To continue our series on interviews with some of our favorite figure photographers (see Happy Soda and Kodomut), this time I approached Tier of Tentacle Armada, who has taken some lovely shots of some of the prettiest collectibles out there.
If you're curious about how to make your figure photography better. or you'd like to learn just how those stunning shots are done, you're in luck! Hit the jump to hear more from our interview.
Tomopop: When did you start Tentacle Armada and what inspired you to start it?
TA: I started the site back in February of 2009, so it's one of the newer figure sites around. Up to that point, I'd been collecting anime figures for a few years and I was a big fan of figure review sites like Happysoda and RIUVA. I had been interested in figure photography for a long time, but I never had the skills or the self-discipline to try it out myself. Nor did I have the money to buy a decent camera; the only camera I had was an ancient point-and-shoot that I never learned to use. After I started working, one of the first things I bought was a cheap DSLR. I started up Tentacle Armada soon after that. Back then, I didn't know an f-stop from a bus stop. It's pretty amazing for me to look back and see how far I've come since those first days.
If anyone is curious, the name of my site comes from a World of Warcraft guild that I was a member of, and it also reflects my love for a certain particular, peculiar anime genre.
Tomopop: What was the first toy you ever photographed?
TA: It might have been one of Yamato's 1/48 scale VF-1 Valkyrie toys, but the earliest toy photo I have saved is a picture of a Starcraft hydralisk giving a hug to Rei and Asuka. I wonder where I put it; maybe I can do something with it with some of my Figmas.
Tomopop: Do you believe an enthusiast needs high end photography equipment to produce great results, or can it be done on a shoestring budget?
TA: There's a quote by Arnold Newman that goes, "Photography is 1% talent and 99% moving furniture." Note that there's nothing in there about gear. People get too hung up on equipment and forget that it's what's in front of the camera that gets recorded. A camera isn't like beer - it can't improve the way that the world looks.
That said, there's nothing wrong with buying an expensive camera, even if you're just starting out. Generally what happens with a lot of aspiring photographers is they buy the cheapest DSLR that's available and a year later, they want a more expensive camera. If you think you're going to stick with this hobby, it makes sense to buy a better camera at the start rather than upgrade down the line. Just keep in mind that improving the gear doesn't improve the photographer; it's what you do with the gear that leads to improvement.
Tomopop: What do you shoot with? Do you recommend those products to aspiring photographers?
TA: I use an Canon EOS 7D. It's overkill for figure photography but it does have a couple of unique features - such as the burst rate and flash commander function - that have come in handy. I typically use a 35mm f/1.4 and a 100mm macro lens; I don't have a lot of space to shoot pictures so I much prefer fast lenses to slower zooms. For lighting, I use a bunch of flashes. That seems to be a rarity in the figure photography hobby as I haven't heard of many people who use flashguns for this sort of stuff. Having used them for a while, though, I'd never want to go back to using desk lamps.
I'd definitely recommend the 7D to anybody and everybody. It is God's camera, the Kwisatz Haderach of shutterbuggery. Of course, I say this having only ever used a 7D and an entry-level Rebel.
Tomopop: What do you recommend for DSLR users by way of cameras, lenses, basic tips, etc?
TA: If you have a DSLR, you're good to go. If you have any camera, you're probably good to go too, though I really recommend getting a DSLR if you can; point-and-shoots are perfectly acceptable but they are a bit more limiting since, well, you're meant to point and shoot with them. If you shoot indoors, I recommend using a fast lens. Fortunately, most manufacturers offer an inexpensive 50mm lens that may be all that you ever need. A macro lens is a superior choice if you can afford it; Canon's 100mm macro lens is dead sexy.
I follow a lot of figure websites and while I don't often see a deficiency of gear, I do often see a deficiency of light. If you want to take a good picture, you need adequate light. It's even better if you can control and shape the light but for starters, getting adequate light is good enough. Get a desk lamp, tape a paper towel or something to the front to diffuse the light a bit, and experiment with positioning and distance. Build or buy a standalone diffuser if you want better results. Think about what sort of feel you want your photo to have; are you looking for an evenly-lit picture that shows all aspects of the figure, or are you trying to evoke a mood? Add more lights if you need them; back when I used desk lamps, I often used two, and sometimes I used up to five if I really wanted to blow the background out.
Shoot in RAW format; install the RAW conversion software that came with your camera and shoot in RAW. I shot in JPEG up until the middle of 2010 and I really wish I had shot in RAW from the start. The ability to adjust white balance in software is extremely powerful, and it's much easier to do it there than to fiddle with curves and the color balance sliders in Photoshop.
Buy and use a tripod if you don't have one already. If you're shooting indoors with lamps, you really, really need one. I sort of assume most people know this already but it took me a couple of years to figure out why my pictures with my old PowerShot A40 were so blurry, and it's because I wasn't using a tripod.
