Improve Your Lighting Skills with a Trip to the Toy Store


You’ve heard it before: Photography is seeing and capturing light. It’s absolutely true, but what’s the best way to learn how to see something that can be infinitely shaped, altered by both environmental factors, and through intentional manipulation? As with most things, there’s a hard way and an easier way.

Learn lighting with toys batman

The hard way entails grabbing your camera and photographing everything you can, in every possible condition, and hoping everything clicks in one magic moment, thereby learning gradually through scattered experience. This works, but it can take an awful lot of time and practice before it leads to any real understanding of various lighting conditions.

The easier method, that this article covers, involves a more structured and goal oriented approach. It can get you looking at light in new ways and push you to the top of the learning curve in a very short period of time.

A trip to the toy store

Because of the studious nature of this exercise, it can seem far less exciting and adventurous than being out and about with your camera. To combat this, I propose using toys as your subjects. Aside from the quirkiness and fun this can add to the exercise, a lot of toys, particularly action figures, have insane amounts of fine details that will really show off any changes in lighting conditions.

Learn lighting with toys ff 2859

Another bonus of using toys for studying light is that if you use a character from a film or game that you know, you already have some idea of cinematic lighting schemes associated with that character, and you will quickly recognize some of them as you move through this process.

What you need to start

  • A camera set on manual mode
  • A tripod
  • A toy
  • A light source (natural or artificial with a modifier of your choice)
  • A reflector
  • A notebook (not required, but taking notes on what works and what doesn’t work never hurts)
  • A macro lens for smaller toys is useful if you have one

Note: I’m using studio strobes for this exercise out of personal preference and ease, as it’s easier to move a light source around a subject than it is to move a subject around a fixed light source such as a window. Strobes also allow you to keep the exposure constant, provided the distance from light source to subject doesn’t change.

Also, please bear in mind that the intent of these exercises isn’t to create a final polished image. You’re simply watching and gaining experience with altering light. However, you can use the images you get from these exercises to build your own reference sheet for lighting effects for various light sources and modifiers.

Exercise one

To start off, place your light source directly in front of your subject, pointed down at a 45 degree angle. Work out the correct exposure for your setup and dial it into your camera. These settings won’t change.

Now take your first photo.

Once that’s done, move your light source gradually around your subject, a little bit at a time, and take another photo at each angle. Repeat until you’ve come back to your starting position. Just make sure that your light source stays the same distance from the subject, while still pointed directly at it, each time you move it.

What you’re looking for is a series of images that clearly show how the light is altering as it moves around the toy. You can use these images to study how the light records in a photograph from any of the positions.

Learn lighting with toys yoshi 2795

Exercise two

For the second part of this task, start with your light source directly in front of your chosen subject and as high possible. Work out your exposure and take the first photo. This time, move your light source down a few inches, again keeping it pointed directly at your toy. Repeat this until you can’t lower your light source any further. Now, your exposure will probably change this time as your light source gets physically closer to your subject. It’s up to you if you want to calculate a new exposure for each interval.

Learn lighting with toys dalek 2785

Top Left: Highest position of the light source. Bottom Right: Lowest position of the light source.

If you feel inclined, don’t be afraid to take the extra time and repeat this exercise once in each of the vertical positions as well. Doing so will only give you a more complete lighting reference in the end.

Exercise three


In this step, start with your light source as close to your subject as you can and place it at a 45 degree angle to camera right, pointed down at your subject. Once you have taken your first image, move it backward one foot.

Changing the distance of your light source from your subject is going to alter your exposure settings. By moving it backward, you will have less light falling on your scene. Simply recalculate your exposure and take your second shot. Repeat this until you can’t move your light source any further back.

What you should see as you do this is the light changing in quality. The closer your light source is to your subject, the softer the light. The further your light source from your subject, the harder the light. A lot people tend to have a personal preference on how they prefer their quality of light. Try to use this exercise and see if you can figure out yours.

When you change your modifiers, you may start to notice a shift in the colour temperature as shown in the bottom right image of the example. No two modifiers will be the same in this regard, so it’s always good to know exactly what you’re getting when you use your equipment.


Top Left: Softbox at 2′ (61cm) away
Top Right: 4′ (1.2m) away
Bottom Left: 6′ (1.8m) away
Bottom Right: 8′ (2.4m) away

Exercise four

The next step is to start modifying your light; with a reflector in this case. Start with your light source pointed directly at your subject from camera left and above. Calculate your exposure and take a starting image with no modification.

For the next image, put your reflector at camera right, parallel to your light source.

Next, place it directly in front of your subject but as low down as you need to not block your lens and to keep it out of the frame.

Finally, if you can, curve your reflector and hold it at camera right with the centre pointed at 45 degrees from your subject.

Feel free to play around here and take photos with your reflector in as many positions as you can/want. The goal is to observe the changes it makes to the overall images. These changes can be extremely subtle so the more you can observe the better (more you will learn).

Learn lighting with toys ff 2815

Top Left: No reflector. Top Right: Reflector from the right. Bottom Left: Reflector from in front and below the subject. Bottom Right. Reflector curved around the front right corner.

Exercise five

If you have a light source that can be modified with grids or similar (or maybe a window with blinds) it might be advantageous to study the different effects these modifiers provide. If you have a selection of modifiers available, you can use this as an opportunity to study the differences between them in a no pressure environment.

Like exercise one, your light source should be directly in front of your subject and pointed downward at a 45 degree angle. Start with no modifier at all and calculate your exposure and take your first image.

