Studio Lighting for Dolls and Other Small Objects

Interview with Kenya Mason

Phenomenal lighting from the tiniest of studios…and perhaps the beginning of a new interview series.

I love Flickr. It is one of my favorite avoid-what-I-really-need-to-be-doing distractions.

I love great lighting too, and get really excited when I see well lit, carefully crafted images.

Insomnia can be your friend.

Occasionally sleep eludes me and I seek the solace of beautiful imagery.

That was a really poetic way to say when I’m whacked out of my mind due to not being able to sleep, I wander the house in a daze late into the night and in between peeping thru the neighbor’s windows and shooting cheese down my gullet from an aerosol can, I do a little web surfing.

It was just such an occasional in which I stumbled across the Flickr photo stream of one Kenya Mason aka aneky43251.

Studio Lighting for Dolls and Small Objects

I'll Be Out In Five - Copyright © Kenya Mason - All Rights Reserved.

The lady can do some lighting.

Ms. Mason photographs dolls. But that is kind of like saying Michelangelo painted ceilings. I can’t remember the rabbit hole I went down to find Kenya’s work, but I’m glad I found it. As I delved deeper into her Flickr stream, this lady’s lighting chops, set designing skills and personal vision just blew me back (in a very good way.)

She makes her dolls come to life. I feel like I’ve walked in on a conversation that’s always been going on and I want to know more. Like a good movie, I am engaged with her ‘characters’ and intrigued by what might happen next.

Studio Lighting for Dolls and Small Objects

Come Get It - copyright © Kenya Mason. All rights reserved.

Hey, maybe I should interview her!

I kept returning to her Flickr account and perusing her wickedly clever, scathingly funny and skillfully lit images. An idea was emerging in the back of my brain pan (otherwise vacant and unused at the moment.) Perhaps Ms. Mason would grant me an interview. Maybe she would illuminate me on her beautiful lighting techniques.

In the spirit of ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained’, I sent her a request. The rest, as they say, is history. So, without further preamble, the interview follows in its entirety.

Inquiring minds want to know…

DW: Hi Kenya. First of all, I want to thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk with me about lighting, photography and dolls. I couldn’t help but notice you seem to have lots of dolls. When did you begin collecting and how many dolls do you currently have in your collection?

KM:  I started collecting in 2009. I think I’m close to around 80, but it’s growing more and more. It’s funny because when I first started I saw myself solely as a photographer. Setting up and shooting took precedence over the dolls. My collection was more or less an adjunct to photography, now it’s the inspiration for it. Go figure.

When I look back I think my dismissive attitude towards dolls had more to do with not knowing much about them. It wasn’t until I learned more that was I able to give them the respect they deserved. When I started doing that, my photos got better. Now, I really can’t see myself photographing anything else.

DW: When did you begin photographing your dolls?

KM: In April of 2009. Initially, my work primarily consisted of portraits, but I was seriously limited in what I could do with the kit I had. It wasn’t until I found the doll community did I see the potential of bringing figures to life with lenses and light (on a budget). They’re doing amazing things there, but what I found most fascinating was their pictures and how they conveyed emotion through their figures with narratives.

DW: Could you share what your particular background in art and photography is? Did you study or are you self taught? Please wax poetic about yourself and your beginnings.

KM: I minored in photography in college, but that was before digital (yes I’m dating myself-lol). Unfortunately I didn’t get any real instruction in studio techniques (lighting, color processing, etc.). We just mostly looked at slides. The production portion involved 35mm b&w processing, available sunlight and that type of stuff. I wanted to learn more then, but it wasn’t the type of program that could meet those demands – at least at that time.

I pretty much stopped taking pictures after I graduated because I didn’t have the proper equipment to continue on with it; but when consumer grade digital cameras became available and the internet took off I was able to pick it up again. It was very exciting. I tell my friends that I probably learned more about lighting from websites and forums than I did in the classroom. Sad but true.

 DW: You are doing some incredibly complex, multi-layered lighting setups for your dolls. The expertise and skill you bring to bear on these small creations is every bit as technical as any commercial lighting I’ve ever seen. Let’s talk a bit about your lighting equipment……What type of lighting are you using? Strobes or continuous lighting? Are you using off the shelf lighting, creating your own lighting or a combination of the two?

