Saturday, May 30, 2015

How to Photograph LEGO Minifgures: A Crash Course

I try to challenge myself to post a (decent) photo on Instagram once a day. I am only comfortable with posting a selfie only once in a while -- you could say I'm selfie-conscious. There are only so many pictures of my dog Kate that I can post online without being too repetitive (she can sit still and stare at the camera lens, we get it). The same goes for the Moon. There are only so many photos of food to post, without being an Instagram cliche. I could always photograph other people, which I do, but posting these photos online is a bit tricky -- my Instagram feed is public and I try my best to respect the privacy of the people in my life.

To mix things up on my Instagram feed, I take photos of small toys, like die-cast automobiles and LEGO minifigures. It's very simple to photograph small items, and you don't really need any specialized macrophotography equipment. You just need three things:

1. A camera,
2. A light source, and
3. A subject (or two or more).

A camera: I recommend any recent DSLR with a kit lens (the default zoom lens that comes with most DSLR cameras). It is important to be in control of a handful of camera variables: Where to focus, as well as adjusting the lens length (zoom), shutter speed, aperture, and ISO ("film" speed). A built-in light meter display is also essential to have, so you can adjust your settings to be perfectly exposed, underexposed, or overexposed, according to your taste. If today's premium smartphones have these capabilities, then you don't need a DSLR, after all.

The quick-draw camera holster is optional.

Above all else, it is important that you have control over what your camera focuses. Basically, you'll want the drawn-on face of your LEGO minifigure to be in focus, unless you have some other, more interesting thing to focus on in your shot. Adjusting the aperture also adjusts the range of things in focus. A low F-stop number brings in more light, but the one thing in focus tends to be the only thing in focus. For example, if you photograph a dog, facing the camera with a long-ish nose, and focus just on her eyes with a low F-stop, her nose will be out of focus. A high F-stop number brings in less light (you'll have to adjust other things to compensate) For example, if you photograph that same dog, facing the camera, and focus on her eyes with a higher F-stop, her nose will also be reasonably in focus as well. I tend to photograph my dog with an F-stop of 8.0 to get a decent in-focus range from eyes to nose. But we're talking about photographing LEGO minifigures, so let's move on ...

There are three main solutions to low-light conditions: Increase the ISO setting, increase the exposure time, and add more light. (Adjusting the aperture also affects the amount of light taken in, but it also changes the range of things in focus, as mentioned earlier.) I try to keep my ISO setting below 800 to reduce the graininess of the pictures. Longer exposure times also add noise to the image, and you'll need a tripod and an external shutter release when working with longer exposure times. This brings me to the third solution, light --

A light source: The Sun is free and an extremely good light source (in general and for your photos). Unfortunately, you're on the Sun's schedule, not yours.

Star-Lord is illuminated by the Sun, an actual Star.

I try to avoid flash photography as much as possible. The on-camera flash is not very useful, and side flashes are for proper photographers (not me!). I like painting with light, like lighting for video productions, with a selection of inexpensive flashlights and LED panels.

There's a little too much light hitting the God of Thunder.

Long story short, the sun is fine and free, but be sure to have an inexpensive, handheld LED light panel and some rechargeable AA batteries on hand for indoor and nighttime lighting. It's going to be maybe $20 for the light and about $10 for a pack of rechargeable batteries, maybe $20 with a charger. Spending at least $40 for decent(ly cheap) lighting is not bad at all.

A subject (or two or more): I am not very good at building with LEGO bricks, outside of the instruction booklet. The best I can do is build a blocky TARDIS and a reasonable drum kit.

Doo-wee-ooh. This was probably shot at ISO 1600, so note the graininess of the image.

My five-year old nephew is excellent at building off-manual; he's definitely a master builder like in The LEGO Movie. I am, however, decent at posing LEGO minifigures in various cutesy-type ways.

I really don't buy new LEGO sets in a box, unless they are given to kids as birthday and Christmas presents. (You really can't go wrong with buying LEGO sets for kids -- girls or boys.) I tend to buy minifigures and accessories from a site called Bricklink, as well as the blind-bags they sell at Target (i.e., "Collectible Minifigures, Series __").

Bricklink is a site with various sellers, each with their own store within the site. They take the onerous job of buying LEGO sets, then separating and taking inventory of each piece, and finally selling by the brick, or by the minifigure. They take a profit on each piece, at least the profitable sellers do, and some might set ridiculously high prices on rare parts and minifigures.

Anyhow, on Bricklink, you can buy a minifigure of your favorite superhero/supervillain/character ...

DARK. NESS! NO. PARENTS!

... or buy individual pieces to make your own unlicensed character ...

Khaleesi! Mother of Dragons! LEGO probably won't make a Game of Thrones set anytime soon.

... or even make something that resembles yourself, to take that EPIC SELFIE ...

LEGO should make a medium dark flesh minifigure head ... with facial hair.

I find that the ethnically-ambiguous yellow minifigures don't photograph as nicely as the minifigures with various shades of human flesh-tone. It must be the nature of color on plastic. "Medium dark flesh" LEGO parts photograph almost like actual medium dark flesh, et cetera, for other flesh colors. Yellow plastic reflects a lot of yellow light (duh) back at the camera, to use scientifically inaccurate phrasing. Yellow LEGO dudes still have that plastic charm going for them, though.

As mentioned before, you can buy all the little, yellow LEGO dudes and dudettes in the blind-bags they sell at Target and Walmart and Kmart and Toys 'R' Us and wherever else. If you're not paying attention, eventually you will buy enough minifigures to throw a tiny, epic rock concert:

Hey, hey, we're the Avengers!

In addition to getting a minifigure (or two or more), buy some minifigure accessories, like guitars and weaponry. Baseplate-type bricks (and baseplates) are handy for keeping your minifigures from falling over. With a baseplate, you'll be able to pose the minifigure with one foot on the ground and one foot elsewhere:

You can change the yellow humanoids into fleshy humans with Photoshop!

Another useful brick to buy is a transparent-clear, round, 1x1 plate. Actually, you should buy several of those clear plates to stack, to create the illusion of flying high in the air ...

All hail the Dog of Thunder.

... as well as obviously suspending other objects mid-air:

Money fight! It's funny because Spider-man is poor.

With these guidelines -- as well as a camera, a light source, and a subject -- you will be well on your way to post interesting, yet ridiculous, images on Instagram.

Go for that epic selfie.

This sums up the entire purpose of LEGO and Bricklink.

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