Photographing action figures is a whole lot cheaper than hiring models, and you don’t have to put up with any prima donnas. One of my favorite aspects of collecting action figures is creating backdrops and photographing them. You learn something new every time you stage one of these miniature photo shoots — where to place the lighting for the most dramatic shots, how to use color to achieve certain moods, and how to pose the subject for maximum impact. So much of this is trial and error, but when you get that “perfect” shot, you know it right away.
A lot of people use photos or even their laptop screens as backdrops for their photos, but to me, these images always seem a bit too fake and the lighting and shadows aren’t quite right. That “green screen” approach might work well for some, but in my opinion, there’s nothing better than a physical backdrop.
I love using old electronics as backdrops since they make convincing factory or spaceship walls with almost no effort. Glue a large panel to a thin sheet of MDF and then just add bits and pieces in a way that makes the “wall” look more realistic. Be sure to add layers and depth with the items you add, because the shadows that are cast by the elements of the backdrop are going to be the best part.
With a little creativity, you can make anything work well as a backdrop. Here’s one wall I created using the back of an old inkjet printer, wires, straws, tubing, a small milk bottle, a wood board, and various plastic pieces salvaged from the parts bin…
It sure doesn’t look like much now, but after being sprayed with a coat of grey primer, things are looking much better…
Here’s the other wall I put together, again using the tray from that same inkjet printer, some thin PVC tubes, and some plastic pieces to cover up screw holes. There’s nothing worse than seeing a Phillips head screw the size of a fist in an action figure photo.
And here it is with some paint. You can already see how the shadows are going to make this backdrop sing!
I like to keep things neutral on the backdrop, so the gray primer is all that is needed. When I create backdrops, I know that they are going to play a supporting role in the photos, so I don’t worry too much about hyper-detailing them. Some photographers like to show every brick and piece of rubble, which can be awesome, but a lot of times it seems like the focus is more on the backdrop than the subject of the photo.
Here’s a photo of the two backdrops coming together to form a corner of a futuristic, sci-fi sort of building, perfectly suited for the Gears of War Marcus Fenix figure. It’s not too exciting to look at, so let’s turn off all the lights in the room, add some colored lights, and fiddle with the camera a bit so we can get a shot like this…
Here’s an almost identical shot with the lights rearranged…
That green may be a little too intense, so how about a more neutral lighting setup…
Photography is all about lighting — if you experiment with one thing, make it the lighting. These shots were obtained with nothing more than a couple of LED flashlights and some colored Dollar Store finger lights.
Even just a hint of the background can add a lot of depth and interest to your photos. The different level of the background items in this diorama create interesting shadows and a realism that is almost impossible to achieve with a photo backdrop.
Sure, that might be a the carcass of an inkjet printer and the handle of a Super Soaker back there, but no one will ever know unless you tell them! I use a shallow depth of field in my photos which blurs the background, but even if the background was in clear focus, this shot would still look pretty realistic.
Action figure photography is a lot of fun, and with just a tiny bit of creativity and effort put into the backdrop, you might surprise yourself with the results.
If you’re interested in reading more about constructing dioramas for action figure photography, you might want to check out these articles:
DIY Forest Diorama for Action Figure Photography
Action Figure Photography DIY: Build your own custom diorama
What’s going on back there? Taking better toy photos
Fantastic as always! I sometimes envy action figure collectors the ability to make cool diorama shots and action scenes. I work very hard to make my “product photos” clear and professional but I know they are stagnant by comparison to shots like these.
Product photos is a whole different beast. In my opinion, good product shots are much harder to achieve because the lighting and focus needs to be perfect. With action figure photos like the ones above, sometimes “accidents” and “mistakes” are the best thing can happen! A slightly blurred image can look more realistic than an image in perfect focus.
Dallas Loghry says
I agree with Brian. I love photographing my figures and doing weird scenes. But often things happen by accident and you are like “That’s not what I wanted…but I like it!”
Product shots are, for me, far more demanding. I’ve done a few for an amateur figure catalogue…and they never come out anywhere near what I wanted.
Awesome job ,Brian.I’ve seen videos of action figure collectors putting VHS tapes together and using them as flooring after painting them grey. Grey goes a long way on pretty much any action figure background or flooring. I tend to go for a more realistic look only because it’s something I will have on display.For quick picture purposes,your way Is definitely the way to go.Again,awesome work 😉
I’ve seen that VHS tape trick and it definitely works!
Adding finger lights to my list for the next Dollar Store visit!
I have a couple of small flashlights I use for lighting but they’re white LED so I only use them for “spooky” lighting because of how not natural the light looks.
I’ve had good success with an incandescent bulb on one side and a cool LED light on the other. LED lights alone make for great moonlight shots too.
Shawn Smith-Ford says
wow! very nice- but no prima donnas? try photographing Starscream!
Okay, you may have a point. 😉
this made me spit biscuit all over my screen, damn yoooou!
Dude. Come on by my blog. I have some great shots of stuff I built in the past with Ray.
You guys have way too much fun down there!
“using the laptop screen” omg you revealed my unprofessional secret!
* Gasp! * sorry. 😉
The Rebel says
Always great to read your tips on action figure photography Brian. Keep ’em coming!