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Shooting Your Toys: A Photography Primer For Collectors
By Dana Johnson

Blurry, out-of-focus photos are of no use to anyone who's trying to accurately document a collection, shoot for a publication or just impress friends and relatives. Even getting both ends of your toy cars in focus can be a problem for most cameras. Unless you're aiming for abstract art, you want your viewers to know just what it is they're looking at. So here are a few rules to make your photos look better — for whatever reason you're taking them.

Macro vs. Micro

The smaller the subject, the closer you have to get your camera to it. Forget "Instamatics" and disposable cameras. You need a better camera for shooting sharp, clear close-ups of your toys. "Macrophotography" is the term used when you're shooting extremely close to a small subject. It differs from microphotography only in the degree of magnification required. Microphotography refers to a magnification factor of 100x or more, while macrophotography covers the range of around 1x to 10x.

For typical 3 inch toy cars such as Hot Wheels or Matchbox, you'll need a camera that will allow you to keep your subject clearly in focus from no more than 8 inches away. For larger models, you will be able to shoot from a greater distance. Although the price of technology is dropping all the time, a good macrophotography-capable camera will likely cost you at least $400. Test it in the store before buying it. The camera I use is a Sony Mavica MVC-FD88 digital with 16x zoom. It has above average macro capability (and a macro setting) and will accept lens attachments. The flash on mine was always too bright for close-up photography since it washed out the subject too much… until I taped a piece of plain white paper over the flash. It seems to block just enough light to serve as a third source of illumination.

More modern cameras are now available with much greater storage capacity, and the price of technology keeps dropping. Nevertheless, you must still test it in the store on a sample subject before buying it to make sure you can shoot a sharply focused picture before spending the $400 to $1600 it will cost for such a camera.

Fill the Frame!

So often I've seen pictures of toy cars that are lost in the photo because the photographer shot from too far away. The farther away from your subject you shoot, the greater the zoom capability you'll need. One way to guarantee you buy a camera capable of shooting clear, sharp close-ups is to carry with you one of the smallest models you'll be photographing. Before buying, try every camera to ensure that you can get as close as possible and fill up the frame with your subject. Remember, the smaller the subject is in the photo, the lower the resolution will be.

Anson 1:18 1973 Cadillac Eldorado convertible Anson 1:18 1973 Cadillac Eldorado convertible
This car looks lost in this big picture. A close-up shot reveals details otherwise missed.


If you want true color, you'll need to shoot outdoors, with proper studio lighting, or use a blue color correction filter for tungsten or fluorescent lighting. Many better digital cameras have a color-correction setting for indoor photography. If yours has such a setting, use it. You can also color-correct digital photos (to a certain degree) with various image processing software. Paint Shop Pro is my favorite for its balance of simplicity and versatility, but it is not as versatile as some of the more complicated programs, such as Adobe Photo Shop.


I use quartz halogen lights, which have the same color temperature as the common tungsten light but which still require a filter or color-correction setting either on your camera or in your image processing software. Two is the minimum recommended number, one to illuminate your subject and the other for fill lighting in back of it. A large piece of light grey poster board is best for a neutral background. Curving it from a flat, horizontal surface in front to a vertical plane in the back removes distracting fold lines. Keep your surface clean and spot-free.

You might try the new Reveal light bulbs from GE. They claim to emit a truer white light. For the cost of a couple of 150 watt bulbs and lamps to hold them, you might be onto a cheap solution to your lighting needs.

Keep It Simple

Don't complicate your photos with needless clutter around your subject. Unless you are shooting within the context of a diorama or complimentary items, photograph your subjects on a plain, uncluttered surface with no other distracting items within the frame of your picture.

Anson 1:18 1973 Cadillac Eldorado convertible Anson 1:18 1973 Cadillac Eldorado convertible
In this photo, the other models
distract from the central model.
Removing the distraction places
more focus on the subject.

A neutral grey background is best. Ideally, a large piece of light grey posterboard that forms a flat surface in front and curves seamlessly up the back creates a perfect stage for your subject. My "studio" is a 3' x 4' table with a 36 inch x 48 inch sheet of neutral grey posterboard. For 1:64 (3 inch) models, you can often get away with using a piece of 8-½" by 11" card stock, available in neutral grey from most printing supply stores.

Anson 1:18 1973 Cadillac Eldorado convertible
Shooting from a higher angle can sometimes
be effective for showing different aspects
of the vehicle, but it isn't very dramatic.
Anson 1:18 1973 Cadillac Eldorado convertible
This dramatic low angle close-up draws attention to
the front end detail, but the proximity of the lens to
the subject causes the back end of the vehicle to be
out of focus.

Low Angle Is Best

Another factor in getting good pictures is more a matter of aesthetics. You can make your model look like a toy or you can make it look like a real car, depending on the angle. Shooting from a low angle gives your toy or model a more realistic and dramatic look, whereas shooting from above it places the viewer in a superior position, thereby diminishing the model as the focal point of the picture.

Depth of Field

"Depth of field" is the term used to describe the variation in distance between the closest object in focus and the farthest. A wide depth of field means that close objects will be as sharply focused as distant ones. A short field depth means that, while object far away are in focus, close object aren't, or vice versa. This isn't a huge problem when shooting landscapes or even portraits, but it becomes critical in macrophotography.

The closer you get to an object, the narrower the depth of field becomes. When you are as close as a foot or six inches, your depth of field can be so narrow that the back of a 3 inch long toy car can be out of focus even though the front is sharp and clear. There are a couple of solutions to that problem.

Brighter Is Better

The brighter the light on your subject, the less light your camera needs to create an image. Most modern cameras have automatic apertures that electronically adjust to light intensity. As the aperture adjusts smaller for brighter settings, it increases the depth of field. As it opens up more for dimmer light, the depth of field decreases. The primary limitation of bright lighting is that conventional lighting can heat up a small room pretty fast, and even melt the plastic in your models if the lights are too close to them. The alternative is to use a camera with a good zoom.

To Zoom Or Not To Zoom…

The primary advantage of using a zoom lens to get closer to your subject is that you increase your depth of field just by virtue of being farther away from your subject.

Anson 1:18 1973 Cadillac Eldorado convertible
Shooting from farther away and zooming in
to fill the screen provides better proportion
while broadening the depth of field.

The problem is in finding a camera that will focus on your subject at optimum zoom. Many cameras with zoom capability are designed for telephoto shots of big things hundreds of feet, or even miles, away. Many zoom lenses are not designed to zoom in on tiny things that are mere inches from the lens. That's another thing to check when you're testing a camera in the store before buying it.

For more information or specific questions, please call or write to Mr. Dana Johnson, PO Box 1824, Bend OR 97709-1824, phone 541-318-7176, e-mail toynutz@earthlink.net



Registered user? Post your own comment!

2 Comment(s) Posted:

Thank You .. GR8T Information     Dennis Mong   (04/17/19)

Thank you     Duncan Pohl   (12/27/11)



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