The Ultimate Guide to Doll Photography

Collecting dolls is a worldwide hobby for both women and men, children, adults, and the elderly. Some dolls are so precious that people even collect them for investment purposes.

Nowadays, dolls are more and more lifelike and posable, making them great for photography. If doll collecting is a great way to soothe your emotional needs, doll photography is the cherry on the top.

In this article, I will take a deep dive into what things you should prepare and how to take a fantastic doll photo. I hope doll photography can be a fun part of your life. Let’s jump into it!

What Is Doll Photography?

Doll photography is taking photos with dolls. It allows you to immerse yourself in a magical world crossing from reality to fantasy. Although it’s not one of the main types of photography, it is becoming more and more popular among doll lovers.  

Many people don’t understand doll photography because it doesn’t seem that common. But it can be traced back to early times. In 1934, a German Surrealist photographer named Hans Bellmer created the first photobook of dolls. He made an essential contribution to the doll world.

Today, everyone can take a photo of their dolls and post it on Instagram in a breeze. So, let’s take them out in public and make doll photography more popular!

Prepare the Right Gear and Accessories

Camera

Nothing beats the convenience of a smartphone. It’s in your pocket and you can snap a quick photo within seconds. But if you want to take your doll photos to the next level, it’s time to invest in a DSLR or Mirrorless.

Taking pictures of dolls is pretty much like portrait or fashion photography. If the background is not so appealing, you can simply blur it and focus on the doll. Although a mobile phone like the iPhone has “portrait mode” to get blurry effects, it sometimes blurs out the doll or keeps parts of the background in focus.

If you take your dolls to a dreaming location like the Grand Canyon, you definitely want a wide field of view to include all the stunning details. With an ultra-wide-angle lens on a DSLR, a doll may look much bigger than she is, and faraway objects look even smaller and further away. This will make the doll look more natural and engaging.

Later in this article, I will discuss how you can achieve better effects with a professional camera.

camera

Lens

Like I said before, a wide-angle lens is ideal for storytelling pictures. But beware of the perspective distortion making the dolls look odd. If you got too close to the doll, her nose and forehead would look bigger than normal.

Dolls also look pretty without an appealing backdrop. Using a prime(fixed-focus) lens such as a 50mm or 85mm lens, she can stand out from a finely blurred background without distortion.

Macro lenses are perfect for taking close-ups of your dolls. They come in various focal lengths ranging from about 30mm all the way to 200mm. In most cases, a shorter focal length such as 50mm should be enough for you. A 200mm one is usually used for shooting objects that you can not get close to.

Further Reading: Best Lenses for Doll Photography

lens

Tripod

Tripods make your doll images sharp. Even if you shoot in a good lighting condition with a handheld camera, the image will not be as sharp as shooting with a steady camera on a tripod.

Besides, it allows you take sharp photos in low light. You might have heard of the “golden hour” in photography—the period of daytime shortly after sunrise or before sunset. It is the most beautiful time of day during which you will have the best chance to capture a great picture. The exposure time, however, could be as long as half a second. The camera will likely shake when pressing the shutter button, which results in blurry images.

In many cases, you would find yourself lying on your stomach like a sniper while shooting. Because when putting the doll on the ground, keeping your camera at eye level creates a real connection with the doll. Or, you put her and your camera on a table. A mini tripod would fit into these scenarios.

tripod

Background

Of course you can move the dolls around the house or take her outside to get a nice photo, which I will discuss later in this article. But setting a background for her is more fun than a barrel of monkeys! You can always get creative and make the picture more interesting.  Paper, poster board, or foam core board are all great options for getting a dollar-free DIY background. You can paint on them or cut out interesting shapes. If you are a DIY genius, you can even make a bedroom or even a villa for her. Below are a few youtube links on how to DIY backgrounds for doll photography. I hope they will spark your interest.

doll background
Photo by MyFroggyStuff

Lighting

Photography is the art of controlling light. I can’t stress how important the lighting is for a good picture. If you just start doll photography, shooting with natural light is your first choice. Try to take your photos either by a window or in a room full of natural light. Or take her outside. Sometimes harsh shadows or dappled lighting would appear on her face. A light reflector would make shooting a breeze. Simply place it between her and the sun to balance and flatten the light. A light reflector could be anything that reflects light effectively. But a dedicated reflector with an easy folding design can lighten your load.

Exploring the use of additional light sources in doll photography is fascinating. It breaks the limitation of space and weather. A portable LED light would be great if you want convenience. It is also suitable for beginners because you can see what will appear in photos in real time. In contrast, you can only see the effects after pressing the shutter button when using a flash. But a flash is more powerful and allows you to maximize quality without noise. Through the lightboxes, the light from a flash would be softer and can be more flattering to the doll’s appearance.

lighting
Photo by kanagi

Accessories

Doll Stands

Many dolls can stand on their feet. But they can be unsteady in many cases. The wind outside could blow her down, and it would be exhausting to lift her up over and over again. Or you might put her on an uneven surface like a rock. Or she’s wearing high heels. A doll stand would be super important in these cases.

