Tips for Taking Pictures of Small Plastic Things (for the Amateur Photographer)

Geek!This is Zannah’s submission for the HP Magic Giveaway. Feel free to leave comments for this article as you see fit – your feedback is certainly welcomed! If you’d like to submit your own how-to, what-is, or top-five list, you can send it to me. Views and opinions of this writer are not necessarily my own:

[ note: all pictures in this post, except the ‘macro flower’ shot, were taken and are copyright to zannah. please do not redistribute or post pictures or words as your own. thank you. ]

ready for take off!I have a small toy addiction. And when I say that, I don’t mean that my toy addiction is small; on the contrary, it’s more or less out of control. It’s the toys themselves that are small. I’m a collector of both urban vinyl/designer toys and small vinyl or plastic Japanese collectible toys.

I also like to take pictures. I’m not a professional photographer. I don’t have any formal training. I’ll be the first to admit that my pictures aren’t perfect. I’m just a girl with a passion taking pictures of cute things!

One of the main objects of my photographic focus has been on a series of toys called Pinky:ST, manufactured by the Japanese company Vance Project. Each one in the series is a 4-inch tall girl. Most of the girls come with two (molded plastic) outfits. You can mix and match the tops and bottoms between girls, assuming that you don’t lose them or let your cat chew on them between photo shoots. They’re mostly clothed in a variety of fun Japanese street fashions, but a sub-section of the line is fashioned after various Japanese anime or manga characters.

rawr!The bright colours and the cuteness factor are a big part of the reason I’m drawn to taking pictures of them. The fact that they’re so small and easy to throw into my purse helps, too. I’ve taken photos of them them at the office, the park, the beach, and on vacation… The possibilities are endless. I enjoy looking for new environments to take pictures of them.

After I’d been taking pictures of these and other toys (such as KidRobot’s Dunny series) for a while, I searched and started to chat with other collectors online. I found that while there are a number of really creative photographers out on the net, there are an equal number of people who weren’t sure how to get really great pictures of their toys.

I saw a number of shots that would have been beautiful if the photographer had just known how to focus on the toy instead of the leaves in the background. I thought it would be helpful to write out some basic tips to help others. Some people blame their lack of a dSLR camera, but I don’t believe that you need a dSLR to take good pictures. Without getting too technical, I think it’s important to show that you can get really great pictures out of a consumer/prosumer-level camera if you just keep a few simple things in mind.

1. Get familiar with your camera’s macro setting.

If you want to take pictures of small things, you’re going to want to get up close and personal with them. Focus is important in any shot, but in a close-up shot of a small item, there’s more to it than auto-focus. You’re going to want to use your camera’s macro (or close-up) setting! (Note: this isn’t to say you can’t still use auto-focus! You just have to use it in conjunction with your camera’s close-up settings.)

Macro mode allows you to focus on objects that are very close to your camera. The actual distance depends on your camera. Mine can focus on objects just a centimetre or two off the lens. In the cameras I’ve personally used, I’ve found that the minimum distance can be anywhere between a couple of centimetres to 6 or 7; it really depends on the camera. However, you should notice your ability to focus on close-up objects is much sharper than it was before you turned on the macro setting.

closeup/macro on Canon a640My current point-and-shoot camera is a Canon A640. I love it because of the swivel LCD. It makes taking pictures of things low to the ground (like toys) so much easier. I owned the previous version of this camera as well (the A95), but before that I had a Nikon Coolpix. However, most digital cameras have a macro setting these days.

Look for the little flower symbol on the camera’s display. It should look similar to the symbol within the yellow box in the picture on the left. This picture is the back of the Canon A640, but each camera is different. It might be on the settings dial or somewhere as a button on the back of the camera. You may have to read through your camera’s documentation to find it if it is not readily apparent; there are a few cameras on the market that have buried the setting under a menu, making it less easy to take these kinds of pictures on the fly.

Once you have selected the macro/close-up setting on the camera, it is likely the flower symbol will also show somewhere in the camera’s LCD display, should it have one. This will remind you that you’re shooting in macro mode. In-focus pictures are just a click away!

