Hello! I am Dave DeBaeremaeker, and I photograph toys for fun and profit. I really enjoy the idea of taking an inanimate lump of plastic that resembles a character, and turning it into an interesting and compelling image. All I need is a cheap plastic toy, a camera (any camera will do!), and my imagination lets my creative world expand before my very eyes.

I also believe it’s a great way for folks to practice their own photography on a miniature scale. One of the things I appreciate about toy photography is that it is a very cheap and easily accessible genre for folks to get into, but it also offers an incredibly wide range of options for creativity. It does offer some of its own unique challenges though, so I’d like to take this opportunity to share some tips to get started in toy photography.

Don’t Overthink It

My first tip is that you don’t need to overthink your subject too much. There are a whole lot of different toys out there and basically any toy will do. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely have strong opinions about the best action figure product lines that produce the most photogenic toys, and the pros and cons of various levels of price, detail and articulation.

However when you are first starting out pretty much any toy you can get your hands on will do. So if you don’t have any action figures or other similar toys lying around, find a local kid and borrow one of theirs. If you don’t have easy access to a local kid, yard sales or thrift stores should yield something for you to shoot. Whatever grabs your eye, that’s the figure to start with.

For the rest of this article I am going to assume you selected some sort of action figure, or at least something that resembles a humanoid character (or a robot, LEGO minifig, or even a My Little Pony – it really doesn’t matter what you have, but I am going to use the term “figure” from here on out).

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Visual storytelling has always been something that fascinated me. Not just the stories, but everything that takes place “behind the curtain” where the magic truly happens. Sort of the science behind the art has always been enthralling to me. Even from childhood I knew I wanted to be some form of visual artist. Originally, my primary focus was special effects and 3D graphics. In film school, I wanted to learn about modeling, texturing, lighting, animating and rendering 3D characters and environments. The school I went to required 3D animators to also take regular film school classes. As a young arrogant artist, I eschewed this idea and assumed there was no real use in learning about such an outdated medium and the methods to work with it. Part of the curriculum was stage craft for special effects. No computers, no digital wizardry, no slick compositing, just plain old “analog” or “practical” effects. At first, I assumed this was just more archaic methods taught by an obsolete instructor unwilling to part with methods that were no longer relevant. I told myself I’d also be sure to stay off his lawn. 

I didn’t expect this class to make more impact on me than any other class I ever took. I learned the ways of old school masters who had to invent a new medium and pioneer tricks to craft a live effect, without having the benefit of electronic assistance. It was a bizarre mix of chemistry, physics, ingenuity, cleverness and just a bit of downright crazy! We were igniting clouds of coffee creamer to create fireballs! we were using flakes of instant potatoes to create falling snow. We were using sheets of glass with objects glued to them to make things levitate live on camera. It was beyond amazing! It felt more like learning magic tricks than learning film making. Practical effects seemed to share more with sleigh-of-hand artists than with computer graphics. I gained so much respect for those creative minds that went before us. For those brave adventurer-artists who birthed a new medium of visual storytelling. Do you have any idea how the special effects artists crafted the tornado in the Wizard of Oz? They certainly didn’t have computers to render the effect for them, and they didn’t go capture and train a real tornado… I won’t spoil it for you, but I encourage you to look it up, it’s truly fascinating!

Side Note: There’s still some practical effect wizardry happening today that would do those Masters proud. They are usually relegated to Broadway shows, but they are no less impressive or ingenious. Case in point would be the rig used to create the flying carpet in the musical Aladdin. It’s an ingenious feat of practical engineering! So much so, they even filed a patent on the method to protect their idea.

So fast forward a few too many years and I find myself in a career that primarily uses Photoshop to composite effects. Frequently I’m working a visual project that needs a particular effect and before I launch that browser window and spending a credit on Adobe Stock for fireballs I ask myself three important questions:

1. Could I somehow shoot this myself as a practical effect?

2. If I did shoot it myself, would it be better?

3. Would it be more FUN? 

If the answer to any of those is “yes” (OK, mostly the last one) then I will absolutely try to shoot practical effects. I find the very process to be creatively therapeutic. It gets me out from behind my desk and it challenges me to figure out a way to create the effect. It’s like solving a puzzle or visual riddle. I’ve often said it’s some of the most fun I’ve ever had with my camera!

