In photography, less is more. The more you put in, the less you get. What?

One step forward, two steps back

Back in 2011 when I rolled up my first gradient background I would finally escape the clutches of single color backdrops that were clouding my vision of a brighter future. By the end of that year the Tier Harribel review was published and my friends seemed overjoyed because it featured a fiery sword and not to mention, a gradient background. Unfortunately I did not share the same joy that my friends did because at the time I felt it to be lackluster and had you asked me today the pictures would never have seen the light of day.

Tier Harribel by Alpha x Omega

A few months earlier I stumbled upon a figure reviewing site featuring mind-blowingly good looking backgrounds and I just had to inquire how these were assembled in order to elevate and justify my own photography. The author of the site assured me that the backgrounds were of simple nature and that some pictures even felt uninspired. This puzzled me and forced a retaliation in asking for feedback to ensure I wasn’t going in the wrong direction. The words I received back were mostly positive alongside a few pointers that were supposed to be encouraging. Instead, on my end, I felt hesitation and unease. I don’t think any starting out photographer wants to hear that his or her pictures are bad but frankly, it’s something that needs to be said.

Over the following months I started experimenting with various props to fill the void my previous shots had left behind. Surely these would make my images pop and I would at long last feel pride seeing the pictures come to life. As it turned out that never happened and I couldn’t figure out what wasn’t working. The word exchange with awesome background guy kept going and the result of all that back and forth sparked a change in the summer of the following year.


July 5 of 2012 marked a highlight in my ongoing journey as a novice figure photographer. For the first time since the site launched I felt some kind of satisfaction with the results from shooting Kurumu Kurono. Ironically and to this day the following review six days later is the one I’m least pleased with.

So what had changed in the summer of 2012? For the very first time, I felt like I had evoked an emotion through photography. Not through props or immaculately built backgrounds but through one of the very basics of photography, lighting. The obsession over everything but the basics had now stopped and I took to the books to thoroughly learn the fundamentals of photography.

Kurumu Kurono by Orchid Seed

Heading into 2013 taught me another crucial lesson: The more you put inside your frame the harder it gets to control light. This may sound obvious but it took me the longest time to fully grasp. Not to confuse grasping with mastering here, I screw up lighting on every single shooting session but the key is to learn from the mistakes and improve upon them. If you’re unwilling to see flaws in your own work, how will you ever improve?

Now felt like a good time to head back to where it all started; with a single black background. Try every possible light source position on the X and Y-axes. Utilizing key, overhead and rim light. Fiddling around with soft, hard, reflected and filtered light. To break it down; if you want a figure photograph to look exactly what you have in mind, how do you achieve it?

Making sense

I do get the impression that some find a black background to be boring and rather than paying attention to lighting you flood the picture with random colorful things effectively turning something with potential into something horrendous. You can see examples of this reasoning in my Nessa coverage where most of the shots are either underexposed, overexposed, poorly cropped or framed and not to mention stuffed with an abundance of plastic decorations. A smiling girl surrounded by flowers won’t make up for the aforementioned shortcomings seen in those pictures.

Nessa by Good Smile Company

To get back up on the prop train, I do not think that there’s a right or wrong approach when incorporating scenery or props in your figure shots. Just bear in mind that exposure is absolute and that if you say, use a monitor with something like a sunset wallpaper your aim should be to match the light so that it really looks like your subject is standing in front of your chosen background. If they clash, and they often do, the result will be far from optimal. It’ll be even trickier if that wallpaper shows the inside of a building and you may have to keep in mind of multiple exposures and cast shadows to give the impression that your subject is really standing inside that building.

At the end of the day, all that matters is the final result of an image. How you got there is irrelevant, just as knowing how long it took to make or how much money you spent on it. Just because you made a real effort taking a photograph does not automatically mean that it will be a good one. It could certainly be interesting knowing just how a picture was made but don’t let that information reflect upon the image itself.

8 Responses

  1. Miette-chan

    Indeed less is more. I started with just simply variously colored backdrops to match my figures but I found those to be a bit boring after a while. So I started to build backdrops every now and then when an idea struck me. I noticed the more complicated they seemed the more they ended distracting from the figure, the more time I spent on them the less time I would spend actually thinking about the figure and how to shoot it.

