There are few LEGO minifig photographers whose photos make me smile and fewer still that make me stop to admire their work, but The APhOL gets me on both counts every time he posts on Instagram.
Looking at his Instagram feed, you might not find a readily discernible style, but that’s also its appeal. There’s no monotony there. The APhOL’s droll photos are fresh and thoughtful, especially in his most recent work.
Take for instance this one of a blithe ballerina deftly skipping across the water. At first glance, I was taken by the pure whimsy of the scene. The joyfulness of the photo was so infectious that it evoked memories of myself as a kid, skipping flat stones across the man-made water canals.
Soon enough though, I was hunting for the details that make The APhOL’s work stand out: the face of the Series 15 ballerina, swapped out for that of the female caroler in the Winter Toy Shop to make her even more squee. The ripples in the water that must have taken quite an effort to get right in camera and then taken a bit more to composite in post. The LEGO plant elements meticulously placed along the rocks so that the ballerina occupies the negative space in between.
As a photographer, this is how I consume other toy photographers’ work: I feel and then I deconstruct. It’s how I decide whether to “give love” to a photo, as my son says, referring to the heart icon on Instagram. If the photo makes me feel something and then makes me want to dive deeper, I mash that heart.
In this post, I’ve asked the artist himself to break down another photo that I have given love to: “Sculpting”.
Coming up with the idea
The APhOL says that he likes starting with a single word, situation or movie scene when coming up with ideas and for “Sculpting”, creativity itself inspired this setup. “I wanted to pay homage to creativity because our work as toy photographers is very creative. I started to think about some creative works that I know and the first one was the woodcarver. I thought that this job was not so easy to replicate with LEGO, but one definitely easier was the sculptor, so I decided to go for it.”
The APhOL previsualized the scene, already deciding that there would be a window with light coming in and an incomplete statue with some debris on the ground. The only things that he didn’t plan ahead were details such as the shapes of the window and the statue.
Creating the minifig
Just as with the ballerina head, The APhOL changed the head of the painter minifigure from the Fun in the Park people pack for one from an old castle set. “At first I wanted to use the artist head from CMF Series 4, but I thought [it] was too serious. I wanted at least a smile on the face, expressing the joy of creation.”
Setting up the scene
The APhOL created a window that he thought was perfect for the picture, but building the wall to surround it turned out to be an obstacle. He first tried to build up the set with some bricks, but not only was he short on bricks, he didn’t have an arch brick that would fit on top of the window. He wondered how the could solve the problem without giving up on his perfect window.
“Then I stopped thinking about LEGO bricks and started to think about my needs. I wanted something where I could put my beautiful window. A wall? Maybe some paper is better. Maybe cardboard. Yes, cardboard will be perfect. Lucky me, I had still a cardboard box from Christmas. Then I thought that I could use ALL the box as the sculptor room! After all, I needed a dark place to raise the contrast with the light from the window, and the smoke will work better in a closed environment.”
Shooting the scene
Because toy photography is still life art, The APhOL uses a tripod so he can shoot with the lowest ISO possible. He shoots with a 9-year-old Canon 550D (or EOS Rebel T2i in Europe) and for this picture, an EF 17-40L lens at 40mm.
“I took the shot in my kitchen, lowering the shutter and closing the window. I worked with a completely dark room. I placed a lamp directly towards the window, adjusting it until I found the right angle for the rays of light. After setting it up, I noticed that it was possible to see the brown color of my table using the camera angle that I chose, which was very distracting. So I placed a sheet of translucent paper to cover it. Then I noticed some light coming in from the bottom of the box, so I put a bottle of water on the top to press it down and remove any unwanted light.”
The next challenge was adding smoke so that the rays of light could be seen. After trying lots of different things including burning paper to generate smoke, The APhOL found that setting cotton on fire worked well enough for the shot.
Every good photographer knows that the process doesn’t end with releasing the shutter and The APhOL isn’t an exception. He cropped and made adjustments to saturation and contrast in Lightroom before bringing the photo into Photoshop where he added dust and pushed the rays of light to create the image he had visualized.
All told, “Sculpting” took several hours to produce, with a good chunk of that time spent in the setup phase. “First I built the sculpture and the window. Probably half an hour of total time, because I wanted to find a shape that satisfied me. Then one or two hours to build a brick wall, find an alternative solution and prepare the cardboard box. The last session was about a couple of hours to setup everything and generate the smoke.”
The APhOL challenge
Understanding the creative process of a photographer you admire not only allows you to appreciate the photos more, it also challenges you to work harder on your own photos and try new things. At least that’s the case for me, so I’m going to recreate “Sculpting” in my own way. I’ve always wanted to do my own take of other minifig photographers’ stuff and this is a great time to push myself to do it.
In fact, I am going to extend this challenge to all toy photographers. For the month of June, The APhOL and I want you to pull off your own version of “Sculpting”. Post your photos on Instagram or Twitter and use the hashtag #inthestyleof_The_APhOL so we can find your work. We’ll be looking for the best of the photos to feature on Four Bricks Tall at the end of the month.
Are you game?
More photos from The APhOL: