12 amazing toy photographs with no AI

Jun 17, 2023

Udi Tirosh

Udi Tirosh is an entrepreneur, photography inventor, journalist, educator, and writer based in Israel. With over 25 years of experience in the photo-video industry, Udi has built and sold several photography-related brands. Udi has a double degree in mass media communications and computer science.

12 amazing toy photographs with no AI

Jun 17, 2023

Udi Tirosh

Udi Tirosh is an entrepreneur, photography inventor, journalist, educator, and writer based in Israel. With over 25 years of experience in the photo-video industry, Udi has built and sold several photography-related brands. Udi has a double degree in mass media communications and computer science.

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There is a lot of AI art out there and many amazing digital creators, but we wanted to pay homage to create art in-camera. (Even if a bit of Photoshop is involved). What would be a better way than using toys to do so? Being small and wonderous, you can create entire universes with toys and tell amazing stories.

This is why a few weeks ago, we started our Toy photography contest with Zhiyun, our sponsor, and two amazing judges: Anna Bitanga, a.k.a Four Bricks Tall, and Jason Yang, a.k.a @workmoreorless. We had over 420 entries so the competition was fierce, but here we are with a final decision.

Lego category winners

For the winning LEGO photo, I was looking for images that show smart decisions about camera gear and settings, interesting lighting, strong compositions, and original concepts.

LEGO minifigures and models can be tough subjects to shoot because the material is a very shiny plastic and the surfaces are planar or cylindrical, making reflections and glare a huge problem. Controlling these distractions with careful camera angles, light placement, and/or CPL filters is paramount.

LEGO toys are mostly bricks and plates so getting the lines straight can be pretty tricky too. LEGO minifigures are iconic and have a wide range of expressions to choose from, but also very limited in articulation so posing is also a big challenge.

There were a lot of photos that met all four criteria and the challenges specific to LEGO photography, so it was tough to choose the first-place winner among those.

First place: Ryo Tomita

The first place goes to this fantastic photo of a warehouse worker fumbling with a loaded forklift.

Great, fun concept and I love the dynamism in this scene: the falling crates, the toppling forklift, and the barely-holding-on operator. That probably took a bunch of putty, wires, and articulating arms to arrange.

Ryo built up the scene to keep us engaged with his photo: great use of foreground elements, shapes, and heights from front to back.

The warmer subject against the cooler tones of the warehouse works very well to isolate the subject. I also appreciate the hard light– it’s not used so much by LEGO photographers because it’s harder to control reflections with, but that’s also what makes Ryo’s photo stand out among the rest. The highlighting around the edges of the subject also makes the subject pop.

This photo ticks all the criteria boxes for me plus it shows the light-hearted humor of LEGO.

Second place: Arek Truszkowski

Arek’s photo is a wonderful example of embracing shadow in toy photography without going dark in concept. There’s a lot of texture here from the greebling (LEGO jargon for detailing) in the walls down to the tiny particles of mist suspended in the light.

The subject is posed simply but purposefully towards the light. I love how small the photographer chose to frame the minifig– again, bucking a trend of fill-the-frame often used in LEGO photography.

Red isn’t the color choice I would think to make but the white/blue astronaut against it is arresting. It also makes me question if this is a hopeful or ominous photo. I don’t know but it made me think, which is a feat in our days of the endless scroll.

Third place: Kenton Anderson

Kenton’s photo stood out because of the unusual camera angle he used in this photo of a little kid flying over the city streets in a tiny red plane.

Speaking of red again, that’s a color that draws attention. Here, it’s used against another red object that’s moving in the opposite direction– a nice implied line there.

There are more strong lines in the street that make my eye move diagonally across the frame and linger a bit longer

Action category winners

I was completely blown away by not only the number of entries for this toy photography challenge but also the level of quality in the submissions. With 428 submissions from 133 creative photographers, choosing my top 3 was a challenge! Fortunately, I was able to focus solely on the Action Figure category, however, there were still a handful of images that incorporated both LEGO and Action Figures.

When critiquing the photos, I relied on a few criteria to help with the overall process:

Concept: A well-crafted story can inspire and delight. A still image, or photograph in our case, has the challenge of telling a story within a single moment in time. Within that story, I am drawn to concepts that are unique, emotive, and rich with detail.

Creativity: Artists who challenge themselves are to be admired. Whether it is creating with an authentic style or solving problems in a clever way, creativity adds depth.

Quality: Producing any type of art requires thoughtfulness, intentionality, and purpose. When it is done with excellence, the quality is apparent. I appreciate an artist’s attention to detail and a demonstration of high-level execution within their work.

First place: Roger Gonzales

What an absolute TKO for this challenge! This concept was brilliant in it’s simplicity with a masterful composition. The negative space around the subjects provides a fantastic sense of scale and contrast. The wonderful use of color along with the intentionality of focus draws the viewer into the story, making this the top contender for me. I also give Roger bonus points for implementing both action figures and LEGO for this submission. Congrats!

Second Place: Danny Koh

I’m always impressed by toy photographers that think outside the box. This hilarious mash-up of Marvel’s Captain America using DC’s Superman as a bulletproof shield is extremely creative! This dynamic composition and careful use of color combine to create both action and clarity. Using practical photography along with excellent digital compositing, Danny is able to tell a unique story with both pixels and plastic.

Third place: Jeff Junatas

It’s apparent that there are no strings holding Jeff down when it comes to toy photography! This shot is a perfect example of how practical and digital compositing can coexist and make something that absolutely rocks. The lighting sets the tone of the story and adds focus and hierarchy for the viewer.