Add each of your different modifiers (softboxes, umbrellas, beauty dishes, etc.) taking a photo at each step. With that, you should have a reference for each of the modifications you can make to a particular light source.

    Top Left: No modifier ( bare bulb)     Top Right: 60 degree reflector     Bottom Left: Beauty dish     Bottom Right: Softbox

Top Left: No modifier ( bare bulb)
Top Right: 60 degree reflector
Bottom Left: Beauty dish
Bottom Right: Softbox


By going through these exercises, you will have lit a subject from a huge variety of angles, with a good variety of modifications. From this, you should already start to see which angles are flattering and which aren’t. You may have also spotted ones that have affinity with your own personal tastes.

If you repeat the exercises with any new modifiers you get, as well as in natural lighting conditions at various times a day, then all of this should add together to quicken your understanding of light and how to apply it to your final images without a lengthy trial and error process. From here, you can start to automatically decide how to light or manipulate based on what you’ve learned.

Of course, if you don’t like the idea of using toys, feel free to use food, flowers, people or anything that’s fun and interesting to you!

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

John McIntire is a portrait photographer currently living in the UK. He studied commercial photography at Leeds Metropolitan University. He is obsessive with photography and is always trying to learn something new. You can find him on Instagram as @johnwhitneyphoto for portraits and @macjw2 for landscapes and travel.

  • Da

    Thanks for that – very useful and practical. Suggestion (I’m lazy), turn the toy rather than your lighting stand
    if you’re stuck for space (my dining room!) to get the same effects.
    You talk about reflectors, but don’t say what kind?
    Another article on reflectors / diffusers and their effect?

  • John McIntire

    Thank you. I’m glad you found it useful.

    You could turn the toy for similar results. I chose to do it this way because I can put the camera in manual focus and not have to worry about that again as well as to keep the shots lined up for comparison. (My own laziness.)

    Sorry about the reflectors. I used a Lastolite 32″ collapsible silver reflector for most things. For the shot where the reflector is underneath the toy, I used a white piece of paper instead as there was only a few inches of space.

    I’ll see what I can do on another article. Thanks!

  • frances.roll
  • lydia.shook
  • Thanks for exercises that are based on something that is “easy to get” rather than “you need a full studio setup before you can start”.
    One thing that would have helped me even more when I first started reading this would have been graphics to explain where the figure is standing in relation to the camera and light.

    So I guess I will try it out once the evenings here get dark again – I want to restrict my light to be of one source only if I can as I guess it will be easier to see the effects of it then.

  • John McIntire

    Hi Lille, now worries and I hope it turns out to be useful to you.

    I decided not to include diagrams, so I apologise for that decision. I’ve made some up now and I’ll put them with this reply.

    Yes, a single light source will be easier to see the effects and changes. Once you are able to spot those effects, you’ll be able to add multiple light sources from there and you should be able to spot the changes just as easily. The trick is to add things slowly.

  • Thanks a lot John!
    Those diagrams make it a lot easier to follow your exercises, I think.
    I am glad you were able to put them in here as I have missed those type of diagrams so often when I have read about – mostly – portrait photography… might just be me, but those diagrams are kind of like giving how much of every ingredient you need to bake the perfect cake, when everything else is given in the recipe. With some experience in baking (or flash use) you might not need those details because you know the relations between the ingredients without looking them up. But when you’re just starting…you’re just not there yet.

  • I’ve been shooting portraits and modeling portfolios for years and most recently have been coaching a few friends on studio lighting techniques. I think your idea about visiting a toy store is brilliant. Typically, I’ve been making one of my kids sit for test shots whenever I try a new light or modifier and they hate it. They will be grateful to you for this article.

  • Desi

    Brilliant article. Thank you. I love that you give positive exercises to do, and not just a whole lot of theory to read.

  • Tim Lowe

    Great exercises. So much easier than working with a pesky human model!

  • John McIntire

    Thank you Desi and you’re welcome. Knowing theory is important, of course, but I feel it’s often easier to learn and understand the practical first and then fill in the theory around it.

  • John McIntire

    Thanks Tim. I’m glad you like them. Toys are definitely easier to practice on than something that blinks and fidgets!

  • John McIntire

    Hi Art, I’m very glad you think this article will be so useful to you and your friends. Thank you for that! My wife feels much the same way as your kids, which may explain why I’m allowed the occasional visit to the toy store.

  • Another good option, is to go to the local beautician training school in the area. They almost always have leftover mannequin heads that you can get for little or nothing. They usually have some interesting hairstyles and potentially hair colors. There’s also usually a hole in the bottom of them that fits nicely into a lighting stand. Just put a coat hanger on that with a coat. And you have a model.

  • John McIntire

    Hi Gordon, good tip! I’ve used one of those mannequin heads myself. Apart from being useful, they’re always good for a good laugh as well!

  • They’re also great for scaring the heck out of your wife when you have them set up in your basement studio.

  • Alberto Gonz├ílez Langarica

    Months algo I took this photo doing the same that the exercise says (but I had not read the article) to get a scene just like the movie one. Tried with moving the light in different angles.

Join Our Email Newsletter

Thanks for subscribing!

DPS offers a free weekly newsletter with: 
1. new photography tutorials and tips
2. latest photography assignments
3. photo competitions and prizes

Enter your email below to subscribe.
Get DAILY free tips, news and reviews via our RSS feed