Sunday, 16 November 2014

Lego Photography - Behind The Scenes

            Having just hit 2000 followers on Instagram, I though I would celebrate with a little behind the scenes look at my Lego photography process. I’ve had a few people asking me about my photos and so hopefully this will give a little insight into how I work.

            Just to note before we start: there is no right or wrong way of doing any of this. This is just how I work and where appropriate I’ll outline the reasons why I have chosen to do it that way. I neither consider myself a ‘photographer’ (I’ve pretty much arrived at these results through trial and error), nor do I consider myself an expert on social media – so don't take my word as gospel – this is just what works for me.

Step 1 – Time, Ideas and Inspiration

            In order to maintain a consistent output (one of my key ways to being successful on Instagram), I aim to publish a new photo every two days. When I first started my Lego photography, I was self employed and worked odd hours, which allowed me usually to shoot and publish on the day that each photo was due. Working regular hours now however, has made this very difficult and for this reason I generally often shoot enough photos to cover the week (3 or 4 photos) when I have time each weekend.

            Although I’ve always maintained an ‘ideas list’ for photos since I first started, this has become increasingly important so that I don't waste too much time when I have to prep and shoot each photo. I aim to try and be unique with each photo set up, so having a collection of ideas that I can dip into for quick reference always helps. Whenever I have a good idea whilst I am in the middle of doing something else or out and about, I make a note of it (jotting it down or an audio recording on my phone) so I can add it to the list later.

            The list itself is simply a text file on my computer that is split in to two sub headings: 'Indoor' and 'Outdoor'. That’s it. Differences between shooting each will be discussed later.

            As for ideas for the photos themselves, I believe it is important to have a distinct ‘identity’ or feel for your photos. There are hundreds if not thousands of Instagram accounts dedicated to Lego photography, and generally the most successful ones are those that are consistent in the type of Lego photo they post. Some take great outdoor photography (that feature a minifigure placed in the foreground), others photograph their own elaborate creations (MOCs), some specialise in portraits, others work from a pun or joke, and so on. There are so many different angles and styles one can approach Lego photography – I may even do a showcase of some of the awesome people I follow in a future post.

            For me personally though, I prefer to try and make each picture unique, with the focus generally being on a particular minifigure (or occasionally minifigures) in an amusing or interesting situation. I sometimes use props (both Lego and real world objects) and often swap out parts (the face especially) where needed in order to convey the relevant emotion of the character. In fact, part swapping is something I do often that helps makes my pictures unique. I generally think in two ways when setting up a photo. Firstly, it appeals to the casual fan of Lego - simply because the picture is entertaining in and of itself, but also secondly, it further appeals to hardcore Lego fans as something interesting is being done with minifigures, their parts or a particular set-up, that only those greatly familiar with available Lego parts might recognise.
             An example of this may be building a picture idea around a custom printed tile, swapping out just one part of a minifigure, or following a set theme (such as my recent run of photos featuring Series 12 CMF figures).

            Ideas for photos can often spring from a minifigure, an accessory, a part, an object, a film… the list goes on. I do have rather a large collection of minifigures, and so I can always look to those I haven’t shot yet as a quick springboard for further ideas. Anyway, the main point here is: jot your ideas down when you get inspired. Inspiration is often fleeting and can be sometimes be difficult to come by, especially when pushed for time, so having an ‘ideas list’ somewhere is pretty handy for me.

            Alternatively, if you are going somewhere interesting (be it somewhere with different scenery, interesting architecture or whatever), take a minifigure or two with you. You never know - an opportunity for a great shot might present itself to you at that time!

Step 2 – Set-up and Shooting

            First off, what camera do I use? People often ask me that after seeing my Lego photography. Well, the answer is: the humble iPhone. Not even a decent one at that - an iPhone 4 (not even a 4S!). When I have saved a bit more money I may upgrade to a newer iPhone with a better camera, but for now it serves its purpose and it’s convenient as I always have it on me ready to shoot. Of course you can use a much better camera if you want (things like manual focus, exposure and shutter speed will definitely be helpful in taking better photos) but the point is you don't necessarily need an expensive SLR to get good results.

            As far as shooting with an iPhone goes, two things are the most crucial for me. Lighting and keeping the phone still. For indoor photography, I used to use a combination of desk lamps and daylight (which worked but restricted the time of day I could shoot), briefly went on to using some flexible Ikea lights (useful as you can fine tune the angle using their bendy necks). The most recent lighting source I have used (and by far the best at achieving the desired result) is an LED light (that can be mounted onto a tripod for adjustability) with a diffuser on it.

            The diffuser is important for me as it allows the light to be bright without being too harsh. If it's too harsh, minifigures can sometimes appear too ‘shiny’ and also shadows become very dark – both of which can be distracting in the photo. Don't worry if you just use regular desk lamps, however. A bit of baking paper wrapped around one of the lights has a similar effect as a diffuser (as you can see in the photo below), and I have used that set-up for the vast majority of my indoor shoots.

