The field of photography is vast and rich. From the well-known genres like wedding, family and food photography to more specific areas like astrophotography and equine photography (yes, that’s a real thing), having a niche in such a broad industry is important.
Another great example of a specific area is toy photography. Never heard of it? We hadn’t either until we stumbled upon a talented Wix user, Mitchel Wu. We took some time to speak with him about this niche area and learned all about this dynamic world. Toy photography is all about exploring our imagination and our inner child. Photographers work to bring toys to life by telling a story – almost humanizing familiar characters we all know and love.
Wix: The best place for us to start is by introducing yourself, what’s your story?
Mitchel: Sure! My name is Mitchel Wu, I grew up in Northern California. I was always interested in art, always drawing my own characters. You know, back then, we didn’t have the Internet, we didn’t have smartphones and we didn’t have all the toys that the kids have today, so I was forced to go outside and play in the dirt with my toys. Art is something I was always interested in. When I was in high school, I already knew that I was going to do something in the creative field. I went to art school in northern California and got my degree in illustration. The art school was so valuable because everything that I learned there translated into creating images – no matter what medium. I learned about lighting, position, storytelling and so much more.
The best way to make my photos have an element of reality is to do something real.
Wix: What was your first big break in the world of art?
Mitchel: Immediately out of school, I got a job doing product designs for figurines and that kind of led me to be recruited by the Walt Disney Company where I did product design and character drawing for about six or seven years. During that time, I had collaborated with Cirque Du Soleil and Lucas Films. It was amazing, it was a great learning experience. It expanded my world and expanded my vision of what is possible. The job taught me about character development and staying true to characters and also how to look at things from different angles. Art school and my experience at Disney really contributed to who I am as a person, what my views are on creativity and what I put into my work.
Wix: So how did you end up in the world of toy photography?
Mitchel: I took a kind of meandering route to where I am today. For six or seven years, I worked as a wedding photographer – I photographed well over 100 weddings. I realized that I only had a limited time left to be with my daughter at home while she was growing up and because weddings often take place on the weekend, I was thinking about leaving the industry so that I could spend more time with her. And right around that same time, I saw some photos on Facebook from my nephew who was into toy photography. I thought to myself, ‘this is really bizarre’, ‘this is really weird’. Like, Ninja Turtles on BMX bikes flying through the air, for example. He told me that the next time I was in San Francisco, he’d take me out to shoot some toys. About a half a year later, he took me up to this park where he likes to go shooting – I didn’t even have any toys – he gave me this Storm Trooper and he says to me, “here you can start with this.”
So I started with it and I thought, ‘this is pretty cool,’ and I went home and went through them on my computer to start editing. At the time, I was on Instagram, but I had maybe 15 followers (the only reason I was on Instagram was so that I can keep an eye on my daughter!). It’s interesting because Instagram is really where toy photography lives. The community thrives there and everyone shares their work with each other. This was in late August 2015 and after that, I started to do a few more on my own and from there, I was kind of hooked. I immediately saw the opportunity to tell amazing stories through toy photography and that’s kind of been a common thread with everything I’ve done, like the storytelling aspect. Even with weddings, I looked at each one as a story (their photos end up in a storybook, essentially).
I immediately saw the opportunity to tell amazing stories through toy photography.
From that day in August, I spent a solid year just learning the craft, learning different techniques, developing a style that’s unique to myself. After that year was when I really started to go after a client base. I contacted various toy companies and I ended up building a really strong relationship with Mattel, a major toy manufacturing company, so they keep me busy. At the same time, I continue to shoot my own toys for my own personal portfolio. That’s kind how it all started. Everything that I’ve done in the past fueled and influenced what I’m doing now.
Wix: Do you gravitate towards movies that you’re more personally connected to? There seems to be a lot of Toy Story and Star Wars.
Mitchel: For sure! When my daughter was growing up, we watched Toy Story like a million times so that has definitely influenced me. Recently I found some toys from Where the Wild Things Are; that was one of my daughter’s favorite books. I had read that to her many times, so creating images from those toys comes from a really personal place. And then there are some toys that I just think are fun and cool and I’ll buy them just to create some stories with them.
Wix: After your photo shoot is done, what kind of programs are you using to edit?