In my newest course here at KelbyOne, Shooting and Compositing Your Own Special Effects, I demonstrate three different practical effects and how to create them using regular household items and the techniques I’ve found to reliably shoot them, and how to use those as digital assets for your own special effects.


Water Splashes

For a long time, shooting mid-air water splashes frustrated me. It was the age-old photography struggle of needing a fast shutter speed to freeze the action, but somehow still getting enough light in to the sensor to make the water drops bright enough to be seen. The first time I worked with this project, my equipment was woefully inadequate for the task. The drops were either blurry or underexposed. or both. My high-speed synch wasn’t working (or I wasn’t using it right) so I was struggling to find a solution. The answer was as bright as day. Literally.

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PHOTOGRAPHY & SOFT FASCINATION, Or…

How to unleash your inner JamesEarlFrickinJones-itude

You can just never go wrong photographing what you love, the way you love, in light that you love, telling a story you love.

Why is that?

It’s because when you tell a story (visual or otherwise) about what you love without holding back, resistance melts away. You can’t help but communicate from a deeper truth and authenticity.  No apologies, no excuses. And in that beautiful, loving, quantum way in which creation works –  that voice, that particular brushstroke, in turn becomes the “secret sauce” which embeds itself into the pixels of your image as a photographer. But you can’t fake it. And you can’t hold back.

I know this from many perspectives… among them,  being a voiceover professional. My finest mentor taught me this idea a bit differently; from the perspective of finding your “celebrity voice” – or signature voice, as she called it. Her point: when a director hires a celebrity voice, they’re hiring the particular vocal signature of that person. It’s more than a sound, it’s a presence.

Case in point: when you book James Earl Jones (the voice of Darth Vader) you know what you’re getting. Jones’ voice is his and his alone. It’s unique, unmistakable; and has a particular presence + definable effect on everyone who hears it. When Jones uses his voice to endorse your product, or bring your character to life… it’s going to have the James Earl Jones “touch.” It’s a mighty bankable touch; and if you’re a smart director, you wouldn’t dream of changing it. (not all directors are smart, BTW… but that’s a story for another day).

James Earl Jones didn’t get where he is by accident. Sure, he was born with his voice. (As were you, BTW.) But he went way beyond that initial endowment. He didn’t simply work hard, following others’ examples, fulfilling somebody else’s advice about what he should do – or sound like. Nope, somewhere along the line he OWNED who he is, his sound and his “touch”  in no uncertain terms. He claimed his perspective, honed his point of view, his IS-ness  – and learned to inhabit that voice with zero apologies. And in doing so, became JamesEarlFrickinJones.

Now overlay that notion onto photography. Signature voice in photography is “unique, unmistakable, not duplicatable and has a definable effect on everyone” who sees & experiences it. It’s your “touch”, your perspective and presence, embedded into the pixels of your every image.

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Authentic Portraits / 3 Posing Strategies

What makes a portrait good? Is it the light, the wardrobe, the hair and makeup, or something else? I like how the French poet Charles Baudelaire put it, “A portrait! What could be more simple and more complex, more obvious and more profound.” The best portraits contain something that can’t quite be explained. Just like the best music, the best poems, the best paintings, the best films… there is a mystery that invites us to look, listen and lean in. And it’s that special quality that makes a portrait feel authentic and real. 

For me, the portraits that last aren’t single minded, but more often a complex, and sometimes conflicting mixture of ideas, emotions and themes. Like good literature or art, they give you access to multiple emotions at once. Like the photographs that speak of the many paradoxes of life: absence and presence, fragility and strength, pity and admiration or nostalgia and regret. 

So how do you pose with all of that in mind? First of all, you let go of control and embrace the photographic process as a mystery without any guarantees. At least that’s what I’ve found. The times when I’ve been too controlling, the portraits end up looking technically good, but lacking essence and soul. And the older I get, the more I’ve come to realize that these technically perfect photographs are a waste of time. What I really want is something that is authentic and real, which is nearly an impossible goal. But still, it acts as a true north. 

