Outdoor toy photography with intention

I like to create photos like some people like to cook – a little of this, a dash of that, stir the pot and then see what comes out of the oven. While outdoor toy photography definitely has a chance effect about it, similar to experimenting in the kitchen, that doesn’t mean that outdoor photographers, like myself, aren’t crafting our photos with the same attention to detail as all  photographers.

As an outdoor photographer I carry my entire studio on my back; this includes an extra lens (usually a 50mm Lens Baby besides my trusty 100mm), bounce cards, filters, a couple of rocks and additional lighting. While I might not need any or all of this equipment on a typical outing, its great to be prepared for any situation I might encounter.

One of the biggest challenge the outdoor photographer encounters is a light source that changes quickly. While the sun can often be fickle and inconsistent, you can’t beat it for a light source. Those deep golden rays that accompany the Golden Hour almost always turn any good-looking photo into something magical. The bokeh created by the sun bouncing off water (or any reflective surface) never ceases to amaze me! The patterns of light and dark created by any background when shot with a short depth of fields is always a miracle of bokeh and patterns that I like to play with. The light created by the sun creates an incredible variety of colors, tones and textures that can be found just about anywhere that you would take a photograph of a toy outdoors. The possibilities and combinations are endlessly fascinating!

Sure the sun is always changing its orientation and you have to work fast; that’s part of the fun and challenge of outdoor photography. Its imperative that you’re comfortable with your photo equipment so you can adapt to the quickly changing conditions. Speed is your friend.

Lego-toy-photography-chima-sunset
The sun was fading fast, the wind was biting and I was sinking into the mud. I feel lucky I managed to capture this image; it’s becoming a personal favorite.

A nice even cloud cover is the equivalent of good studio lighting; a bright overcast day can be the ideal situation to shoot toys in. You’re saved from those annoying reflective surfaces and you’re given the gift of even lighting. Personally I like to aim for sunny days and then hang out in the shadows. When I place my figure in the shade with a bright sunny background directly behind him, this is equivalent to studio backlighting. This type of lighting is commonly used to outline the subject and separate it from the background. With the help of a reflector, I can bounce a little fill light onto the figure to illuminate the front and help bring detail into the shadow areas.

Lieam in canoe - reedited
I was shooting directly into the sunlight for maximum bokeh which  left the figure nearly lost in the shadows. With the help of a bounce card, I was able to illuminate the figure enough to capture some detail in the shadows.

I have learned the hard way that I need to have a good idea of what I want to shoot before I head out into the field. I try to spend 2-3 hours at home setting up little scenes that I want to capture. I think about the stories I want to tell in conjunction with the terrain I will encounter. I always pack a few spare figures that might be fun for a quick portrait or two. Sometimes I have a particular story line I’m trying to move forward; sometimes I just want to take a photo. Its nice to have little scenes ready to go so when I find that perfectly lit bit of moss, when the light is especially nice or I find the perfect water location – I’m ready to take advantage of the situation quickly.

Zen-Lego-Spaceman-floating-legography

Of course this type of speed isn’t always conducive to those lengthy set-ups required for a flying shot. This might be why I shy away from those types of special effects shots. Even if I don’t often create images with amazing effects or utilizing a little photoshop magic, that doesn’t mean that I don’t like to bring a little ‘action’ into my photos. Water is a great way to bring motion or ‘action’ to a still photography. This can take the form of a slow shutter speed used to capture the flow of water, real rain drops to disturb the surface of a pond or even a stick used to create strategically placed ‘waves’ in a still body of water. It’s these little details that can bring your toys and your photos to life.

Donatello in canoe
A lot of trial and err, with he added pressure of fast failing light, I managed to achieve ripples that implied the canoe was moving forward.

An aspect of outdoor toy photography that I enjoy more than any other is serendipity. This can take the form of an especially appealing puddle, an interesting rock or spot of moss, a rainy day or that beautiful light of the golden hour. There is a certain unpredictable nature to outdoor photography that’s undeniably addictive and frankly, endlessly fascinating.

Fallen-Angel-lego-stuckinplastic-xxsjc
Fallen Angel – An image inspired by the location

I’ve often said that it would be rather presumptuous of me to think that I could somehow image all the amazing possibilities that can be captured by a camera. I see my job as being open to the possibilities and to be inspired by my surroundings.

Regardless of the techniques I use to create my images, I keep coming back to ‘what is the story’? I want my images to have a lasting impression of a moment in time or a slice of a story where the viewer can fill in the details. Whether you want the viewer to feel a strong emotional response, or appreciate the beauty of your favorite toy, or even enjoy a quick laugh, you’ll want to use all the tools at your disposal for maximum effect.

Just like cooking, you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet; embrace the weather in all its varied glory. Get down in the dirt and mud and see what you can see through your camera lens; always work with intention; be open to the serendipity of outdoor photography.  You never know what’s going to happen or what combination is going to  help you to create that perfect photo!

And while your at it…don’t forget to have fun!

~ Shelly

If you’re an outdoor toy photographer how do you approach your craft? Do my experiences seem familiar? What tricks do you employ to make the task easier and faster?

Sleepy Sapceman
I knew I wanted to find a soft and inviting spot for this little scene. I was thrilled to find this ledge covered in moss that looked like the perfect spot for a tired spaceman to catch a few zzz’s.

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Maëlick (aka Reiterlied)
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I love the magic of outdoor photography that can transform a photo into something totally unexpected. My latest outdoor session resulted in this kind of magic thanks to a very cool dead tree trunk lying on the ground. But it’s also for this reason I find it really challenging to take toy photography outdoor. Most of the time I have a precise photo idea in mind, it turns out as something not as good as what I initially wanted. I only have one photo for which I knew in advance precisely what I wanted and the result turned out to… Read more »

handstand
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I really enjoyed this post Shelly! Since I’m always in awe of your amazing images, I found it fascinating to read your thought process. I was especially interested to read that you spend 2-3 hours at home setting up scenes. That’s a lot of prep work but it pays off because your photos are always gorgeous.

greaterbeast
Member

You have no idea how much this post resonated with me. I’ve been shooting outdoors in earnest since the Seattle meet-up and there were several times I had a lot of self-deprecating thoughts about whether I could actually do this or not. Normally shooting silly things in my room, I can bang out something useable in an hour or so, but I was completely unprepared for the realities of shooting outdoors! Like how I can walk and shoot for hours and hours and be lucky to get even one decent photo that day. How somehow the perfect figure for the… Read more »

brickandmordor
Member

Great post. Damn, Shelly, your work is always SO GOOD! The intention you put in totally shows and it’s beautiful. I too try to prepare specific figures to match the environment I’ll be in, and I usually just have loose ideas/themes. I love it though when I have a specific theme, and it turns out way better than expected, like my recent rainbow unicorn. Especially when prep time is zero. We managed to squeeze in a quick shoot up at Rocky Butte for golden hour on Saturday. My schedule was tight these last 5 days, so it was a rush-home-grab-and-go… Read more »

VerboomWendy
Member

Great post, i love your outdoor legophotography.
I take my pics outdoor en looking around to found the perfect spot and lighting.
Greetings Wendy