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Tomopop Teaches: Getting started with figure photography

4:00 PM on 10.29.2013 // Tianxiao Ma

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For me, photography and figure collecting are hobbies that just belong together. They're like peanut butter and jelly, peas and carrots, Forrest Gump and Jenny. Figure collecting is what got me into photography, and I got into figure collecting because of great figure photography.

I thought it might be helpful to start a series of guides on the photographic side of the hobby. After all, photos are the main way we share our figures with the community. Why not make those photos a little more awesome?

This first guide will be from the perspective of an absolute beginner - no fancy equipment used at all!

Step 0: figure out what makes a bad photo

This is always the beginning of my creative process. It was true when I first started photography, and it's true now. Fundamentally we're here to take the shots we don't like, and improve them. But you can't go tinkering with your pictures unless you know what's wrong. So here's a crappy photo:

This is the most common type of photo I see from the community. I don't want to pick on a specific person's work, so I recreated the bad aspects of these types of photos. This is the full shebang of badness: clutter, horrible lighting, poor focus, and thoughtless framing.

If we just want to take a quick photo to put on Twitter or Reddit, this is perfectly fine. But if we're doing a review, or would like to make more of an impression with our figure, we need to stop taking this shot.

One thing to note: I did all of these with my cell phone camera. This would be a terrible beginners guide if I opened with "buy $3000 of equipment" so I'm doing all of this with just stuff lying around my apartment.

Step 1: find a clean area

Our goal is to get people to notice our figures. No one's going to give a second thought to this Holo figure if she's drowned out by the clutter on my desk. So let's move her someplace clean and clutter-free. This table and backdrop have been specifically set up for figure reviews, but you could use a kitchen table, desk, or some other surface that's relatively clean. Just find a way to remove the clutter - a plain bed sheet, or even a computer monitor could work.

That's about 75% of the problem solved right there. Next we need to address the lighting.

Step 2: turn off the flash

Unless you're using something ancient, virtually all cameras will let you turn off the flash. The flash on my phone camera just blasts the figure with bright, flat light. It kills the details. What we want is a softer, more directional light. The most readily accessible light would be a desk lamp, and it works fine for our purposes. For the above shot, I'm using this nice LED lamp from Amazon. I didn't actually buy it for photography, but it fits this purpose well due to its large surface area, controllable dimming, and adjustable neck.

As you can see above, the lighting has improved. However, Holo still looks a bit blown out. The reason for this is beyond the scope of this guide, but it's because of the black background I have. I found a piece of white foam board and set it behind Holo to get the exposure corrected:

Isn't that better? Now we need to start thinking about the composition of our photo. 90% of the work is done, but this last part is the most challenging.

Step 3: change your perspective

Composition is the heart of photography, and there's no way anyone can write a dummy's guide for it. For the purposes of this article, though, I can outline a few steps to get you thinking in terms of photographic composition. This should help in our goal of getting a decent figure photo.

To start with, I lowered the camera angle. The first thing I do when I unbox a new figure is to pick it up, hold it up to my eyes, and examine its details. A high angle shot is what you see when you walk past a figure. To really get at the details, you'll have to lower the camera to the figure's eye level.

If you think about it, figure photography is a lot like people photography, except on a smaller scale. Ultimately we're looking at a scaled down person (well, wolf god). Eye contact is one of the main ways we engage with other people. It's more intimate and revealing. That's why it's more effective to photograph Holo at her eye level rather than from above - we don't want to look down on her like we're on a balcony.

One issue with the above photo is that the foam board isn't big enough to act as a background. You can mitigate this problem by backing up.

In this shot, nothing was repositioned except the camera, which I pulled backward. You can see that now the foam board is larger relative to Holo. This is dictated by the rules of perspective geometry. The proof is in the pudding - let's crop the photos and see what happens.

Here you can see what happens when we pull back from a figure and then crop (or, ideally, zoom in). The framing in both shots is about the same. On the left side, the camera is very close to Holo. On the right side, it's about a foot farther back, but the image is cropped.

One drawback is that the right side image is of lower quality. That's the downside of using only a cell phone camera. If your camera has an optical zoom, you can use this technique without much loss in image quality.

We're almost done! You could stop here if you wanted, but I still want to make this photo a bit more interesting.

Step 4: emphasize what you like

If every figure shot just showed 100% of the body, you'd get bored pretty quickly. We want to draw the viewer's attention to something we like about the figure. Given our limited equipment, simply changing the framing of the shot should work.

I like Holo's face, so I've framed the above photo by leaving out most of her skirt. The figure is nice all around, but I want viewers to look at her face and eyes. Just like we cut out all the clutter from my desktop, you can think of this as cutting out a little more clutter.

Here's an alternative shot. Before, Holo was looking straight at the viewer. She had your attention, and you had hers. But Holo's pose has her twirling around. You can emphasize this movement by changing the camera angle. Now she's looking to her left. She's disengaged from you because she's in the act of twirling. From this perspective, you get a better view of her outstretched arms and flowing hair; all these subtle things combine to give the impression of motion.

Bonus step: learn about your camera's settings

There is literally a guide for this written about every camera: the owner's manual! Read it. Be friends with it. I'll be addressing some of the basic camera settings in a later guide, but for now, how about a demonstration?

Check the photo of Holo above. I think it's a bit too yellow. This is an example of the white balance of the picture being wrong. We can cover the theory behind white balance later. Luckily, applying it is pretty simple. Most of the time it's as easy as telling your camera what kind of lighting conditions you're shooting under: cloudy, daylight, fluorescent, and incandescent are very common settings. I set the white balance on my camera to fluorescent (which is close to the daylight bulbs my lamp uses).

With auto white balance, my camera was overcompensating for the bluish light of the desk lamp. By setting the white balance to fluorescent, it gives the camera exact adjustments to make, resulting in an image that's closer to what we'd see with our eyes.

Closing thoughts

Hopefully this guide has gotten you to think a bit more about what you want to accomplish when taking pictures of a figure. I've avoided discussing technical details and equipment for the most part. While those things are important, the creative process is exponentially more so. Just compare the first and last pictures in this post. The biggest improvement comes from thoughtfulness, attention to detail, and understanding your goals. And all that comes with practice.

That said, if you guys want to share some practice shots, feel free to do so in the comments! I won't make it your homework but I'd certainly be interested to see what everyone comes up with!

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Tianxiao Ma, Associate Editor
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I love all things gaming, most things anime, and definitely some things PVC. I'm also a photographer and internet personality! more   |   staff directory

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