An Introduction to Toy Photography with Jared Middleton
Jared Middleton is a self-taught toy photographer. His mission is to “share the good word about what toy photography is and how easy it is to get into!” As he explained, “I’m not the only person that does this. I just think it’s such a cool type of art that anybody can do! I just want this type of art form to be more known…. It’s great for kids. It’s great for parents and kids to do together. It also has a great value to it. If you start as a kid, you can develop some incredible, valuable skills as a photographer!”
In the beginning, Jared used his iPhone 4 to capture the toys that he collected. Then he posted the photos on Instagram. He said that at the time, that version of the iPhone "was the best thing, but then it got outdated really quickly." However, he relied on the phone for the longest time.
"I didn’t even think about a real camera. Those things didn’t really cross my mind, like, ‘Oh, I should have a nice camera or nice lighting.’ I never really was a photographer when I started out. I’ve always been interested in cameras and creating stuff. I used to make stupid videos as a kid, but I was more of a collector….” He continued.
“When I first made an Instagram… I was just sharing my photos of my new toys…. Those pictures slowly became more and more creative, like, ‘Let me take the picture outside this time!’ Eventually, I learned about and discovered toy photography through Instagram. I was seeing other people doing it and I was just instantly inspired—especially seeing people doing things with fireworks! That’s so cool! That’s one of the reasons I love it so much because there really are endless possibilities! You can use a watermelon if you want to and make something cool….”
“Eventually, I realized that I would be able to do more with a camera. My wife bought me my first camera a long time ago. It was very daunting. I didn’t know camera settings or what any of that meant. After using it over and over, I’ve come to learn all about using the camera just by trial and error and experimenting…. If you’re ever trying to get into toy photography, you don’t need to have a camera. You can use a phone. Cameras on phones these days are incredible, but it is a cool step to go try a full DSLR… because you do have a whole lot more that you can do with one of those….”
Initially, Jared’s wife would join in on the fun of toy photography, but Middleton said she has since “moved on”. As previously mentioned, Middleton loves to use fireworks in his photos. He also loves smoke bombs. This often leads to a mess. For the most part, the toys are rinsed off in the sink and left out to dry, but the smoke bombs can cause permanent damage.
“…. I haven’t erased anybody’s face quite yet, but there are these smoke bombs that you can use. They’re just a little ball that shoots out coloured smoke. It’s really cool, but if you get that smoke directly onto a figure, it will permanently stain it—forever. It’s not coming off. I learned that the hard way…."
"There was a time when my wife was really into toy photography as well…. I mean, she still loves it but she doesn’t do it as much now…. One time, she was using an Ash Ketchum Nendoroid. They are cute, little Chibi figures. The whole thing was basically dyed blue because she was using one of those smoke bombs. She was not very happy…. She loved toy photography but I think she was really doing it because I loved it and wanted to be supportive, which is great.”
Middleton estimated that “90 percent” of the toys shown on his Instagram page are from his own collection while the other ones have been sent to him by clients.
“I’ve got like, a million figures and I like to shoot the same eight figures….My favourite figure that I like to shoot is The Mandalorian with Grogu. I have several of them…. I like using those two….They have a fun, father-son, funny dynamic that works really well if I want to put them in silly, weird situations in a toy photo. Even if the photo has nothing to do with Star Wars, these two just kind of fit…. So I often try to use those guys. I love those guys!”
Although toy photography is not his full-time career, there have been instances where Jared has been “lucky enough to get toy photography gigs or jobs” that pay him for his work. Some of the bigger names include Mountain/MTN Dew and Disney, but he admitted that he had “the most enjoyable" experience with Warner Brothers. As a fan of all the franchises, he said it has been an honour to work with everyone.
According to Middleton, “The Mountain Dew one was super cool. One time, I had this fun idea of Power Rangers with Mountain Dew. So I did three of them. I did the Green Ranger with the green Mountain Dew, and I did the Red Ranger with the red Mountain Dew and blue. It was basically just The Rangers destroying the cans and this beautiful blue and green liquid splashing all over the place! I tagged Mountain Dew in the photo and they saw it. They sent me an email basically saying, ‘Hey! We really like the photos! We’d love for you to continue the series.’ So they sent me a couple of 12 packs! ….I took a couple more shots and that was great!”
“Then a little bit later on, they were doing a promotion for the new DEW Store. It’s like a merch store. You can buy Mountain Dew shirts and stuff. So when they were launching it, they hired me, not as much as a photographer, but more so as an ‘influencer’. My form of sharing content is through toy photography so I did some photos with the stuff. It was an official Mountain Dew job that was super-duper cool!”