Mitchel: I will say that everything is real. For example, there’s a photo with Woody and Jessie from Toy Story where matches are being tossed in the air. Those matches were there and they were lit during that shot. Photoshop is used, but never to add anything, only to take away. All of the effects are real, like the milk splashing, the water droplets in the air, the smoke; it’s all there. For the smoke, I’m actually burning something to get that into the shot. For the water, I am making it splash in real time. For me, the best way to make my photos have an element of reality is to do something real. I do my basic color and exposure adjustments and all of my cropping, in Lightroom on my computer. Recently I started to use a Wacom – which is a total game changer. Being able to use a pen tool to draw, erase, outline, etc. is so much more natural to me than using a mouse.
Wix: How long is the process of a photoshoot and editing?
Mitchel: It’s a range. For a really simple setup with a character just standing there, I can have that shot and edited within one or two hours. The most difficult photo that I’ve done is the Toy Story one with a cracked egg. That one was really hard; just the setup took about two hours. It was really intense, I probably went through six or eight eggs just to get the right flow out of the eggshell and I used each egg twice before the yolk broke. So for that one, just the setup and shooting alone took three or four hours. And the editing was really intense, too. The entire process took about eight or nine hours. That was a hard one! So, that’s on the other end of the extreme, so I would say typically it’s somewhere in the middle – about three hours.
Wix: Why did you choose Wix and what have we done to help you?
Mitchel: It’s a great question because ever since I was into wedding photography I had a website, but it really wasn’t great. After doing some research I found that ultimately, the Wix platform was the best. I looked at all the different templates and I found one that I liked. I wanted a clean layout that is easy for clients to go through. I didn’t want anything too flashy, just a beautiful way of presenting my images so that they really speak for themselves.
As to be expected there was a slight learning curve, but overall it was user-friendly. Once I started to design, I was up and running within a day. From there, I continued to tweak and add stuff. Every now and then I receive an email from Wix with new tips and those are really helpful. You should keep sending them! I love that I can change elements to appear just on mobile or just on desktop. I know that it’s not new to have a website optimized for mobile, but for me it is and it’s extremely important. I can honestly say that I am super happy. For what I need at the moment, I just couldn’t be happier. I’ll be looking more into how I can optimize my website and the different products that you offer soon.
Wix: You’re on Instagram and Facebook – can you talk a bit about how your social presence has helped you bring in more followers? How has social media played a role in toy photography?
Mitchel: Right now, Instagram is my main marketing tool – toy photography really lives there. All of the major toy companies are on there and as a photographer, you can tag them in a photo that features their toy. They’re likely to see it and they may even feature it on their page. They may even contact you – that’s how it happened for me with Mattel. A few months ago I was contacted by Pixar telling me they found an image of mine (with Buzz Lightyear flying over a table with office products) and they went ahead and featured it on their page and it got 54K likes! That’s the beauty of Instagram – being able to connect with people and with companies, just everyone comes together there. Overall it’s just cool interacting with people on social media.
Wix: Where do you see yourself going from here?
Mitchel: I hope to build a bigger client base, but it’s hard because it’s an extremely niche category to be working in. But at the same time, being part of a niche is great. As a wedding photographer, just in my town alone, it seems like there are hundreds of wedding photographers. There’s tons of talent and it’s extremely competitive. From that aspect, I think it’s really cool time to be a toy photographer. There’s not a lot of work for toy photographers so I’ve been extremely lucky with what I’ve gotten so far. I’m just here enjoying the experience and enjoying the ride. I try to do what I can to influence my opportunities. I would love to help educate people in toy photography – I don’t know if that’s through a YouTube channel or doing workshops. I would love to eventually travel the country or the world and do toy photography in different places. I have some great sponsorships so if I can get them all on board to sponsor me to go to these different countries and do different things with toy photography that hasn’t been done before, that would be amazing. That’s kind of my big end goal. I’d also love to curate and put together a big gallery and bring together a bunch of different toy photographers and put on a really cool show, that would be awesome.
I could have gone through life without ever finding toy photography but I’m happy that I did and it’s pretty much taken on a life of its own.
Wix: Do you have any words of inspiration for an aspiring artist, illustrator, photographer?
Mitchel: For toy photographers specifically, don’t try to do too much. And for all artists, just focus on the story. It’s all about the story. Keep working on your craft, whatever that craft is. The more time you’re going to put into something, the more you’re going to get out of it.
Check out more of Mitchel’s magical work here: