Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Toy Photography and the Beast Of Depression

Note: This article originally ran on the Toy Photographers blog.

Depression is a big nasty powerful beast, and it had me firmly in its claws, dragging me down. Toy photography helped me escape its grasp.  This is how.

One of the most  common diseases in the world that is not talked about much is mental illness.  It is hard to talk about because a lot of the symptoms are emotional and behavioural, and not easily understood shared-experience things like pain or stiffness.  It doesn’t manifest itself in ways that I figured it would. I know, because I didn’t really understand mental illness until I was diagnosed with it.

Specifically I was diagnosed with moderate severe depression back in February 2018.

This post isn’t about what depression is, or the entire story of how I was diagnosed (if you are interested, detailed posts about my story can be found here)

This post is about how toy photography helped reveal to me that I needed help, and how it helps me cope today.

The Downward Spiral

So I have always had artistic tendencies that I explored briefly at various points in my life.  However I really didn’t start exploring my artistic side in a purposeful way until 5 years ago. Once I did start exploring it I took off and never really slowed down.  I didn’t always have the skills to pull of my vision, or even knew what that meant, but I had plenty of ideas, and started creating a lot of work. 

So that was all good until the fall of 2016.  Looking back that is when I started to enjoy my life less and less. The beast was stirring in the shadows.  My energy levels dropped steadily, and I found I couldn’t cope with social issues as well as I used to (not that I was super strong at coping with social issues to begin with).  

About 6 months before I was diagnosed I really started disliking my job.  Now this isn’t unusual - not every likes their job. I had been working at the same company for 13 years by then, and doing basically the same tasks, but I just didn’t get enjoyment out of it.  I just couldn’t get up the energy to give a crap some days. That’s not abnormal tho, so I just wrote it off as needing a change.

Recognizing Rock Bottom

At the same time I stopped having the motivation to create the things I wanted to create.  It wasn’t that I didn’t have ideas, or a desire to create. I had more ideas than I ever had in my life.  I just couldn’t get up the energy to get off my couch, walk the 30ft to my studio, and pick up my camera to realize my ideas.  The spirit was willing, but the flesh… well, the flesh failed me. It failed me miserably.

I never understood what mental pain was until I experienced my body refusing to do what my mind willed it to do. It was like a schism in my brain That sucked. It sucked a lot, and there was no way I could excuse it away.

All of this came to a miserable head in early February when I finally hit my wall and broke down. The beast had beaten me.

I called my doctor, and sought out help.

The Upward Struggle

So, long story short, I got some help, and am now on meds.  Medical science is a little fuzzy when it comes to brains, but based on how my treatment has gone, I seem to have an imbalance in my brain with the chemical that controls mood.  Between the medication, and a lot of soul searching, I am doing much better.

There are good days, great days, and bad days still.  However more days are good than bad. I can create again, I can write again, and I can shoot photos again.  It feels great.

Now toy photography serves a dual purpose in my life.  First it is the same creative outlet it has always been.  Second, it is an early indicator of my mental health. It does this the same way it helped me to seek help the first time, by being a gauge by which I can measure my motivation to work on my ideas.

Keeping The Beast At Bay

Of course everyone has good days, and bad days.  Every artist has moments when they simply don’t want to be creative.  No amount of medication and self reflection is going to change that. I, of course, am no exception.  However I now pay close attention to the dynamic between my motivation and my energy levels.

If I notice that I have ideas that I don’t seem to get around to shooting, it raises some red flags in my head.  I’ll give myself a few days grace, especially if work is being overly hectic, or I am feeling under the weather, but in general of my lethargy persists, I know it’s time for some soul searching and make changes so the beast doesn’t drag me under again.

I refuse to let the beast win, and toy photography is helping me kick its ass.

It is not like we needed another reason why toy photography is awesome, but being mental health therapy is a nice addition to the list, don't you think?

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Farewell, Stan Lee

I was saddened to hear about the loss of Stan Lee earlier this week.  Stan contributed strongly to the world of story telling, and bringing the ideas of fantasy, science fiction, and super heroes to our culture.  Without his creative genius it is quite possible I would not have as many toys to photograph today.  I certainly would not have all of the Marvel characters than make up a significant percentage of my art.

The universe he created, and the characters and stories that inhabit it, has been a source of escape, entertainment, and inspiration for me.  My world would be smaller without the Marvel Universe.

Thanks for the heroes, Stan.  Rest in peace.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

BTS: Hulk v Deadpool

This post was originally  written for

Taking a peak behind the scenes is a great way to learn about how other artists get the types of shots they do. To get tips, tricks, and see the madness behind the genius.  That’s the goal of this post: to give you all a peak behind the scenes of how I captured one of my own recent shots, Hulk v Deadpool.

Specifically, this shot:

Behind The Idea

The idea for this shot came to me while I was playing “Strict Parent” for my son, by supervising the cleaning of his room.  While he put away his toys, I picked up his Marvel Legends Iron Man and started posing it (ya know, to pass the time). I eventually put him in a dropkick pose, which I really liked.  I filed the pose  in my fuzzy brain for later use.

“Later” came the next day when my wife needed some ideas for a location to get a shot (non-toy, sadly) of her own.  I recalled a location just up the mountains from our house called Jesse Brown’s Cabin that would be perfect for her needs.  So we made plans to go there the very next day.

Since I now had plans for an awesome location, I flushed out my own concept, and decided it was best served with Deadpool getting the drop(-kick) on Hulk.

