“It’s both challenging and rewarding,” says Wisconsin resident Jesse Feyereisen about his newfound love for photographing toy figurines. What started as a random shot of a Darth Vader figure he received for Christmas turned into a passionate fascination for producing cinematic scenes with toys as the heroes of the photographs. As Jesse explains, it’s more than just close-up photography, with much pre- and post-production work needed. With the results sometimes rivaling what you see on the big screens, he’s really making images that look out of this world.
A handful of years ago, I was tempted to get into toy photography myself. Beyond a few images taken with a Stormtrooper and some vintage cameras, I didn’t really get around to shooting much. There are also T-800 and T-1000 figurines lying around in their boxes somewhere. I had plans to get a whole lot more (Predator, Robocop, Captain America, etc.) but losing my day job during the pandemic put a stop to that. Jesse however, didn’t stop after his first few toy photography attempts. He’s got quite a few ideas ahead for his cinematic toy photography, and in this interview with The Phoblographer, he shares his story.
The Essential Gear used by Jesse Feyereisen
Jesse told us:
The main downsides to speed lights and strobes is that allot of the gear is really almost overkill or plain just to large to use with most figures and models in such a small space. It gets tricky sometimes, but I just really love the quality of the light I get.
The Phoblographer: Hi Jesse. Please tell us about yourself and how your journey with photography began.
Jesse Feyereisen: Hello there! I’m a Graphic Designer/Digital Creative from Wisconsin. I was always a pretty creative person growing up. I enjoyed drawing and creating and such. I was also very much into movies as a child of the ’80s. I had a photography class in high school that just gave me a taste of photography, but I was still more into video and movies at the time. After high school, I got an Associates’s Degree in both Visual Communications and also Television production. In my twenties, I found myself working as a bit of a jack of all trades designer type for a small custom Home Theater company which was super fun. Eventually, I was able to start photographing the homes and cool theaters we were building, and I think that’s when my love of photography really started to take off. Over the years, I just sort of fell out of love with video work and in love with photography.
The Phoblographer: When did the interest in toy photography pique? What made you want to get more creative in this genre of photography?
Jesse Feyereisen: It was just a year or two ago when I was experimenting with product photography. I was shooting bottles, electronics, any sort of “product” things I could find around the house. One day I grabbed a 12″ Darth Vader figure that I received as a Christmas gift from my wife and put it in front of the camera as a “product.” After taking some shots of it, I quickly realized how cool it looked on camera, and it started to make me think of what other figures around the house I had to try out. I started to search online and found this whole genre of toy photography, all the amazing work other people were doing, and my mind was blown! I’ve pretty much been hooked ever since. Photography and action figures, it makes perfect sense for someone like me! After I thought about it, it’s really the perfect genre for a geek like me, and I’m honestly surprised I didn’t try it sooner!
The Phoblographer: I don’t suppose there are toy rental stores much like camera rental ones. How do you fund this hobby of yours?
Jesse Feyereisen: That would be great if there were toy rental shops, it would save me a lot of money! I’ve been working full time as a creative/graphic designer type person for many years, and my wife and I don’t have any kids, so that allows me to have a little extra spending money. Plus, with the pandemic over the past few years, we can’t go out much, so that’s afforded me to be able to start ordering figures online here and there. Same with my camera gear. Much of it I’ve had for a while, but I’m always adding a piece of new gear here and there. I can’t help it. I think a lot of us photographers are also really into the gear. Many of us, unfortunately, have GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome).
The Phoblographer: What camera gear do you use for your toy photography?
Jesse Feyereisen: I’ve been shooting with a Canon EOS-R the past couple of years and really like it. It doesn’t have the fastest burst mode (5 fps, I think), but at 30MP, it gives me enough flexibility to shoot a little extra wide, and then I can re-crop shots in post without losing much detail. I often like to shoot in a wide, “Cinescope” fashion, but unfortunately those don’t show very well on social media, especially on a mobile device, so I will often make an alternate “Portrait” crop to post [on social media].
For lighting, I use both off-camera flash and continuous LED lighting depending on the shoot. They both have their pros and cons. I typically prefer to use speed lights and smaller strobes if I can because of all the various modifiers you can get. I just love the quality of the light. It’s hard to beat the nice soft light from a softbox. Plus strobes are just so much more powerful than most small LEDs. I just feel I have more complete and creative control of the light. Plus I can work in a fully lit room so I can see what I’m doing without having to worry about room ambient light getting in the shot. I currently use a mix of Godox TT685 Speedlights, AD200Pro strobes, and Glow-EZLock softboxes of various sizes.
The Phoblographer: Tell us some of the factors you consider when deciding what figurines make it to the next creative photo of yours?
Jesse Feyereisen: I’ve learned that for my style of photography, the smaller figures (often the 6″ versions) with human faces often just don’t look that great on camera. So, I try to stick to characters with helmets or creatures and such. I’m trying to get better about not getting every new character figure I see. I look at them a bit closer lately and see how the details look. If there happens to be more than one on the shelf, I’ll even look at each one and try to find the one with the best quality paint job. If I don’t think I can get more than one or two photographs from it, I’ll put it back. Now the larger figures, such as the ones from Hottoys and Sideshow collectibles, pretty much always look great on camera. I only have a few of those figures, but really love shooting them. The only problem is they’re much more expensive!