            As far as keeping the camera still is concerned – generally the worse the camera is, the more important this is to do. With my iPhone, it’s really easy to get a blurred photo if you are not completely still when taking it (especially as this is macro photography), so I would recommend resting the phone on something, be it the shooting surface, a tripod, your knee, whatever…

            Whilst I am shooting, I play around with the set-up by adjust the lighting and the angle of the shot. For each picture I end up with, I take anything between 8 and 30 shots to get just the right one. Here is an example of the how many different shots I took for one photo and how different they can look in terms of positioning and lighting.

            I often get asked about the coloured backgrounds too. Simply, it is all done in-camera – a bit of coloured paper set at a curve (so there is no visible horizon) attached to a piece of cardboard. That’s it! The key to making it look good is, once again, just the lighting. I bought a roll of several different coloured sheets for £1 a while ago – I reuse them until they get a bit too creased - it’s lasted me a while!

            As for outdoor shoots it’s all about the natural lighting. On one hand, if the weather is good, your photo will be nicely lit – no lights or anything needed. However, there are so many other variables that can affect your photography outdoors. These include things like cloud cover (changing lighting), strong winds (can knock your setup/minifigures over), curious people interfering (yes this can happen!) and so on. Generally I prefer indoor photography (as it’s much easier to control the variables) but you can get interesting shots and backgrounds outdoors - so it’s good to mix it up a little now and then.

            Just a few other notes about shooting. Some people use lightboxes for their Lego photography. I’ve heard they are good for controlling conditions and maximising lighting but I’ve never really had use or space for one. I may experiment more with a homemade one in the future, but for now I've found its not necessary for my set-up as I mostly shoot during the day where there is natural light in the room also.
           Some people use baseplates to hold minifigures in position for their photography. I have done this once or twice when I first started, and although it offers stability for posing minifigures, I prefer not to include them in the photo as I think it is distracting. See below for an example of a photo with and without.

            Of course you can always get around this by hiding it like so:

            Whatever your set-up and shooting process, it’s good to be consistent and efficient so that you can get similar results quickly. I don’t have the luxury of time to spend too long on each set-up (average time spent on each indoor photo set-up and shooting is between 10-30mins) so often I find myself not 100% satisfied with a shot but move on anyway as clever editing can often help make a photo come to life a bit more.

Step 3 – Editing

            Once I have chosen one photo out of the various angles/lighting adjustments, it’s time to edit. With one exception (which I’ll address later) all my photos are edited simply within the Instagram app – often just by adding a vignette and increasing the brightness a little. Occasionally I may adjust the saturation or play with the highlights/shadows balance but often I just keep it simple. That’s why shooting with good lighting in the first place is important – editing a picture becomes so much easier. I nearly always edit my pictures just before I upload (often in the morning rush before leaving the house), so I don't usually spend too much time on this step.
            The only downside to editing in-app, is that it's hard to see what the result will look like once exported to other places such as facebook (which tends to darken pictures), downloading to your desktop, etc... quite often I just upload and then hope for the best!

            I also sometimes crop/zoom in the photo (hint: it’s always better to shoot slightly wider as you can crop but you cant zoom out once you've take a photo!), but I also make this process easier by actually shooting in a square format (rather than the usual rectangle). This is because I shoot with posting to Instagram specifically in mind (some other Lego photographers do not) and I can frame the shot a lot easier that way.

            A note on Instagram filters: this can be an easy way to get stylish results, but in general I don't use filters on my photos as I find the more in-app editing you do, the more it lowers the photo quality in the end. This is not so important for just viewing on Instagram itself, but if you want a higher resolution copy at the end of it (which I use to upload later to my Tumblr) the less filters used the better the photo quality retained.

            The only exception to my regular editing process is when a photo has some ‘floating’ or ‘photo within photo’ elements. For these I use Photoshop (actually GIMPshop – which is a free alternative) and requires that I edit the photo once before importing it back onto my phone to upload to Instagram. I may cover the specifics of how these are edited in future if requested, but for the most part its just a matter of erasing ‘support’ Lego pieces or shooting elements separately and then combining them. Below is an example of a ‘support’ having been edited out.

Step 4 – Uploading and Social Media

            For the final stage of uploading and sharing, I generally follow the exact same process (for the sake of both convenience and consistency). Being efficient at this will save you a lot of time. For me, it goes like this:

1) Upload from Instagram editor to both Instagram and Facebook simultaneously. (For hints about hashtags, check out this previous article).

2) Copy the low res copy from Facebook to my desktop and then post that to Twitter. Doing it straight from Instagram to Twitter (for me, anyway) only shows a link rather than an actual picture preview in the post – which is less likely to result in someone clicking on it to look – so should be avoided.

3) Email a high res copy from my phone to my desktop, add a watermark in Photoshop/GIMP and then upload that to Tumbr (with relevant hashtags). I have staggered my photos (tumblr is 3 photos behind my Instagram postings) so that I’m not blitzing the same photo everywhere on the same day. Also, the staggering means that even if I don't get to upload a new photo to Instagram on a particular day (for whatever reason), I still have something to upload to Tumblr.

            I have different followers on different types of social media, but it’s always good to cross link between them to maximise your exposure.

            And that’s about it! Hope this has been an interesting read, See you next time!

16th November

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