Your quick guide to better doll photos.
So, you are in love with dolls and want to take more artistic photos? display your toy collection or just learn more about doll photography as your new hobby?. I hope this little guide can be a sweet introduction to some of the most important factors to take notice when you are looking at your doll through the lens of a camera for the first time.
Aside from falling in love with creating dolls, I developed a passion for taking their photos.
Granted, I am no professional and there are still photography terms I struggle to understand how they work (like, light meter? this one is still a bit of a mystery to me!), but I believe you don’t have to understand all the photography jargon in order to take a decent, creatively arranged, snapshot of your doll collection or your finished doll.
I consider myself to be in the ‘very amateur’ realm, and I’m so delighted when more experienced photographers send me their captions of my dolls. It just brings them to light in a totally different way.
I have taken notice of their editing, the creative arrangement and the light situation. That’s how I learn, so I wanted to give you all a few tips since I am always getting the question of what camera I use, how do I edit my photos, and wether I will do a book with my stories one day. All a yes, but more on that later.
Phone or DSLR?
Now, phones can take great photos of course, but are limited in so many ways. Understandably so, for the rest of this post I will discuss this from the point of view of working with a DSLR.
If you are just photographing your dolls to show off your collection, you most certainly can do this with your phone camera. But if you have developed a need to portray your collection , tell stories with them or even sell your dolls, I strongly advise you to use a DSLR. It will bring your doll photos to another level.
Now, so you know I don’t work with a super impressive camera: my gear consists of a Canon Rebel XS, with two lenses: an 80mm (which I use to take photos of my kids mostly), and the 50mm, which I use for the dolls almost 99% of the time. I never use flash, fancy lamps, remote controls or gadgets whatsoever.
And now in 2017, I bought a new camera! woot, woot. I am now the proud mother of a Canon EOS80D which allows me to take fancy videos and the lens is 18-135mm. Pretty stoked with my new camera to be honest.
So, let's jump right into it and start with the most obvious and most important of all aspects: lighting.
Your Quick Mini Guide to Better Doll Photos, the non-techie way
Or the use of natural light
I strongly believe this is your best bet if you are starting to take doll photos. I cringe at the sight of so many dolls photographed at night, and with a phone to say the least!.
It totally puts your work or your dolls under such yellow/orange and off-putting light, when what we are trying to do is highlight them to their best appearance. Not to dupe the viewer, but to show them the potential, the magic within the doll.
Try to take your photos either by a window, or in a room with loads and loads of natural light. If I am photographing inside I always have favourite windows that showcase the dolls well. Some windows work better than others, so you will have to play around your home to figure out which one works best for you.
For example, I rarely take any of my doll photos in my studio, even though there is a lovely window. The light just comes too concentrated in certain patches, blowing up some areas and leaving everything else in total darkness. I use the windows in my living room or in my bed room the most.
Obviously, when working inside, try to take your photos during the most light-intensive part of the day.
If you are taking your photos outside, I highly recommend taking your photos before 8 in the morning during summer, and after 7 or 8 in the afternoon (take in consideration I live very far north). Daylight varies greatly in winter so you have to play with what you get.
What you are aiming for is the diffused light of early morning and at dusk. You get a pretty cool light early and a very warm light in the afternoon. Totally non-technical terms here.
You can check these posts for more photos that were taken during the warm light of the afternoon, and then check the contrast in light of the ones in these posts that were taken very, very early in the morning.
Artificial light sources.
If all hell broke lose during the early day and you couldn’t get your snappy fingers clicking away, then you are going to have to use artificial light. Now, here the question is either investment or cleverness.
There are of course those fancy umbrella lamps that most Etsy sellers use to take product photos, you can get one of those, they are not very expensive. Especially if you want to take very professional, product doll photos with the typical white background. This will ensure you have the same level of light on all your photos, bringing your game A+.
You can also use lamps around your home to bring light close to your doll, and then use a technique called “bouncing light” in which you put your doll close to a light object (not the lamp per se), but like aluminum paper (or the shiny plastic things we all use to keep the sun from our car consoles) which will light up the dark parts of your doll.
I personally don’t use this technique much. I am aware I take loads of doll photos with heavy shadows but I kinda like them. Makes them moody and sort of special to me. To each their own.
2. Your Set up.
Of course, we can decide wether we take our photos inside our out. If you don’t like taking your dolls outside because you are uncomfortable of other people seeing you photographing your dolls, I can understand that.
I however, have been navigating the public eye with a doll under my arms and my camera for some years now, so I am immune to the stares and the giggles. We all have different levels of comfort, so proceed at your own pace.
If you want to play it safe and take your photos inside, try to get into the emotions you are trying to convey. Your angle, the environment of the doll, the lighting, these all play a part when taking your photos. Play around your home and figure out where the doll looks best.
I always move the dolls around the house, use a ladder or a chair to get higher grounding, always always look through the view finder to train your eye on how to compose the photo.
