Friday, March 23, 2018

The Foundation Series: What's Your Story?

Note:  This originally ran on on February 12 2018.  It is the first post of a monthly series about lessons I've learned along my journey as an artist.  It is reposted here for posterity.

I love a photograph that tells a good story, and I try to create images that do just that.  When I set out to make a new image, the first question I ask myself is “what story do I want to tell?”. What do I want the viewer to experience when they cast their gaze upon my image. To put it more bluntly: “What is your point, Dave?”

The idea of a story in a photograph is, to be honest, something I struggle with a lot. When I think story, I think the “Star Wars” saga, or “Lord Of The Rings”, or even “Green Eggs And Ham”.  It’s quite obvious that it’s not possible to put a whole literary story or feature length movie into a single photograph. Heck even something short like “Green Eggs And Ham” would be hard to fit into a single photograph, and that is a story comprised of only 50 different words.  So clearly we need to narrow things down a bit when we talk about story.

My definition of a story in a photograph is “a word, phrase, or sentence that describes the intent of the photograph.”.  This can be as short as an emotion, like “melancholy”, or  “two ninjas fighting.”, or “Luke Skywalker faces down a menacing AT-AT Walker approaching in a snowy storm”. 

As you can see, the story can be as simple or complex as required  However once you have that you can use that story to help define how you want to create your shot.  Let me give a couple of examples from my back catalog of images.

A Convenient Example

The story for this shot is “Walking across a bleak dystopian wasteland”:

Walking across a bleak dystopian wasteland.
Walking across a bleak dystopian wasteland.
I found this location at Nelson Ghost Town in Nevada with this cool broken down plane.  When I saw the location, I came up with the story in my head, then started framing the shot.  The decisions I made were the following:  Walking implies distance, so I put the figure in the lower right corner so he had room to move in the frame. 

Wasteland brings to mind hardship and decay, so I placed the figure between the rocks to give a sense of struggle against the elements.  I also blew some dust across the scene to give a sense of energy, danger and loneliness as well.  The plane is at top of frame so the is walking towards a decaying artifact.

Finally my story didn’t really care who was walking in the dystopian wasteland, so I shot him from behind.  This both anonymizes the figure (i.e. we don’t really care who he is), and also gives the sense that he is walking in solitude (we can’t see his face, so we don’t develop an emotional connection to him), which adds to the dangerous solitude one associates with a wasteland.

Contrast the above to this next shot. The story for this shot is “Boba Fett charging menacingly into action”

Another Convenient Example

Boba Fett charging menacingly into action.
Boba Fett charging menacingly into action.
This shot is all about Boba Fett.  He is a well known figure in the Star Wars universe, known for shooting first and asking questions later.  So I placed him center frame, facing the camera, so we are forced to pay close attention to him.  To further the sense of immediacy and danger, I positioned him so he is aiming his gun straight at the camera. Not only that but he is running towards you at the same time, getting closer for a better shot.  He’s not threatening just anyone… he’s threatening you. Pay attention! You are about to have a bad day.

My story didn’t include a setting, so I made it a generic background, with some light to bring the character out from the background, further indicating he’s coming your way.  Since Boba is a rough and tumble man of action, I added some textures to him to give that sense that he’s seen a lot of action, and is capable of making good on his threat he is making.

Vastly different stories, vastly different end results, but in both cases the decisions made in each image serves the story.  If I had shot Boba from behind, the idea of him being an immediate and personal threat would be lost. If I had put the Stormtrooper front and center facing the viewer, the impact of a lonely figure walking across a wasteland would be lessened.

The story is important.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Abstract Hockey Night In Canada

This post is all about making the best of mistakes.  For the last post I showed some photography from a hockey game I attended over the holidays in Canada.

I was sitting right along the boards, snapping pics.  Most of the time my camera focused on the action, but sometimes it focused on the safety glass.

When it did, I was left with blurry photos.  However looking at them afterwards I kind of dug the shames they represented. 

So I figured I'd share it with you, my plucky crazy readers.  What do you think of these abstracted images?