2. Turn your flash off.

Seriously. When you are taking close-up pictures of plastic or vinyl items, turn the flash off. You’re only a few centimetres away. The toy is a shiny object. Logic is only going to prove that if you leave your flash on, you’re going to end up with a picture of a bright splotch with legs (or ears or whatever).

Since you’ve turned the flash off, you’re going to have to make sure you have good lighting. You don’t have to have a pro light setup to achieve this. It can be something as easy as using natural daylight or bringing an extra lamp to your table. The only thing about using a reading lamp is to be aware of the kind of light it’s casting. Poor lighting can cause your pictures to come out yellow or dull. Best to use something with a more neutral cast. Look around to see what you have available to you, even within the house.

ready for action3. Use a tripod if you need it.

Shooting without a flash means that in lower light situations, your shutter will be open longer. (Layman’s terms: it’s going to take longer to actually capture the photo, since it needs more time to get all the light it needs.) Unless you have a super-steady hand (or really good image stabiliser built into your camera), you’re probably going to want to invest in a mini-tripod for those situations.

There’s a veritable cornucopia of mini-tripods out there. I have a really basic 6-inch high mini-tripod that can screw into the bottom of my camera. I also have a Gorillapod for extra fun. My regular mini-tripod cost less than $10 and is small enough to put in my purse with everything else. When I use the small Gorillapod, I just wrap it around my wrist when I’m not using it. It is worth toting the extra piece of equipment around to make sure I get a decent shot.

Use the tripod when your camera indicates the situation is low-light and/or would normally require a flash. It will make sure your camera has a steady platform, elimating any shakiness (and therefore blur) that you might have gotten otherwise. When you are taking pictures of something this close up, a tiny bit of shake makes a huge difference between a clear and a blurry shot.

shadow4. Be aware of your background and the way you frame the photograph.

This is just something you have to train yourself to be aware of as you go along. Make sure you’re looking at everything in the camera’s frame before you take the shot, not just the subject of your focus. What else is in the background? Is that a trash can? Someone’s foot? A tourist’s rear end?

Be aware of what else is going on in the shot. There’s nothing worse than reviewing the pictures later on and realising that you were so involved in setting up your toy and your angle that you also accidentally included the back half of someone’s dog.

I try to take all of my shots so that I don’t have to crop them afterward. It saves time at the end (when all I really want to do is upload the pictures and call it a day) and it helps me really think about the shot I’m taking when I’m taking it.

wishing for the ferris wheel5. Take more than one shot.

This is a tip that really only applies to photographs where the subject sits patiently in one space (toys, still-life, loved ones that love you a lot) and isn’t something you can apply to general candid or action photography (soccer games, dogs, celebrities on the street, friends who are really hungry and just want you to put the camera down so you can get eat, etc).

Memory cards are cheap these days. Photos on point-and-shoot cameras don’t take up too much space, even when you’re on higher quality settings (and you should be). Take more than one go at any particular shot. I usually take at least two or three, making slight adjustments to angle and framing each time.

It’s easy to review your pictures on the camera’s LCD screen, but many times you don’t get a complete sense of the picture until you see it, full size, on your computer monitor. On your computer, you might realise your horizon wasn’t quite straight or you could have tilted at a slightly better angle than you did when you took the shot. If you take several shots, you’ll be able to pick from the best of them. This way, you’re less likely to lose the “perfect” shot.

AI! Sentai! Tachikomanzu!It’s okay to take crappy shots in this day and age of digital cameras. There’s no film to waste; you can simply delete the pictures that don’t turn out when you upload the pictures to your computer. You can practice or get experimental and not have to worry about developing costs.

However, you shouldn’t put every sub-par shot up in your online gallery or your photo book. Look at them with a critical eye and pick out the ones that stand out. Try to put your best shots forward.

Of course, we’re all guilty of putting our not-quite-perfect favourites out there… That’s okay, too, sometimes. Taking pictures should be fun, not a chore, and you should like the results you end up with.

