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The Art of Toy Photography: 8 Tips for the Best Shots

Once a niche genre, toy photography gained a huge boost in popularity during the pandemic lockdowns as photographers found themselves looking for interesting things to capture in their homes. As many people soon discovered, many of the skills one can learn from photographing toys tends to translate well to other genres, including portraiture and product photography. Even better, toy photography is incredibly accessible. At the short distances you need to take toy photos, you can easily use a smartphone with a macro feature to get decent results. Even if you prefer to use a DSLR or mirrorless camera, you can get away with doing the bulk of your pictures with just one macro lens, which makes toy photography much easier to get into compared to than genres that usually require multiple lenses like event and wildlife photography. 

A teddy bear in portrait on a blurred background
Photograph by Sandy Millar, Unsplash

Of course, that doesn’t mean you can’t get creative with the genre’s technical side. To really push your capabilities, you can set up shoots at a photography studio hire London-based photographers use for product photos and other similar prepared shots. Moreover, these studios may give you ideas of the possibilities that different camera and lighting setups can offer.

In any case, toy photography is a deceptively simple genre that offers more imaginative photographers a playground to explore various techniques. Let’s look at some tried-and-true ideas that will subvert your audiences’ idea of toy photography:

1. Start with the Right Toys

It’s easier to make emotionally resonant shots if you select toys that already inspire you from the get go. Whether it's vintage action figures, beloved childhood toys, or collectibles from popular franchises, picking a pieces that you already enjoy will do a lot to simplify the rest of the process.

2. Set the Scene

One thing a lot of people don’t realise about toy photography is that getting the background and props right can take up the bulk of the work. Though there’s nothing wrong with just doing straight-up shots of toys on simple backgrounds, the right backdrops will help create immersive worlds for your toys to inhabit. Try to make the time to experiment with different materials and props since these are essential for enhancing the narrative and atmosphere of your photos.

A pair of Storm Trooper toys posed behind a concrete wall as if they were in a war.
Photography by Mulyadi, Unsplash

3. Experiment with Scale

Most of the viral toy photos you’ve seen on social media play with perspective to create illusions of depth and scale that make the subjects appear more lifelike. Pulling off photos like these requires you to play with the depth of field, as well as to use props and backgrounds that are the right scale. You can choose to make shots more reminiscent of “human scale” or deliberately play with relative object sizes to produce a more stylised effect.

4. Master Lighting Techniques

Lighting is always important for evoking mood, regardless of the genre. However, it’s especially important in toy photography, particularly in styles where toys are meant to seem like they’re human sizes. Experiment with natural and artificial light, as well as tools like diffusers, reflectors, and filters to get the mood and scale just right.

5. Apply Strong Composition 

Fundamental composition techniques such as the rule of thirds, leading lines, and framing still apply in toy photography. Indeed, close adherence to known photography principles helps further reinforce the illusion that your subjects are inhabiting a relatable, human-sized world.

A rubber duck in stark light with long shadow.
Photograph by S. Tsuchiya, Unsplash

6. Use Angles and Positioning to Add Dynamics

Don't be afraid to get down low or shoot from unusual angles to add dynamism and interest to your photos. Create the idea of motion in otherwise static subjects by posing them in ways that suggest movement. From behind the lens, you can experiment with motion blur, depth of field, and shutter speed to further convey a sense of motion.

7. Pay Attention to the Details

The smallest details make the best photos and this is especially true in toy photography. Pay attention to the subtle expressions of your subjects and consider including weathering effects or intricate accessories when warranted. These touches can add depth to your images and make them seem more life-like.

8. Be Careful with Your Editing

Editing software can do much to enhance your photos, but over-processing and following every “best practice” in the book can give them a generic, stock-image look. In any case, getting everything right in your raw shots will just make it that much easier to produce a good photo regardless of how much post-processing you need to perform.

Rediscover the Magic of Childhood Through Toy Photography

Toys have a way of bringing us to more innocent times when we had fewer responsibilities outside of playing make-believe. In a sense, toy photography is an extension of this time-honoured childhood practice except that, this time, it's adults who create miniature worlds brimming with imagination and emotion. It’s no wonder, then, that so many photographers gravitate towards toys as a subject.

Best of all, toy photography is eminently accessible. You probably already have a few potential subjects kicking around in your home, and you can also pick up a few more toys at flea markets or on sites like eBay. All that is left for you to do is to apply the techniques we shared and elevate your photography to new heights.

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