Our toys editor Ramon Schneider sent me a video. It was a funny idea: a photographer puts a huge amount of effort into creating a dramatic scene for an action ficgure.
I asked myself: is it difficult? Could I do it too? Could I even do it better? Not all of the images in the video impressed me.
The proof is in the pudding. Explosives, pyrotechnics, floods – what could go wrong?
I started with an easy one. I created a backdrop in my own home, without flammable materials. But seriously, what could go wrong?
To give the scenery a little boost, I used water. The Battle Crab was supposed to be in a storm with horizontal rain or lashing spray. This was easy to do in the bath.
I held the shower head with one hand, but the water also had to be illuminated to make it visible. Unfortunately, I left my flash at the office, so I had to hold a spotlight in my other hand. And with my third hand, I held my camera because it was impossible to position a tripod properly.
Hang on a minute... what third hand? I tried to put the light somewhere that it wouldn't fall over. Easier said than done. The setup also reminded me of the classic domestic accident: the hairdryer in the bath. I switched to a harmless torch. I didn't want my gravestone to read: «Sorry, I died because I wanted to light a toy crab in the bath with a 400-watt halogen spotlight.»
The torch lit up the water, but not enough. But I got two or three usable photos out of it and I managed to considerably improve the result with some editing. Not bad for a first attempt, but I knew I had to do better.
It was dark by around 9pm, so I went in for round two. The torchlight is easier to see in the dark and creates a more dramatic ambience.
This time, I didn't go for half measures: I placed the shower head in its bracket and directed a jet towards the crab. The water had to be pretty strong to reach it.
But the photo is promising! I turned the water up higher and lit it better. «It's going well,» I excitedly thought to myself – getting sprayed with cold water at the exact same moment. The strong jet of water had moved the shower head to the side, straight towards me. I was drenched, as was the laundry basket, the camera and the entire bath.
And it gave me a taste for more.
In the video, Jared Middleton is always playing with fireworks, smoke bombs and black powder. This offers the promise of spectacle, but seemed to be tricky to imitate. The action only lasts for a short time and you only have a limited amount of attempts. So I had to know exactly what I was doing from the outset. To get a bit of experience with fire and smoke, I thought it would be much better to make a fire on the edge of a forest first.
Simply placing a figure in front of the fire creates great images. The Lava Golem was a perfect fit.
I had the tripod with me, but I didn't need it. I managed to snap away at ISO 100 by hand. I used a completely open aperture to create a blurred background. As I noticed later at my computer, however, I underestimated how exact the focus had to be. The figure's eyes weren't in focus in a number of photos, but other body parts were. This is common near to the open aperture.
Slower shutter speeds can also capture things more easily. If only a few flames are flickering, they will often be invisible with a shutter speed of less than 1/250. A huge fire is another matter, but then there's the small issue of heat generation. I was really nervous about accidentally setting fire to Luca Fontana's beloved Stormtrooper, but he survived the inferno.
In my next photos, I moved the figure from in front of the fire, holding it in the frame between my thumb and index finger. This meant taking the photos with one hand, but it gave me more freedom to compose the image. As I only came up with this idea after a considerable time, I was pleased that I had a lot more time with the fire than I would have had with fireworks.
Naturally, I also tried to create the most dramatic scenes possible with the smoke from the fire. But it's not easy to make smoke clearly visible. My attempts with the flash unit failed miserably. But a few images – taken without the flash – were viable. I cleaned things up a little at the editing stage this time too. The «Clarity» slider in Lightroom was very effective.
Fireworks are only available in Swiss supermarkets between 1 August and New Year's Eve. You have to get them from a specialist shop for the rest of the year. If sent by post, most of these products will be classified as dangerous goods, so shipping is very expensive (in German).
I didn't know exactly which fireworks would result in good photos, so I put off ordering. I went to the supermarket and bought a few sparklers instead. That way, it didn't matter if nothing came of it.
The sparklers looked great in the photos, but I found it difficult to create a suitable scene for them. This didn't really cut it:
The background should be as dark as possible for these shots. I darkened them in Lightroom using the «Blacks» slider. The sparkler worked better as Luke Skywalker's lightsaber, although he had to hold his «weapon» with both hands. Unfortunately, that's not possible with the rubber action figure.
I could have done a lot more, but I had to end the article somewhere. Proper fireworks, special smoke bombs for photo sessions, smoke machines, scenes with multiple figures...the possibilities are endless. As are the mistakes you could make. But when a plan works, your efforts will be rewarded.
I had a lot of fun. A project like this challenged me at all levels, from compiling the scene to setting up the camera correctly. Building experience, learning from mistakes and creating a visible result at the end was really motivating.
There's no recipe for success. You need time, patience, perseverance and an eagerness to experiment. Jared Middleton is always driving his passion forward and has created some images that I think are far better than the ones in the video. Head over to his Instagram account to marvel at them.
Whatever skills and equipment you use, you can create great photos with action figures if you're prepared to put in the necessary time and try out a lot of things.
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