Oh, and if you happen to follow my advice about the paper towel while using incandescent bulbs, I take absolutely no responsibility if you start a fire that burns your house down.
Tomopop: We'll watch out for that! What inspires you when it comes to how you set up a shoot?
TA: There are usually several things. Sometimes the figure dictates what I do. For example, Alter's bounty hunter Yoko had a rocky orange base, so I went with a rocky, orange backdrop. Their first Mio Akiyama figure looks like she's performing on stage, so I put some colored lights in the background. Other times, I'll look at the figure and go by feel. Kotobukiya's Dizzy has a big smile and an energetic pose, so I went with a bright background to match her liveliness. In contrast, Max Factory's Tamaki Kousaka has a placid, tranquil expression so I wanted something a bit more somber with softer lighting.
Sometimes I'm more interested in trying out a particular photographic technique. For example, I recently read some articles on doing water drop photography, and I thought that I could incorporate that technique when I shot Kotobukiya's Kurisu Makise. And sometimes I'll just think of something weird to try out. For example, one night I was lying in bed and I wondered what would happen if I taped a couple of LED lights to a fan and waved it around in front of the camera. I wound up doing it during a figure shoot and it worked okay. However, there are a lot of times that I get myself into trouble when an idea that seemed so brilliant and practical the day before falls flat on its face and I have to come up with a plan B on the fly.
Tomopop: What are your favorite figures you've ever shot, and why?
TA: My favorite shoots would probably be Alter's bounty hunter Yoko and their Hyakka Ryouran Samurai Girls Senhime, and MegaHouse's Sora Kasugano. For Yoko, I built a diorama despite not knowing how to build a diorama. I don't have much artistic skill; I never progressed beyond drawing stick figures in my youth and I never studied any form of art in school, having been an engineering major. I had to learn how to build and paint that backdrop as I went along. I wasn't sure how well the pictures would turn out but I was very happy with them in the end.
A lot of the backdrops I build don't look all that real, but I was happy that the sliding Japanese doors that I used for Senhime turned out okay. I was also really happy that the kitty litter I used looked good, too; that's something I've had difficulty with, finding something that looks like gravel that is sized for scale figures.
When I photographed Sora, I was in a big creative funk and struggled to come up with new ideas. Up to that point, I was almost exclusively using black or white backgrounds, which gets boring after a while. I put some dinner mats behind Sora to break up the background and it worked out a lot better than I expected. In fact, I don't think I could duplicate that shot today if I tried; I remember the lighting setup but a lot of the result was just sheer luck.
Tomopop: What was the most challenging shoot you've ever done, and why?
TA: I can think of a couple that qualify. One was Kurisu Makise, because I was trying to get a splash of water positioned exactly where I wanted it, and I learned that it was a lot harder to do than it looked. I took around 1,500 shots while dripping water in front of her, and wound up using only one picture from that set. I had to take a couple hundred more conventional pictures to fill out the rest of the review.
The other was Grands's Ikaros, which was the first and only outdoor shoot I've ever done. I didn't have a lot of experience - or any experience, really - taking photographs outdoors but I wanted to give it a try, so I took her to a nearby riverside park. The first problem I encountered was trying to find the river; it didn't look too hard to find when I was sitting at my computer staring at Google Maps, but when I got to the parking lot I had no clue which direction I was supposed to hike in. When I finally got there, I encountered more problems. Some of them were prosaic, like deciding where I was going to put the figure since the shoreline was sloped down into the water or waiting for a couple of guys in a fishing boat to drift away, and other problems were technical, like trying to meter and focus on the figure despite looking westward straight into the setting sun. I'm glad it's gotten cold now so I'm not tempted to go back out there to give it another try.
Tomopop: Do you have a favorite figure? If so, why?
TA: Without a doubt, my favorite figure is Volks's 1/4 scale Uesugi Kenshin. I fell in love with it the moment I saw it on Heisei Democracy a few years back and I never thought I'd own it, but I picked it up from Yahoo Japan Auctions about a year ago. Kenshin is one of my favorite characters in Sengoku Rance and Volks did a beautiful, marvelous job with her sculpt. She's huge, which I love, as I much prefer larger figures to smaller ones. She's also nearly naked, which counts for a lot in my esteem.
Tomopop: If you could shoot any figure that you haven't shot yet, no matter how rare, which would it be and what would you like to do for the shoot?
TA: How about a figure so rare it doesn't exist? Anyone who reads my site knows how often I rage that nobody's made a figure of Queen's Blade's Irma, even though just about every other character from that franchise has gotten a figure. If such a figure existed, I'd like to photograph her in a diorama built like Times Square, with confetti raining down and a bunch of floats hovering overhead. Or I might just take the easy way out and come up with something involving condensed milk. I'd have to think about it.
Tomopop: Thanks so much for your time, Tier!