I’ll close this off with the inclusion of one of my favourite pictures I’ve taken:

kitten in the grassYou can see more of my Pinky:st pictures or designer toys pictures at Flickr.

This is obviously not a comprehensive guide. It’s just a few tips from one amateur photographer to another. There’s a lot to learn about taking good photographs; I’m constantly learning new things myself!

I’d love seeing other people’s pictures (and not just of their toys) and swapping tips, so feel free to drop a line with either. — .zannah.

48 thoughts on “Tips for Taking Pictures of Small Plastic Things (for the Amateur Photographer)”

  1. Truly impressive article man! You really do know what you are talking about in photography. As I am a still a teenager I love to take pics of anything that I find interesting. I read the whole article and am truly impressed. It is great the fact that you included some amazing pictures in there too and are all in great quality and proving the point that they are located next to. Tip 4 On the whole background thing was the one I found a bigger interest in though. Keep it up I have to say that this has a good shot at winning.

  2. Excellent article and photos! I think my favorite is the photograph third from last, you really have an amazing eye for placement. I don’t think I could ever wrap my mind around creating an atmosphere for macro shots, though with this article I might just try. Is there a place where I could see more of your work?

    Good luck!

  3. I didn’t think there would be so much to taking pictures of small figures, but I’m a typical ignorant male. Not only did I find the article very informative, the humor really shines through. Nice pictures to boot!

  4. Love the Chun Li =) Macro photography is my fav and I love how you incorporate the background into your images instead of just blurring it away. The ferris wheel shot is top notch.

  5. What an incredible article. Great job! This is definitely inspirational for me to attempt some of these tips. Bravo (I hope you win the contest!)

  6. Excellent tips all around. Goodness knows how many dog’s behinds I have in my pics, or how many of my figs have been replaced by bright flashes.

    Is that a Disney resort with the ferris wheel?

  7. This is such a great article, and very inspiring. I’ve always been fascinated with all things macro, but you are the macro master. Macro sensei? I look forward to further parcels of enlightenment.

  8. Another tip that should go hand-in-hand with using the tripod: use your camera’s timer setting. Sometimes the clicking of the camera can cause the camera to move. If you have it on a timer you will eliminate this issue since the camera is essentially pushing the button for you. Any movement of the camera is especially noticeable when you’re photographing up close. Great article!

  9. I’ve always wondered about how those types of pictures were taken. I’m terrible at the whole background bit, and I’m glad you mentioned it and brought it to the forefront of my mind. I would love to get more into photography, and I might start with small, immovable objects. :)

    Thanks you. Wonderful!

  10. Great tips! Especially the one about making sure the background works with the subject. I get so involved with making sure the subject is framed ok, I forget about the background. Trying to remember to take that into account nowadays. Excellent article.

  11. Excellent tips, particularly the reminders about turning off the flash and being aware of the background.

    The friendly, informal tone of your article makes the information you’re sharing much more accessible and easy to understand than similar information presented in “technical terms” on other photography sites.

  12. Very encouraging. The statement “I don’t believe that you need a dSLR to take good pictures” is a much-needed reminder that equipment can only take you so far — knowledge, practice and persistence are by far the larger part of the equation.

  13. Impressive! For as long as I’ve considered myself an amateur photographer, I think it’s good to see some concise tips run down in a manner like this. The best part is that a lot of these tips are things that even people who have been taking tons of photos have forgotten about – especially about how to frame up your shot – the background can make all the difference.

    It looks like everyone’s taking away serious help, and I’d be hard pressed to think that these photos aren’t elaborately staged with lighting and everything – it’s good to know that even a scrub with a point-and-shoot like me can take decent photos. Now off to buy a gorillapod or something to carry around with me!

  14. Thanks for the article, I’d all but given up on the idea of taking good macro shots with my particular camera. The example shots provided with the article inspire me to give it another go!

