?” statement to the blog, I invariable get a response back: “That was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done!” So to find a talent like Brett, that not only has taken to the task of weekly posting but has run with it, is rare indeed. I think he revels in the challenge. 🙂

Also, his perspective as a photographer who has moved from a phone camera to a semi-professional DSLR, is a journey so many of us can relate to. His first foray into showing his work this coming October,  and the prospects of selling it, is also a journey so many of us have or want to take. I’m hoping he will share more of his experience, and the lessons he’s learning, as he makes the last push to his first exhibition.

Thank you Brett for all the time and energy you’ve already give to the Stuck in Plastic community. I know that Boris, Vesa, Mike and I look forward to working with you in the coming months as we continue to find new and creative ways to grow our community.

~ Shelly

My favorite Brett post was Rebel Grrrl, a subject near and dear to my heart. What’s your?




Dry-lo Ren
Dry-lo Ren
techno geiko
techno geiko

The Basics – Depth of Field

You’ve probable heard the term ‘depth of field’ or DoF thrown about a lot in respect to toy photography. If you’re not familiar with the term, it’s simply how much of the image, from front to back, that is in focus. The size of this plane of focus is determined by how big or small your aperture is.

If your camera has an adjustable aperture, the smaller the number (ie: 2.8 or 4.0 ) the larger the opening will be and less of the area in front of and behind your subject will be in focus. This is called a shallow depth of field. The larger the number (ie: 11 or 16) the smaller the opening will be and the more of the area in front of and behind your subject will be in focus.

Simply put: small number = small DoF, large number = larger DoF

If you’re capturing a landscape scene you will probably want to use a large aperture to maintain focus in a large area. But if you’re photographing on a macro / small scale you may want to use a small aperture and minimize what is in focus.


By keeping the background distractions minimal, you can keep your viewers attention on your subject. (For an excellent example please check out this handy before and after by FourBricksTall.) When you’re photographing small toys, they’re rarely in scale to their surroundings. A single blade of grass can distract from the illusion of reality that many toy photographers strive for.

In this case I liked the blades of grass and how they imply a relaxing bicycle ride through a summer forest.

Another advantage of a short DoF is that you can photograph nearly anywhere. In fact you can use the same (or similar) locations for many different photos, and no one will be the wiser. When you use a short DoF, your location can be nearly anywhere you can imagine. That patch of sand sure looks like Tatooine. That patch of moss and a couple of soft focus ferns bear a striking resemblance to Middle Earth. And I think we all know by now that a little baking powder and clever lighting can look an awful lot like Hoth.

If focus is critical, yet you like the effects created with a shallow DoF, try your hand at focus stacking. Simply put, focus stacking is taking one image several times with different areas in focus. You then combine them using your computer, the same way you might composite a HDR image. This clever trick allows you to control exactly what is and is not in focus. It also helps to extend the range of focus if you are working in low light situations and you aren’t able to photograph with a smaller aperture. If you’re interested in creating images utilizing these micro adjustments, you will need to add a sturdy trip-pod and possibly a focusing rail to your bag of tricks.

Another way to control your Depth of Field is to move your subject away from the background. You can create dreamy soft focus backdrops to your toys if your main subject is several feet away from the background. If you’re shooting with a mobile phone, you may have to make that hundreds of feet, but the effect is the same. If you still can’t get the blurred background of your dreams…there’s an app for that. Check out AfterFocus (available for both Android and iOS) With this handy little app you can create effects similar to what you would achieve with a DSLR camera. If you’re a short DoF fan like me, this little app is a great way to bring a big camera look to your mobile photos.

My favorite photo from last years summer vacation. Walking along the beach taking photos while my daughter and Julochka (in the distance) were looking for rocks.
My favorite photo from last years summer vacation. Walking along the beach taking mobile phone photos while my daughter and Julochka (in the distance) were looking for rocks. I love the effect created by the distance between the two subjects.

As always there is no right or wrong way to create interesting toy photography. This series is here to help you understand the tools that you have at your disposal and to help you capture those amazing images that you want to make.

~ Shelly

Is there a specific technical subject your would like me to cover? Please leave your comments and questions below. 

A nice bokeh is created in the background by using a small f-stop in combination with the subject placed away from the background.

An Arts Collective