For me, it’s pretty simple. There is a very brief and special moment that sometimes happens in my toy photography. If I’ve done everything correctly, I obtain realism. At least, enough realism to make a viewer pause for a second, look a little closer and ask “how’d he do that?”
I am trying to show dinosaurs in a realistic way. That’s pretty much the only thing I am consistently trying to achieve with my artwork. That is my goal and what I view as most important over everything else. That is my own measure of a successful photograph.
As I see it, there are 6 key components of toy photography to achieve a strong level of realism. They are; perspective, composition, lighting, depth-of-field, contrast and colors. To strike a strong balance between them is difficult to do and rewarding to achieve. I attempt ‘realism’ quite often and feel successful at it frequently enough to keep enjoying the process.
I share my photos on instagram (@dinoczars) and have a number of enthusiastic followers there. I also try to sell prints of my best shots from time to time in art shows and on my easy store (www.etsy.com/shop/Dinoczars). But both the fans on IG and the sales aren’t my biggest motivators, I was shooting dinos before I was on IG and if the app crashed tomorrow, I would still be shooting dinos. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the positive reactions I get from people, and that certainly is a motivator, but ultimately, even if they all stopped paying attention to what I do, I’d still be doing it. Because I love dinosaurs and being able to recreate them in a believable way is a joy for me.
Why do I take photographs of toys?
I guess it boils down to this: I saw Jurassic Park at a very impressionable age and have been trying to bring dinosaurs back to life, in my own way, ever since.
Why do I take photographs of Lego? That is a question that took me by surprise a couple of weeks ago. I realized I had never asked myself that question before. Finding the answer was not easy, and it took a brief conversation with my wife for me to see it.
I am photographing Lego because I am a never-was movie director making a living outside the movie industry. That’s what my wife said, and it pretty much sums it up. See, I always loved movies. Star Wars, obviously, was huge, but many others as well, classics and contemporary. As a kid I made some movies myself with my dad’s Super-8 film camera, but film was expensive and my dad did not allow me to hack the camera’s filmport to produce a widescreen format picture. My movies were not very good; a widescreen wouldn’t have improved them, but still. I would build miniature sets and models to shoot, but the miserable camera could not focus on anything, since it had no macro. I grew up watching great movies and reading all about them. As a teenager I subscribed to Starlog, Cinemagic, and Cinefantastique. Cinefex, Premiere and Empire came along a little later. I’m soaked with that stuff; it’s in my DNA. I sometimes dream in 2.39:1.
That was a long time ago.
When I stumbled into photographing Lego Star Wars in 2009, I quickly connected to those times when I dreamed of making movies. I soon incorporated into the photos many of the cinematic ideas I had toyed with in my youth: widescreen, smoke, aerial particles, snow, blizzards, tight closeups and stories — the short stories that I like to write to go with the photos. I think this through via cinema; even my “Leftovers & Alternatives” album in Flickr is allegoric to a DVD “deleted scenes” extra. Lego is a perfect medium for all this. It’s playful, and there’s so much to choose from. You can have a minifigure on a piece of a coloured paper and still make a strong photo with that; yet there’s everything from a coffee cup to the Death Star to add, if you like.
This soon became a sort of creativity outlet, a free turf to express ideas I could not use in my day job as an illustrator. I see my photographs as single-frame plays I can write, produce, direct and shoot, but with characters and concepts I grew up with. In a way, I’m exploring an unfulfilled career path, but with Lego and present day tools, like the DSLR camera. It’s old but it’s new. It’s perfect!
~ Vesa Lehtimäki
“Breaking in the Tauntaun (Revised & Rejected) by Avanaut
Why do I take photographs of small plastic figures?
Well, I’m not doing it to change the world. Neither am I bringing attention to worthy causes, or highlighting injustice with my photographs. I do it for the same reason most people do most things, I do it for me. I want to take the sort of photographs that I’d like to see. I want to look at my photographs and say “that’s cool, I want to hang that on my wall.”
The limitations imposed by LEGO minifigures are a big part of the fun of photography for me. Bernard Suits famously defined a game as “the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles”. That perfectly sums up my approach to LEGO photography. I rarely use anything but standard LEGO smiling faces, or the expressionless helmets of Stormtroopers or Darth Vader. Trying to create an emotive photograph with a barely-posable, inert chunk of plastic is a challenge that I never seem to tire of trying to beat.
I take pleasure in the whole process. Combining ideas together within my own set of rules for what makes a good photograph. Finding angles and interesting lines in the viewfinder. Moving the composition around to balance the scene. Changing the lighting mood as I shoot. Playing with hues and saturation curves to add some life to the clinically clean digital capture. It’s all good.
Sometimes it works, and sometimes everything goes in the trash can. As I make more photographs I’m getting better at knowing when an idea doesn’t translate into a good photograph. Over the years I’ve tried to weed out poor qualities and work out what the essence of a good photograph is to me.
I read an excellent quote from Magnum photographer Constantine Manos today that summed up something I have never been able to eloquently put into words – “Try not to take pictures which simply show what something looks like.”. That’s why I take the photographs I do. To try and take LEGO photography above mere “photos of things” and make a story, evoke an emotion, or at least raise a smile.
Sometimes I want to just pull a Vivian Maier and take a million photographs and never do anything with them. Just take the photos, nothing more. There is nothing so satisfying or glorious as the physical act of taking a photo.
For me the processing, editing and printing is a one long down hill slide.
My husband is always telling me I take too many photos. Or maybe I just post too many? He says I am too prolific and so will never be able to sell my work because there is no scarcity. Maybe this is true? I don’t really know.
But I do know that taking them is were all the fun is, everything else after that is just work.
I think Vivian Maier was on to something. While I continue to mull this over, I have some pictures I want to post to the internet.
When was the last time you actually enjoyed taking a photograph? How much effort do you put into promoting your work?
If you have not checked out the story of Vivian Maier I urge you to do so. It is an amazing story of a nanny living in Chicago around 1950 who shot 1,000’s of photographs and never developed them. They were essentially discovered by accident in 2007 after she died.