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FAQ: Taking photos the CDX way

I am not a professional photographer, but I love to take pictures of toys. Photographing these things really makes you sit back and analyize them. It forces you to take a toy and put it through its paces, to really examine all of its functions well. It's a different type of photography as well. Not so much art, it's more journalism. You are trying to convey information to a reader through images.

I've been taking pictures of toys for eleven years now, and I'm not even CLOSE to having my collection documented. I have no formal training, other than a photography class in college, but over the years you pick up a thing or two. See, because CDX is as popular as it is, I have to take a LOT of photos, hundreds of them, each and every week. I've developed a style of photography that is based on a production workflow, so I can get consistent results, each and every time.

What kind of camera do you use? What kind of camera should I buy?

I've been using an Olympus C8080WZ for about 5 years. This camera is a workhorse. It's heavy, so its not great for carrying around, but it has superb optics and fantastic color. A lot of digital cameras don't capture red properly, rendering them more like magenta. The C8080 captures perfect reds.

That being said, almost any camera will do. I was getting fantastic shots out of an old 2.1 megapixel, which for the web is perfectly fine. The key is to really learn about your camera. Most any camera will allow you to fine tune the camera controls to your specific situation. Pay attention to these controls, learn them well.

  • Macro: Macro mode allows you to get close up to your subject to show the fine details. This is usually indicated by a flower icon. For most toys, you will almost always use macro mode, up to a foot away from the subject. Some cameras have Super Macro. This usually fixes the zoom so it can't be moved, allowing you to move the camera even closer, often up to just inches away. So the rule of thumb is, when shooting toys, almost ALWAYS use macro.

  • White Balance: This is often labeled WB on your camera. Most cameras will have at least some rudimentary presets. What White Balance does, from a very basic level, is adjust the camera's color balance to compensate for the color of the light. For example, Incandescent lighting, like regular bulbs, give off a yellow hue. Set your white balance to incandescent (usually a bulb icon) and your color in your photo will look more natural. There are often settings for flourescent and tungsten (what I use), so experiment and see what settings look best for your situation. Higher end cameras will allow you to set and adjust a manual white balance.

  • Exposure: This is usually represented by a +/- icon. Increase (+) the exposure to allow more light in. Decrease the exposure (-) to allow less light in. Seems simple enough, but the most common issue I see is not enough light. Often its not that you need brighter lights, you need better exposure

  • My Mode: Some cameras (I know Olympus does) has a mode called My Mode, which allows you to save your settings for later use. If you have a place where the light and background are always the same, using My Mode can save you a lot of time.

Protip: keep an extra set of batteries charged at all times

What kind of lighting do you use? Should I just use flash?

Repeat after me: "NEVER USE FLASH". Ever. for the distance you are shooting at, flash is going to leave harsh highlights and shadows. Instead of using flash, mount your camera on a tripod and increase the exposure. Use the self timer if you need to keep the camera still, because long exposures can cause blur if the camera is moved, even if just a little. Instead of either of those methods, the best thing is to get some lighting. If you can afford it, get a good tripod with a metal head. If you do a lot of shooting, you will break the cheap plastic ones in no time.

What kind of lighting do you use?

After a few years of using household lights, I graduated to using studio lighting. I purchased a Smith-Victor lighting kit that has 250W ECS photoflood lights. These bulbs are color balanced and look great when the camera is set to the tungsten setting. You can use almost any light as long as you change your white balance and exposure to compensate for it. Desk lamps work well, and don't underestimate natural sunlight. Before I was using the light kit I used 2 clip-on shop lights bought at a hardware store with halogen flood lights in them.

But wait, just having light is not enough, you need to CONTROL the light. If you do nothing else, you should DIFFUSE your light. Light pointed directly at your subject will cast harsh shadows, but if you put some kind of filter between the light and the object, that light is spread around. You can buy special diffusers that clip onto lights, but I recommend shooting in a light tent (or a light cube). These are transparent fabric boxes that allow light in and because its all white inside, light bounces around and lights your subject evenly. You can purchase one, or even make one from a cardboard box, posterboard and semi-transparent material like vellum of fabric.

Move your lights around and experiment with what gives you the best light. I use two lights, one on either side and just above the subject. You can use white cards to bounce light onto under-exposed areas of the subject.

If you are going to purchase lights and a tent, your best bet is to get a set deal like this one.

Light Tent pro-tip: Nobody wants to see your cat hair, or otherwise dirty light tent. Keep your backdrops clean and free of hair, lint and dirt. You can place them in the washer and dryer, just be sure to iron the wrinkles out. Nobody wants to see those either.

Where did you get those cool backdrops?

The factory-looking backdrops are Kotobukiya Mechanical Chain Bases. They are all kinds of awesome.

The urban and space scenes are by Action Figure Displays, and are also great and affordable.

How do you shoot on a black background? How do you get that reflective effect?

Most light tents will come with a black velvet background. If not, you can get black velvet at any fabric store. Keep the black background free of lint and hair as every little piece will show up. Your lighting settings for shooting on white will not work the same against black, you will have to crank your exposure WAY down. Reduce it until you cannot see the detail on the black fabric.

To get the reflective bottom, I use a piece of glossy black paper. That's it. You could also use black plexiglass, available from any sign company. Keep in mind, the reflective base shows every single speck of dust and dirt. Prepare to spend time in photoshop cleaning these.

Protip: use packing tape or a lint brush to keep lint and hair off the background

How do I shoot toys that glow?

Ask Sanjeev.

How should I compose my shots?

Composing your shot properly can make the difference between an acceptable shot and a fantastic shot. You want to fill the frame with your subject, but not so full that it looks crowded. You want to take a variety of images, including close ups and detail shots. Don't forget that you should change the orientation of your camera based on how your subject is oriented. For example, a for a tall figure, turn the camera 90 degrees for a vertical shot. Be creative. Getting down low and shooting up can give the subject a sense of scale.

What kind of pictures do I need to take for a CollectionDX review?

for CDX reviews, there are a few "standard" shots we like to see in each review:

  • packaging front, back and side
  • item with all accessories displayed
  • neutral front and back shot
  • close up of head or focal area of toy
  • action poses
  • if transformer or combiner, at least one shot of each form or mode
  • size comparison (against another toy, AA battery... please no cigarette packs)
  • shots showing various gimmicks (light, projectiles etc)

What do I do now?

Read these FAQ!

Posted 14 December, 2009 - 11:45 by JoshB