  15. Thanks to everyone who commented so far. I’m glad that you’ve found the tips useful! :)

    Albert – Sharp eye! That picture was taken at Disney’s California Adventure.

    GeekLad – Yes! Great reminder; I forgot to stick that one in there. It definitely helps to use the timer function. (I don’t have the steadiest of hands, personally, so I make use of that quite frequently.)

  16. Good article, Zannah! I’ve loved looking at your macro shots for a few years and am happy you wrote this clever article.

  17. I’m inspired! Now I know what to do with my collection of mini daschunds – they’re coming with me on my outings along with my camera…and a copy of your “Tips” …

  18. You make it sound so easy that I am inclined to try.
    I tried before but never got postable results, maybe finding the macro function makes a difference

  19. Thanks for the good article.

    I’ve only recently bought an inexpensive digital camera, and recently got all excited about taking some product pictures.

    I jumped out of bed, grabbed my camera, only to discover the batteries were dead.

    That brings up another tip:

    Always carry spare batteries, SD cards, etc.

  20. Great article, and the pictures back up your words. With the figures in the foreground, it often looks like everything around them is to scale.

  21. Great tips! I’ve just started getting friendly with my macro setting, and have a hard time keeping things from being blurry. This article will definitely help.

  22. I like your writing style. Highly amusing!

    The first picture with the flying bear, what sort of background did you use?

  23. I blame my having a dSLR for my poor pictures. More money spent does not equal better pictures, as your article and pictures can attest. Very informative, if a little disheartening that I should have spent less money :(

  24. I’ve been a longtime fan of zannah’s writing and it’s good to see that she’s as entertaining as ever and the article is informative while being easy to digest. Cheers and good luck!

  25. The writing style definitely comes through in the article, and the pictures are very good. She may not be a professional, but the pictures are quality with the added bonus of good writing.

    The red figurine is trying to squash my head, though. Don’t know if I can agree with that part :)

  26. Albert – Sorry, I was thinking (and not looking) when I answered your question earlier… That ferris wheel is actually at the Santa Monica Pier in Santa Monica, California.

    Ron – Great point! It’s seriously frustrating when you go to take the perfect picture…. and your camera shuts down for lack of battery. (Or, you’re out of picture space!) I generally forget to carry extra batteries, but often have three or four SD cards that I throw in my bag.

    John – The bear is actually on a small clear plastic stick and base which holds him up, and then I used a white sheet of printer paper behind him as the “background”. I used a desk lamp to help with the light, though my desk has a lot of natural light from the window, which helps.

    Chris – I think it’s a very common mistake to think that a more expensive camera will automatically make better pictures, so don’t feel too badly. I think the biggest problem with having a dSLR before you’re ready is that in addition to learning how to take pictures properly, you’re also attempting to learn how to use the camera properly. Learning two things at the same time means that both will likely suffer for a bit. After you get the hang of your dSLR, you should be able to focus more on taking the pictures themselves.

    To everyone else so far – thank you for the comments and kinds words. I’d love to see the results if anyone takes their camera out as a result of this article.

  27. thanks for the tips zannah! i have seen some of these macro shots on various web sites and kept having a poor mix of focus and blur. on my own attempts so i looked at my camera again, and sure enough, there is a flower-power mode. and… there’s a mountain too for landscape shots! i guess you learn something every day. good luck with your tiny toy addiction!

  28. I think one advantage of using the toys that you chose are the bright colors. I would have a concern with less brightly colored object feeling washed out or blending too much into the background, although that doesn’t appear to be a problem for the flying robot bear photo. Very informative article, all-in-all, and amusing just like the pic in the bear hoodie.

  29. I own (and lean on way too much) a Nikon D40. I’ve been really stuck on improving my picture-taking, and I think part of it is depending on the camera too much and not thinking enough about the shot compositions. Your article was really helpful in getting me thinking about better ways to put together shots.

    Have you ever used a dSLR? If so, do you have any advice for using one?

    Thank you!