The Phoblographer: Post processing aside, what sort of lighting setups do you create for a complex toy photo?
Jesse Feyereisen: Outdoors, I pretty much only use natural light and maybe a bounce card. If I’m shooting indoors with lights, I’ll use anywhere from one to as many as four, maybe. Depending on the shot I guess. Typical photography lighting setups really.
[I use] a main key light on the character, possibly a fill light or bounce card to fill in some shadows on the other side. Sometimes a kicker or hair light in the back helps separate the subject from the background. Then maybe an additional light or two to fill in some visual effects I’ll add in post like the ambient light from a lightsaber, or blaster fire, or some other effect.
The main upside to constant lighting is that you immediately see, in the camera, what the lighting looks like as you set them. Instant feedback, whereas strobes you have to repeatedly take test shots to “dial it in”. The downside to constant lighting is that you often have to work in a darkened room because any unwanted ambient light can get into your shot. This also means you have to shoot with slower shutter speeds which can come with its own set of challenges. Also they’re typically just not as powerful as strobes which can sometimes limit what you can do with them.
The Phoblographer: Is it mostly recreating epic movie scenes, or do you sometimes take your creative license to another level and construct scenes and storylines of your own for images?
Jesse Feyereisen: I actually don’t recreate specific movie scenes all that often. I do like to create scenes inspired by movies. Shots that might make you think, “was that a scene from the movie I forgot about?” or maybe “was a deleted scene?”. I think my favorite though is creating shots that make people say, “I WANT to see that as a movie!”.
The Phoblographer: Does a fair amount of stacking come into play for creating these photos?
Jesse Feyereisen: If you’re referring to focus stacking multiple shots to increase your depth of field, then no. I’m aware of the technique, but I don’t think I’ve ever actually attempted it. I typically like to use a somewhat shallow depth of field (but not too shallow). I do that, so I can purposely direct the viewers’ eyes to where I want them to look first (the sharpest or brightest part), then let their eyes explore the rest of the scene.
The Phoblographer: Macro lenses probably help greatly, but what are some tips you can offer budding toy photographers who don’t have access to such lenses?
Jesse Feyereisen: Macro lenses are certainly great if you want to get really up close and personal to your subject, but actually aren’t completely necessary for this kind of photography. In fact, I see a lot of other toy photographers using wide-angle lenses and even kit lenses and producing amazing shots! I often use longer lenses for my style, but honestly, you can make great images with any lens you have in your bag. Actually, if I could go back and give my younger self a piece of advice, it would be to worry less about the camera gear and invest and learn more about lighting. That’s really where the magic happens. Someone who understands light will always make better photographs with any camera they have in their hand (even just a phone), then someone with a “more expensive” camera that doesn’t know how to properly use light.
The Phoblographer: Have you ever taken a toy photo and sat back and thought, or received a compliment that said, “That looks even more cinematic than the movie scene”?
Jesse Feyereisen: That’s actually one of my favorite types of compliments. When someone says they thought a shot I shared was a still from a movie, or maybe someone in cosplay or something. Those compliments actually help inspire and drive me and my creative style forward. I’m not out there trying to fool anyone with my shots, but I love being able to create such realistic images from toys and props. It’s just such a fun, creative hobby that a few short years ago, I didn’t even know existed. It’s both challenging and rewarding.
The Phoblographer: I can see the Star Wars franchise is really close to your heart. Which is your absolute favorite movie so far that you’ve recreated a photo from, and which is the one you’ve been wanting to do the most for the future?
Jesse Feyereisen: I grew up in the ’80s with Star Wars, and it’s just always been a thing in my life. Both Star Wars and I have had our ups and downs over the years, you could say. My favorite would have to be The Empire Strikes Back. It’s a great film that happened to come out the year I was born. I also grew up in Wisconsin, so cold winters (Hoth) are something I can relate to.
I recently did a shot of a trooper on a speeder bike riding across the snow that was directly influenced by going on snowmobile trips with my family when I was younger. One winter day, late in the afternoon, by chance, I happened to look out my kitchen window and noticed how the snow in the backyard had these cool-looking little ridges and drifts. Perfectly scaled for an action figure. I grabbed a Scout Trooper and Speeder bike from my home office and went outside for a few shots. It just reminded me of snowmobile trips when I was younger. A long winter day of riding. The sun is going down. Your hands are getting cold in your gloves. You’re mostly bundled up and warm, but you can still feel hints of the freezing outside air as it leaks in your helmet visor or around your neck. You don’t have any headphones in or anything, so all you can hear is the constant hum of the engine, somewhat muffled by the padding in your helmet. You’re just alone with your thought as you’re heading home or back you the cabin for the night. I really thought of that trooper having the same thought or feeling as if he/she was heading back to base after a long day out on patrol on Hoth or something. Not all of my shots come with a backstory like that, but sometimes.
As far as a shot I’ve been wanting to do, I’m actually very excited about a shot idea that I had recently while watching The Book of Boba Fett series. It’ll be a somewhat complex shot, I think. I’ll need to shoot a couple elements and composite them together with some additional effects, but it should be really cool. I also need to prep a couple figures/toys first with a little paint and weathering to get them ready. Stay tuned!