So back to our question, how can we pose our subjects with all of this in mind? While there are many strategies that have found, I want to keep things simple and to share 3. These have helped me keep things simple and I hope they help you as well. Keep in mind, these are not rules or recipes, but strategies that I use when the feeling is right. 


Strategy 1: Eye to Eye

Have you subject square off and point their toes directly toward the camera. Keep the camera eye level. Keep the composition simple and clean. Here are a few examples below:

Strategy 2: Shoulder Slant

Ask your subject to point his or her toes away from the camera and to stand naturally. This will create a diagonal slant to the shoulders. Next, ask the subject to look directly into the lens. 

Strategy 3: Knee Tuck

Ask your subject to sit down and then to comfortably tuck in one or both of the knees in a way that matches how they feel. In other words, this can be simple, strong, dramatic or whatever. Then direct the subject to touch or hold their knee – it’s that simple. Here are a few examples:


These are obviously just a few strategies but I hope this gives you some simple inspiration. If you would like to learn more about capturing authentic portraits, check out my most recent book, Authentic Portraits: Searching for Soul Significance and Depth. You can get 40% off of my book by using the code ORWIG40 when you check out. 

Cheers!

Chris O.


You can see more of Chris’s work at ChrisOrwig.com, find tips and resources from him here, and keep up with him on Instagram and Facebook.

So You Want To Be A Commercial Photographer?

Seven years ago I made the decision that I wanted to be a commercial photographer, and I haven’t looked back since. Today I have a 4,000 sq ft studio that specializes in food and beverage tabletop photography, a full commercial kitchen, a stocked prop room, I shoot with Broncolor lighting and a Phase One medium format camera system, and have created images for national and regional food brands such as Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen, Ruth’s Chris Steak House, Ruby Tuesday, Tony Chachere’s, The Four Seasons, Tijuana Flats, Metro Diner, and a dozen locations at Disney World and Disney Springs. I’ve also created two classes with KelbyOne (the second one debuting this week!) to teach others some of what I have learned along the way. It’s been a great ride so far and I’m only about halfway to where I want to be. But I thought I would share a bit of what my experience has taught me about becoming a commercial photographer.


Choosing A Genre

After 20 years in advertising, I had always been interested in commercial photography but struggled to find a genre that really interested me. I didn’t want to take photos of sunglasses or skin care products, chainsaws or cars, and fashion was really not my thing. In 2015 I won a cooking competition with a grand prize of a week in Ireland. I brought my camera with me on this foodie trip and took nothing but photos of food for a week. While I was there, it dawned on me just how much of an industry was out there surrounding commercial food photography, and, by the time I returned, I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my career next.

Selecting a genre to focus on is very important to your success as a commercial photographer. If a potential client were viewing my portfolio and they had to search through galleries of families, weddings, cars, or whatever I might have posted as a photographer who doesn’t specialize, they may have second thoughts about me as the right fit for their company. This is even more of an issue as you climb further up the ladder and are talking to creative directors at large advertising agencies that represent big brands. You simply will not get hired for a job that you are not a specialist in. We’re talking big budget productions, with lots of money and reputations at stake, and the person who gets the job is the one that is extremely proficient in the genre.

If you’re really interested in making a career in commercial photography, you have to be ready to spend the next 5, 10, 20 years focusing on becoming the best at the genre you choose to pursue. You must love the work. You must have a desire to shoot the same thing for the 100th time and still love the process of making it the best work you’ve ever shot. Personally there is something very rewarding and also satisfying about working to become one of the best in my field. I love pushing the boundaries of my work every day and making every production better than my last. I love the focus and concentration working in a specific genre affords me and I love the challenge my job brings me every day.

I hear people all the time say they don’t think they could ever focus on just one thing, that they’d get bored or that they think they are better as a photographer who can create work across multiple genres. That’s all fine, but I’m here to tell you if you want to work at the high end of commercial photography, you need to find a field to specialize in and make a name for yourself.


Separate Art and Business

Getting a start in anything is neither quick nor easy, and starting as a commercial photographer is no different. The business of photography is vastly different from the art of photography, and you have to go into this career understanding that. I absolutely love what I do now, even when I’m photographing my 20th hamburger. It’s always different and unique and every image is a challenge. I love a good challenge and I don’t have much quit in me, so that has lead to success for me thus far.

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