Toy Photography

edited May 2015 Posted in » Nikon D3100 Forum
I've had my D3100 around a year now, and I dare I say a "toy photographer". I have recently changed from 6 inch to 12 inch figures, and I don't feel that I am getting the most out of my camera. Not only do I take photos of collectibles, I have 2 young children that I photograph often. The issue is not with the children, as most of the time I am outdoors with them and the light is perfect.

My issue is with indoor shots. I have a medium sized light box with two LED lights to illuminate. This isn't a problem if I'm in the direct light of my back door/windows, but once the evening comes (I'm usually at work throughout the best parts of daylight), my quality struggles immensely and the light is too "obvious" on the plastics. I'm using the 18-55mm lens that came with the camera, and a tripod.

Most of the time I use auto, but have been experimenting with different modes. I'd like to be able to capture the foreground and blue the background (not a problem with close up) but as soon as I zoom out to capture the whole figure, my lens seems a little fish eyed and does not capture the detailing. Should I be buying a new lens?

Thank you in advance for your time.


  • edited May 2015
    Some of what you're trying to do can be pretty difficult, and you must remember that masters of product and model photography and similar enterprises take huge amounts of time and money to get it perfect. Lighting complex subjects can be very hard to do.

    If your current lens gives the results you need in some conditions, then you're better off controlling the conditions. It's certainly cheaper.

    I have not done a lot of this myself in any serious way, but from what I read, it sounds as if what you need to try to find is more sources of diffuse light that can be shown on your subject obliquely, so as to cancel shadows without sending reflections back to the camera.

    One possibility might be to shoot in less overall light, using long exposures. If the camera is on a tripod and the toy is not doing anything, there's no reason the light must be bright. Keep your ISO low for less noise, close down your aperture for more depth of field if you need it, manually focus or single point focus on a part of the display, and let the camera decide how long it takes. If it takes long, so what? The camera will go automatically to 30 seconds. Beyond that you need a remote shutter release to do time exposures well, but you can shoot practically in the dark at 30 seconds or less. Aperture priority mode should work for that, but make sure you turn "Auto ISO" off, or instead of slowing the shutter way down the meter will boost your ISO.

    Depth of field depends not only on distance but focal length, but they do not quite cancel each other out. The closer you are, the shallower the field, and the longer the lens, the shallower the field. But the longer focal length will give you more blur even if you must move further away.

    There is also a perspective difference. A short lens close up will look more fisheyed, and perspective will be exaggerated. One effect of this is that objects in the background will be relatively small, and if their shape is recognizable, they may be distracting even if they're blurry. Taking the same object at the same image size with a longer lens further away will decrease apparent perspective. Objects in the background will be relatively larger, and as a result their shapes may be more abstract. The longer the lens, the flatter round and lumpy objects will look.

    So where space allows, zoom with your feet to avoid exaggerated perspective, and try to keep the focal length longer than 28. In DX mode, 35mm is normal and will render perspective more or less as your eye sees it.

    For focus, you're best off avoiding multi-point AF, and using single point single servo focus, or even manual if your eyesight can handle it. If depth of field is too shallow, stop the lens down or zoom a little wider. Stop at around f/11 for the best clarity, as smaller apertures will introduce overall softening from diffraction, but sometimes your need for DOF will outweigh the diffraction issue. Use what you need.

    The further your background is from your subject, the easier it will be to blur without overdoing it. If you put a person in front of a wall, it will be much easier to blur the wall if she's standing three feet in front of it than if she's backed up against it.

    Finally, if your scenario requires you to focus on one thing but then to recompose so the thing focused on is no longer at a focus point, try "back button" focus. Dissertations could be written on this, but it's very useful for leisurely recomposing without losing a focus setting. When set, your auto focus works only with the AE/AF Lock button, and never with the shutter button. It's a menu setting in the "buttons" setup menu, "AF ON".
  • edited May 2015
    @davidsonjxiv, I went to a library sale today, and a couple of books caught my eye that might be worth a look for your kind of work.

    One is called "Still Life and Special Effects Photography", published by Rotovision and now apparently out of print, but possibly available free on line.

    (see here)

    The link above looks as if it might lead to a free ebook download of this. I leave it to your discretion if this can be done without subjecting yourself to spam or other unwanted consequences. If you have a good local library, it might be worth a look too. The book shows a number of commercially made photographs, and the lighting setups that were used to achieve them.

    I also found one called "The Magic of Digital Closeup Photography" from a publisher called Lark, which seems to be available cheaply from many sources. This has a lot of photographs of closeups and tableaux, and how they were lighted. Much of this is more close up than what you're doing, but it includes collections of plastic toys and the like, and might prove useful.

    Here's a cheap copy of that one:

    (see here)
    I haven't had time to go through these books myself, but they look as if they should be pretty useful for the kind of thing you're doing.

    Finally, I leave you with this link, which leads to a number of free ebooks that might be worth a look:

    (see here)
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