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Hockey Night In Canada

This is a bit delayed, but life has been throwing me curveballs this past few months.  However back over Christmas break I was back in Canada visiting family. While there I attended a hockey game with my in-laws. 

The game was OHL level between the Mississauga Stealheads and the Hamilton Bulldogs.

We had seats right along the glass, which gave me excellent angles, but at times annoying reflections - such is life, eh?

In order to practice getting better at sports photography, I spent a lot of time tracking the flow of the game and trying to capture peak action.  I was just getting into my groove when, during the 2nd period intermission, I was told by a staff member that I wasn't allowed to "have that size of lens in the arena without a press pass." So I stopped taking photos.

Despite that interruption I think I did a decent job.  What do you think?

Saturday, March 17, 2018


I am working on several photography projects at the same time.  My desk has become overrun by LEGO detritus... all the cast-offs and spare parts left over while I try to build appropriate characters for the ideas I have.

Sometimes it's a curse having too many ideas...

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The Foundation Series: A Journey Begins

Note:  This originally ran on on January 8, 2018.  It is the first post of a monthly series about lessons I've learned along my journey as an artist.  It is reposted here for posterity.

And so it begins…

Over the past few years I have been on a personal journey to learn photography, and to discover who I am as an artist. Along the way I have gained a lot of insights into the art and craft of toy photography.
I was asked by Shelly to create a series of posts that share some of the things I have learned with the readers of this blog.  The idea is that you, the intelligent good looking readers of this blog, may also be inspired in your own journeys of discovery.

So, approximately once per month, I will be doing just that.  Creating posts that cover many of the concepts of photography I have learned along my journey.  I will focus on  tools, techniques, and concepts that really create a compelling photograph.  I’ll also cover things like finding inspiration and examples of compelling images. Many of which come from outside the photographic world.
But first I wanted to go over one of the experiences that gave me the most insight into how to be comfortable in my own skin as an artist.  That place is a quirky online educational program known as The Arcanum.
What is The Arcanum?
The Arcanum is a unique program designed to follow the model of old school craftsman apprenticeships. Students, called apprentices,  study under the guidance of an experienced photographer called a master. In a modern twist to the concept, each student follows a program, called a sphere, of 10 levels, and each apprentice slowly works their way up all to levels until they complete the sphere.  
A cohort is a group of apprentices, students, who are all working on the same set of skills (or sphere), under the same master. Students join cohorts at different times, so each person in the cohort may be on different levels within the sphere, but in general they are all on the same journey together.
So if you put all these pieces together, progressing thru The Arcanum is simply completing tasks to level up thru spheres, spending your time within each sphere with others at the same level, and the same master.  

This cohort system is the secret sauce that makes The Arcanum so effective. Cohorts are a close-knit community of like minded artists who share their artistic journeys.  That shared experience accelerates and enhances the learning process for everyone involved.  You become a member of a set of folks who are all working together to learn from each other, supporting each other, critiquing each other, and celebrating successes together. That is a very powerful and empowering learning environment.
How does a Cohort work?

From a technical perspective a cohort is really just a bunch of members of a private Google Plus community. All communication is done in that community.  From there it is a simple matter of each member progressing thru the levels.

Some of the levels are pretty simple.  For example a common one is to shoot 10 images, and have them commented on by other students in the cohort.  A follow up level is to take 3-5 of the best images and get a critique from the master over a video Hangout.

Other levels require one to examining what makes them tick as artists.   The details of these assignments I will spend the next year covering in a lot more depth than I have room for in this post.  Suffice to say cohorts are designed to be safe spaces where one can feel free to make mistakes without being judged. 
So over the next year I hope my series of posts will create a virtual cohort among the readers of this blog, that will take us on a journey of discovery  to uncover some of the mysteries of creating photographs and other digital art.
At the end of it I hope you will be able to take those concepts and work them into your own art.  That they will help you create something beautiful using your own artistic voice.

Sound good?  If so, stay tuned.  This year is going to be a fun ride.  See you next month!

