Photos of shiny, happy people doing shiny, happy things practically dominate my LEGO photography feed on Instagram. Granted, my preferences lean toward minifigs from the CREATOR theme and the Collectible Minifigure series so bright colors and moods are the expectation. One LEGO photographer who departs from the tendency towards all this glee and squee though is Tomek Skog.
Tomek’s work is much darker in concept and tone than your typical LEGO photography but still manages to be quirky and fun. You might say his brand of quirky is… murky (heh, no regrets).
Take this photo of an old fisherman battling a giant squid:
The sea monster with its long, black tentacles twisting out of the water evokes frightful images of the legendary kraken, tormenting sailors and dragging merchant ships down to the depths of the sea with ease.
But unlike the kraken in those stories, the sea-dwelling monstrosity in Tomek’s photo seems to be no match for the fearless old fisherman. He’s got the giant squid tangled up in his fishing line as he confidently perches atop one of its tentacles.
There’s power in threes in composition and in this image, Tomek cleverly positioned the old man’s fishing rod to visually form the third and tallest tentacle.
Moving your eye around the image, you’ll notice threes again dividing up the background: water, land, and foliage.
The fallen leaves on the left add more interest to the image not only because they have similar colors to the minifig, but they’re diagonally opposed to it, bringing balance to the scene.
Below the photo, the caption reads: “Don’t worry! It’s just a cuddle in the puddle!” It’s unclear here who’s saying that to whom but I’ve chosen to interpret it as the words of the fisherman.
In this post, Tomek takes us behind the scenes of “The hug”, a sequel of sorts to “the cuddle in the puddle”.
Coming up with a concept
Tomek says his ideas spring from cultural and pop cultural references and associations:
“I was inspired by some sort of thalassophobia that lays somewhere deep in my head, and by the image of Cthulhu, emerging from the deep and trying to catch the viewer. I saw this image somewhere on the Internet, maybe while doing research for this shot. There were also a number of underwater photos made on the edge of light and dark ocean’s waters,” says Tomek.
“I wanted to create a feeling of abysmal, vast and dark deep. Completely alien. This is kinda terrifying that we know space better than the oceans. No one knows what else is hiding from the light in the deep. And I wanted to create that mood.”
Often, Tomek includes “terrifying” or “uncomfortable” material or textures in his photos. In “The hug”, the tentacles and sharp teeth fill that role but in his gallery, cobwebs, rust, sharp sticks, and thorns abound.
“I find them extremely visually attractive. Rust has beautiful colors and textures. It’s unique. And cobwebs are one of the most beautiful structures in nature,” he says.
“Yeah, I know, I’m not shooting the cobweb in the sunrise decorated with dew pearls, but tangled spider threads in dark nooks. But it’s still fascinating. And while I’m aware that it can be uncomfortable or disturbing for some, I don’t consider it like that. I rather focus on the visual value of these things and sometimes on the metaphorical too. Also decay is really inspiring!”
Setting up the scene
Tomek labels himself a “photo guerilla”, improvising with objects at hand and rarely using professional photography gear.
To stabilize the camera, for example, he stood a roll of paper towels upright and placed it on the edge of the kitchen sink to give him the overhead angle that his cheap tripod couldn’t. To create the denser environment of the ocean depths, Tomek carefully poured the remnants from his daughter’s milk bottle into a glass jug containing some water, the diver and the squid.
To submerge the squid and diver, he added stones to the bottom of the glass jar and used wire to keep them in position.
Tomek added some tape to a laser pointer to create a narrow beam of light on his diver. “I wanted the light to diffuse in the water and, nevertheless, to be bit harsh and smooth at the same time. I also wanted to make an impression of getting close to the submarine or other vessel but also the strong impression of dark deep, from which the monster emerges.”
The setup took 15-20 minutes to fill the jug with water, place the subjects in position, wait for the milky “plankton” to drift evenly and find a suitable support for his camera.
Shooting and editing
Tomek shoots with a Fujifilm XE-1 with a Fujinon XF35mm F1.4 R lens and a few close-up and macro filters for his LEGO photography.
For this image, he chose to shoot at f/4.5 to keep the tentacles legible and to create an impression of depth. But with a smaller aperture and just a laser pointer as his main light source, that meant he had to bump up his ISO to 400 and leave the shutter open for 2 seconds to correctly expose for the scene.
“Staying motionless to keep the focus was the most challenging thing, because I was leaning on these poor towels. They’re not made of concrete. And I was bending them too. Keeping the minifig and squid in right position was also a challenge. A few times I had to rebuild the whole set because I wanted to adjust the tentacles a bit, and the whole creature emerged because the ballast came loose.”
Post-processing was just a matter of removing the wire holding the diver using the Remove Object app, making minor adjustments and cropping. A job done in about 10 minutes, according to Tomek.
“I don’t use Photoshop or Lightroom. I make some basic adjustments, like brightness, colors, and vignetting a bit if it’s necessary but usually, I try to get everything in camera and during the photoshoot to avoid editing. Because, to put it mildly, I’m not an expert in editing. I do most of the editing instinctively, by touch.”
For Tomek, captions are an important part of his storytelling: “The hug” is a nod to an earlier photo of the old fisherman “cuddling in a puddle” with a giant squid. (Or now is it the other way around: the giant squid was cuddling the fisherman? And a “hug” is meant to be something deeper and more intimate than a “cuddle”, just as is the underwater scene and tight framing with the diver?)
“I always used to say I’m more the man of word than image, so words have to accompany my images,” explains Tomek. “I know they say that good photo stands for thousand words and can do without captions but in my case, the caption is the immanent part of the image. At the very beginning of my adventure with toy photography, photos were meant to illustrate the puns and jokes that appeared in my head.”
Here’s another such pun, simply captioned “Fall”:
The Tomek Skog Challenge
The #bc_inthestyleof_tomekskog challenge is about embracing the darkness. Minifigs-on-verdant-carpets-of-moss is not on the menu this month. Instead, think about shooting for shadows, working in low-light, finding decay, and/or feeling discomfort. Come to the dark side!
The challenge starts today and ends on June 9. Winners will be selected by Tomek and posted shortly after on Brickcentral. As usual, awesome special challenge badges will be awarded to winners!
Here is more of Tomek’s work to get you inspired:
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He liked to enjoy the texture of rust and the aesthetics of decay. The complicated arrangement of the sheets of corroding metal made it look like a bizarre flower from some alien planet. In fact Earth started to become the strange, unfamiliar world. . This beauty meant one more thing. He would have to look for a new shelter, because the present would turn into dust. Corrosion was really quick, like it wanted to wipe out remains of human activity. @prof_wilczek join us before the world ends. You have time until March 15th! #sip_apocalypse ___________________________________________________ #lego #toy_photographers #legophotographer #legominifigures #sip_apocalypse #legoapocalypse #toygroup_alliance #toyphotography #toycrewbuddies #toyartistry #toyartistry_lego #brickcentral #stuckinplastic #bricknetwork #brickpichub #brickculture #toyartistry_elite #featurebait #gdansk #ilovegdn #igersgdansk #thebrickofpoland
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May you never roll ONE! ______________________________________ #toy_photographers #legophotographer #legominifigures #skulladventures #legoskeleton #rpg #fumble #criticalmiss #toygroup_alliance #brickpichub #toyphotography #toycrewbuddies #toyartistry #toyartistry_lego #brickcentral #stuckinplastic #brickfans #bricknetwork #brickworld #buttersbricks #brickpichub #brickculture #toyartistry_elite #featurebait #gdansk #ilovegdn #igersgdansk #thebrickofpoland
Tomek Skog: Instagram