Category Advertising

Working with constraints: A year of shooting toys

I got used to the smell of new Made in China vinyl.

Throughout most of 2010, I photographed limited-edition toys, apparel and accessories for Kidrobot, Inc. Every week or so I’d carry a box of fantastical creatures to my studio to document, creatively, using only white or black or other neutral backgrounds. For a while I really wanted to take the toys out into the real world. I wondered if the bunny-inspired Dunnys would look better against a wall of tall grasses or if the plush toys would be more inviting in a quiet bedroom. The challenge of having narrow parameters grew on me however. I began to see the toys as characters in a story I had to bring to life using only light and darkness as tools.  After working this way for almost a year, I’m convinced that creative constraints can help make room for new growth and fun exploration.

The following is a collection of images from the year that I wanted to share. I hope you enjoy the photographs and the awesomely designed toys.

Part II: How many Photoshop layers does it take to make an image?

Way back in August I posted the first part of this story where I featured a screen grab of all the Photoshop layers it took to make an image. Here’s part two.

If you’re bored, or just for fun, see if you can identify the changes from the original environmental image to the final. The plan and process was roughly as follows:

  • First I used HDR (High Dynamic Range) software to pull out details in the trees outside and to balance out the tonal range of the scene. The environment image consists of six or so exposures that were merged together
  • Second I had to correct the slanted door frame that hugs the right side of the image. The entire wall with the screen door is essentially rebuilt
  • Third I dropped in a shot of the models that was made with strobes / flash lighting. I also had to add in their reflections on the floor
  • Fourth I made some corrections to the art work on the wall and also had to color in the martini glass
  • Finally I muted the colors down some for more of a vintage and faded look

Part I: How many Photoshop layers does it take to make an image?

Whenever an image is produced for commercial or advertising purposes, it is rarely “what you see is what you get.” Instead, every image is put through the Photoshop grinder where the walls in a room, a model’s wardrobe color, and the lighting are all scrutinized with exacting detail. Even “documentary” style images used in ad campaigns are put through a rigorous retouching process. Accidents aren’t allowed. When mistakes do happen, you’ll often find them on:

I recently finished a small non-commercial shoot where I played around on my own time to show what the image might look like after going through retouching. Here are the Photoshop layers for your amusement. As you can see, there are lots and lots of changes to the original image – changes to saturation, color, and even the structure of walls.

Once this image releases in the next few weeks, I’ll break it down some more. For now, take a look at the organization behind something like ten hours of Photoshop time.

Note: I try to name all my layers so that I know what is being done at a particular step to the underlying image. I got a bit lazy towards the end though – hence the generic non-named changes at the top.

Keeping it reals: The ongoing photo industry rejection of the showy

I was reading an Adweek article today on the recession’s impact on the future of advertising and came across an interesting quote by Martin Sorrell, CEO of holding company WPP Group. Discussing current consumer sentiment he states:

“They’re more concerned with heritage and authenticity than anything ostentatious and showy.”

This quote got me thinking about the photographic requests and expectations I see in the market today. Specifically, it seems that over the last two years or so, as the economy has slowed, editorial and ad clients are looking for images that reflect “authenticity.” Whether it’s grainy black and white photographs or that nostalgic film color feel from the 70s, 60s and 50s there’s a demand for images that don’t look like they’ve been photoshoped to death. Over stylized hyper-manipulated CGI-looking images have been moved to the side.

Not only are clients demanding more classic imagery, but photography award competitions like Communication Arts and PDN are mostly recognizing more traditional looking photography as well. As an example of this award and industry trend, all one has to do look at the presentation website for PDN’s digital imaging competition, Pix Digital Imaging Contest 2009. This award, which recognizes “excellence and innovation in digital photography, composites, retouching, CGI incorporation, and multimedia imaging” seems to mostly showcase work that feels traditional and not bedazzled.

When working, it’s important to be aware of industry trends while still staying true to your own creative voice. If you’re out there shooting and love the more stylized CGI-y stuff, don’t despair. The creative pendulum will eventually swing your way again.

Photo: ©2009 David Mejias

Shooting for billboards and an OBIE Award for Nike Running

I just found out that a campaign I photographed for Nike Running was recently recognized by the Outdoor Advertising Association of America (OAAA) with a 2009 OBIE Award. The Nike campaign is the second one I’ve shot for outdoor media. The first was for Both of these campaigns were shot similarly, so I thought I’d write a bit about the process.


For the Nike ads a company in California made an entire alphabet of green painted letters. The other elements were also made and painted out of wood. The background panels were shipped in pieces.

After experimenting with hard and soft light sources and the direction of the shadows, we locked down the camera and made careful measurements on the distance and size of the light sources relative to the elements. The goal was to document real spatial relationships, real shadows, and to tie in everything uniformly.


On the campaign, where the final goal was to create ten or so billboards, we shopped around for various metallic papers we could use for the background. The headlines were then printed on transparent acetate. Finally, after experimenting with different pieces of laboratory glass, and lighting direction, we settled on a look that gave the headlines and materials a deliberate depth.

The point in describing this approach to working with headline-focused ads is that “making” things often results in work that feels real and crafted. Photography then becomes an important part of the process – allowing you to exploit the nuance of real materials.

So the next time you are tempted to just illustrate or render art for this kind of potentially flat work, think about making and then shooting. You could end up with some pretty cool and unique art.