Shooting Challenge #28 -- Toys (Win a Pair of Grado Headphones!)

By Martin Snelling on at

There was a time when we lived in a world of make-believe. It was a world filled with adventures and wonder; all made from our imagination and our toys. At some point though we had to put away our childish things and grow up and do adult stuff like work and pay bills.

Sadly for some of us, the only toys we own these days are the ones we spend huge quantities of cash on to keep unopened and ultimately unloved. The only reason for keeping them is the belief that one day they'll be worth a mint on The Antiques Roadshow (or whatever it will be called in 2135). Yes, I too have the limited edition LEGO DeLorean from Back To The Future and yes I'd love the LEGO Simpsons House (but I'm not spending £120 on it).

It's also a sad fact that some of this generation's children are at risk of missing out on an imagination as they are spoon-fed other people's ideas on iPads filled with the latest games based on the latest long-running cartoon series they've seen while flicking through the hundreds of channels on the set-top box and TV combo in their bedrooms. Anyway, I digress...


The Brief:

For this week's Shooting Challenge I want you to find your inner-child and photograph a toy or toys in a creative way. What you choose to photograph and where is entirely up to you, but the main rule though is that the toy must be of the non-electronic variety -- it's time to go old skool.

Don't have access to any toys? Beg, borrow or hit your local charity shop for some bargains.

Post-processing is permitted, although you will need to explain in detail any post-processing work completed on your image. You can submit up to five images if they are all within the same theme or make a complete story (think of panels in a photo story magazine).


The Example:

The lead image is of a doll I recently acquired from a friend who works in a charity shop. She didn't want it hanging around and she certainly wasn't going to give it to her five year old daughter who has a habit of playing with her imaginary friends. Called, Polly Belonged to Dorothy, I wanted to create a haunting image, to flip the concept of dolls as cute playthings on its head. I've always felt that there was something quite sinister about old toys.

The photograph was taken with my Sony Xperia Z phone using the Vignette App. I experimented with some more posed photographs at home with my Fuji X-Pro 1 and 35mm f1.2 lens, but couldn't capture something I was happy with in the time I had and so settled on the image above.


The Technique:

While there are no hard and fast rules for photographing toys, here are a few pointers on creating compelling and creative photos of toys.

Open the aperture -- experiment with the widest possible aperture setting (the small number) on your camera/lens combination to create a shallow depth of field. This will create a strong visual emphasis on the toy and make it stand out against the background. Depth of field is a subject all in itself and one I will be covering in a future Shooting Challenge.

Tell a story -- thanks to the magic of film, television and marketing, all toys have their own backstory already. You can base your photos on their existing story or create your own. Got some LEGO Star Wars minifigs kicking around? Take them on a fridge expedition. Got Barbie and Ken? Create a five panel love story.

Breathe life -- Treat your toys as if they were human; pose them in realistic scenarios. Create your own street photography, become a photojournalist in a war-torn back garden or if the weather is crappy, use your toys for portraiture photography.

Light it up -- Get creative with your lighting; you don't need an expensive lighting rig to create stunning photographs. A well-placed lamp or torch can dramatically change the mood of an image. If the light is too harsh, create your own diffuser using kitchen baking paper or tissue paper. If your subject is being lit too much from the rear, use your camera's flash to fill-in from the front.

Get close -- Use a macro lens or macro setting on your camera to get in close to your subject. This will allow you to exclude unwanted background 'noise'.

Stay in -- If the weather isn't playing nice, stay in and create images in the different rooms in your house. If you're a micro-sized toy, there are a multitude of adventures awaiting for you indoors.

Or go out -- If you're one of the lucky ones that hasn't been battered by the recent storms, take your toys out into the garden or further afield and create an adventure. To a LEGO minifig, the garden can be like the Amazonian rainforests. Make use of any natural light.

Seek inspiration -- Toy photography has really taken off these past few years and there are some great toy photographers and storytellers out there. A quick Google search will return some great images.

Pets -- If you have pets at home, think about incorporating them into your photography. Fun can be had with tiny toys and giant felines.

Ask a child -- If you think you've got a great imagination, there's a good chance your kids have an even greater one so get them involved in the creation of your photos. Get them to set up the scenes or create the story.

Have fun! -- I say this every week in the rules, and I mean it, if you're not having fun, stop what you're doing and find something else to photograph. Photography should be fun and not forced. If you're not enjoying it, don't do it.


The Prize:

This week, we're giving away a pair of $395 ulta limited edition (so limited edition, they've sold out) pair of Grado headphones, made in collaboration with Bushmills Whiskey. Made from whiskey barrels, they were designed in conjunction with the actor Elijah Wood -- yes, Frodo Baggins himself.


The Rules:

- Follow the brief
- Submissions must be your own work
- Submit up to five images
- Photos must be taken after the challenge was published; so no existing shots please
- Image post-processing is allowed
- Explain briefly in your submission email the equipment, settings, technique used and the story behind the image/images
- Ensure EXIF info is intact (if image was taken digitally)
- Email submissions to
- Please ensure your image is at least 600px wide and less than 3MB in size
- Save your image as a JPG, and use the following naming convention FirstnameLastnameTOYS.jpg
- Don't forget to include a shooting summary (see above)
- Send your best photos by Monday, February 3rd 2014 at 6pm UK time with "Shooting Challenge -- TOYS" in the subject line
- Anyone can enter, regardless of location
- The most important rule -- HAVE FUN!

Martin Snelling is a Hampshire-based photomatographer and wearer of fine hats. He tweets here, Flickrs here, and does his website stuff here.