Around the time we started Tomopop, it became clear that there were several blogs out there doing things we admired. One of our very favorites was Happy Soda, which easily features some of the best anime figure photography out there on the web. It's safe to say that a lot of the Tomopop staff (not to mention the readers) were deeply inspired by the photos posted there, and I can say personally that they drove me to try to learn how to photograph my own figures.
The site is run by one guy: Super Rats, who somehow manages to find time to write as well as take breathtaking photos of his collection. He was gracious enough to grant us an interview so we could pick his brain about Happy Soda, how to photograph your figures, and much more. Hit the jump for the full feature.
Tomopop: When did you start Happy Soda and what inspired you to start it?
Clint: When I registered the domain name, I was into micro brews and picked "happy soda" as Engrish for beer. There was no real plan for it, just a place to host drawings that I'd post on message boards here and there. This was back around 2000 or so. I was into drawing and beer for a couple of years and then stopped drawing after I realized I that I couldn't draw pretty girls. I was pretty good at grotesque abstraction, but that wasn't my thing.
Fast forward a couple of years to 2006 as the proud owner of a useless domain (and a camera gathering dust) with a new hobby and my figure oriented blog was born. The main reason for posting acquisitions online was because my real life friends, all three of them, could care less and I needed to take my PVC somewhere for show and tell. The Internet is great for niche hobbies. With geography out of the way, language, interest, and Internet access are the only barriers to finding someone else who likes this stuff.
Tomopop: What was the first toy you ever photographed?
Clint: There was this really old toy apple with freckles and a happy grin that would ding like a xylophone when you shook it -- pretty trippy actually. During high school photo class, I was too embarrassed to ask someone if I could take their portrait for a homework assignment, so I shot a portrait of the toy apple on a big broken mirror with some baby powder scattered around to look like artsy cocaine. It was in black and white, so it was easier to get away with lame stuff like that, especially if you're an angsty loser in high school. I pretty much only took pictures of inanimate objects for that class.
As far as now, it would be GSC's Armored Saber, the figure that started it all for me. I have far more toys now than I ever did as a kid. I suspect a lot of us who read Tomopop are in the same boat.
Tomopop: Do you believe a person needs high-end photography equipment to produce beautiful results, or can it be done on a shoestring budget?
Clint: Almost any digital camera is of sufficient quality to make pictures that can be shared on the Internet. If you're looking to be creative, then don't blame your tools, work in such a way as to bring out the best with what you've got. That is an aspect of creativity. Go to Figure.fm and you’ll see a lot of people being creative with their figures, especially with figmas and Nendroids. It kind of doesn’t matter if they’re using a point and shoot or not.
A bad photographer with a $2,000 camera is just as bad a photographer as they were before, but now missing $2,000. A high-end camera is nice, but hardly necessary in a style of photography that isn't technically demanding…and some of the greatest photos in the world were taken before auto-focus, built-in matrix metering, stabilization, etc., so a high end camera with the latest technology is not necessary. Buy more toys and display cases instead. If you feel the need to splurge on equipments, because they are in their own way toys, by all means splurge, but it won’t make you a better photographer.
The dSLR I use is an old entry level model, quite sad by today's tech specs.
Tomopop: Can you give aspiring photographers some advice on how to create good lighting for photographing figures?
Clint: Lighting is about defining shadows.
Tomopop: You've used many unique backgrounds for your figure shoots. Where do you shop for these types of things? What inspires you when it comes to how you set up a shoot?
Clint: Most of the stuff I find at craft stores or are things I’ve pillaged from my mother’s house. There’s a lot of interesting things you can use due to the small scale of figures. After a holiday season is a good time to stock up, since those items go on sale and can be used out of season as a component to a larger set – almost everything I’ve bought has been reused a number of times.
I usually just wander the aisle and if something catches my eye, I’ll pick it up, consider how large or small it is, how I can easily position it with a figure, etc. It just takes using your imagination and deciding what kind of mood and implied emotion you want to convey. What characteristic are you trying to bring out in the figure: softness, energetic, vulnerability, seductive, exhibitionist, sophistication, etc. A lot of times, there isn’t anything readily available or can’t be put together in a few minutes and so I don’t use these as much anymore. It bums me out a little.