Wordless Wednesday

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Review: Ahch-To Island Training

After having seen Star Wars: The Last Jedi multiple times in theatres, I came away from the experience wanting to explore the new grizzly cynical old Luke Skywalker in my artwork. Of all the characters from the original trilogy, his story arc is by far the most interesting to me. So I went in search of a LEGO set that contained an aged-Luke minifig, and settled on the Ahch-To Island Training set.

Warning: Contains very minor spoilers, but nothing plot revealing.

When it arrived, I handed the building of the set off to my 8 year old son, Zeke, a proud LEGO and Star Wars fan himself, so I could get his opinions of the set from his perspective, as well as my own.

Zeke building the Ahch-to set.

This is our review.

What’s In The Box?

The set itself is small, and at 241 pieces is a quick build. The model is essentially one of the stone huts that Luke resides in on the island of Ahch-To. Inside the hut are a lot of details that are interesting: a bed, cooking supplies etc. All of the things one would expect to be inside a small occupied hut.

There are a couple simple moving parts. The back of the hut is left open for access to play, but the roof also comes off for easier access to the internals of the hut. A small part of one of the wall collapses as well. I suspect both are intended to allow for the simulation when Rey's hut force-explodes. However it does allow for easy access for lights and smoke effects, which makes it intriguing for us toy photographers.

There is also a rock that can be split open. Remember the scene where Rey uses a lightsaber to slice open a large rock? I believe the rock in the set is supposed to allow one to simulate that. However this leads us to one of the many puzzling aspects of this model.

The Ahch-To Set.


In general, this model looks very little like the scenes from the movie. Aside from the three minifigures of Luke, Rey, and a porg, it feels like the model was designed based on a vague description of the location, and not from scenes from the actual movie. Basically if you handed me the model without the minifigs and the box art, I would never guess that the model was from Ahch-To (I would likely guess a left over model from Force Awakens that is supposed to be from the planet Takodana). The model makes the hut look like it is built with large light coloured rocks, but in the movie it is made from piles of small dark grey stones. The door in the movie is an impressively solid chunk of metal, but the model has the door made from a flimsy piece of cloth.

Oh, may I complain a bit more about that rock that Rey slices open with the lightsaber? In the movie she slices thru a monolithic solid chunk of rock. The model gives a relatively small sphere, that is hollow and contains a gem inside. Where the gem fits into things is a mystery to me - maybe it is something from the director's cut, certainly not movie accurate. They could have easily made a model where that rock was realistic, and not attached to the hut so it could be located father away, but they didn’t, and that is a shame.


The true value of this set is in the minifigs. The Luke minifig comes off as the rough character that Luke has truly become.

Rey looks determined and ready to jump into action. Rey's hair piece has that cute little 3-bun combo, which is realistic to the movie. It does make it hard to turn her head for posing, but no more than is normal for any minifig with longer hair.

Rey is ready for action, despite the harsh rain of Ahch-To Island

The porg is adorable - I just wish they included a couple more of them. Both Rey and Luke comes with there own staffs, and there is one blue lightsaber to share between them.


From the perspective of toy photography this set is a hot mess of inconsistency. The set does allow easy access to the hut so lights can be added very easily. However it would be almost impossible to get the look and feel from the movie by using this set.

So my advice for the toy photographer is to pick yourself up a set, pull out the minifigs for your own collection, and then immediately drop the rest off in your kids toy box. They are going to enjoy it way more than you are.

About that kids toy box, here are Zeke’s impressions of the set, presented in question/answer format.

How hard is it to build?Not very hard. Easy build. Fun to build.

What do you think of the set?It’s awesome!

What makes it awesome?
There’s a mechanism that makes one of the rocks pop up and also there is one of those pieces that spin so you can cut open a boulder.

Would you want one for yourself?


What is your least favourite thing?
The door isn’t right, and the bed takes up too much space.

Rest assured Zeke received his own set, complete with minifigs, as thanks for helping with the review of this set. He is currently in his room exploring Ahch-To with the intense imagination that only an 8 year old can provide.