“I’ve done a few with Disney which is really cool and it’s always been with Star Wars! I’m a huge Star Wars fan! I’ve done about four major projects with them, I think. They’ve all been a huge pleasure and I’ve been able to shoot some Hasbro figures, Funko and LEGO. You know, some really big brand stuff and it’s always very challenging.”
“With Disney, any brands they have like Star Wars are very precious to them. So any official content that needs to be created has to be exactly how they want it. It has to go through several different approvals before it is finished. Most of the time, they’ll say, ‘We want this type of stuff done for this.’ Then I’ll send over my ideas…. Then once they approve my ideas, I’ll go out and shoot them…. I’ll upload the photos and once they get approved then they’re done. But a lot of the time—it’s not that they think the photos are bad—but they have feedback. They’ll say, ‘Can we do this instead?’ So I have to re-shoot sometimes (over and over and over again). It’s always worth it in the end. There’s also the situation where they go, ‘That’s perfect! We don’t want any changes!’ It’s like, ‘Wow! Okay!’”
“….I also did something recently for Warner Brothers for the first time. It was for the promotion of The Flash. It was really great because I’m also a big DC fan! It was a huge honour to do official Warner Brothers stuff! That was probably my most enjoyable bigger project [because] there wasn’t as much feedback and it was just very smooth.”
For more than 10 years, Jared has been dedicated to his craft and has shared it with the world via Instagram. At one point, he had over 75000 followers, but one day his Facebook account was hacked into. This caused his Instagram account to be compromised as well and he was forced to start over.
“It’s been something, that’s for sure. Actually, it’s been a great learning experience for me…. I’ve learned to be a bit better with my security. So, if you don’t have two-step verification on everything with very different passwords, make sure to do that. Obviously I learned a lot there, but I also learned a lot about the likes and followers. I always try to work very hard and grow as much as possible online. When I lost the accounts… I felt super defeated because it was something I’d been building. I’d been working on it for over a decade. I felt like I lost everything. It totally sucked, but I learned that 75K is literally just a number that’s at the top of my profile…. Nothing for me had changed at all, besides that number.” He added that he still received nice comments on his photos and he was still able to engage with many of the people he had before.
“My experience as a toy photographer stayed the same and I love the art just as much. It was kind of a great wake up moment for me to be like, ‘That number means nothing.’ The work that I’m creating and the community that surrounds it, that’s what matters…. It definitely took a lot of work to rebuild. So far, so good with rebuilding—but make sure to have as much security on your stuff as possible!”
Although Jared claimed that he is not as dedicated to his YouTube channel, each month he puts together a photo challenge for others to participate in:
“On YouTube, I hold a monthly challenge where I give out a monthly challenge. People take a photo with this theme and the top 100 photos submitted will be featured on a livestream that I do every month. It’s called, ‘Toy Photographer Reacts to Toy Photography’. This month’s challenge was to try and get a real animal in your photo. I chose a squirrel. So at first, I set up the figures and put out some peanuts. I thought, ‘I bet I’ll get a squirrel in no time!’ because I get tons of squirrels on my back deck! I don’t know. They just didn’t show up and I spent like, three days in a row just wasting time…. They didn’t come at all, so I have moved on to a different idea that I hope to shoot…. It won’t be a squirrel because I tried! I tried, squirrels! Your chance to be a star in a toy photo came and left! The ship has sailed. There’s a place near me. It’s a really great park with a ton of beautiful Koi Fish…. I really want to have some type of fishing scenario with a boat….” He suggested that Aquaman might make an appearance in the challenge.
Jared said that he was looking forward to some in-person appearances at conventions, but more than anything, he was excited to continue his journey as a toy photographer! “I’ve always got a couple lists of things that I want to accomplish. They just brew in my head until I actually shoot them. So I’m always looking forward to each one of those….Everything is going well and the pages continue to grow. I’m just looking forward to having fun.”
Finally, Jared Middleton gave the following advice to anyone who is pursuing a creative path: “....Always know that toy photography or whatever art form you’re doing is something you don’t have to do. You don’t have to do any of it. You can do as little or as much of it as you want to. As long as you’re having fun, you can do that. You know, as long as it’s healthy, which toy photography absolutely is.”
“I would just say keep doing it…. Don’t be afraid to push yourself. The more you challenge yourself, you’ll learn more and more…. Keep doing your best to make your work the best it can possibly be. Put yourself out there in as many places as possible. Make it easy for people to follow you and be accessible. Keep doing that and they’ll just come in. Don’t be afraid to add a little bit of your own personality into it. That’s what I think people really latch onto and they’ll want to follow.”
For more information, please follow Jared on his new Instagram.
Photo courtesy of Jared Middleton.
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