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