Take a peek behind the scenes, where four incredibly imaginative photographers bring superhero toys to life.
Let’s talk about superhero toys. First, they’re not just for kids. Second, keeping them wrapped up in their original packaging makes sense if you’re a collector, but it’s not much fun. Third, there’s a not-so-underground global group of photographers who are unwrapping their toys in order to capture stunning images. They don’t need real people for subjects — they’re happily geeking out with superhero toys.
Here are four photographers that bring superhero toys to life, with fantastic results.
Overcast in the UK
UK-based Darylle Lacey told Crixeo that toy photography is “about keeping an eye out, looking under those hedgerows and not being afraid to get down on your belly and play with toys.” He used to keep his toys on a shelf, but by discovering toy photography he’s learned to “play again in a new way.” Lacey prefers to shoot outside, as he finds the best light is daylight and in the UK the overcast weather is perfect for photography.
Lacey lives by a large wood, and by walking his dog there every day he discovers “little nooks and crannies” that are perfect to capture photographs in, with their “blankets of moss covering fallen logs [and] little toadstools and such that look like crazy alien jungle plants.”
“Putting action figures down into this miniature world supplied by Mother Nature is brilliant fun. Especially if you use some of the more fantastical characters, they fit right in! The contrast of their bright colors and weird anatomy against the vivid greens works a charm,” Lacey said, adding that he loves doing shots like that of Rocket Raccoon and Nebula from Guardians of the Galaxy.
In order to capture an image, Lacey sets the figures up in indirect sunlight and uses stands and/or fishing line to suspend them in air. With He-Man and Fisto, he kicked up dry dirt while his camera was set to automatically take a picture every second. “The clouds of debris help create a sense of action and obscure or hide the stands holding the figures up as much as possible too,” Lacey said. During editing, he’ll remove any visible stand digitally, but he tries to do as much practically and in-camera as possible. “The finished picture tends to look more real that way, which I get is a weird thing to say about toys,” Lacey said with a laugh.
Capturing realistic poses is Lacey’s main focus, even when the action performed is not what you’d normally see. And he accepts that the final images never really come out how he envisioned them: “They sometimes come close, but usually it all ends up being organic… I just go with the flow.”
Superheroes Just Want to Have Fun
Being a superhero is hard work and they need a break every once in a while. Indonesian photographer Edy Hardjo of Hrjoe Photography lets his superhero toys cut loose. To capture an epic selfie of Captain America, Hulk, Iron Man, Thor and Spider-Man on an airplane, Hardjo planned ahead by taking an airplane cabin photo during a trip he took. Then separately, he shot the superhero figures with a lighting setup that was close to the cabin lighting conditions. By inserting the figures’ photo into that of the cabin, he created a composite of the two. The keys to making it work are angle and lighting, Hardjo said, so the two photos can blend naturally.
Keeping with setting a scene and playfulness, Hardjo created a shot of the same superheroes, with Black Widow in tow, rocking out. He has a custom-made bar diorama that is flexible so it can display all kinds of bar activity, like a music lounge. “I collect many one-sixth scale musical instruments to fill that area, such as guitars, a cajón, tambourine, violin, saxophone, mic, speaker, etc.,” Hardjo said. Deciding what part each superhero will play in the band depends on their shape and articulation, and how suitable they are for the equipment.
“I picked Hulk as singer because the figure came with a shout head-sculpt, which is perfect for a rocker,” Hardjo explained. For the cajón, Spider-Man was chosen because the figure’s hand needed to be in front of his chest to articulate playing the instrument. “As for Tony and Natasha, I wanted to do an Indonesian traditional dance style called ‘dangdut,’ which is very popular here, just to give the photo a local touch,” Hardjo said.
And sometimes Hardjo takes inspiration from Mr. Bean to create a humorous, embarrassing scenario.
Crossing Galaxies with Superhero Toys
Imagine the possibilities if Darth Vader were to encounter Iron Man. Barcelonian David Cubero did just that by combining camera effects and computer compositing. “I shot every piece that is flying around the Iron Man armor alone in the same lighting setup,” he explained to Crixeo. “Then I composed them in their right places and if the light was not correct in any piece, I made little corrections.” As for suspending Iron Man in air, he used a figma stand, which he later removed with Photoshop. Thin wire held the pieces in place.
When the time came to have Iron Man and Captain America take flight in a grocery cart, burst mode came in handy for Cubero. The superhero toys were held in the air with a thin wire tripod that was later digitally removed. The stones aren’t computer animated — Cubero was throwing them with his left hand while shooting in burst mode with his right hand. It took around 50 shots to get what he wanted.
Wires and stands are clearly required for superhero toy photography. Germany-based Chuck Finsterbush of Ryan Dean Toy Photography provided Crixeo with before-and-after shots to demonstrate just how he gets his superhero toys to perform, so to speak. By using the diversity of faces and expressions found in Lego figures, Finsterbush aims to tell a story with his photographs and articulate a vision.
For Robin, he first visualized what it would look like if a wheelie were happening. He used a support to give the impression that the front wheel is off the ground, and Robin’s built-in grip holds him in place. Because the shot was done in close-up, Finsterbush turned Robin’s face so his expression could be seen, and focused on it when taking the shot. He always “develops” the images in Adobe Lightroom first and then retouches and fine-tunes in Photoshop. To give images “a little more ‘life,’” Finsterbush adds effects and various textures.
Taking inspiration from another toy photographer — “magician” Mitchel Wu — Finsterbush set out to have Raphael slice a strawberry. He succeeded, creating his own magical image.
Photographers take up the craft of capturing superhero toys in action for a variety of reasons. Finsterbush finds it helps him relax while creating, practicing and learning new retouching skills. For Lacey, the hobby keeps his imagination muscles flexing. Both Finsterbush and Lacey remarked that this artistic endeavor has connected them with other like-minded people from around the world, who are awesome — just like the images they’re sharing.