It’s not often one sees a picture of a stormtrooper shopping for sugary sweet cereal or the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles duking it out in a heated game of Mario Kart 64. And yet it’s this type of nostalgic crossover imagery that keeps amateur toy photographer Duane Perera working late into the night.
Perera, who spends most of his professional day composing music, started out with a focus on travel and landscape photography. One faithful day, as he browsed tutorials on YouTube he came across a photographer who had built up a large following by simply taking pictures of model cars. Intrigued, Perera worked his way down this fascinating new rabbit hole, eventually stumbling upon a community of action figure photographers on Instagram. “I thought it was a really cool idea,” Perera told Kotaku via Skype, “I figured I would give toy photography a shot, and I fell in love with it.”
Of course, if you want to photograph action figures you need to actually own a few. Almost all of Perera’s childhood action figures had been lost or left behind during various moves. It wasn’t long until he found himself scouring local comic shops and hunting down gently used figures on eBay. “I’ve gone on a crazy spending spree over the last year,” Perera admitted. “It’s hard to say, but I have somewhere between 50 to 75 figures now. They vary in size from 3 inches all the way to 18 inches.”
The miniature props seen throughout Perea’s shots are also part of his ever growing collection. Though many miniature items, like magazines and game consoles, can be found on sites like Etsy or eBay, Perera is always on the lookout for local suppliers. Last summer he even managed to snag a few dozen pairs of tiny sneakers on a trip to Hong Kong for a friends wedding.
But there’s not always a toy shop or online store that can supply exactly what’s needed for the scene Perera has dreamed up. “I’m actually getting into the habit of making most of my props,” he said. “These days I’m spending more and more time creating props and accessories specifically for each shot.” It may be time consuming to manufacture a few dozen cereal boxes or mold an NES Zapper out of polymer clay, but Perera feels each piece adds a wonderful level of necessary detail to his miniature sets.
Perera is an avid fan of cartoons, comics, video games, and hip hop from the ‘80s and ‘90s, so it’s unsurprising that the most popular characters and settings from these time periods have been pushed into the foreground of his photoshoots. But anyone can photograph Mario popping out of a warp pipe or Spider-Man hanging from a street lamp. Perea’s photos stand out because he excels at dropping well-known toys into relatable real world situations.
“I like to draw inspiration from my life, and sometimes that means going back into my childhood and relieving those memories. Other times, it’s just looking at the scenarios I’m in right now.” Perea confessed he often stops in the middle of everyday activities to think, “Would this make a good toy photo?” These are the moments that lead to surreal scenes such as the Avengers causally browsing vinyl records or Goku in his underwear, ironing his classic orange getup.
Friends and family have been supportive of Perea’s new photography obsession. “The response has been really cool, because It think it’s something that’s relatively unique. People haven’t seen this kind of stuff before, so they tend to appreciate it,” he explained, adding, “My older relatives don’t necessarily understand what I’m doing, but they can still appreciate the visual aspect of it.”
For those thinking of trying their hand at toy photography, Perera suggests diving in, but starting small. “You can do it with a cellphone camera, if that’s all you have,” he said. “The best advice is just to practice, practice, practice. The more shots you take the better you’ll get, and you can start adding backgrounds and props as you improve.”
Nearly a year after launching both an Instagram and Twitter account under the handle Duane Shoots Toys, Perera has amassed over 8,000 followers. Each photo he posts garners thousands of likes, and dozens of comments. As his pictures have spread he’s even started to see some personal requests and commissions roll in. While Perea would love to monetize his toy photography hobby some day soon, for now he’s perfectly content crafting scenes and snapping pictures in his apartment for his own enjoyment.