Look at this story of Oh Eira! by Juliane at Notes from Björkåsa. The doll starts inside and then there are some wonderful outside photos as well.
Photos outside are my preferred method of displaying the dolls so far. Why? because it brings an element that makes the dolls very pleasing: nature. You just can’t beat that stuff.
Portraying your doll surrounded by flowers, leaves, grass, trees, a fence, etc. brings a realistic element to your composition that creates not only more mood for the photo, but it makes the doll look more realistic. More alive.
I think that you can create a lot of mood when you take indoor photos, however, I am extremely biased in believing the dolls benefit immensely from outside play. If you don't believe me, check this little number and visit Kiki in her wonderful adventures.
Now, this should come as no surprise to anybody. You can use a series of photos to tell a story. That’s the obvious point of storytelling. But you can also use just one photo, and use the elements in it to tell more.
How about leaving some cookie crumbles and just using the doll in the far blurry background? what would that photo tell your viewer? Or seating the doll amongst fabrics and buttons, with heavily disheveled hair? Is she anxious about your choices?
There are some real masters at storytelling with photographs, so please take a look to the work of Juliane Stritmatter and her bear children, Winter Held and her Winterludes adventures and Megan McInnis from Mon Petit Frère and the series MiniMe Sleepover.
I recommend that you not only take in consideration the lighting and setting of your doll, but that you try to tell more. Try telling a story with each photo, so that the viewer is utterly delighted.
4. Creative props
Here is where having certain things at your disposal makes for easier #dollpropsforthewin:
I have a wooden one, and three metal ones. I mostly use them outside to hold the dolls in standing position while snapping pics, praying to God they don’t fall on their faces while I move slightly away.
Sometimes I use dead leaves to cover them, sometimes grass, most often it’s just the angle I am using with the camera to hide the stand behind the doll.
Please take some time to hide the stand, is the most distracting thing in the world and it TOTALLY kills the photo if you can see the stand glaring at you. This photo doesn’t make the doll look alive, it makes her look like a doll. Big no no.
If you want to learn how to make your own doll stand, especially for outside photos, that's the place to visit.
Elastics and Pins.
Yup, elastics. Thin ones to tie their hands as if holding something or pins as well.
Don’t tell anybody, but the dolls are stuffed with wool so you can pin things to them or pin their hands into certain positions. Very hush-hush situation.
If you have elastics around their hands, you can of course blur it out in editing or just use it when the dolls are wearing long sleeves for example.
Now this is for the pros. When you really want to set the dolls into a place where the doll stand will just not cooperate, you can either tie fishing line to their hands, or from their body and suspend it from a tree, fence, or have someone hold it while you take the photo.
I love using fishing line, but it is very tiresome to be honest.
Doll Specialty props.
Specialty props, aka doll stuff. Of course. If you have doll-sized stuff lying around the house, this is when to use it.
Play food (a tea cake, some veggies, knitted cupcakes, tea bags, a sandwich, etc), furniture (chairs, a doll kitchen, a bed, a rug, etc.), toys (other toys around the house obviously, or toys for dolls like a wagon, a doll stroller, tiny scissors, etc.)
Be creative in using whatever items you have around the house. We have a set of wooden Ostheimer toys that I regularly use, as well as tiny doilies and little blankets. Just get playful and set up a scene for your doll.
If you would like to create a whole set for your dolls, check out this tutorial. It is geared to miniature, but you can definitely adapt the idea to waldorf-inspired or natural fiber art dolls, that are usually quite large. Of course, I hope you have space to store it too!.
5. Understanding your camera
Now we are going to get just a little bit technical. No need to drop the mike and run. It’s not going to hurt, I promise. We are just going to cover the most basic of all settings.
If you are using your DSLR you need to get off auto and use manual. Period, no complaints, no ifs, no nothing. There are thousands of tutorials online on how to operate your camera, so get going.
Google your particular camera and try to understand how to use it.
You don’t have to know all the bells and whistles, you just need to know how to operate the exposure: your ISO, your shutter speed (don’t faint!) and your aperture. Yes, I went there. They are the three most basic things to understand and I am going to explain them in doll terms so you don’t get crazy.
Without getting too technical, ISO is the sensitivity of the lens to light. My camera is not very fancy so if I use a higher number ISO I get a lot of grainy dots, called noise, in my photos, so therefore I don’t.
I shoot always on ISO100 and then adjust shutter speed and aperture. I see a lot of peeps use a really high ISO when taking photos inside, and then they get super grainy pics. Don’t do that, lower the ISO on your camera and try to capture more light with the aperture and shutter speed.
Of course my now super fancy lens means that I can blow up a photo on ISO1600 and not get one grain in the picture. So lucky. But I do remember the olden times with my XS Rebel and having to learn to use the aperture to bring in more light versus using the ISO setting.
There are of course situations in which when there is plenty of light, using a higher ISO number will allow you to capture things “fast” but since the dolls don’t move (in front of others that is), there is no need to move further down this line.
For now, just set your ISO to a low number and let's learn how to operate the other two.
