Toy Photography Setup

First of all, I’m no Pro. I simply love toys and photography. Those two hobbies give me much satisfaction and eases out the stress after a week’s uber-work at the meatgrinder (read: office).

So, allow me to share with you what I’ve gathered from self-taught, web research and trial and error. Also, I haven’t seen any great article(s) on this topic on the web so I’m making one to help those in search for it.

I’m not saying that this is THE way to go. But if you want to take photos of your toys to the next level, you CAN do it without expensive cameras, gear and equipment. All it takes are some simple, effective gear and simple skills…

And of course, PRACTICE.


TOY PHOTOGRAPHY SETUP *by GM Tristan

I’ll be dividing this post into 3 parts

  1. Camera – what gear you need, from point-and-shoot digital cams to DSLRs and the settings that you need to remember for those great photos.
  2. Gear – What I use for the Toy Photo shoot setup. From simple DIY lights, backgrounds, etc.
  3. Tools – accessories that will make your Toy Photo sessions (and your life easier). You can start with DIY stuff and eventually save up money for the advanced stuff in the future.

PART 1: CAMERA

A lot of people say that it takes an expensive DSLR to come up with great shots. Well… having a great camera IS AN ADVANTAGE but NOT A MUST. Don’t fret, if you have an old trusty digital point-and-shoot; that thing CAN do the job. You just need to know how to use the proper settings and how to light and pose your subjects.

Point and Shoot Digicams

All fairly new digital cameras can do a decent job for Toy Photography. Those in the market today have 10MP and above. Almost all have the MACRO function (often, it’s the symbol of a flower). Flash is also decent but you gotta avoid it since point-and-shoot camera flash often give out harsh, over-exposed light. I’ll tell you how to do that in a bit

Settings for Point-and-shoot Digital cameras

  • Macro mode – put your camera in macro mode (the one with the flower symbol). Now you can do close-ups with some DOF (Depth of Field, where other areas of the toy become out of focus with your chosen area in focus). Also, if your camera has Toys or even a Food setting, you CAN use that. Take a couple of shots using the different settings and compare.
  • Flash – as much as possible, avoid the flash since it will produce harsh and blown out lighting. If you can use your camera’s macro mode without the flash AND use daylight, you WILL produce sharper images. Don’t worry, I’ll show you how to light your toys later.
  • Light – For photographers, light is the “paint” and the subject, the canvass. The BEST light and the cheapest one (without question) is the Sun. Although direct sunlight CAN produce harsh light, there are different ways to diffuse it to produce soft, even lighting. Use daylight whenever possible. Take photos near your window, go out to your garden… even under the shade is good. You can never go wrong with daylight… remember that.
  • Artificial Light – of course, we don’t have sunlight EVERYTIME. We can also produce “studio-quality” lights with some lights found in DIY shops or even the hardware store. I’ll go into detail with that in a bit.

Settings for DSLRs

  • Mode – although the DSLR has a macro mode, I seldom use that (not unless I go into extreme close-ups). My favorite modes are AV (Aperture Priority) and MANUAL
  • AV Settings – here’s a rule of thumb, if you want DOF (Depth of Field) select the lowest aperture you have. This means that you’ll be focusing on just part of the toy and will have some parts slightly out of focus. I use around f/4 to f/8 of my Canon 500D. I get surprisingly sharper images at f/5.6 so currently, that’s my favorite. If you want the Toy be completely focused, choose apertures of F/11 and above. You won’t get DOF here and the entire Toy will be in focus. Great if you want to show the detail for everything.
  • ISO – use around 100 to 200 ISO for “studio” light setup. You can also leave this in manual mode and let the camera decide
  • White Balance – I just use the Auto WB function but sometimes, I experiment with other settings.
  • Flash – I rarely use the camera’s built-in flash (I hate that thing). I got a china-made YN flash that I use for fill-in functions, normally the lowest flash setting just to “still” the image and get sharper results
  • Low Light photography – it’s best to tackle this in a separate article. But the best advise here is to use a tripod since shutter speeds are so long, it’s impossible to hand-hold the camera and get a crisp, sharp photo.

PART 2: GEAR

Here are some of the basic gear you’ll need. I’ll be tackling them one-by-one below.