  30. Purler – (missed your comment at the beginning) – I have an account at Flickr under my name… or you can click on those last two links in the last couple paragraphs; that should get you to a few sets of my toy pictures. :)

    Gaynor – Thanks! :) (That’s my favourite hoodie!) I definitely agree that being aware of your background includes making sure that your background compliments your subject. I think a good example of this is my “ferris wheel” picture, above. I chose that particular toy for that setting because the blue of her hair really complimented the sky, etc. It’s harder for busier backgrounds… but you can also use a shorter depth of field to help blur out the distractions a bit.

    Dan – I have used a dSLR, but I really think it’s a whole different beast. There’s a lot more to think about when you’re handling most, if not all, of the control on your camera. If you’re having trouble getting good shots, the best thing is to start simple. As I said to Chris above, you really need to focus on one things – figuring out how the camera properly werks – or it will likely conflict with your ability to try to get a good shot. Alternately, if you have a point-and-shoot camera as well, you can go out and practice framing and taking pictures with it until that part is more second nature… then you can focus on your dSLR. I think reading the manual of your camera (especially a dSLR) and either taking a class or doing some reading on general photography can really help, too… There’s a lot to learn when it comes to the technical aspect of taking pictures.

  31. I like the author’s style (I did come through from her site ^_^) and hope to test the advice out on my poor family and not so poor figures. Thumbs up!

  32. Very helpful article! I tend to take a lot of close-up shots of costumes I have worked on, but they don’t always turn out as nicely as I’d like. I’ll have to give some of these tips a try!

    One question: I have a point-and-shoot camera with a macro setting, but it seems to have a very long focus range (if I get close than 3″ to an object, it just won’t focus properly!). Any suggestions on how to get around this problem?

  33. I have enjoyed your photography for a while, and I always meant to ask how you take your photos. Now I know! My camera is good for basic basic stuff, but I’m ready to upgrade. I would love to find out your recommendations for upgrading to a new camera! Thanks, Zannah!

  34. Having seen your Pinky shots for years, and being a photographer myself, it’s a lot of fun to hear about the nuts and bolts behind the camera. Great job, Zannah!

  35. Nice Article. I used to own the Canon A640 (well, I still do, but I broke it last year), and the Macro feature wasn’t one that I really had a chance to take advantage of. I have a Canon Powershot SD1100 IS Elph now, and it seems to suit me just as well (if not better in some cases) as the A640.

    Great advice regarding the cameras need of light and the time the camera needs to get the shot, and using a tripod. A lot of amateur photographers tend to forget that kind of technical detail and aren’t aware of how that plays into the where their blurry pics come from. Remembering those kind of details would prevent some people from thinking their camera is the problem.

    And I have to agree with the framing advice, too. Strongly. Unless you plan on cutting out the subject of your photo in photoshop, photographers need to remember they are taking a whole picture, not just a part of one. Makes such a difference, as can be seen by all your pinky: st photos!

    Nice work!

  36. I’ve been meaning to try out some macro photography for a while, this helped push me closer to taking the plunge. Thanks!

  37. This tips are great. I started playing around with my camera settings as well and was happy. I am going to try these out as soon as I can and take some more photos of my Pinky:Sts

  38. great tips, and great pictures! it sounds like a hobby I’d like to get into a little bit, but it also sounds expensive with all the collecting. I have a Yotsuba figure that I mix and match G.I. Joe props with and a GIR to also pose around, but nothing nearly as nice as what you got. –a real eye for composition and creativity.

    in tips and rules for photography, don’t forget another good rule: don’t be afraid to break the rules!

  39. Your photos are always visually stunning. You have a wonderful grasp of your subjects and the features of your camera. Thanks for sharing your expertise.

  40. What a wonderful article! The pictures above have given me a good idea of how to take advantage of your suggestions. Thank you for writing such a wonderful article, and I hope you keep up the good work!

  41. Very informative!

    Do you only pose them outside, or have you also a setup inside with a camera tent and the like? I only ask because I was wondering about posing some of mine with accessories and wanted to know if you had tried it.

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