As far as props go, I like to keep things simple or keep them abstract. Like if I’m using furniture, I generally only use one piece, mainly due to the fact that I’m lighting with desk lamps and I don’t have the ability to finely control the light hitting each object in order to preserve focus on the figure by subtly varying the light levels of individual objects. By abstract, I mean just having a soft pattern to add some visual interest, without dominating the figure. It can be tricky to get the right balance sometimes. If you have a recognizable object that’s too large or off in scale, it causes as distraction and that object is no longer bringing out the character, but drawing attention to itself rather than the character
Shorter answer, my general aim is to make sure I can reveal what’s beautiful about a figure. Cameras are cruel instruments that by default intensify a subject’s flaws. It’s up to the photographer to find what’s beautiful and share what they’ve found.
Tomopop: What do you recommend for DSLR users by way of lenses, camera settings, basic tips, etc?
Clint: For figures, a macro lens is useful. Without one, a whole range of photos is unavailable. Most point-and-shoot cameras have a decent enough macro capability. Shooting in RAW mode (if available on your camera) also nets better picture quality, but I never bothered with it.
I purposefully underexpose with the intention of brightening it up in post-processing. It might not be as much of a problem now, but older digital sensors (like on my camera) couldn’t handle contrast or highlights very well, so to rein it in I shoot low contrast and underexpose about half an EV too low. It leads to some extra noise, but I’m not that bothered by noise…I sometimes add noise.
Tomopop: Can you give us any pointers for shooting figures at night and/or in the dark?
Clint: It actually doesn’t make that much of a difference if you’re using artificial light. What matters is the strength of your light on the figure relative to the background. The Seena Kanon figure I shot with a dark shadowy look was taken during the day.
If you mean just getting a dark background, make sure the figure gets 2 stops more light than the background. With tabletop shots, the main problem is light from your lamps hitting your backdrop. There are two typical fixes. One is to simply create more distance between the figure and the background, so that the intensity of the light decays enough to be significantly different. Two is to use an obstruction to prevent light from bleeding to the background, which is what I usually do since my table is pretty small. You can also use less reflective materials, like some sort of black cloth instead of black paper.
Tomopop: What are your favorite figures you've ever shot, and why?
I think Peace@Pieces Nagi from Alter, because it was challenging to light her face and it’s one of my favorite figures. I even went through the trouble to make a set with water. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize that PVC would float and had to come up with a way to keep her from falling without being visible. The figure has an interesting costume, so Nagi offered a number of interesting close-up shots.
There’s a number of figures that were fun to shoot: Haruhi (Alter), Baek ChangPo (Max Factory), Ringo Noyamano (Yamato), PSE-01 (Beagle), Enma Ai (Alter), Kino (GoodSmile), Death Sensei (Alter), Ryuna Swimsuit (Max Factory), Kaze (Alter), Shouko-san (Kotobukiya), and Queen’s Gate Alice (MegaHouse). One of the things about a fixed posed figure is you can’t change what they’re doing, so what you did last time often doesn’t work this time, so you have to come up with a different approach or just do standard review shots. Some figures are more difficult than others to create an interesting scenario for a picture.
Tomopop: What was the most challenging shoot you've ever done, and why?
Clint: Probably Peace@Pieces Nagi. Back then I was trying not to be too dirty otaku with the pictures and was trying not to cross that line, even if the characters come from eroge. I guess it was more about finding a way to not disrespect the character while creating a sexualized view of the character. So it was sort of a mental thing. Nagi also presented a lighting challenge since her head is tilted forward and her hair and hat creates a lot of shadows that cover her face. It took a while to find the right amount of light coming from below so as not to look unnatural, while still having enough shadow to keep depth and life to her shapes. Too much light from below and it starts to look cheesy, just like when you’re a kid and hold a flashlight just under your chin for the spooky face.
Tomopop: If you could shoot any rare figure you don't already own, what would it be and how would you like to shoot it?
Clint: I’d love to see BUBBA’s completed sculpture of Princess Tutu.
Tomopop: Thanks so much for your time, Clint!