You can make your own stand for outdoor photography using materials like coated wires. Or you could get an action figure stand on Amazon, which lets her hang in the air and make more dynamic poses.

Some dolls like the Smart Doll even have telescopic stands attached to their body for photography purposes. The stands can be swung to hide behind either leg when taking photos.

Be careful not to show the stand in the picture. If you cannot avoid it, make it despair in the post-production.

doll stand
Photo by smartdoll.jp

Doll Clothes

Doll clothes can help cover up her joints, making the photo look more realistic. Try different outfits until you find what truly flatters her best.

Props

Include a strong narrative by using props. Props can be anything used in a scene, background, or the doll itself to add to its detail. If you are interested in craftwork, you can DIY some dioramas that can be used as props for dolls. Amazon also has various categories of doll accessories that will blow your mind away.

props
Photo by SFSakana

Comb

A comb is necessary when photographing dolls. Flyaway hairs can spoil your image if they are apparent. You can use a comb or even a doll hair brush kit to tame that hair.  

Fishing line

A fishing line provides a simple, nearly invisible way to hang a doll for taking photos. You can either tie it to her hands, or from her body and suspend it from a tree, or have someone hold it while photographing. It is used when she cannot reach the heights with a doll stand.

How to Choose a Fitting Location

Outdoor

Outdoor photography is unmatched in that the world becomes your studio. There are so many interesting things you can incorporate into your doll photos. Decorating your shots with natural elements will help you add a pleasant visual appeal to enhance the story. And elements and passers-by in public space can create a dynamic atmosphere. All these things make the doll look more realistic and alive.

outdoor doll photography
Photo by smartdoll.jp

Luckily, there are many apps and websites that can help you locate the best places.

ShotHotspot is a great app available on iOS and Android. It is a super helpful search engine using data from images on sites like Flickr to figure out where good shooting spots are. In addition, it allows you to filter locations to what you are looking to shoot.

Instagram can also be a handy tool for scouting places to take pictures near you. You can type a street name or address into the search bar to see what locations and landmarks pop up.

Google Earth and Google Maps are also useful when finding places near you. You can look for parks, public spaces, and nature trails. You can view panoramic photography of streets and roads.

Google Earth even has 3D effects for you to check out incredible details in some areas.

Instagram can also be handy. You can search by location and check out what will pop up.

Finding a local photography or doll group on Facebook is also a good idea. Or you can ask a local photographer.

If you do not use a wide-angle lens to capture an interesting background, choosing a photoshoot spot is an easy win. Just shoot with a wide-open aperture and blur out the background.

Indoor

There are also some great photoshoot locations such as hotel lobby, art gallery, train station, book store, coffee shop, greenhouse, etc. Look for places with big windows or rooms with loads and loads of light.

Some adults may find it embarrassing to take doll photos in public. Shooting at home is a good alternative. You have full control over the light sources and backdrops—no need to worry about the weather.

How to Control the Light

Outdoor

Best time for shooting

Basically, there are two types of light in photography: hard light and soft light. Hard light is a focused, bright light that creates harsh shadows. It can make the doll’s skin look shiny and often cast unpleasant shadows and highlights on her face.

In outdoor photography, hard light often comes from the naked sun. Especially at midday, the sun’s harsh light creates weird shadows under the eyebrows, nose, and chin. You have to bring her into a shaded area to get soft light. It is not recommended for beginners.

In contrast, soft light doesn’t cause contrasting odd shadows. If you go out during the few hours after sunrise or before sunset— also called “golden hour”—you will find it easier to take great photos with direct sunlight. The light becomes much softer because the sun is diffused by the atmosphere. It can produce a warm and soft glow that is ideal for doll photography.  

If you are a night owl and cannot get out so early just for a few images, you can shoot in the early morning or late afternoon. The sun still hangs low in the sky and casts gorgeous glowy light. And the light doesn’t change as quickly as it does during the “golden hour”, meaning it is easier to set the camera.

There are 3 basic shooting angles: front light, side light, and backlight.

Front Light

The front light is the easiest angle you can deal with. The sun is in front of the doll and behind you. It evenly illuminates the doll, making it easier to get the right focusing and exposure. The shadows are behind the doll rather than on her face—no worry about odd shadows or unpleasant highlights. Try to focus on her eyes to catch the beautiful eye light reflected by the sun.

Side Light

Generally speaking, the sun is at roughly 90 degrees to the camera when it comes to the sidelight. But that would be too dramatic for doll photography, as one side of her face is bright while the other is too dark. As such, 45 degrees is better. In this case, you can use a reflector to brighten the dark side slightly. The image will look more three-dimensional and dramatic than shooting with front light.

Backlight

Backlight is the most dramatic light compared with the above two types of light. It is caused when the sun is shining toward the camera behind the doll. Beautiful rim light will surround her, especially in the hair, making her look so charming.

