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Feature Image by: Perry Stehlin

How to start Toy Photography: 5 Beginner Tips

5 Beginner Tips from Star Wars Toy Photographer Perry Stehlin
Leia transfers a message pleading for the help of a man called Obi-Wan Kenobi - A New Hope
ISO160, f/3.5, 1/100

A few years ago, I was looking at taking photography up as a new hobby working with still or product photography. With a decent action figure collection, I thought I would practice a few shots on my figures my Star Wars figures as a hobby. I find myself creating scenes from homemade dioramas and weathering my figures to make them look more realistic. This hobby is now one I never ever want to get out of.

I started my Instagram page to share my work, but Instagram has also helped me learn from other artists and photographers.

Simplicity is the key when beginning Toy Photography. The following disciplines are worth looking into when first starting out.


5 Beginner Tips from Star Wars Toy Photographer Perry Stehlin
Imperial Biker Scout on Endor - Return Of The Jedi
ISO100, f/4.5, 1/13

Good Lighting


Utilizing natural light outdoors

I love getting outside when I can. The more natural the light the more natural the image. Depending on the scene you want to create you want to avoid harsh light on those hot sunny days. The harsh light can take the detail away from the subject making the image look like a snapshot of a toy. Remember the goal of Toy Photography is to bring them to life.

If you are shooting outside, aim to shoot either in the shade, on cloudy days, or golden hour.


Artificial Indoor Lighting

LED lights are my go-to. I use the Ulanzi VL49 RGB Video Lights Mini LED. It's cheap & nasty but it does a damn good job. You can use any source of light, but the rule of thumb is to diffuse your light. Harsh light can cause overexposure of the image and nasty hotspots on the subject which destroys your shoot.

You don't have to have any sort of fancy studio lighting. A simple DIY, I like to use is taking a torch with baking paper wrapped around the front to diffuse the light. When it comes to the placement of the light, there isn't a right or wrong method to this. It comes down to your own creativity and time. Take your time experimenting, trial and error.


Natural indoor lighting

Where possible utilise that beautiful light that comes in via the window. A strategy I use a lot is placing my subject next to a window. Only relying on one source of light that is coming in from one side of the window onto my subject. Enhance the detail of the subject by placing a light-coloured board on the opposite side of the window light to the side of the subject. This will reflect more light back on the subject. If you prefer shadow on the subject and a moodier feel to the image, you may only need the single source from the window. Again, just play around.

5 Beginner Tips from Star Wars Toy Photographer Perry Stehlin
Duel at Cloud City - Empire Strikes Back
ISO160, f/3.2, 1/40

Props/Backgrounds/Diorama's/Effects


Indoor Backgrounds

In toy photography, anything can be a background. Cooking pots, baking trays, circuit boards, speakers, computer screens and everyday junk that is lying around the house. When I want to create certain movie scenes, this might involve creating my own dioramas. I'm no master at this so I keep it simple, such as getting a basic Styrofoam board slapping on some tan colour paints & voila! I have created a backdrop for Mos Eisley from Star Wars.


Outdoor Backgrounds

One of my favourite places to shoot it is in my very own backyard at the local pine forest at Mount Victoria, Wellington. When I walk through there, in my imagination it’s not just Mount Victoria. It’s Endor, or Kashyyykk from Star Wars, the Hobbits hideaway from Lord of the Rings, the South American forest from 1987 Predator and so much more. All I need is my camera and my action figures to prove it.

When shooting toys outdoors it can be anything you want it to be should you put your imagination to good use.


Props & Effects

It's amazing the difference to an image when you add a little table in the background or barrels, rocks, old cloth for a blanket on the ground. Using these simple methods can help bring your image to life. Remember these little things can be everyday junk lying around the house. On occasion, I've used old asthma inhalers to make them look like space barrels or old wires to make them look like a damaged spaceship. For practical effects, this depends on your scene. A lot of my shots have steam, mist, or smoke effects to create an action scene or eerie feeling. I use atmosphere aerosol spray that is a safe, non-toxic, clear aerosol spray for these effects. This is how my images get the look of fog or haze without the need for any power, a fog machine, or fluid.

5 Beginner Tips from Star Wars Toy Photographer Perry Stehlin
Lord Vader - A New Hope
ISO200, f/8, 1/60

Posing/Positioning

I try to make my subjects look as realistic as possible. Part of this is putting my subjects in realistic poses, sometimes dynamic, and sometimes simple, like a simple tilt of the head. Positioning meaning utilizing the rule of thirds in your image. There are plenty of articles on how to take advantage of this method utilizing the awesome grid on your camera.

5 Beginner Tips from Star Wars Toy Photographer Perry Stehlin Enter the Master Jedi. Luke Skywalker returns. - The Mandalorian
ISO400, f/4, 1/40

Gear


Tripod

There are times I will shoot with the camera in hand, but the tripod gives you the best advantage by eliminating handheld shake. This gives you more control and allows you to position your kit to make the necessary adjustments to your subject in the scene. Whether you are a beginner or a professional, the tripod is a must in your tool kit.


Camera

My personal choice is a DSLR. I started my photography journey with a Canon, and I will see it through till the end. Whilst my Canon EOS 80D is not on the most expensive DSLR camera, it’s so reliable and is capable of fantastic images. I'm flexible with the type of lens I use but for the most part, it is usually the Canon EF 50mm f 1 8 STM. This lens won’t break the bank, yet it does a damn good job, and I wouldn't leave home without it. I shoot on manual settings and always a RAW file type. The Jedi say that the lightsaber is not only a weapon but an extension of thyself. This is exactly how I feel about my camera.

5 Beginner Tips from Star Wars Toy Photographer Perry Stehlin
"Execute order 66" - Revenge of the Sith
ISO160, f/3.2, 1/30

Think out of the box

This comes down to you as an individual. You need to use or your own creative genius. Use your imagination, experiment, try different things, but most important of all PLAY! Play, play, play, as with any type of art the image belongs to you. You give yourself the creative freedom to express yourself when setting up the image. Tell the story that you want to tell, nobody can tell you what to do here, the concept is yours. If you look to only replicate what others are doing, you will get a mediocre image as a result.

5 Beginner Tips from Star Wars Toy Photographer Perry Stehlin
Dad duties. Din Djarin & Baby Yoda - The Mandalorian
ISO100, f/3.2, 1/2000

For me, the art of toy photography is that it brings out the best of my own imagination. It is a passage to tell your own story and bring your toys to life. There is no more creative freedom than putting your figure collection into a scene that you as the creator have full control over. The different genres I shoot gave me joy when I was a kid and paying homage to that via photography brings me happiness. Through my toy photography, I hope I can share with someone else that same happiness and nostalgia.

5 Beginner Tips from Star Wars Toy Photographer Perry Stehlin
Trouble on Tantive IV. C-3PO & R2-D2 - A New Hope
ISO-200, f/5.6, 1/125

See more of his photography works on Instagram.

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