At the height of the pandemic, dollhouses became a major trend on Instagram, prompting what many have dubbed the “miniature Renaissance.” During that time, searches on Etsy relating to miniature items, including dollhouse rugs and miniature succulent plants, rose.
Accounts like The Daily Miniature and hashtags such as #dailymini have kept the movement alive and well. As of writing this, more than six million posts have been tagged #miniature; #miniatureart has over 650,000, and #miniaturephotography has more than 160,000.
We asked seven photographers who specialise in miniatures—David Gilliver, Derrick Lin, Grace Weston, Shelly Corbett, Erin Sullivan, Jason Michael, and Allan Teger—to tell us about their practice. In this guide, they share some of their most valuable tools and offer tips for getting started with the magical world of all things tiny.
What you need to get started
The truth is there’s no “one size fits all” gear solution for miniature photographers, and the artists we interviewed use a range of tools. For super-sharp pictures, many of them use macro lenses, including David Gilliver, who (literally) wrote the book on the subject—A Step-by-Step Guide to Miniature Worlds. “I would be lost without my 100mm lens,” he tells us. “It is by far the most important piece of kit I own for making this kind of work.”
But even that isn’t a hard and fast rule for everyone. Shelly Corbett, for instance, uses soft-focus aesthetics and a Lensbaby art lens to create a magical, dreamy atmosphere with swirls of bokeh balls.
Lighting can be natural sunlight, preferred by Erin Sullivan, aka Erin Outdoors, or professional studio lighting. Grace Weston uses strobe lights with grids and snoots to direct the light exactly as she wants it, and Jason Michael uses continuous LED lights. David Gilliver hand-lights some of his tableaux using torches. Derrick Lin, on the other hand, uses a combination of natural light, desk lamps, and flashlights for his tabletop scenes.
Accessories and extras
We also recommend a tripod. “A tripod makes it much easier to level and frame your scene,” Grace, who specialises in miniature staged narrative photography, tells us. Grace also keeps several additional items on hand during a shoot, including “tweezers, chopsticks, a level, dental tools, small mirrors, tacky wax, and looped tape.”
She uses the tape to clean up tiny bits of lint or fuzz. “Enlarged flaws or details that are too far out of scale will distract, pulling the viewer out of the illusion,” she explains. “Every little flaw, rough edge, or spec of lint is going to show up—things you might not even notice with the naked eye.”
And, most importantly, you need the miniatures, action figures, toys, or the equivalent to bring your scene to life. For true beginners, David recommends choosing something inexpensive. “Start out by using cheaper figurines,” he suggests. “Buying detailed figurines can be an expensive business, so before investing in some of the more expensive brands, it is a good idea to source cheaper, slightly less refined figures to practice with. For example, you will find cheaper ‘HO scale’ figurines on eBay.”
Down the line, Allan Teger stresses the importance of upgrading to higher-quality miniatures, as the details and craftsmanship will prove critical in the long run. “Walthers.com, a model railroad supply brand, is a major source, but I also use Christmas ornaments, doll house items, and collector miniatures,” he tells us.
Get a variety of sizes if you can. “When using miniatures, scale is essential, so it is often useful to have a miniature in several different sizes,” Allan suggests. “Then you can choose the one that fits best with the scale of the other props. To create the illusion of distance, I will often use a smaller miniature in the background, so it appears to be farther away.”
“To create the illusion of distance, I will often use a smaller miniature in the background, so it appears to be farther away.”
Finally, it never hurts to have a journal or sketchbook on hand to log your ideas—or even just your mobile. “If I ever have an idea materialise that I feel could work well as a miniature, I will try to write it down quickly so that I don’t forget it,” David says. “I will then send a quick email to myself using my phone.”
Pro tips for shooting miniatures
Tell a story
“The two things I focus on the most are the poses for the action figures and the story of the image I’m trying to create,” Jason admits. “You can have the best gear, but ultimately if the poses aren’t right or the story needs a caption, then you’ve broken the illusion of the image, and that takes the viewer out of the world you were creating for them.
“Many toy photographers can testify to the number of times they are asked what camera they use or how much post-processing they do, yet seldom do we receive the question ‘How much time do you spend posing your figures and building the story?’ There are some toy photographers who use cellphones to create their images with great results because they focus on making their stories as good as they can.”
“The two things I focus on the most are the poses for the action figures and the story of the image I’m trying to create. You can have the best gear, but ultimately if the poses aren’t right or the story needs a caption, then you’ve broken the illusion of the image.”
Jason uses action figures, so he builds new stories around those familiar characters. You can use existing figures and archetypes, or you can create brand-new characters to suit your narrative.
Keep it simple…
Even complex stories require a straightforward execution. “The maxim ‘less is more’ is extremely relevant when working with miniatures,” Shelly explains. “Our brains have a fabulous ability to fill in the missing details on any image. When I see a photo with an elaborate background or a multitude of props, I notice that the story is usually lost in all the clutter. I like to tell my miniature stories with broad brush strokes and with very little extra. I find this allows the viewer to bring their own experiences to the scene and enjoy the image on their own terms.”
… and keep it clean
“When using adhesives to help keep your ‘Little People’ in place, use them very sparingly,” David cautions. “There’s nothing worse than seeing big blobs of blu-tac on the feet of the figurines. Try using tiny (and I mean really tiny) dabs of glue on their feet instead, as this will help the images feel a little more polished.”
Consider the details
“Details are so important in miniatures because you see all of them,” Erin says. “You need to be intentional with every aspect of your scene; otherwise, it can look messy. I recommend playing with depth of field and seeing how the scene changes in the back of your camera as you move objects around.” A wider aperture will help create a blurry background to isolate your subject; on the other hand, tiny movements or the addition or removal of a single prop can change a scene dramatically.
“You need to be intentional with every aspect of your scene; otherwise, it can look messy. I recommend playing with depth of field and seeing how the scene changes in the back of your camera as you move objects around.”
Look out for reflections
When working with small objects, props, and backgrounds, keep in mind that reflective surfaces can ruin an otherwise convincing scene. “If reflection becomes a problem, there is a temporary dulling spray available,” Allan tells us. “It coats the surface and cuts the reflection and then can be wiped off. Be sure to get the temporary, removable spray, though.”
Match the scale of your figures and objects
“One common mistake I see from miniature photographers is mixing scales,” Derrick explains. “I think one of the key aspects in miniature photography is creating an imaginary, magic world, and mixing models of different scales can be ‘mood breaking’ unless the photographer has an intended meaning. I recommend using props of the same or similar scales to construct miniature scenes.”
“One simple mistake I see often is when photographers shoot from too high an angle,” Grace tells us. “A lower angle brings the viewer more ‘into’ the scene, which is essential when creating your own world in miniature.”
“A lower angle brings the viewer more ‘into’ the scene, which is essential when creating your own world in miniature.”
Get acquainted with your inner child
“Creating engaging (and amusing) dioramas requires a playful approach, so dropping any inhibitions is key,” David explains. “It’s important to embrace the joyful aspect of making this work. Children engage in the act of play so naturally; we almost forget how to do this as adults. This style of photography is great for helping you to access this part of your brain and embrace your inner child.”
About the contributor
Feature Shoot showcases the work of international emerging and established photographers who are transforming the medium through compelling, cutting-edge projects, with contributing writers from all over the world.