However, controlling the light will be a bit trickier. If you expose the background rather than the doll, she will be a silhouette like a cardboard cut-out without details. Conversely, if you expose the doll, the background will be overexposed. It is time to use a reflector or a flash to bright some light back to her to balance the light ratio. Finally, you will get an appealing image.

Photo by くうた

Indoor  

As I mentioned above, look for a big window when shooting indoors. The light from a big window is soft and gives the photo a serene tone. Move the doll nearby and turn her body slightly towards the window. You can try the three different lightings that I mentioned earlier. The only difference is the light from the window becomes the main light source.

How to Set Your Camera

ISO

As we all know, there is an image sensor in a digital camera. It is like a film in a film camera, turning the light into pixels. ISO is the sensitivity of that image sensor. Although you can set quite a high ISO to allow the sensor to capture light in a low-light condition, you are trying to drain the ability of the sensor, which would bring a lot of grainy dots—also called noise—to the image.

So, always set ISO as low as possible, then adjust shutter speed and aperture.

Aperture

Aperture is the second parameter you need to set. It is also the one you would probably fiddle with the most. It controls how wide the opening inside your lens is. It is expressed as an f-number(f/1.4, f/2, f/2.8, etc.). There’s a catch – Small numbers represent large apertures, and large numbers represent small apertures!

Have you ever seen a doll photo with a beautifully blurred background? If you also want to create that effect, set the aperture to at least f/2.8, with faster apertures of f/2, f/1.8, or f/1.4 being ideal.

However, if you have a nice background to put the doll in, go for a more minor stop (larger f numbers), such as f/11 or f/16.

Shutter Speed

Shutter speed is the speed at which the lens opens and closes.  A fast shutter speed creates a shorter exposure. If you shoot on a windy day, the doll might be shaking. A faster shutter speed can avoid this motion blur and makes the image sharper. On the contrary, a slower shutter speed makes static things blurry. Say you put the doll by a river, and you want to make the water look silky smooth. You can use a slower shutter speed to get that effect. But make sure the camera is on a tripod.

Focus on the Eyes

After taking tons of portrait photos, I have kept one thing firmly in mind: always focus on the eyes. A doll photo would be out of focus if the eyes were not in focus. I usually use a single point focus mode and move that focus point over the eyes to make sure the eyes are in focus. But if using a tripod is a hassle, you can half press the shutter button to focus on the eyes first, and then move the camera to recompose.

How to Pose You Dolls to Look Natural

The pose is one of the most critical elements. A natural, engaging pose can add spirit and liveliness to a doll photo. So, let’s talk about it, which will contain the following parts:

Eyes

Eye contact is a powerful way for a doll to express her emotion. It can undoubtedly enhance the impact that the image has on the viewer. So, make the doll look directly into the lens and focus on the eyes.

Alternatively, you can make her look at something interesting or just observe the space. This creates a softer impression on the viewers and helps them interpret the doll’s mood.

Body

The body plays the biggest role in the pose. It affects the emotions you are trying to express. Face and body looking straight at the camera can create a serious feeling and make the doll look bulky. To avoid this, you can simply turn her body 45 degrees towards one of the sides. This will make her look slimmer and more relaxed. Alternatively, popping a shoulder up and forward can make all the difference.

Imagine the shape of her body as a letter of the alphabet. Standing straight up will form the shape of the letter “I”. But if you have her “pop a hip” with one leg placed slightly forward than the other, the shape of her body will look like a letter “S’, which is much more graceful than the harsher “I”.

By using a doll stand or fishing line creatively, you can even create action poses, such as walking, jumping, or running. But make sure the stand is invisible in the picture. You can hide it behind the doll’s leg or under her dress. Or you can fix it in post-production.

The poses are more than I can enumerate. If you want to learn more, you can read magazines such as Vogue, W, Glamour, or V Magazine. Or you can go to Instagram or Pinterest.

Photo by SFSakana

How to Do Storytelling with Your Doll Photos

Armed with the understanding of what elements should be included in the picture, let’s put them together to create a wonderful story. Remember, a picture paints a thousand words!

The first step is to conceive an idea of the photo. So, where can we get inspiration?

Don’t forget that the doll can represent the image of yourself you wish to present to the public. I’m sure there are many stories, many memorable moments in your life. Creating a storytelling doll photo is a great way to reproduce these moments.

On top of this, a photo can even depict a dream that you are not able to achieve at the moment. Creating a prop or a backdrop is much easier than actually owning an expensive item or traveling abroad.

Another great way of storytelling is recreating movie scenes. You can get inspired by doll-related films or any films you like. Find a similar scene and prepare miniature props.

Photo by Sydney Paulsen

In addition to scenes, props, and clothing, the elements we mentioned earlier — lights, poses, and camera settings are all crucial for storytelling. Make them work together artfully to convey emotions and ideas.

Final Thought

After flipping through the article, I hope you’ve already had a general sense of doll photography. I believe dolls will become more posable with technological development and more eye-catching. We can also contribute to the trend by taking amazing doll photos and uploading them to the Internet. So, what are you waiting for? Let’s grab a camera and enjoy shooting.

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