The shutter speed is self-explanatory in a sense. It’s the speed at which the lens opens and closes.
If you use a fast shutter speed you freeze moving objects for example, if you use a low shutter speed, the lens is going to stay open longer and then you can capture a bit more light but it can also make things that are static a bit blurry (if you are shooting with the camera in your hands, for long exposure, aka slow shutter speed, use a tripod and a timer, then you can keep everything in focus).
Shutter speed is measured in fractions of a second so an extremely slow shutter speed (or long exposure) would be 1/4 or 1/8, while a fast shutter speed would be 1/250, 1/500, etc.
I use fast shutter speeds when I’m outside and there is loads of light. I use low shutter speeds inside, or when my doll is under lots of shade in the garden.
The one I fiddle with the most is the aperture of the lens.
This controls how wide the little hole inside your lens is going to open, like a pupil. It gets tricky because a small number in the aperture setting, means your lens is very wide open. A higher number, means the lens is less wide. Tricky. But with a little practice it becomes second nature.
The aperture in your camera is read with f numbers, so an f/1.4 gives you a very wide opening, while an f/8 for example gives you a very small diameter open in the lens (less light hits the sensor).
If you are shooting under low light, use an aperture of f/1.8 for example, and then adjust the shutter speed until you get just the lighting you want.
Another sweet thing that the aperture controls, is that it gives you depth of field. See all those pretty close doll photos with the blurred background? those were taken with a wide aperture, aka a small number of f-stop, for example a f/1.4 or f/1.8.
When you have very nice light, and you want absolutely everything in focus, nothing blurred at all, then use a higher number=low aperture f/8 or higher (depending on the size of your doll and how close you are to her or him).
Try mucking around with just one setting first. Set your ISO to 100. Set your aperture in the lowest number possible (the widest opening in your lens). And just play with the shutter speed. Check the photos to see the differences.
Then change the aperture, move one number up, and then play with the shutter speed again. Very soon you will find which settings are the ones that work most often for you, your dolls, and your photography style and the lens you have.
Next time you want to take photos in the depths of winter, or in the blinding light of a snowy scene, you won’t be disappointed. The dolls will party.
If you want to understand more how aperture works, I recommend you this post.
After all this hard, hard work learning to use your camera, using creative dolly props, setting a scene, thinking about what sort of story to create and concocting the elements, deciding on the best light and situation to set the dolls, you still need to edit them. Boring.
I have a love-hate relationship with editing. Some days I love it, I tweak everything, and I make it look just like I want it. Other days I can hardly be bothered.
Now, there are super intense photography editing programs, but for the sake of ease and beginner-ness I just recommend two. I-photo (don’t shoot me pro photographers!) and Picmonkey. I know. Everyone hates me now.
To be honest, unless you are making a living from your photography, what is the point of spending an hour or more on each photo? twisting it here and there? Cropping and burning and cloning and dodging and God-knows what other secret words are there? I say, make sure is “readable”, it looks nice, it’s not total rubbish and be done with it. Move on. Dolls need clothes and food and someone has to clean the house some days.
Having said that, I do edit all my photos, I mostly take 20 or 30 photos per doll (when I am taking photos I take about 60 but delete about half in the camera before actually downloading them). I try to load at least 10 or 12 to my blog. I keep the rest all to myself because I am a bit selfish like that. It takes me forever to decide which ones to use!.
I am now subscribed to Adobe Creative Cloud (highly recommend it, it saves lives!) and so I can edit in Photoshop and Lightroom. Just learning how to use them so for now I am only playing with the curves, the colours and the filters. But give me some time and maybe I can show you later on how to edit a photo with a simple video tutorial.
To watermark or not?
I try to use a watermark so that if people find the photo one hundred years from now, and they don’t know my work at all, at least they can read in there where to find some more dolly goodness.
Lately I have been making my watermark real tiny because I just feel it less intrusive to the beauty of the dolls, versus my initial watermarks that were a huge name screaming at you from a corner. Don’t like that at all anymore.
7. Further Reading
If you want to increase your knowledge in this subject, please check out the following pages. They are loaded with good information and come highly recommended.
A blog dedicated to everything doll photography. You will find a lot of tutorials, geared to Ball-Jointed-Doll photography.
A whole Pinterest board dedicated to Doll and Product Photography. If you have one to share, please link to it in comments!.
A few more useful tips for Doll Photography from 121 Clicks.
So that's it for now. I hope I can keep adding little notes, a few more tips or maybe expand this post into something with more detail in regards to editing and specific readings of the camera if you are all interested.
But let's not leave it there, if you have questions about doll photography, please don't hesitate to ask here in the comments. If something is not quite clear, or if you want more tips regarding a specific subject just let me know.
I hope this free Mini-Guide has been helpful to you, maybe it broadened your horizon, gave you an idea, or if nothing else: it inspired you to try to take better doll photos. Like everything else in life, it's an acquired skill, and you only get better with loads of practice.
Now, wield your camera, grab your doll and get snapping!.
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