Welcome back to another edition of Figure Friday here at your favorite little pop culture website, Biff Bam Pop!
This week, I will be taking some time to look at the style, substance, and community that has emerged around the art of toy photography. This is a topic that sits nice and close to home for me. It was discovering toy photography through Instagram that reinvigorated my enjoyment of collecting and provided me with a really enjoyable creative outlet.
The question faced by many collectors when they first discover the many, many forms and styles of toy photography is: where do I even begin? Do I need expensive lights? A fancy camera? What are the rules?
These are all questions worth considering, so let’s start with the basics first.
Toy Photography 101
The great thing about getting involved with this hobby is that almost all of us carry a really good camera in our back pocket, purse, or bag with us everywhere we go. Even an older phone is still going to be lightyears ahead of the Polaroid clunkers we carted around when I was a kid. Right off the bat, you have one of the tools of the trade! Even better, most phones either include or can easily add a simple photo editing app. Being that I am not the most tech-savvy guy, I actually do most of my limited editing within the Instagram app itself. This is not to say that some folks don’t get deep into Photoshop territory. But there is no reason to feel intimidated or like you can’t get involved if you want to keep it simple.
So now you are taking pictures, and maybe tightening or touching them up a bit with your phone. What else do you need? For me, it is lighting. I enjoy working outdoors sometimes, but to really bring something out of the sculpt of a figure’s face, it is lights that make all the difference.
This is another area where by no means do you have to break the bank to get great results. Your local dollar store has a wide selection of flashlights, desk lights, and all manner of other items of illumination for you to work with. Spend twenty bucks and you will have a dozen or more options to try out. Just don’t forget the finger lights. Those are key for adding a little colour without washing out your pics.
Camera and lights – check! What about a backdrop for your pictures? This is where the sky really becomes the limit for your creativity as an artist. From simple options like action figure playsets to cardboard pop-outs, there are pre-made options aplenty out there to play with. Feeling extra crafty? Hop on YouTube for tutorials from guys and gals that make their own dioramas from the ground up.
Once again though, if a real scale dojo made of styrofoam and balsa wood isn’t your cup of tea, there is nothing to say a simple blank wall, fabric backdrop. or anything else in your home can’t also be just as cool or effective for your work.
Lastly, but certainly not leastly, you are going to need some toys.
When it comes to toys, what you shoot is really up to you and your tastes as a collector. Sure, a 400 dollar Hot Toy is going to look pretty spectacular in your new set up, bathed in your elaborate lighting rig. But if you would rather do artistic pieces showcasing your vintage Littlest Pet Shop creatures then, by all means, get to snapping!
The most important part of your first steps into toy photography is that you are having fun doing it. Whether it is pictures of Minions next to a bowl of rice noodles, digitally enhanced superhero battle scenes, or my specialty, action figure pro wrestling matches, find something that works for you and get to it!
Putting yourself out there
Like any creative endeavor, at some point you will likely want to share your toy pics with an audience. Living as we do in the age of social media, this could not be any easier. While you will find some groups and galleries on Facebook and YouTube, it is Instagram where toy photography exists at its best, in my opinion. In the years I have been on Instagram, I have seen so many unique, awesome and creative people do their thing across the world that I can honestly say it gives me hope for humankind as a whole.
Seriously, if there are this many weirdos like me around the world with this goofy hobby, how bad can things be?
By starting with the general hashtags #toyphotography, #toycommunity, or just #toy, you can start to get a grasp of just how much stuff is out there to inspire you. Some of it is great, some of it not as much, and of course, the people that do it can fall into the same categories. I have been very lucky to not run into any trolls in my time, but I know that they are out there. Any time you invite eyes to your work, you also invite critics. Along the way, you will likely discover some of the groups, tags, and folks that take the genre quite seriously and will actively critique use of light, posing and other aspects of your work. If this is okay with you, great. If not, avoid hashtags that exhibit this kind of culture and you will be just fine.
I post my work under hashtag #toyhomies4life, a tag that comes from my friend and one of the most dynamic toy photographers I know, David “@syko_ninja47” Ferreira. When I first connected with Dave, who lives in New York, he was working with a cracked iPhone cam and taking pics out the window of his apartment. We both liked toys, superheroes, and wrestling. We bonded over a running pic gag featuring Spider-Man performing a “spider-cutter” wrestling move in the fashion of the RKO. Since then, Dave has gone on to amass more followers than I can count, start a YouTube channel, and compete in the ACBA “Photo Kombat” tournament.
He’s also a really solid guy with a great take on toy photography as an art form:
“Toy photography to me takes collecting to a whole new dimension,” Ferreira said. “It’s not just putting action figures on a shelf and staring at them and admiring how pretty these little pieces of plastic are. It’s about immersing yourself and the viewer into the fantastic world that these characters come from. I love reading comic books and watching cartoons, but I want to see Spidey web-sling and Bats thwart bank robbers in a more tangible medium. I’m in control and I get to tell these stories my own way. The only limitations are the imagination. ”
Like me, Dave pays for play, opening all his figures and putting them through their posing paces before getting them ready for a close up in front of his camera.
“It’s a visual art form. Go crazy! You can photoshop a hadouken fireball or use a word bubble cut out to convey whatever scene you want. YOU tell the story!”
Like 99% of the guys I have met on Instagram, Dave is supportive and encouraging when it comes to folks getting started. But there are photographers and just plain internet trolls out there that will drop nasty comments on a pic if they are feeling salty.
Shake it off, get back to it, and enjoy yourself. There are styles to emulate, like the A.C.B.A. (Articulated Comic Book Art) group that prides itself on the use of cut-outs and tangible elements, but by no means is this the only way to go about it. See what is out there, borrow from people whose work you like, and find your own groove. Maybe you’ll have as many followers as my buddy, Dave, someday. Or maybe you’ll be like me and have a handful of people that enjoy what you do and say nice things when you do it.
Showcase your collection
Of course, an element of the toy photography game can be as simple as showing off all your wonderful toys. Maybe you mount carded figures on the wall, or maybe you have a basement den full of Detolfs packed to bursting with every character under the sun. The great thing about the added visual aspect of this hobby is that you connect with other collectors, which is pretty cool when you are the only toy guy in the gang.
So successful at their craft are some collectors that they are sought after by toy companies to act as influencers, showcasing upcoming products and getting free toys in the process!
The thing that has been important for me is to not get caught up in the “whoever has the most toys wins” mentality that can exist in the community. If you have 20 toys or 20,000 toys, your collection is yours and this is a great way to show it off. Yes, some collectors will post endlessly about their hauls and pick-ups, but that doesn’t have to be you if you don’t want it to be.
Maybe you make customs, design intricate dioramas or craft scale clothing to sell to others. Get out there and share what you have with the community. Maybe you will inspire the next collector to break Wolverine out of his clear plastic prison and pose with a grapefruit on the kitchen table.
Playing with your toys is okay
Yup, I am a forty year old man that plays with action figures and I am 100 percent okay with that. Gone are the days where I do voices, make blaster sounds or try and do the “cha-chu-chee-cha-chu” noise of a Transformer switching modes. But here to stay are the days of my CWA (Canadian Wrestling Alliance) action figure storylines. I get to pose, play, and create stories at my pace and for the amusement of myself and the dozen or so guys that like what I do.
Hopefully, this gets you thinking and looking at your figs in a different light and maybe, just maybe, off the shelf and out into the wonderful world of toy photography.
Til next time, keep your joints tight and your figures loose.