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

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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.