    Now though, I tried to keep it simple, one or two elements that harken to the origins of the figure but making sure the colors accentuated the figure rather than distract from it. Although I got to say nothing beats a white or black background if all you want to do is show off the figure.

    • Nightmare

      Food for thought right there. It’s tough to give up on an idea when it has manifested itself and it’s something I’ve been unable to do on several occasions which is regrettable.

      It wasn’t my intention for this post to discourage people from trying out props or building dioramas when shooting figures but rather to look at the bigger picture by valuing the basics of photography.

  2. Tian

    Good read! I always enjoy getting insight into other people’s photographic process. My approach is a lot like yours. I like to reduce what’s in the frame, and then add in other elements when appropriate.

    To your comment about controlling the light, I think maybe part of it is because of the small scale? We don’t typically have much room to work with (especially between figure and backdrop), so controlling light and spill can be difficult sometimes.

    And on your point about exposure, using a histogram should help. I dunno if/how much you rely on it, but I’ve found it to be super helpful in getting the right exposure. However it is harder if you’re trying to balance multiple lights.

    • Nightmare

      I too enjoy seeing the work of others whether it’s for inspiration or just to tap into someone else’s mind for a bit. The idea behind a photograph is foremost what I find fascinating in (figure) photography.

      Scale is definitely a factor and so is, like you mentioned, depth. I struggle a great deal with the latter due technical and practical mishaps which I hope to overcome when I can rent a nearby hangar. Not happening anytime soon unfortunately.

      The histogram is a very handy tool, both during shooting and in photo-editing software. A simple practice is to ensure that no detail is lost because of exposure, a practice turned difficult every nuclear winter.
      As this is a lightweight article on theory I didn’t want to go too heavily into the technical aspect of things but my hope is for a few topics on post-processing and workflow in the coming weeks/months/years.

  3. Tier

    There’s a well-known quote – I’m afraid I don’t remember who said it – that goes something like, “Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing more to take away.” It’s a pithy proverb and like all quotes, there’s the danger of taking it too literally, but I think it’s meaningful in the context of anime figure photography. In many pictures, what is recorded is what is there – an event, a landscape, a person, and so on – and the photographer doesn’t really have the ability to rearrange things at his or her whim. In such a scenario, skillful composition is at a premium.

    However, every element in virtually every figure picture is present at the photographer’s discretion, whether they are props or a landscape (in which case, the figure itself is a prop placed by the photographer in the chosen scene). That presents opportunities – namely, to show the figure in a way that is unexpected or in a way that hasn’t been seen before – but it also presents a number of risks, which I don’t think are always appreciated. Throwing random stuff into the background can sometimes work – in the sense that it is often unexpected and would therefore get more consideration than, say, something shot on seamless white – but in my experience, every element added to a scene, including props, backgrounds, lights, and additional figures, presents things that can be screwed up, and the benefits those things add are sometimes not worth that risk. I recall that in my Saber Alter post, people liked the background – more, I am certain, because it was unexpected and not because it was well-executed. A few people lamented that it was blurry and thus could not be seen in its entirety. That was intentional on my part – I did not want anyone to see it in its entirety because if they did, they would see how poorly it was constructed.

    I’ve attained something of a reputation for constructing elaborate backgrounds, but what people don’t know is that while I might go to great lengths to build a backdrop, I’ll go to even greater lengths to obscure it, because even a slight error in construction, realism, and photographic composition will stand out to viewers, in much the way one would notice a crooked picture frame in someone else’s home. Further, I don’t want people to obsess over the background, because I’m really more interested in photographing the figure. In that sense, I want the figure to look like it fits naturally into the scene, and so in the pictures I care most about – generally only one or two for a given figure – I’ll take away as much as I can so that the figure and the background can’t be considered separately.