Note:  This review originally was posted on the Toy Photographers blog on January 20, 2018.  Reposted here for posterity.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

LEGO Ultimate Collectors Series: Slave 1 Review

The Star Wars Universe has many unique style of ships.  One of the most unique is Boba Fett’s ship, which is called Slave 1. Of particular note iit lands in a different direction than it flies. It does not get a lot of screen time during the Star Wars series, but it does play an important role in the film as it is the ship that takes the carbonite frozen Han Solo back to Tatooine.
When I notice that LEGO has an Ultimate Collector Series version of this ship  I jumped at the chance to own one.

This is my review of this iconic set.


This set is one of the Ultimate Collector Series, which are the larger sets that LEGO produces.  This set, at 1996 pieces is no exception.  When built, the model is 7” high, 17” long, and 14” wide.  This size puts the ship is at minifig scale, which helps with the sense of play, as well as a more realistic sense of scale.  This will come in handy for us toy photographers.

Being an Ultimate Collector Series set,  it does come with a rather handy stand that can be used for display.

Included Minifigures

The set comes with 4 or 5 minifigures, depending on how you count.  Included is a Bespin Guard, a Stormtrooper, a Han Solo, and a Boba Fett.  The Boba Fett minifig is more detailed than the version of him that comes in other sets. The Bespin Guard and Han Solo are rather plain looking in comparison, but still perfectly cromulent. The 5th item that may or may not be counted as a minifig is Han Solo encased in a slab of carbonite.

Boba Fett looking menacing

The carbonite slab is hollow at the back, and contains a couple studs that the Han Solo figure can grip with his hands, essentially hiding Han behind the slab.  This isn’t over useful for photography, but sort of clever and worth mentioning.

Slave 1 

Slave 1 flying thru space.

If you look at Slave 1 you realize that there isn’t a square angle on the thing. It is bulbous in certain places, and cylindrical in others, but never square.   I can only imagine how much trouble this gave the LEGO build engineers as they had to figure out how to recreate this ship.
They pulled it off beautifully.  It is a very complicated build, and uses the concept of SNOT (studs not on top) to an degree I have personally never seen. This allows for the complex shapes and structures that make up this ship. There are studs facing almost every direction.
The ship itself is very detailed.  It sports an expansive cockpit, which swivels to be appropriate for both landing and flight modes. The swivel guns on the tail look very accurate. It sports two hidden compartment on the sides that contain additional weaponry.  The tail contains a cargo door that is especially designed to hold the carbonite slab.

Boba Fett in the cockpit of Slave 1

Hidden Benefits For Photographers

Unfortunately the base of the ship, while detailed, is not solid.  Consequently, it is not overly photogenic from underneath.  I don’t think this will cause too many problems in practice. The inside of the ship is fairly hollow.  This, combined with the non-solid base, makes it easier to slip small lights inside for that more dramatic photo.

I took this behind-the-scenes shot of my customized light inside the cargo bay of the ship:

Example of using lights to illuminate the model

And this is the resulting image:

The core of the ship is incredibly solid. However there are a lot of decorative bricks that come off fairly easily.  For example, while taking the above photo, I had to replace the round bits at the base of the tail several times.  As a result, I would be cautious taking this ship out into the field, however in a studio setting this doesn’t seem to cause many issues.


The Slave 1 model is a master class in creating complex shapes with LEGO bricks. It is a true work of art in and of itself, and is therefore worth adding this to your collection for that fact alone.  The ship’s detail, relative correct scale, and incredibly rugged build means that it will both look good in photos, as well as on the shelf.

I don’t believe this set is a must have for the toy photographer. However, if you are looking for an interesting model to add to your collection that is both a challenging build, and will look good in photos, this ship should be high on your list of sets to consider.

Note:  This review originally was posted on the Toy Photographers blog on February 17, 2018.  Reposted here for posterity.

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

My New Ride

Frequent readers of this blog will know (infrequent readers are learning this for the first time) that I prefer to bike to work.

I've been having some issues with my road-style commuter bike as of late, which has been down for maintenance more than it has been up and running.  After giving it some serious thought and consideration I started to realize that it was the wrong bike for my route.

With all the curbs, greenways, potholes, and almost constant construction at work, despite being on asphalt the entire commute, my route was closer to off-road than on-road.

