Photographing large toys – part 2

Last week I talked about how I forced and trained myself photographing larger LEGO sets. Eventually, this led me to the Ultimate challenge of photographing the second tallest LEGO set: the Disney Castle.

This blog post is the continuation of last week, focusing on my two photo sessions with the Castle. The difficulties encountered and the lessons learned along the way.

First try

I waited a lot. Once the temperatures went up to more decent levels, the weather turned from sunny to cloudy. Very little chance of good light. But in early March, I finally got an opportunity to go for sunset with the Castle.

Transport

Probably the biggest challenge with the Disney Castle for an outdoor photographer is transport. At 74cm high, it’s the second tallest LEGO set. Only surpassed by Saturn V. Fortunately, it disassembles in three pieces. Still, the base measures 48cm by 31cm… And I never managed to find a box big enough.

The size of the biggest box I found was barely enough. The “official” size was measured at the top, but the bottom of the box actually measured only 29cm. As seen on the following pictures, the Castle barely fit in the box without resting flat at the bottom of the box and I had to keep it open.

Once I managed to bring the Castle on the lake, I faced another challenge: snow. Indeed if I wanted to include the Castle in its entirety, I had to make find a way to set the castle on the snow, without damaging it. This first try was not a success as I walked in front and ended up with a big footprint visible in the frame. I tried to remove the snow in front of the Castle but it didn’t work any better.

Focal length and depth of field

Then on the images I took, there was another problem from my choice of lens. I decided to use my usual lens with settings to maximize the amount of bokeh (35mm at F/1.8). I focused on the entrance of the castle, without considering the difference of depth of field created by both the large aperture and field of view.

It’s when I came back home that I noticed that the top of the Castle was out of focus. Also, I didn’t like the perspective caused by the relatively wide field of view. Because the camera was resting on the ground, the perspective resulting from the lens (and focal length) made the base of the Castle to appear wider. Not necessarily a bad thing as it made it somewhat more impressive, but not what I was aiming for…

Small details

Finally, if you look closely at the pictures, you can notice that some of the pointy thingies on top of the roofs have different length. This is because some of them fell during transport and I didn’t notice that some have an additional stud below them while others don’t.

It’s more than possible that no one would have noticed, particularly on social media. Still, it was one additional reason for me to not be satisfied with my first session with the Castle.

Because I wasn’t happy, I knew I’d need to go back again. This was the rehearsal and now I knew what to pay more attention to:

  • Pay attention to small details on the castle if it breaks during transport
  • Don’t destroy the snow
  • Focal length and perspective (next time I would use my 105mm macro lens)
  • Take photos with different focus in case focus stacking is needed

The final photo session

Time passed. The weather ended up awful during most of March, my favorite month of the year in Northern Finland. Unusually warm temperatures, rain, and snow melting. Eventually, in April, I got lucky and got another opportunity.

This time I handled transport better and no small parts of the Castle fell off. Also, because the snow had been melting and freezing again, walking in front of the castle wasn’t as much as a problem. My footprints in the snow weren’t as visible. Using a narrower field of view with my 105mm also helped.

This time, when shooting directly against the sun, I tried to use my reflector. Although it’s usually quite big for minifigures, it felt actually too small for the Castle. It also ended up being in the frame of some pictures, and one of the annoying elements I could only remove in Photoshop:

Finally, a key difference worth mentioning when using a longer focal length like with my macro is the distance between the camera and the Castle. Here’s my setup in both cases:

I ended up quite tired after the photo session from running constantly between the Castle and my camera…

Lessons learned

Here are the main lessons I learned from these different projects and challenges with larger toys.

  • The choice of focal length (and field of view) has an impact. Shorter focal length gives a wider field of view. It results in a different perspective making a large LEGO set more imposing. On the other hand, a longer focal length will flatten perspective and less a feeling of “being in the scene”.
  • A large reflector may be useful. With a small one, the reflected light will be unevenly spread on a large set.
  • Time seems to pass faster. Setting up a large set takes more time than for minifigs. There are more details to pay attention to and it can be time-consuming.
  • Composition is harder. If your goal is to photograph a set in its entirety, the set of choices is more limited. For example, the Disney Castle can mostly be photographed from the front as the back is open to allow access to the interior.
  • Large sets also limit the usage of the environment. Photographing minifigure in an outdoor environment is easy because they only require small areas from which distractions need to be cleaned or removed. The rest can be ignored thanks to short depth of field. With a larger set, depth of field can’t be as short and thus it becomes more difficult to get rid of distractions.

Do you also have experience about photographing large toys outside? I’d be interested in knowing what others advice you might have.

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