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[Sticky] How to shoot minifig portraits
I love the detailed printing that modern minifigures have and love to showcase this intricate artwork in my photos. I have to get very close-up to the subject and then battle a few problems to achieve the effects that I like.
Against a dark background.
Firstly I like a dark background, as an old ex-goth black is my favourite colour! I think a dark background helps the minifig 'pop' and contrasts with a colourful design.
Of course, if the minifig is predominantly black then this won't always work! When I started shooting minifigures I bought some black background paper from a photography store online, it's called ultra-black. However, even this isn't dark enough for my tastes sometimes. The paper has a sheen and reflects a fair amount of light. So to get a really black background I use a shadow box to shoot into. Basically its a box with black inside walls.
The one I use was originally a box that some drinking glasses were packaged in - it's nice and deep and the insides were already black. You could use any box you have and paint the insides. The deeper it is the better as less light will be reflected back out. If you have a lid to it then I would place this on top so it sticks out like a peak on a cap - again to help reduce light entering the box.
You can also place card or baffles at the sides to prevent stray light getting in. Then place the minifig in front of the opening and shoot 'into' the darkest part of the box.
Try to place lighting so it creates even more shadow in the area of the box that lies behind your subject.
Once you have your picture you should have a pretty dark background by now. If it's not entirely black then in post-processing you can increase the contrast slightly which will deepen blacks, and some programs may allow to change the strength of black tones on their own.
The bane of my minifigure portraiture is light reflecting off shiny plastic heads. A close-up portrait of a minifig is ruined for me if one half of the face is blown out by a reflection of the LEDs in my little spotlights.
To minimise the chance of reflections I reduce my use of direct lighting as much as possible. In extreme cases I turn my lamps around and light the wall and ceiling behind me, letting the diffused reflected light illuminate the minifig. I control the light sources in the room as much as possible, and cover the windows with black paper (I only have one small window to cover so this is relatively easy for me). This reduction of direct light and reliance on diffused sources means that I need a much longer exposure time - so a tripod and remote shutter release are essential to this approach.
I find that with the long exposure, and if my camera is tilted on its side on the tripod, I need to work in 'live mode' so that I don't get any camera shake from the shutter/mirror action. Live mode is very useful for focussing at these macro levels anyway - it means I can zoom in to the minifig eyes and make sure they are as sharp as possible. I often have to have a different lighting set up for setting the focus, then switch them off before taking the picture, otherwise the live display on the camera is too dark.
I think the approach gives a lovely soft feeling to a photo, and means that I avoid any blown out highlights on the minifig face.
In post-processing I may use the clone tool to remove any points of blown out reflection if necessary, but my overall 'shopping skills are weak (hence my control of the light in the first place). If the minifig needs a little more light (I often underexpose pictures) then I use a radial filter with lightened exposure settings (in Lightroom, choose the 'invert' option) to create subtle spotlight effects on the face and chest area.
I do like a shallow depth of field, but sometimes this can make focussing quite a challenge. In human portrait photographs some people like to focus on the tip of the subject's nose so that the eyes are little softened in the photo (to hide wrinkles as well maybe?). There are no noses on Lego minfigures! In my minifig portraits I will usually focus on the closest eye, ensuring that it is crisp. At such close range with my 90mm macro lens, even at relatively high f-numbers, this can mean just a millimetre or two of focus 'slice' to play with. Sometimes I will focus on a feature or design element other than the face of the figure - this needs to be well framed or else people will just wonder why the face is out of focus!
To help return some impact to the softness that the shallow depth of field brings to such photos, I will increase the 'presence' settings in my post-processing. I use Lightroom for processing most of all and my favourite slider is the 'clarity' one. In the past, I went wild with that slider and increased it to 100% sometimes. Nowadays I prefer a more natural look and don't go over +40. An increase in clarity has to be matched with an increase of 'vibrance' in Lightroom as clarity tends to reduce the colour impact.
Composition is key.
An impactful minifig portrait needs to allow the viewers' eyes to focus on the subject, and not have a busy background.
Once the composition is pared down that much then you're relying on some classic photography rules to ensure the result is pleasing and looks natural. Try to shoot the minifig from its own eye-height or below. Place the eyes on the top 'third' line in a portrait layout, and if it makes sense maybe get one of the eyes on the intersection of the top third and one of the vertical thirds.
Unless you're going for a full-on straight-ahead look, get the minifig looking from left to right or right to left, and ensure you leave marginally more space on the side of the picture that the figure is looking towards - otherwise the character will appear cramped and have no dynamic space. You don't have to have the character looking into the camera - but if you don't ensure that the facial expression of the figure is interesting - is there an internal life there that we can empathise with?
Crop tools are your friend here to get the minifigure in the correct position in the frame. You could even tip or skew the picture to give a dramatic angle to the composition.
Another technique in composition with portraits is to fill the frame as much as possible with the minifig head and shoulders - it highlights any great face print that you might be working with, but it may also mean all that delicate torso printing is lost. I hope these tips are useful to you guys shooting close-ups of Lego minifigures - I'll be posting them on IG this month and will be checking in to the forum often to answer any questions and discuss Lego portrait photography.
There are many other ways of doing it than my processes - I've even heard of people using flash photography (flash!?) on small plastic toys and still getting good results! Someone needs to come into the comments here and tell me how this could ever work 😀
This is great, Keith! What kind of lights are you using? You mentioned LED spotlights and lamps. I guess these would be relatively low power and cooler in color. Are you then also compensating for the coolness with an increase in temperature in post?
I shoot mostly with flash simply because I like the ease with which I could kill all the ambient light by just setting my camera to its native sync speed, 1/160. Covering up the huge window in my apartment isn't an option for me! Also, I really try to minimize noise but shooting with a long exposure on my crop sensor camera will always introduce grain even with ISO 100. So using a flash allows me a 1/160 shutter speed to eliminate grain and get the sharpest image.
As far as reflections, I don't try as hard anymore to minimize them after reading this article about how they lit The LEGO Movie. I wrote about how some of those principles influenced some of my photography (I used LED lights for that one!) Anyway, I think I have fully subscribed to the idea that some of these imperfections make for a more photorealistic image: the glare, the fingerprints, etc. Of course, anything too distracting is just sloppy work, IMHO.
Thanks for sharing these tips Keith. I found reading this super interesting and will be able to try and apply some of them even when shooting on my mobile.
@keithfisherzz9 I wanted to take a couple of close up shots so I thought I would try your black box method. I was against the clock and didnt actually have s box so had to improvise. SoI used a bowl with s shirt in it ????
I need natural light so blocking windows was not an option but I was still surprised how dark I could get it but still get my figs in focus on my phone. Glare of course is my nemesis and I have not been able to beat it yet.
Anyway just thought I would share
(I've just realised one of the pics I had in mind is very similar to one of your examples above - oops. Must have been stuck in my head from when I first saw this. Anyway...)