KM: Thank you so much. All of the above in any combination depending on the setup.What I like about doll photography is that the lighting options are pretty affordable. The downside is that I have to compromise light quality. Personally, I find that shelf lighting is easier to control. Unfortunately my color temperatures are all over the place, but I don’t much worry about it. At this point I’m mostly concerned with the placement, intensity and spread. A typical setup for me might include LED flashlights coupled with halogen and incandescent lamps (with dimmers of course). I’m pretty comfortable with Photoshop and I always shoot RAW, so I try to correct the colors as much as I can.

DW: How about light modifiers–are you using umbrellas, soft boxes, barn doors, grids, snoots? Once again, are your modifiers off the shelf, are you creating them or a combination of the two? The more details you can give us, the better!

KM: All of the above in any combination depending on the setup (broken record-lol). I usually have to make my own snoots and diffusers though. My higher quality lights are way too powerful for the scale I’m working in so I almost always have to modify them in some way. Most of my modifications have to do with balancing multiple light sources placed throughout a scene. I love my strobe and hot lights and I do use them 75% of the time, but I prefer the subtlety that I get with shelf lighting (work lights, handheld flashlights, LED throwies, torches, etc). I have a lot more flexibility. I do a lot of extended exposures and light painting too.

The one thing that I’ve never tried using is a light tent. I love the results, but I love shadows more. I prefer a Low-Fi look so I keep it dirty.

DW: I notice you often photograph your dolls against what appears to be a sweep of seamless background paper. Tell me about this small set you’ve created. Are you using different colors of background paper, using gels on your lights or a combination of the two?

KM: A combination of the two. I use photographic background paper quite a bit, but I’m also a big fan of scrapbooking paper as well. It makes good wallpaper for interior builds. I’m also addicted to gels ….. I try to stay away from them because I like variety in my photos, but when I can’t think of anything interesting I can usually fall back on my gels.

DW: I love your dioramas! In terms of lighting, they are wonderfully varied. There is a fabulous ‘Pop Art’ feeling to many of them–‘Is it Friday Yet?’ and ‘Food Fight’ are particularly good examples. The lighting in these is bright, white, clean and almost shadowless. Tell us how you lit those sets.

Studio Lighting for Dolls and Small Objects

Is It Friday Yet? Copyright © Kenya Mason. All rights reserved.

Studio Lighting for Dolls and Small Objects

Food Fight - copyright © Kenya Mason. All rights reserved.

KM: Thank you. Those sets were lit with a combination of a Canon speed lite (fill), halogens to light the background, and incandescent (snooted) spotlights aimed at the dolls and/or other objects I want to stand out in a scene.

DW: In other dioramas your lighting is moodier and more layered–‘Barbie Basics Collection 002.5’ ‘Hard Day’ and ‘We Up at Skeetz’ and ‘I Won’t (Fill in the Blank) Darling, Because I’m a Lady’ are great examples. You appear to be using spot lights/snoots and backlighting in some of these shots, and in ‘I Just Sent it to You’, you have even mimicked the cool blue light reflecting off a computer screen. Inquiring minds REALLY want to know how you decide to ‘stage’ a set and how you go about lighting it.

Studio Lighting for Dolls and Small Objects

New Girls Barbie Basics Collection 002.5 - copyright © Kenya Mason. All rights reserved.

Studio Lighting for Dolls and Small Objects

We Up At Skeetz - copyright © Kenya Mason. All rights reserved.

Studio Lighting for Dolls and Small Objects

Hard Day - copyright © Kenya Mason. All rights reserved.

Studio Lighting for Dolls and Small Objects

I Won't (Fill in the blank) Darling, Because I'm a Lady - copyright © Kenya Mason. All rights reserved.

Studio Lighting for Dolls and Small Objects

I Just Sent It To You - copyright © Kenya Mason. All rights reserved.

KM: I love the results you get with layered lighting so I try to do it as much as possible. I don’t see it being used much in doll photography, but it makes the photos so much more interesting because it’s not a lighting style you would expect in 1/6 scale.

