The genesis of a photo
Sparking an idea
Most people love a good story and a good joke and even LEGO. Combining these elements can engage you with your audience in a wonderful way. My inspiration usually comes from my surroundings and I usually try to assemble the minifigs and MOCs while an idea is fresh in my mind. Keeping a journal of ideas can be useful if time doesn’t allow for immediate action.
Below I will share some tips and give you a peek behind the curtain into some of the techniques I use to take my photos. Enjoy.
Quality lighting is what sets apart the good, the bad and the ugly photos and it’s such an easy thing to get wrong, but it’s also easier than you might imagine to get it looking right.
Since minifigs are glossy plastic, and therefore highly reflective, what you need to do is diffuse your light source and play with the distance between your subject and the light for softer shadows and highlights.
Before: Bare flash vs After: Softbox flash
Bare flash = small + harsh
Harsh shadows behind the feet, under the arm and on the head of the minifig.
Specular highlights around the light blue on the shoulders and the top of the helmet.
Just plain nasty to my eyes!
Flash with softbox = large + soft
Everything is much softer looking here and the shadow behind has pretty much disappeared.
The specular highlights are more evenly spread so it’s softer and if you look closely, you can see a large white circle between the head stud and top of the helmet created by the softbox.
Something to keep in mind when using a larger diffuser is that you will achieve softer light, but more power will be required to give satisfactory results.
The softbox, as opposed to an umbrella, also helps to control light spill around the rest of the environment. However, using umbrellas in their reflective configuration can help reduce light spill.
As of June 2020, I started shooting my photos using Lume Cube 2.0 continuous LED lights. One of the main reasons I chose to make the switch was to remove any guesswork for the position and power when using a Speedlite. Add in the fact that these things are tiny in size by comparison to my flashes and it opens up a whole new world of lighting effects such as the interiors of small LEGO buildings.
Making the change
It took me a while to get comfortable using them because I had been using flashes for years. At first, I was using the Lume Cubes with the mini diffusers supplied and while these might be perfectly acceptable for larger subjects, they just didn’t cut it when it came to shooting LEGO Minifigures due to their small size and the reflective material. One of the big positives of using them was rediscovering the reflective umbrellas that I had not used for quite some time and this brought me back into my comfort zone.
Controlling the lights is done on your phone via the free app from the manufacturer, so you can fine-tune the power of the light and also in which mode they operate. The app is not perfect by any means, but the developers have informed me they plan to release a new version some time in the future, so let’s see if some of the minor annoyances can be ironed out. Check the Lume Cube website if you’re curious about them and if they are the right choice for you.
I’ve got the power
If there is one downside to them, then it’s the battery life. They have a self-contained battery and a weather-sealed USB-C connector on the back for use with the supplied cables, but they can also be run from the mains power. I’ve yet to buy longer cables to try this out but I’m sure it would help me feel less rushed knowing that I’m not going to run out of juice all of a sudden during a photoshoot.
Update 13/11/2020: I finally invested in a pair of 3m USB-C – USB-A cables I found on Amazon.
Level 1: I’m kinda broke
The most basic diffuser is perhaps an A4 sheet of white paper placed in front of your light source. Your light source could be a simple LED lamp from IKEA or your local DIY store, but be careful how close you place your light source to the subject area. If it’s too close you will still get hotspots, albeit slightly softer ones, so experiment by putting some distance between the light source and the subject.
Level 2: I’ve got a bit of cash
You could start spending some money on your hobby by investing in a cheap pop-up mini lightbox. I’ve seen these online for around 20€. Some even include mini LED strips so it’s a case of setting up the box, plugging it in and away you go. Others even include various coloured backgrounds for that all in one solution.
Level 3: God mode
If you plan to photograph more than LEGO, investing in some proper lighting gear might be worthwhile. Most importantly, it won’t require a big investment to get started with a decent softbox/umbrellas & Speedlite / Speedlight / flashgun. Going down this road will open up new creative avenues, and soon you’ll be an expert in things like snoots, grids, colour gels, etc. Just watch your bank balance in the process!
Rosco Strobist Collection
When I need to make a shot more atmospheric, I add a colour gel from my Rosco Strobist Collection of gels. These are coloured films that sit on the Lume Cube or Speedlite and cast that colour over your shot.
There’s no magic formula using these, so it’s all trial and error.
Bonus link for tutorials: Strobist 101
The background can make or break an entire photo. In case you can’t tell from my photos, I’m a big fan of solid colour backgrounds. The fact that you’re reading this, it’s probably safe to assume that you’re also photographing LEGO products and for the most part that’s great news in terms of the amount of material required.
Right now, I’m using different coloured craft paper to create my backgrounds. These are quite common, so everyone should be able to source them locally. Mine is a cheap pack I found at a local discount store. Thanks to my wife for that one!
My technique for creating a seamless coloured background is using multiple sheets and overlapping them so it looks like one continuous piece of paper.
UPDATE: On 20th June 2020, I invested in some A2 heavy-duty black craft paper which is really great for creating a perfectly seamless background and also as a support to attach A3 coloured craft papers.
To avoiding seeing any overlapping lines, stack the sheets starting from the background and working your way out to foreground.
Mix and match
You can also mix and match the colours to create interesting backgrounds. Below is an example where I used blue, white and orange to create the waves foreground and sunset background.
Another favourite technique is using a second flash fitted with a grid aimed at the background to produce the circular shape you see in a lot of my images.
#1 Kids craft scissors for the waves!
#2 Buy some white tac to keep the sheets of paper in place.
I discovered this technique on Instagram but I haven’t used it a lot. It’s a pretty clever trick and gives you endless background possibilities. It’s very simple: find a nice photo, put it full screen on a digital device and photograph your minifigs standing in front of it. I’ve used my laptop in the one below, for example. Click the second slide to see the behind the scenes video.
Getting it right can be tricky. First you’ll need correct exposure for the screen brightness of the laptop and then you need to adjust the power of your light source accordingly. This is where the professional gear gives you more control.
This is mainly my own rule, but I will never use background images where I have even the slightest doubt about copyright. Best to avoid getting your images pulled, account suspended or worse.
This one might be obvious, but don’t forget to place your minifigures in their natural habitat. You don’t need to create an elaborate construction like the one of the super builder, Keith Lowry. Just think how you are going to frame your subject and then build an environment around them, just enough for it to fill your camera frame. Adding a few accessories can really bring it to life. Just make sure they are relevant to the shot.
This is subjective, but I feel people respond really well when there is an everyday object taking centre stage with the minifigure subject. For my photos, I’ve used some stuff from around the house. Here’s the list to date:
- Empty milk bottle
- Sewing machine
- Old shoe box
- Fabric leftovers
- Tin of tuna
- Bottle of maple syrup
- Raspberry Pi
- Vintage camera
- Illustrated book
- Back of a business card
- A pencil
- Toblerone box
- Kitchen knife
- Box of tea
- Silicon spray can
- PEZ sweets
- IKEA cupboard feet
- A kid’s shoe
- A boardgame
- A pencil case
- Kitchen utensil holder
- A garlic
Visit my Instagram account to see if you can find them all.
All of my photos are put through the ringer, aka Lightroom / Photoshop, to some extent until they feel right to me. Repeat after me: THIS.IS.NOT.CHEATING!
Used mainly for colour grading, adjustment and removing any unwanted spots or little dust particles I may have overlooked while taking the photo.
I use this mostly for adding effects that I am unable to produce practically, like clouds or smoke and even the occasional lens flare, believe it or not. It’s also the tool I use to erase the wire supports from the minifigs.
Check out my Anatomy of a LEGO Ghost article to see what you can achieve with some Photoshop and Lightroom.
Before and after comparison
The before and after of my Stranger Things photo to show what is possible.
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