Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Photographic Robotic

 - Dorian MacQuarrie

Photography plays a large part in the world of toy collecting. At some point most of us will have taken a few snaps of our toys and these can largely be sorted into two distinct categories. At one end of the spectrum you have the lush ultra-high quality photography requiring a suite of equipment: a light box with an accompanying light source, dedicated photography space and of course, an expensive DSLR camera. Full of crisp details they are often used for promotional reasons or by collectors who have a keen interest in photography itself. Then at the other end you have the much more humble pictures, possibly of a favourite shelf or set of toys and of course the haul or “new toy joy” pictures. The only equipment needed is a camera phone, although these days that’s no longer such an issue with the quality of phone cameras but they still exist in the realm of a quick snap with less planning or focus on the quality of the picture itself and is more about the toy in question. In this article I’ll explain why I prefer one style over the other.

Each of these has a different motivation. Reviewers might want to show off as much of a toy as cameras will allow, with all the details and paint apps on full display and possibly hoping to gain exposure for their work; someone showing off their latest acquisitions or a random bot is probably just looking for a quick thumbs up and the general appreciation from the community they post in. Quite honestly, I much prefer this second type of photography.

Taking a look at the high quality style first, it’s often in a light box or in some sort of controlled environment. You can get some real nifty effects with a polished surface or if you really want to up the ante you can use a green screen along with special effects or a digital background but it doesn’t really speak to me of the toy, the piece of plastic which is to be held in hand and manipulated. It’s not in a “live” environment and while yes, visually the pictures are amazing with every sculpted detail and paint application represented in full I often find them to be a bit sterile and lacking in character. I actually purchased a light box with the intent of trying my hand at this kind of photography and I'll admit, it was fun and it's definitely something I will be pursuing further. Now I will readily admit to being an absolute novice at this but I feel I was able to shine a light (both literally and figuratively) on a toy which has taken the collecting community by storm, Maketoys Striker Manus. 


There’s an initial moment of wow which quickly fades away as I look through the same toy, in the same environment in different poses. Now these sort of pictures do have their use beyond simply showing off how great someone’s camera is; it can inform the buyer of how a toy looks right down to the smallest detail and it can help in deciding whether to buy a toy or not or maybe as is the case with a lot of mainline toys from Hasbro and Takara, which version to get. 

I will admit that experimenting with this sort of photography certainly has its appeal, my pictures feel "legitimate" as they were taken using tools of the trade (to an extent) and I'm quite proud of them for my first attempt. But(!) there is a very different feeling which is conjured up when I see an “in-hand” picture of an upcoming release or maybe a picture of a toy on a desk or shelf, often not the best quality picture but it’s there, it’s right there in someone’s hand which means it's real, it’s in the world around us and more importantly, it will soon be or has just been released!

This leads me on to the second type of picture, one that I gain more enjoyment from, the humble desk picture. Now it may not literally be of a toy on a desk but I mean those pictures which speak to a collector putting a toy on a table and taking a few snaps on their phone.
Often the background will be cluttered with more toys which can sometimes take away some of the focus on the main event but it represents a live environment. That is another person’s collection space and it allows us a brief glimpse into a number of aspects concerning their collecting habits. What other toys they might have, how they are displayed, what sort of bias they have regarding first and third party toys. It can show how toys interact with each other on a shelf and what sort of status the subject of the picture holds compared to the toys around them. To convey my point I took a few snaps of Striker Manus in my usual sort of style, on my desk, on a shelf, a crowd of toys behind or around him and with maybe just a touch of creativity thrown in.

They may not be as well lit and the surrounding toys may actually take the attention away from Striker Manus but these are my shelves, those are the other toys I have, that is the environment they exist in. People can infer my collecting habits from these details and somehow it feels much more personal than the previous pictures taken using the light box. It's similar to someone taking some pictures or making a video of their collection, they are inviting you into their world, their home and allowing you to share the experience. 

There is one last picture that brings it all home for me, a picture I took of Striker Manus in my room at TFNation when, at that point in time, Striker Manus wasn't on sale anywhere else in the world. This was a special moment for me as a collector, captured in all the details of what is quite clearly a hotel room table, with evidence of my other purchases in the background and at a time when I had in my possession a toy which had to yet to be released to the world at large outside of this particular convention in Birmingham. Had I not been at the event this is definitely the kind of picture that would excite me for a toy's impending release far more than the well lit, super clear, fantastically framed production shot. 

Now herein lies the peculiar aspect of my preference for quick and dirty photography. I am a huge fan and supporter of third party toys. Fansproject and Maketoys are, as the kids say, my jam. High quality, well designed, well engineered, well built toys consume the vast majority of my shelf space and I have sung the song of third party toys for many years now, often deriding current mainline toys as #FirstPartyTrash (#FPT). So why oh why would I not hold the same standards for toy photography as I do for the toys themselves? Well besides having a habit of mixing the logical with the irrational it often boils down to one simple fact: they're toys. They're toy robots, made to be held, manipulated, swooshed, TRANSFORMED! Magnificent pictures taken under a rack of LEDs using the latest DSLR camera in a light box fail to capture that gritty, real world feeling an in hand or haul picture carries with it. It's like the difference between seeing an airbrushed celebrity on the cover of a magazine and seeing your friend's picture with said celebrity at the supermarket doing the weekly Big Shop (for full disclosure I have no idea which celebrity to use as an example as it'd either be too crass or far too vague). One is very pretty and sure does look great but the other is almost tangible, it's raw, it's a real-time event that *just* happened with minimal controls put around it and then shared for the world to see without the hindrance of a serious objective or agenda. 

This connects with a feeling I have regarding Generation 1 Autobot cars, that as toys they perform wonderfully, being able to sufficiently provide a play pattern in both robot and alt mode. When a toy is seen more as a representation of a character and is photographed as such, it loses the simple mindless joy that many of us get from holding a piece of plastic in our hands. It’s less attainable and presents a barrier between what we see and what we would experience were we to own the figure. Compare this to a picture of a recent haul or a bot posed on a coffee table and we can instantly relate to that experience. We have been there, we have done the same and it allows us to take part in the shared appreciation that is one of the very foundations of a community. 

Until next time, keep it #Refined

Follow Dorian on Twitter @Vigadeath


  1. I personally would rather see crisp lightbox photos than iphone blurry snaps on a shelf covered in dust, but I still appreciate someone sharing what they have. I love the look of a well displayed collection, and short of buying a few hundred dollars worth of equipment, it's hard to get professional looking shelf shots.

    I've spent years trying to perfect my photography, and some people tell me it shows. I love seeing a collector excel in photography after trying for months to perfect it, I love the infinite look, white or black if done right, but both require years of practice, dedication, and trial and error to get right.

    Good luck on the blog, hope to see more of it

    1. Thanks for the comment. I've seen your work and it's amazing. Maybe once I put some time into learning how to take better pictures I'll start to appreciate the craft more and do a U-turn on my stance on toy photography.

  2. I cant help feeling that there is a happy middle here. Shelf pictures dont need to be dusty and badly lit. Lightbox pictures dont need to be stark and sterile. Why not put some other toys in the lightbox and some scenery? Have FUN with it and still take incredible pictures.