Sponsor and Prizes

Action figure category prize: Zhiyun MOLUS X100

Ideal for studio, film, TV, and especially location shooting, the 5.7 x 3.7 x 1.4″ MOLUS X100 Bi-Color Pocket COB Monolight from Zhiyun has COB LEDs and boasts a host of professional features in a very small package. The X100 has a wide variable color range of 2700 to 6500K with high CRI/TLCI 95/97 ratings and dims from 0 to 100%. Color and brightness can be adjusted on the fixture, but you can also make changes wirelessly using Zhiyun’s app. A bonus feature is the light’s Music Mode which is a recording function that enables automatic lighting control along with music rhythm to create a special atmosphere.

LEGO category prize: Zhiyun MOLUS G60

Ideal for studio, film, TV, and especially location shooting, the 3.8 x 2.6 x 2.6″ MOLUS G60 Bi-Color Pocket COB Monolight from Zhiyun has COB LEDs and boasts a host of professional features in a very small package. The G60 has a wide variable color range of 2700 to 6500K with high CRI/TLCI 96/97 ratings and dims from 0 to 100%. Color and brightness can be adjusted on the fixture, but you can also make changes wirelessly using Zhiyun’s app

The judges

Jason Yang – Action category

My name is Jason Yang, but you may know me as @workmoreorless where I use photography to explore the wonderful world of toys and collectibles. Outside of my creative outlet through toy photography, I work professionally as a designer, animator, and illustrator through my creative services business, Invisible Element. I’ve had the honor of working with companies of all sizes, including Google, McDonald’s, Hasbro, and ESPN. My 25+ years of industry experience and knowledge have allowed me to approach photography with a unique perspective.

Over the past several years, I’ve used toy photography as a medium to realize creative concepts on a smaller scale. In doing so, my involvement in the community continues to grow. The relationships I have built personally with other artists and professionally with numerous brands have become an important aspect of my life. In fact, I have partnered with a team of toy photographers and friends to create a community-focused collaborative called The Figment Five.

My goal with Work More Or Less is to inspire, encourage, and teach others how to use toy photography to explore and realize their own creative ideas. Free resources are available on my website for those eager to learn and willing to invest in their own personal growth and development.

Anna Bitanga – LEGO category

I’m Anna Bitanga, better known in the toy photography community as Four Bricks Tall. I’ve been a photographer for over two decades, shooting environmental portraits (of humans!) and experimenting with all kinds of genres like product, editorial, macro, architectural, landscape, and documentary. You’ll find those influences and experiences in my LEGO toy photography.

I manage the largest LEGO toy photography community, BrickCentral, which regularly runs photo contests, I serve as its ambassador to The LEGO Group, and I have judged the Flickr x LEGO photo contest. I’ve been featured on Sony Alpha Universe and in the LEGO In Focus book about LEGO photography.

I also teach and write about toy photography and philosophy on YouTube and Substack.

Honorable mentions:

Jonas Vargas

I appreciate when toy photographers build scenes with LEGO bricks, and often that just means a simple construction as in this photo by Jonas.

One huge advantage LEGO photographers have is the ability to create the environment and props they need in system. Like a painter, this photographer’s scene was made as a composition choice: desaturated tones as a backdrop for the colorful hero, handrails as leading lines, pattern in negative space for interest, and so on. Even the small detail of the mouse pointing towards the action is clearly a choice of eyelines.

Lots of art knowledge here combined with simple but effective lighting and a touching concept.

Adam Burke

I love the creativity and overall concept of this photo that features one of my favorite animated characters, the Iron Giant! Through subtle and simple posing, Adam gives a real-life feel as he physically interacts within the scene. The lighting and excellent framing make this feel less like a photo and more like a painting, making Adam a master of both light and magic!

Benedek Lampert

I love medieval themes and this set in particular is one of my all-time favorite LEGO models. I’ve shot this outdoors as well so I know what a challenge it is to transport (without breaking!), find a fitting location, and battle mosquitoes while working quickly against a moving sun and breaking your back to get down low.

Not many LEGO photographers attempt to shoot buildings, much less in the wild, but Benedek does this with aplomb. On top of that, the tiny lights in the model and atmosphere to bring them out more really makes the photo come alive!

Tung Pham

This is a tea party I’d love to be invited to! Tung displays an incredible skill of drawing in the viewer through beautiful lighting, composition, and storytelling. The natural light within the frame has an almost magical aesthetic that compliments the figures within the scene. Every element in the shot feels intentional and shows a high level of competency.

Sergi Paredes

And finally, sometimes a simple minifigure with very few brick elements can make for an effective photo like this one by Sergio.

It’s tempting to always shoot with the subject’s face visible, so it’s a welcome break from the usual to see one completely turned away. While I’m not a particular fan of using IP in photos (although LEGO is one huge IP itself), it’s harder to recognize Disney’s Coco character Miguel when posed like this, therefore it helps me buy in.

Beautiful colors, strong leading lines, lots of texture, and some small details really helped this photo stand out.

Pradono Kusumo

It’s wonderful when an artist creates art that gives you insight into their personality. With this fantastically meta photo of a toy taking a picture of toys, Pradono does exactly that by bringing a delightful and funny concept to life. I appreciate the use of various scales and characters along with the layered storytelling – did you notice Darth Vader in the background?

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Udi Tirosh

Udi Tirosh

Udi Tirosh is an entrepreneur, photography inventor, journalist, educator, and writer based in Israel. With over 25 years of experience in the photo-video industry, Udi has built and sold several photography-related brands. Udi has a double degree in mass media communications and computer science.

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