Photographing your dolls

Doll Photography can be a tricky subject. I know dolls don’t move, but sometimes it seems like they do, doesn’t it? You had the legs bent or the head tilted just right but then the doll went and moved when you weren’t looking. Grr. Well, I can't really help with the moving part, but I can share my personal doll photography process with you. :)

I live in Washington State. Above is what Washington looks like most of the time (taken at 11 am out my studio window screen ). Remember, Washington is where the Twilight vampires live... so, I don’t take my photos outdoors. I know photo pros say overcast is great, but this is like 5 shades darker than your regular overcast. Plus it rains a lot, gets awfully windy, and I take a LOT of photos, so outdoors just doesn’t do. I needed a simple indoor solution, so I’ll share with you what I’ve come up with over the last 10 years of taking doll photos.

Well the first step is finding a good camera. By “good” I mean easy to use and takes good pictures of small things. My camera, which I LOVE,  is a Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX2. Being several years old, this camera is now a dinosaur; a more modern version, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS100 is available.

 So how did I originally figure out which camera I wanted? Well, I looked for great photos of dolls and other small-scale items, and then I looked to see what kind of camera was used for said photos. Flickr and similar sites will usually tell you what was used to take a photo in the info off to the right. (You can also just ask someone what they use—most artists will be happy to share.)

Next up is set up. A lot of indoor photographers swear by lightboxes and things to reduce glare and give a soft, even light. I have nothing against boxes and tents, but they are just too complicated for me. When I am writing a tutorial, I spend an entire day, sometimes 2 days photographing each step. To move everything in and out of a tent would be annoying, not to mention what I might do to the tent fabric with wet paint and glue!

So, my solution is paper, matte white paper in 11 by 17 ledger size in the brightest matte white I can find. When the paper gets grubby, or I write on it, I swap it out. See the ‘curtain’ there behind the lamps? That is a white bed sheet. I also use sheets for backdrops, especially with standing dolls. I drape the sheet over my table surface and set the lights on top. It hangs from the window, so it doesn’t get as wrinkled there—I do hate ironing giant things.

Okay, set up? Check. On to lighting. I use two photo lamps I received as a gift from my mom (thanks mom!). I couldn’t find the actual lights for you, but I did find the bulbs. These fluorescent bulbs are super bright, long lasting and they won’t get hot—so you and your work can happily sit beside them for hours. You don't need a special lamp for this bulb, just make sure the wattage ratings are okay for your lamp. If purchasing a lamp, look for a large reflective bowl and something easy to adjust for different heights and angles.

 An important note about lighting. If you use a smart phone to photograph your work, make certain the camera doesn't react oddly to your lighting. My iPhone always displays weird little bars through a photo when I use lighting on an object--see those fuzzy vertical stripes below? Those are all from the camera phone. If you are using a smart phone, I recommend indirect lighting, such as from a window or photo tent.

 During a photo session, I do not use a tripod. I like to be able to move around the doll and change the angles and heights I hold the camera to find a flattering shot. Timing of breath is very important when you don’t use a tripod. Breathe in and out slowly. When pushing air out about midway, you will find your body becomes completely still—snap the photo then. This breath timing process becomes habit after several hundred photos. Okay, so if you need a tripod, I won’t hold it against you. 

I usually take 2-3 shots at each height and angle to make sure there are no blurry photos. So, for a tutorial with 200 images, I actually take five or six hundred photos. A doll I make will typically have about 5-6 photos I edit out of the 15-30 I take.  Some quick math tells me I have taken over 16,000 photos through my Panasonic Lumix. It’s no wonder we are the best of friends. ;p

Tip: when photographing a doll or other small object, make sure your macro feature is turned on. Most all cameras will have it. This is the little flower symbol. Also, if you hate learning new electronics like I do, you will dislike this process, but read through the camera manual or google some online tutorials to learn about your camera’s functions and settings—they really do help. I just focus on one little thing at a time. “Today I will learn to adjust white balance settings” and so on. Baby steps.

I load all of the photos onto my computer (the Lumix uses an SD memory card, which plugs right into my laptop and is much faster than loading with a cable, but it came with a cable too) and then I go through each photo. I delete all the fuzzy or unflattering photos first. I also rotate any sideways pictures. I do this in regular old Windows photo viewer. Then I go back through and pick out my favorites.

Here is what a typical photo looks like right off the camera. Good detail, and clear image, but a bit dark—and it could use some oomph. So this is where editing comes in.
I use Photoshop to edit photos, but you could do the same things with Adobe Elements.

Here are the steps I take:

  1. Rotate image (if I haven’t already)
  2. Adjust levels using white balance dropper. “Ctrl L” brings up the levels window. Typically I use the white dropper on the lightest portion of the white paper—this will usually adjust the surrounding colors nicely. Sometimes I fiddle with the levels by moving them manually until they look bright and clear.
  3. Intensify the photo colors more by adjusting saturation if needed—“Ctrl u” brings up this menu.
  4. Crop image so that it is interesting and/or flattering. Dolls and product are often centered in photos, but you can also use the rule of thirds to add interest to your photos.
  5. Resize image. Take all photos at the largest size your camera allows—you never know when you might need to submit photos to a publication or create a 20 by 30” poster of a doll shoe. But, for web purposes, the images should be much smaller—I usually resize to 1000 pixel width for the web.
  6. Sharpen photo. This is a completely optional step. My favorite filter in Photoshop is the “smart sharpen.” Use this feature after you size the image to get the best results. Smart sharpen helps make your doll look more like you could reach into the screen and grab her :). This is especially powerful for tiny images which can often look fuzzy.
  7. Finally, I save the image for the web at high quality. I always save the image in a different folder or use a different name so it won’t write over the original version—remember you want to keep that original for publications and things :).

So, I know this probably sounds like it takes a long time, and for a full batch of photos it does take me several hours from shoot to save. But each individual photo is taken and edited in less than 2 minutes.

For some of the steps like cropping and resizing, I have recorded actions into Photoshop so I can just hit a few keys to complete these steps in a split second. Google “how to record actions in Photoshop” if you’d like to save time when editing A LOT of photos :). Trust me, it is absolutely worth the short set up time if you edit a lot of photos.

Okay, so this was just one gal’s methods for doll photography. I purchased a tutorial which demonstrates a whole new way to pose and photograph dolls, “Doll Photography Made Easy.”

This tutorial is packed with info. Bennett Dawson photographs his wife’s gorgeous line of doll clothing and has had several years to perfect his doll photography techniques. In his 40+ page ebook, he shares everything with you from the camera he uses, to how your computer can make photos much easier to take (I had never even heard of this cool process he uses!). He also discusses recommended photo set up, background, lighting, tripods and more. Then he goes into detailed information on posing your doll and editing the photos. Check out his tutorial

Whatever techniques you use, enjoy the process and be sure to take breaks if you get frustrated. Photographing dolls is just another way to play with them :).