  • Lights
  • Lamps/sockets
  • Diffusers
  • Background
  • Other light sources
  • Light Box
  • Setting it up

LIGHTS

I use simple lights that you can find in DIY shops or even the hardware section of the mall. I have 2 daylight bulbs of around 20 watts. These bulbs are what we call here in the Phippines, “energy savers” (they have a lower wattage than traditional fluorescent lights) so even though they read lower watts on the label, they produce 100 or more watts of light power.

Try to find around 20W to 30W and choose a brand you want (or the price that fits your budget). Let me show you what I have. They cost around P200.00 each and are still ok even more than a year later. Remember to get “daylight”, since you don’t want yellow lights in toys (you can get non-daylight if you want a “tungsten” effect). But for starters, daylight energy-saver bulbs are the way to go.

For light-stands/sockets, I just got cheap china-made lamps with a clip. They cost around P100 each. You can find similar products at a DIY store or the hardware section of the department store for roughly the same price. As an alternative, you can use table lamps.

DIFFUSERS

Pros use a “Softbox”. But inexpensive items like cloth, an old white cotton t-shirt (try to find the thinnest one), or even muslin can be used. For me, I found my wife’s old cover-packaging for her bags… cut them out to size and use rubber bands to secure them to the light fixtures. Job done!

BACKGROUNDS

For starters, go to National Bookstore and get yourself matte/flat cartolinas in Black, White and Gray. Get around 2-3 pieces each and you’re all set for your basic background gear. You can also rummage through grandma’s cabinet (be sure to tell her and ask permission) to find old cloth, curtains, bedsheets that you can use for backgrounds. Don’t be afraid to experiment.

OTHER LIGHT SOURCES

If I want to highlight certain portions of the toy, I use a simple flashlight. This one (below), which was given to me by a friend, was bought in Baguio. It’s a military-style torch that has (convenient) different colored plastic caps. I love this thing! If you can’t find one, a normal flashlight and some colored cellophane can do the trick for you. The shot above was done using this tool.

LIGHT BOX

If you want studio-quality shots for your toys, you can build an inexpensive lightbox from a cardboard box and some cheap materials. What’s good about light boxes is that they distribute light evenly so you get great lighting and minimal shadows. That’s the trick to great toy photographs.

Check out the video below for the how-to

Here’s the website with the step-by-step

For me, I got myself this Dome Studio (purchased at the Canon store in Virra Mall, Greenhills for about P1,500 bucks). It’s convenient and easily sets up. Do check out some of the photos of the unit below;

It looks like an umbrella and folds out into this…

Here are some shots of the box and some Japanese illustrations…

It comes with a back-to-back white and grey background which you attach to the inside via velcro.

SETTING IT UP

Basically, you’ll want a a two or three-light setup for your home studio. Here’s the basic configuration without a light box

Here’s my simple setup when I’m not using the lightbox

For the lightbox, you just put the two lights at the side, like so

PART 3: TOOLS OF THE TRADE

Here are some inexpensive items that will make your hobby easier (it did wonders for me);

Clips

I have clips of different shapes and sizes. Most of them, you can get at the bookstore (or even our sampayan hehe). I use them to clip backgrounds, cloth, etc. A thousand uses. Never have a photo session without ‘em.

TAPE

Believe me, masking tape will become your best friend. ‘Nuff said.

TRIPODS

Some pros said that even your heartbeat contributes to camera shake. So, a steady camera WILL produce sharper, clearer photos. The tool for this – the lowly tripod. It doesn’t matter whether you have a cheapo one or those that cost hundreds of dollars. Any sturdy tripod will do the job. For this, you have to set your camera to the self-timer mode, usually 5 to 10 seconds before the shutter takes the photo. This is to ensure that you pressing the button will not contribute to camera shake

I have a small tripod and a big, albeit cheap one, shown below…

Photobucket

Photobucket

Tip: shut off your DSLR’s Image Stabilizer for sharper photos when using your tripod.

So there you have it, a lot of tips on basic toy photography. I hope that the article above will help you make better photos for you to enjoy and share. If you got a question, just comment below and I’ll do my best to help.

Feel free to share this article and pass it around to fellow budding photographers and toy collectors. Geeks rule!

Meanwhile, you can join my newest fan page at Facebook, Toy Photography Philippines where you can have updates on news, gear, techniques and of course, Toy Photos on a regular basis. You can also post your own toy photos there to share and ask for constructive criticism.

While you’re at Facebook, be sure to also be my gmtristan.com page fan, okies?

Thanks and happy Toy Photography!

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