    I’ve sometimes felt complicit in encouraging excessive clutter, because I’ve done it in the past, back when I didn’t understand that random background chaos doesn’t necessarily make for a nice picture. Unfortunately, I think it’s not an easy thing to rectify, because visual literacy isn’t something that is well understood (and as has been pointed out elsewhere, there isn’t even a word in English for the concept), and something that is unexpected generally gets a stronger reaction than something that has been done before. (Except for throwing a cat into the frame, which for some reason always seems to get high marks, and I cannot ever understand why.)

    I like basic black a lot as well. Gregory Heisler has a brief discussion on why he likes black in his recent book, though I suspect his circumstances and those of anime figure photographers are quite different; as an accomplished photographer, he has the sort of access to world-famous celebrities that few people do, and thus that gives his photos an added sense of interest (some detractors might argue all their interest). In contrast, anyone can take the latest hot figure, put it in front of black posterboard and snap away. I don’t think a picture taken in front of black is boring, but I think I understand why it isn’t as warmly-regarded as something taken in front of a prop-based backdrop.

    • Nightmare

      Even if you do take that quote literally I do find it to have both meaning and purpose. I never cared much for the word ‘perfection’ as nothing is without flaw and I feel that similar wording has been abused in recent years. Louis C.K. sums it up well in a quote of his.

      I have a feeling that you and awesome background guy have a great deal in common. While I can’t speak for other people I do enjoy your style of photography because it presents emotion and dioramas alone don’t cause emotion, mood does. I’ve talked to you long enough to know that you’re not a person who toss flashguns like dice and hope things will work out on their own. There’s also an acceptance of failure which to me is a blessing in disguise to any photographer.

      You know, I remember that Saber review back in 2011. It was far beyond my comprehension and not in a million years could I ever hope to construct something of its kind. Today I look upon it with a different set of eyes because my entire view on photography has changed; it helps to seek out knowledge outside public forums where people are led to believe that figure photography has turned competitive through starlit accolades.

      Aesthetics comes to mind when talking about visual literacy. If you don’t mind a bit of philosophy I do recommend the theories of Immanuel Kant. While a tad dense there are many observations within that you may find interesting.

  4. Wieselhead

    The biggest issue for beginner figure photographers is the light, especially indoor you can run into many problems and hell I did.
    Soon as I did figure pictures more regulary , I got myself a soft box studio light which was great help to gather more experience with the lighting and get better pictures.
    My general light setup nowadays consists of saidbox aand two wireless flashes, since raw flashlight can look pretty terrible so I only use them with diffusor softbox + gel filter.
    From time to time I still do something wrong, luckily at the moment it seems to work.

    Im not only interested in my own figure photography, I really like to look at other peoples works and how they create their pictures.
    There are different ways to create pictures; with elaborate , siimple or very simple backgrounds, I can’t really say that one way is better.
    I like that there are so many possibilities to create something appealing , there is no right or wrong at least not in the concept.
    What counts is the execution of it.

    I have fun with creating scenes, sometimes I do more than necessary, be it things that can’t be seen in the end because the fram is more narrow than expected.
    The props don’t have to be perfect, since I always put the figure into focus, the dof does the rest, to blur out smaller imperfections and to show the background as “background”
    In previous years I often made the mistake, to bring figure and background too close together.

    I see a lot potential in the Nessa picture, unfortunately I don’t have her here to play around ;)

    • Nightmare

      There are many challenges to take on as a photographer and lighting is certainly one of them. I tend to get recurring feedback that my pictures are a bit too dark, a viewpoint I can understand as my preference in style is aimed towards a darker setting and heavy shadows.
      I seldom use flashguns without diffusing the light as I tend to prefer the softened look that kind of light provides. One occasion where I did not find the results desirable with soft light was when shooting Belldandy, a figure so intricate that I also felt no need to add anything else besides the simulated cloud.

      I think it helps to be able to see the beauty in all things in order to appreciate the full spectrum of photography. This goes for the opposite as well, to be able to have distance around your own work and the work of others. I see no point in ever being fully satisfied because it will hinder your motivation to improve.

      We all go overboard with ideas sometimes and speaking for myself that happens more often than not. The good thing with being on the experimental side every now and then is that you may come across things you’d never get to otherwise explore and hopefully you’ll learn from that experience.


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