A road bike was not going to work.  What I really needed was a super reliable rugged off-roader as my daily ride.

So armed with this new theory I headed off to a local bike shop, Carolina Pedal Works, and consulted the experts.  They recommended that I look at the Surly line of bikes, as they are known for being rugged and dependable.  I settled on the Surly Ogre model, and put one on order.

Last night I picked up the bike.  It looks like this:
This bike is a real BBR - a big beefy ride.  Super wide tires, solid metal frame, and plenty of space to mount the extras one needs for commuting:  racks, panniers and a trunk bag for carrying spare tubes and rain gear, fenders, kick stand, safety lights.  It even sports a custom paint job.

I didn't like the colour options the bike had from the factory (black, or a crappy brown), so I had the shop powder coat it with an awesome orange.  I've always wanted a colourful bike, and now I have one!

I gave this bike a test run on todays commute, and it performed better than I expected it would.  A comfortable ride, and a great hill climber.

This bike should serve my needs as a commuter over the next few years, and allow me to handle pretty much any condition that North Carolina can throw my way.

Now, its time to hit the road!

I want to give a special shout out to Kurt at Carolina Pedal Works who patiently worked with me to get me the exact right bike to fit my needs.  If you have any bike needs, I highly recommend this shop.    Two thumbs up!

Wordless Wednesday

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Slightly South Of Sanity... in San Francisco

I was recently in San Francisco on a work trip. One morning I was walking along the shore near the Bay Bridge and I took this shot. 

You may also notice that, if I may say so myself, it isn't a super awesome shot.  The more astute among you may now ask yourself why I am showing you this image.

I am glad you asked.

So the day I took this shot, it was bright, sunny, but rather windy.  LEGO minifigs are rather light, so when I set this up my minifig blew over a lot.  Suddenly I heard from behind me "Hey, do you want a piece of tape?".

I thought to myself "yes, yes I do.", then I turned around, saw the person looked relatively normal, and said out loud "Yes, yes I do... thanks!". 

So the fellow gave me a piece of gaffer tape.  If you look closely in the image you can see the minifig is standing on the tape.  I took the shot, and all was well.


Then he said "I don't mind helping you out, because you don't look like you have a camera gun."

"Um... a camera gun?" I replied, with a curious lilt to my voice, cause what the heck?

"Well, some times people hide guns in their cameras.  I don't like them, but you seem like a good person."

How eccentric, I thought to myself... but I've heard crazier theories (there is a Trump in the Whitehouse after all, so all the crazies are out of the woods at this point).   He asked where I was from, so I said "North Carolina"... but then I tossed in, as a disarming tactic "... but I am really from Canada."

He seemed to like this, and mentioned how much he liked the queen... and how glad he was that Prince Harry abdicated the throne.

It was at this point I realized this fellow was a very polite, very nice, high functioning, lunatic.

Clearly off his nut. 

At this point I tried to extricate myself from the conversaition, but I am not very good at social graces, and I didn't want to be rude, so it took a while... along the way I heard some more gems.

"I created Alphabet."

"Sergey Brin tried to kill me, but I am OK with that, cause he gave me 38 million dollars."

"Facebook, Amazon, Google, and all those guys have decided that each company will only last 4 years so everyone can get a chance at being on top"

"Google, Facebook and those guys are moving to Israel, near the Syrian border, to start something called Silicon Mountain. You just watch, it is gonna happen!"

Silicon mountain actually featured heavily in his stream of crazy consciousness that spewed from his mouth.

So I eventually found a way to move on politely, but before I did I shook his hand and got his name, which is Scott. Then I walked away thinking that I just had the craziest, but most entertaining conversation I've had in a long time... and with someone who appreciates toy photography to boot.

San Francisco is a heck of a town.

Friday, March 02, 2018

A Little Fun While Being Trapped In A Hotel Room

Shot this while trapped* in a hotel during a recent work trip:

*OK, fine, I wasn't actually trapped**.  It was just an hour to kill between waking up early due to jet lag, and breakfast time.

**I could have gone outside, but I didn't*** want to.

***This footnote is superfluous.