My inspirations are varied. Often times the light setup dictates the build of a scene. I like to experiment a lot, so I’ll settle on a lighting scheme and then build around it. ‘I Just Sent it to You’ is a result of that. In another setup I tried to light a doll exclusively with mini LEDs thinking I was doing something awesome, but I wasn’t. I didn’t like the result. However, I noticed that the color temp matched that of a laptop, so I changed the setup where the cold light could be used in the proper context. In that instance it worked. It’s like that all the time – I may change direction mid stream if the result makes me think of something else. It’s all trial and error, but it pays off when you get a great shot.

Other times, I might get inspired by a nice pair of shoes. I’ll spend what seems like hours setting up a shot and end up with a picture where the shoes are no longer the focus. I can’t count how many times that happened.

DW: Your ‘pull back’ shot for ‘I Wonder What He’s Thinking!’ made me laugh out loud. It’s very clever. You really go the extra mile in tricking out your sets, and the lighting zones in that particular shot are killer. The bathtub section is screaming snoot. Do tell.

Studio Lighting for Dolls and Small Objects

Pull Back: I Wonder What He's Thinking - copyright © Kenya Mason. All rights reserved.

Studio Lighting for Dolls and Small Objects

I Wonder What He's Thinking Right Now - copyright © Kenya Mason. All rights reserved.

KM: Thank you again 🙂 I saw something similar online, however it didn’t involve layered lighting. I just wanted to see if I could capture polar opposites in the same frame. This was another instance where the light dictated the subject matter and I couldn’t think of anything that could convey it better than the ‘Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus’ theme. I’m so glad you saw the humor in it because I was laughing the whole time I shot it. I was mostly laughing at him though, because it’s so true. I live with that guy.

Her body was lit with a snooted incandescent lamp (with a dimmer). I also placed puck lights next to the tub and on the other side of the wall to make it moody and romantic. He’s lit with a single Halogen worklight. I placed a tile in between them to keep the zones separate. I plan on doing more like this one in the future, but I think I’d like to try it with a wider lens. Currently I use a 50mm prime. It’s pretty much the only one I use because my other lens is garbage. I zoom with my feet and try to avoid cropping and resizing all costs. I like the final result to be my initial composition. So far I’m at like, 95%, which I think is pretty good.

DW: Speaking of sets, you have some FABULOUS props! Details please. Where do you find these little jewels of perfection?

KM: This is where I rely heavily on the doll community. They’re like the yellow pages on steroids. I can’t begin to tell you how much stuff is out there. Between fashion doll playsets, boxed figures, Rements and OOAK accessories you can find just about anything…and I mean ANYTHING – but I won’t go into that though.

I also make a lot of my own props. It’s cost effective to make my own whenever possible. However, I try not to get too carried away with accessories because my primary focus is and will always be photography. If I get too focused on props then it will over power the light and that can’t happen. Photography is first; no exceptions.

DW: On a more practical note, what can you share with us about how you’re getting your dolls to stand up on those brightly colored backgrounds?

KM: Dolls are puppets…. that pretty much says it all right? I don’t wanna give too much away. It kills the fantasy. Plus, like they say, great artists steal (I know I do), so I don’t wanna leave my purse on the dash with the car doors open. I’m pretty open about it on my flickr page though, so if you REALLY want to know….. check me out 😉

DW: Finally, I want to talk about ideas and creativity, in general. Who or what inspires you? Is there any particular person, place or thing that triggers ideas for you? Are there any photographers or artists whose work you admire?

KM: Music and Movies – Bruce Davidson and Joel Peter Witkin. They combine both style and substance. That’s hard to do.

Any last, parting words?

I love how Kenya described herself:

  • Kenya Mason
  • Cleveland, OH
  • Generation X
  • Married, no kids
  • Broke
  • Obsessed with photographing dolls

Kenya’s Kit.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a wrap.

I can’t remember the last time I got so excited over flashlights, or halogen and incandescent lighting! And it all goes to prove you don’t have to spend a lot of money on photography and you can DIY on a great many things.

Oh, and that ‘broke’ thing? I’m thinking there’s a lot of people out there who would really love to do some ‘small object’ lighting workshops….hint hint Cleveland. Wake up and smell the hot lights.

Check out Kenya’s Flickr stream and learn a thing or 3 about lighting, set design and general fabulousness. Thank you Kenya!

You might like these tutorials:

High Key Portrait Lighting Tutorial

Low Key Portrait Lighting Tutorial

Studio Lighting for Headshots

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