Toy Photographer Mitchel Wu Explains How He Established His Niche Photo Business
April 9, 2018
Inspired by scenes from everyday life, Mitchel Wu creates toy images (mostly) in-camera. Splashing liquids often add to the narrative drama.
"When I do a sketch, everything becomes clear as to what I need to do, how I’m going to position things, what props I’m going to need" says Wu. Here, his sketch for one of his Toy Story set-ups.
Training as an illustrator taught Wu about composition, lighting and storytelling, skills he uses in executing in his ideas. A Star Wars/Lion King mashup.
Wu uses an infrared wireless shutter control so that when he's "throwing dirt into a scene or lighting fireworks" he can fire the shutter remotely. Watch out, Shaggy and Scooby. There's a dinosaur on your tail.
Wu uses Photoshop to remove supports holding the characters and props, but not to add things, he says. Kermit the Frog and nephew Robin in a controlled explosion.
PDN: How did you get into toy photography?
Mitchel Wu: I was a wedding and portrait photographer for seven or eight years. My daughter was in high school, and I was missing a lot of her weekend swim meets, and weekends in general. So I decided to stop shooting weddings in 2015. Around that time, I came across some toy photography on social media. It was kind of strange but intriguing at the same time. I tried it, and it was fun.
PDN: Was it difficult to switch from weddings to toy photography?
MW: To go back a little further, I went to art school and got my degree in illustration. Some of the best training I had for the work I’m doing now was illustration, because it taught me about composition, lighting and fundamental storytelling. With wedding photography, you’re shooting details and still life, and you learn lighting. For me it wasn’t that big of a jump from wedding photography to toy photography. But there was a learning curve because I include a lot of practical effects in my images.
PDN: Like what?
MW: If you look at my images you’ll see fire, smoke, water splashing. None of that is Photoshopped. It’s pretty much all in-camera.
PDN: Do you storyboard images and scenarios?
MW: When I’m working for a client and I know that I’ve got to do 20 images of something, I start by jotting ideas down and then I’ll do a thumbnail sketch of each one. When I do a sketch, everything becomes clear as to what I need to do, how I’m going to position things, what props I’m going to need.
PDN: How did you learn the tricks of the trade?
MW: A lot of trial and error, plus you can find information out there [on the internet].
PDN: How do you come up with the story narratives?
MW: It’s really just observing everyday life. Sometimes [inspiration] comes from a prop I find at a swap meet. It can come from a lot of different places. I have a warped sense of humor. I think that helps, too.
PDN: How do you convey emotion, when expressions on the action figures don’t change?
MW: Interaction between characters can help. Obviously the story will lead a lot of that [emotion] into the characters, as well as the viewers. My goal is to show motion and emotion when there really is none. If I can do that, and there is a good story, then I know I’ve got a great image.
PDN: How do you construct the sets?
MW: Some are simple to set up and some are really complex. One of the hardest ones was this scenario with [Toy Story characters] Woody and Jessie, and he’s cracking an egg into a frying pan. That setup took hours because I had to figure out how to have two halves of the eggshell in Woody’s hands, while the egg yolk is coming out into the pan. You have to use quite a few supports.
PDN: So it’s all tabletop still life, in a studio?
MW: Ninety percent of my Toy Story images are done on my kitchen table. There’s a huge window on camera right, and then on the left side I’ll use continuous lights just for fill. Other toys, like Star Wars action figures or Kermit the Frog, might be outdoors on location somewhere.
PDN: What camera, lenses and lights do you use?
MW: I shoot with Canon 5D Mark III, usually with a Canon 135L at f/2.0. Sometimes I’ll use the 50 mm f/1.2 or the 24-70mm f/2.8. For lighting, I almost always use the Manfrotto Lykos LED continuous lights. You can control temperature and brightness. I also use an infrared wireless shutter [control] because I shoot alone. So when I’m throwing dirt into a scene or lighting fireworks, I have to fire the shutter remotely.
PDN: How much post-production do you do?
MW: [I use] Photoshop quite a bit to remove things like supports holding the characters [and props], but not to add things in, unless we’re talking about something like a Jedi light saber, which is glowing. Those are digital effects. If a character is jumping, people wonder: Did you throw that character in the air and just get the right timing? It’s not like that. Everything you see in the photo is controlled. I leave as little to chance as possible.
PDN: What’s the most challenging thing about this niche for you?
MW: It’s extremely niche. That’s its blessing and its curse. How many people need toy photography besides toy companies? But if someone needs toy photography, I’ll have a pretty good chance of getting that work. I had a lot of work in 2017.
PDN: Who are your clients?
MW: Mattel took up 90 percent of my time last year. I did a lot of work on their fashion doll line called Ever After High, and also for their games UNO and Scrabble. I created more than 200 images, all of that was for use on their social media. [Recently] I did a 20-image campaign for Hot Wheels 50th anniversary, which hasn’t [run] yet.
PDN: How have you promoted yourself?
MW: Toy photography definitely lives on Instagram. I have a website, but I connected with Mattel on Instagram.
PDN: How did you get their attention?
MW: I noticed that someone from Mattel started following me on Instagram. I sent them a direct message, told them I wanted to collaborate, and wanted to discuss opportunities.
PDN: What other clients have you been shooting for?
MW: Another client is called IAmElemental. They’re more of a start-up, [marketing] female action figures. That’s the [client] I cut my teeth on.
PDN: What are the rates like? Ad campaign rates? Social media rates?
MW: I charge by the image or by the campaign, but I don’t think there’s a set standard for fees in the toy industry.
PDN: How much do you charge?
MW: I’d rather not say, but I’m a firm believer in knowing your value and making sure your clients compensate accordingly.
PDN: What’s your advice for other photographers who might be interested in this niche?
MW: Focus on the story first and foremost, and come up with compelling concepts. I compare it to movies: You can see a movie that’s loud and flashy, but if there’s no story, within a week you don’t remember anything about it. So you need to develop your storytelling skills. If you can create a story with some emotion, which is not easy, and if your technique is spot on and dynamic, those will lead to an impactful, memorable image.