Behind the Location

Jesse Brown’s Cabin is located around mile marker 270 on the Blue Ridge Parkway.  It is a field with an old building, a lonely tree, lots of woods nearby, and it is in the mountains, so it’s the perfect place to be.

It looks like this:

When I arrived, and did what I could to help my wife get her shot (my primary goal for the trip), it was time for me to play.  So I grabbed my action figures, scouted the scene, and picked a location. The criteria for location selection was three fold:

  • The perspective made the figures look life size to the cabin, which was about 100ft from the cabin itself.
  • The cabin was at a flattering angle, so it looked good in the frame
  • The sun was behind me, and therefore shining on the figures. (Take advantage of free light when you can get it!)

Behind The Setup

Since the shot is an action shot, I needed to find a way to support Deadpool mid-kick.  To accomplish this I used a technique I learned from FathersFigures at the Toy Safari in Oregon:  14 gauge black solid-core wire.
I got the wire at Lowes and the budget friendly price of $14 for 50ft.  I keep a couple lengths about 6-8 inches long in my camera bag for moments such as this.  For Hulk I pushed the wire into the seam in his upper back, then created a loop at the ground level, so Hulk is leaning back against the wire, which keeps him from falling over.

Note that I could have saved myself some post-processing if I hid Hulks wire behind his leg, but I didn’t notice that until I got home.  An oversight you can hopefully take advantage of!

For Deadpool I slipped the wire behind his utility belt, and jammed the other end into the ground.  It took a bit of maneuvering to get the one wire to hold him where I wanted, but I eventually got it.

Along the way I learned a handy tip.

Behind The Handy Tip

 I added a small loop to the wire tucked under Deadpool’s belt.  This gave a wider surface for him to rest on, and help him stable in mid air.  Without it he would flop around the wire like a rag doll.
Told you it was handy.

Behind The Camera

All that was left to do in the field was point the camera and shoot.  I don’t remember the camera settings, but luckily for you, it is irrelevant anyway (unless you have my exact camera body, lens, and lighting conditions).  The important part is I took the shot from a very low position, and I zoomed in, so the compression effect of the longer focal length ensures the cabin stays an appropriate size in the background.

After that it is just a matter of exposing properly, and clicking the shutter.

Now we’re off to post-processing!

Behind Photoshop
Before we get going, this is where this post gets highly technical.  Not everyone enjoys post processing, and others can’t get enough of it.  So if you are not a post-processor you can just read the titles of the next sections and get an idea of my methodology. If you are a Photoshop junkie like myself, you may get some useful nuggets from reading the text that you can use in your own work.

Either way, however,  for this wire technique to work you will at least have to remove the wires in post-processing.

Behind The Image Cleanup

The first step is to clean up the image to remove those wires, and get ride of unsightly blemishes.

For this I exclusively used the clone stamp and the spot healing brush.  I started by removing the wires from the image. Then I cleaned up some spots on the plastic.  I have gotten into the habit of removing the joints from my figures, so I did that step here as well.  Again, all with the clone stamp and spot healing brushes.

This is what I ended up with:
Note that I also sharpened the image by using a high-pass filter on a new layer, blended with the overlay blend mode.

Behind 90s Pop Culture References

Expression really helps sell the fake of an image.  The Hulk action figure has a generic angry smash face.  Since he was being kicked in the jaw I wanted to give him a more specific expression. So introduced him to a blast from the 1990s, aka Smash Mouth.  To accomplish this I used the Liquify tool to massage his face into a mid-kick-to-the-jaw expression.

A simple touch, but one that gives the shot more realism.  The little details matter.

Behind The Motion

Since Deadpool is in the air mid-dropkick, I wanted to give a subtle sense of movement.  I accomplished this by introducing a motion blur.

I made the blur by selecting Deadpool, and putting that selection on its own layer.  Then I used the Path Blur filter to generate the motion blur effect. Then I dropped the opacity of the blur layer to match the scene.

Behind The Dodging and Burning

Next step was to work on the atmosphere of the scene by doing a little dodging and burning. If you are not familiar with the term it basically means selectively lightening (dodging) and darkening (burning) parts of an image.    I did this to drop the brightness of the background, as well as to add some shadows to the figures (enhance those muscles).

This was accomplished by adding a couple Brightness/Contrast adjustment layers, and using layer masks to apply the darkening to select parts of the scene.  One was to darken the background, and the shadows on Hulk. The other was to add contrast to Hulk and Deadpool.

Behind The Colour Grading

When one is making images one should be true to their vision.  My personal vision and style has muted tones, a desaturated look, and a bit of grit to it.  This step applies the colour grading to get these muted tones. If your style doesn’t match that, feel free to ignore this step, or salt to taste.

This was done using three types of adjustment layers.  First a Color Lookup Table adjustment layer to introduce some orange tones, and lower the blues.  Then a Black and White adjustment layer at 50% opacity to desaturate the images. Finally some Hue/Saturation adjustment layers with layer masks to fine tune some color changes to select parts of Deadpool.

Behind The Finishing Touches

So this brings us to the finishing moves for the image.  First I added a texture layer with overlay blend mode, to add some variations in tones around the scene to give a more dynamic feel to the image.  Finally I added a slight vignette to the edges (blank layer, gradient tool with black to darken the edges, and adjust opacity to taste).

The end result is the image we started this post with:  Hulk v Deadpool:

In Conclusion

So that’s it – my whole process to get from an idea in my head to a finished image.  The image ended up looking as I envisioned, which is a nice bonus.

I hope you were able to get some useful tips out of reading about my process that you can use in your own images.  If you do use any, or have tips of your own, please tell me about them in the comments below.