All toy photography and words by Matthew Cohen. Used with permission.
Three years ago, I was sitting in my apartment having buyers remorse after receiving a pricey action figure I had purchased. After the initial cool factor wore off, I was wondering what I was going to do with this potential dust magnet I had bought. I ended up stumbling upon an entire community of toy photographers, a hobby I wasn’t aware even existed. It was inspiring. Photographers like Sgt. Bananas (Johnny Wu) and Noserain (Richee Chang) brought out my inner child and I thought to myself, “Hey, I want to do this too. I can do this.” I grabbed an old point and shoot and a plastic tripod I had laying around and began to teach myself toy photography.
As of now, I’m still using the first DSLR I bought about a year after that: My Nikon D3300. I have two lenses, a 50mm Nikkor 1.8 prime and a Tokina 100mm macro. I also use a Vanguard Alta Pro tripod. I don’t really have any dedicated lighting equipment. I have a few desk lamps, some colored gels, diffusing papers and a table-size photo tent I sometimes house my dioramas in. Otherwise, when I’m outside shooting, it’s just me, my camera, and my tripod. I tend to use my phones with a phone screen light app as some colored lights to add to my shots. I try and keep it simple, equipment-wise, as my backpack is usually packed with toys for wherever I’m heading.
I’m no writer and not much of a cartoonist either, but through toy photography, I’m able to bring stories in my imagination to life for others to see. It lets me create in ways that allow me to be a kid again. It lets me exercise my imagination. I spend my free time thinking of how to give these toys life and make my images feel like they’d fit right in with the lore and stories they’re based on. I always try and imagine the moment I’m creating in the film, or comic, or show that the toys are from. I think to myself, “Does this feel out of place or is it a natural fit?” Other times, I see how far I can push the boundaries of plastic, trying to recreate an exact frame/panel of a film or TV show or comic with my toys. Lighting and all.
In general, I like to play some music related to what I’m shooting (or editing) to set the mood. I feel like it helps me infuse the picture with the emotions and feelings I’m aiming for.
All of my photos are touched up in Photoshop and Lightroom to some extent. However, I rarely Photoshop entire backgrounds into my image. What you see is either a physical diorama that I built or had commissioned, an actual outdoor location that I traveled to for the shoot, or a technique called the “Digirama.” Here, the toys are placed in front of a computer monitor or TV displaying the image you want to use as your background. It’s blended together mostly through clever use of props, lighting, camera angles and sometimes some kind of floor piece that the toys are standing on in order to give the illusion of depth. Effects are always a mix of practical and edited. I always aim for practical, but it’s not always feasible (such as lighting fireworks in my apartment).
When people compliment my photography there are two things that I consider the highest compliment I could receive. Both inspire me to continue shooting. The first is that they didn’t realize they were looking at toys. I don’t like to edit the joints out of my pictures as some do (unless I find them particularly distracting for the shot I’m taking). If I can fool someone into thinking that these little plastic, jointed figures are real people for a moment or so, then I’ve done my job. The second, more importantly, is when people ask me for tips because they want to give it a try. And then I know that I’m inspiring people to let out their inner child the way I first felt when I initially discovered this form of photography.
I feel as though people enjoy seeing my work (and toy photography as a whole) because it opens up their imagination. It’s also something that almost anyone can get into. Everyone probably has some toys in their house of some kind. Either from their children, their own childhood or even as adult collectors. And at its core, that’s all you need. A toy and your imagination.