Family, friends, and cleaning have kept me from some quality LEGOing during the break, but I will at least take the time to write up a few tips about LEGO photography. I need to preface by heartily emphasizing that I am not an expert, or even an experienced amateur, in this area.
For more skilled endeavors into taking brick pictures, check out the following links. Or, just search for “Star Wars LEGO” on Google Image. I can guarantee thousands of hits. Thousands. [Note: I checked, it's 2,500,000.]
The Brick Testament – LEGO versions of classic Bible stories
LEGO365 – Day-by-day photoblog of miscellaneous LEGO scenes
via Wired – “Lego Tableaus Re-Create Classic Photos“
via Wired – “Historic Moments Recreated in Lego“
Based on what I’ve done so far, I can offer a few helpful tips:
Setting the scene
- Orientation. Even if you’re taking photos from multiple angles, consider the scene as you would a stage – remove any of the “fourth wall” obstructions, unless you want them to be out of focus in the foreground. A temptation might be to set up your photo as though it was candid and not contrived, especially something like a street scene or battle, but it won’t appear the same way as you intend from the photo’s single vantage point. Also, it’s LEGO. It’s going to look a bit contrived, not to say, plastic. If you want to show interiors of buildings, consider building a cutaway, as I did in this condo build:
- Background. If you’ve already browsed some of the above LEGO photo sites, you’ll noticed that often the background is very blurry. This is usually a function of the camera’s macro setting (see below) but can be avoided by using relatively two-dimensional scenes. Depending on the scene, a background may or may not be appropriate; occasionally the set’s original box will make a decent stand-in for a more complicated scene. Posters, magazine images, and (for underwater scenes) that plastic “wallpaper” you can buy for the back of fishtanks also work great. But in a pinch, any colorful surface can be put into the background for a generic non-white or -black background.
Depending on the scene or scale of your build, using an outdoor scene might be useful. A blue sky might be a nice “looking up” shot at your work. Beware, however: for minifig scale shots, things like grass, concrete sidewalks, or flowers will generally clash with your intended scale. Unless you’re going for that Alice-in-Wonderland-caterpillar-scene look.
- Poses. I haven’t put much effort into LEGO tableaus which require a great deal of challenging poses. The best I can offer here is, even if you’re only taking architectural photos, put a bit of thought into what your minifigs are doing in the scene, besides existing for scale. Are they sitting or standing? Talking or alone? On the phone? Reading? Walking or running? What are their hands doing? Little details like this can make them more realistic, as it were.
- Use the macro setting. I can’t emphasize this enough. Every (digital) camera has a macro setting – the little tulip/flower on the menu options. (Note: if your point-and-shoot is in “Auto” setting, it may not display this option – switch to “Manual” for more options.) Not only does it focus on and maximize the sharpness of close objects – and because LEGO builds are small scale, you are inevitably right in front of them with your lens. It also adjusts the flash so the light does not wash out the nearest objects. Even if you don’t use the flash, macro mode can improve the clarity of your images.
The two (potential) disadvantages of macro mode are: 1) extremely close focus tends to make the background very blurry, even when not far from the camera either; and 2) having a close flash will substantially darken the space behind the closest object, making a faraway black or very shadowy. These can be adjusted for to some degree, but it is somewhat in the nature of LEGO photography to lose some of the depth of life-size photography. The photos below illustrate the difference in quality between regular and macro mode – I’m still sold!
- Flash or no flash? As the above photos illustrate, macro mode makes a big difference. Depending on the scene you want, light levels also make a big difference. Because the flash tends to be very reflective, even in macro mode, sometimes it’s best to try to use directional light sources to achieve the effect you want. If you have the option of shooting outdoors, this can also be a great way to light the scene (especially if you can get natural shadows from morning or afternoon sunlight). Controlled lighting also gives you some crazier options, as shown below.
While I’m not a fan of flash photography in most cases, I make an exception for LEGO. Because I have a lot of white building pieces and, from my most recent purchase, even more of those, I tend to build white buildings with a red roof. Using the flash indoors brings out those bright colors, whereas incandescent or fluorescent lighting can make the white too warm or cool. This can be somewhat corrected in post-processing software (see below). Generally speaking, however, a daytime LEGO scene is best lit with directional light with minimum shadows.
- Vantage point. When documenting your creation or setting up a tableau, consider your vantage point. Shooting from straight above, or at an angle looking down, will produce a photo of a LEGO build; shooting at ground level will make the photo appear to scale for a minifig; shooting too low will be pretty much unrealistic. While this seems obvious, even subtle changes in angle may make a difference – play around until you figure out what you want your camera height to be. I am still perfecting this one myself.
- Adjustments. Tweaking photos would be a series of posts in itself, so I’ll be brief. Grab your favorite photo-editing software (both Adobe Photoshop and Corel PaintShop Pro have their merits, if you can afford either; GIMP is a generally-functional open-source freebie) Unless the light you used completely washed out the photos, you generally don’t need to mess with saturation or contrast to make them realistic-looking – LEGOs are shiny plastic blocks that come in mainly primary colors, so they don’t need much help in the color department. In fact, if you’re printing the photos on a regular printer, I’d recommend stepping back the saturation about 15% to adjust for ink levels.
The main things I would recommend would be increasing some of the lights and shadows to compensate for the flash. If you took photos outdoors on a sunny day, definitely balance out highlights and shadows. And finally, you can enhance the difference between a clear focal point and surrounding objects by playing with the sharpen and blur functions in the program. If the background was already blurry you can’t do much about it, but if you want to enhance the effect it’s easy to do with layers and lens blur.
Also, don’t forget to crop out the stuff around the edges, especially if you only built the scene to extend to a certain point. Easier to do in software than with the camera.
Happy LEGO-ing and photo-ing!