My son is a Lego Maniac. We seeded his collection years ago with the substantial bucket-full of the Legos I had as a child, and he has added prodigiously to that since then. He is often found sitting on a floor surrounded by bricks of all shapes, building anything from a Jedi space ship to an Olive Garden restaurant complete with customers, tables, food, and wait staff. Nothing is too exotic or mundane for him to want to model it.
Since there are so many Legos floating around our house, I thought I would use some as still life subjects. I asked Ryan to construct a few tableaus that I could light and shoot.
Now, while Ryan’s first preference was to build some grandiose city scape, we decided a small detailed scene was going to work better. For one thing, I have a limited amount of lighting. For another, avoiding any gaps in a large Lego universe would require a large scale construction project, which is beyond the scope of what we were trying to do here in a day or two.
Most importantly, however, we were up against one of the basic rules of composition: whenever possible, move in closer. And then move in again. And again. A small scene cleanly composed has more impact as a photograph than a large jumble of activity. Furthermore, we as humans are programmed to want to watch people (even Lego people) doing things. Its just more interesting than looking at objects. And since Lego people are small, making out any action was going to require tight shots.
Since we were going for detail, I selected my longest lens, a 70-300mm f/4-5.6 zoom. It is certainly not the highest quality glass in my bag, but I wanted to really get in close, and this is the best lens I have for that.
For lighting, I wanted to try two things I had not done before. First, I created a home-made snoot out of cinefoil (heat resistant, heavy duty black aluminum foil). This allowed me to put a spot on the main focus of the first scene, a jewel thief, by creating what amounts to a long tube taped to the front of the strobe.
Ideally, I would use an actual snoot and possibly a grid, but in the absence of those tools, this DIY version works as well. Second, I wanted to play with gels, to add some tint to the light. After I took the snap above, I added a yellow filter to the spot, of which you can see the effect in the final shot below. This makes the spot feel like street lighting, which typically has a yellow tinge. By under exposing outside the spot, the scene appears to be at night, as is appropriate to the subject matter.
Notice how compressed the long lens makes everything in the frame. In the setup shot, you can see how far apart the various features are, from the street sweeper at one end to the policeman bringing up the rear, covering the span of perhaps 18 inches. But in the final shot, this all gets squashed together. Nevertheless, the spacing allows for just the robber to be in complete focus, which along with the spot, makes him the center of attention.
Also notice the laptop sitting next to me in the setup shot. Tethering for immediate feedback at full size is invaluable. The alternative is to take a bunch of shots only to discover hard-to-see focus or composition details once back at the computer. At that point, you either live with the problems (if no reshoot is possible) or in this case reconstruct the setup and iterate. With the laptop, the process is much faster as feedback is immediate.
These additional shots were made with this setup, but for various reasons, none is as strong as the one above. I do like the way the spot is apparently the output of the street light in some of these, but I much prefer the head on view to these bird’s eye view shots. Getting to Lego-man-eye-level makes this feel less like a bunch of toys that you are looking down on, and more like a scene that you are immersed in.
For the second setup, we have a woman dropping a letter into a mailbox in what appears to be a subway station. Here is the setup:
For this one, I got up off the floor. Again, I am using the long lens, the DIY snoot, and the laptop, along with my translucent umbrella on the key light to set the overall illumination. I was experimenting with backgrounds: first the blue, then the black. Finally I decided that I needed to fill the whole frame with Legos. The final shot is here:
Arriving at this point involved this series of shots. The first two are taken with ambient light, just to start to get a feel for composition. In the very first one, we were thinking about having the car blurred with motion. But we quickly decided that we needed to zoom in, making the cars irrelevant. We may come back to that for another scene. Also, early on, we were thinking outdoors, thus the blue background.
Gradually, the scene tightened up, and lighting was added, but the blue did not seem right. For one thing, there would need to be something on the horizon. For another, I wanted to use the spot, but it did not seem appropriate in sunlight. So we moved to the black background for a night shot, and again added the yellow gel to the spot and included the street light. But then there was too much dead space in the upper part of the frame.
So again back to the tight shot (without the clutter of the street light), but now the main character dropping the mail was too dark against the backdrop. Piece by piece, black objects were removed from the background. Also the spot was lowered, making it more of a rim or side light than a spot. Finally, after all that, I decided the seamless black background still looked odd, and added a tiled wall, placing the whole scene in a subway.