Anatomy of Toy Photography
Toy Photography has taken center stage on MyKaiju. It is my unique contribution to the celebration of Godzilla. What began as weekend play has become daily passion. As an amateur toy photography, every shoot is a classroom experience. New lessons to learn and old to recall. I try to accomplish specific goals in each shot in addition to putting my Godzilla figure in the best light as possible. Now I find myself thinking through each phase of the process in detail. I would like to briefly document what I’ve been doing and learning since jumping into toy photography over a year ago. My latest photo of the newly release Shodai Godzilla Train Biter best exemplifies where I am as an amateur toy photographer.
My process has some structure and sequence but it always begins with inspiration. This inspiration is drawn from watching Godzilla movies to Google searching /images for posting on the MyKaiju facebook page. I am always ready to screen capture a movie scene and I keep several folders of miscellaneous Godzilla photos on my computer desktop. Specifically, I have a directory called “shot ideas,” where I have a queue of potential ideas for the next photo shoot. Sometimes my shoots come from facebook friend requests. Several shoots have been commissioned by other partner facebook pages. Most often the subject matter comes to me at a moment’s notice.
Now I routinely travel to my local train shop looking for both new and old miniatures from buildings to cars and trains. Details matter and go a long way in making a scene look real and believable. Studying Toho films, the work of Eiji Tsuburaya and others reveals a great focus and appreciation on the details. So strategically placed signs, traffic signs, power lines, cars, and more add a layer of visual interest that we take for grant in everyday life but we will wonder what is missing when looking at toy photography. Toy photography is an imitation of life, in this case, movie life. Budget, time, and space are constraints limiting what can be done. Thinking through the details, buying supplies ahead, and using a bit of hand labor can transform a shot from average to exceptional.
When I build up a shot I always think in three layers—foreground, mid-ground, and background. When selecting objects for each layer I consider scale and detail. Forced perspective is a tokusatsu technique that creates surreal size, height, depth, and length when it doesn’t really exist. It’s all about optical effects and tricks. Sometimes it works and doesn’t. I’ve have many unpublished shots for many reasons. But even the throwaways are priceless because they are the building blocks for the next shoot. Building up the photo along these three layers is key. Recently, I’ve focused upon larger scale figures that make it impossible to use my monitor and TV screen for the background. So I’ve been using colored poster boards that I enhance with clouds and color in the post-production Photoshop phase. The challenge is to minimize the texture and scuff marks on the poster board when the figure is set close to it. Whereas the background should pop the figure out, the foreground leads the eyes along a path to the subject matter. Observing tokusatsu stills arrangement, composition, and perspective are the key. The arrangement of the foreground objects create lines leading toward or going across the subject matter in the mid-ground. Composing the shot can take time. This is where the shot is made or broken. Remember the rule of thirds and the rule of three. The rule of thirds suggests “an image should be imagined as divided into nine equal parts by two equally spaced horizontal lines and two equally spaced vertical lines, and that important compositional elements should be placed along these lines or their intersections.” (Wikipedia). The rule of three or power of three is a writing principle that suggests that things that come in threes are funnier, more satisfying, or more effective than other numbers of things (Wikipedia). Positioning the camera’s height and angle can minimize or maximize the foreground elements and create a more interesting perspective. The better I become at these things less of the photo I have to crop. Keeping in mind these layers, the placement of objects, and some of the helpful rules will make your toy photography better.
Finally, my goal is to avoid as much post-production time as possible. Sometimes the simplest of shots require the most Photoshop work. I always avoid to clip around and move the subject matter. If I have to do that, then I’ve failed and I must retake the shot. Most of my post-production time is spent on the background, cleanup, and color correction. A poorly executed background is often why a diorama is not as good as it could be. All the detail and work that goes into a scene setup will be forgotten and overlooked if the background is shabby. If you are using a bed sheet or photo background make sure to light it properly. Do a little Photoshop work to clean it up. Texture, gradients, and consistency are important. Get the blotches out! Clean up everything. Touch up paint jobs on the figures and enhance the eyes. Fix the grass. Patch the sky. Add lighting effects. If possible add smoke and tokusatsu effects like Godzilla’s atomic fire. Some toy photographers will use pyro-techniques, fire, and smoke in their shots. I don’t and recommend doing that will the proper equipment, permissions, and supervision. With that said, they add a lot of creativity to the shot. I will add those effects digitally when and where it works. For now I’ve avoid breaking my buildings and adding scorch marks. But that’s coming in the near future. Post-production can be very time consuming. In addition, file sizes grow exponentially when dealing with raw camera shots. The layers add up quickly. So getting as much right at the time of the shoot is critical. But when all fails, Photoshop can help.