by Davy Stone
(photos and customs by Davy Stone & Chip Kraus)


Chapter 1: Use what you've got! 
Chapter 2:  Search for bargins everywhere!
Chapter 3:  Put your computer to work!
Chapter 4:  FINALLY!  Taking photos!


So you've built yourself an action figure from scratch, and now you want to put it on the internet to show off to the world.  Or maybe you're tired of the way that super team you've collected over the years looks just sitting in front of the encyclopedias on an overcrowded bookshelf and you want to make them look more majestic.  An action figure by itself in front of a plain white background might look ok, but when posed in a diorama, action figures can really come to life.  They look less like toys and more like characters from a comic come to life.

But unfortunately, if you buy as many frivolous toys and comics as Chip and I do, you probably don't have the money to really invest in supplies to build dioramas.  But you still want your figures to look as professional as possible when you photograph them and post them on the 'net.  What options do you have?

I visited a hobby shop a while ago.  I was thinking about building dioramas, and so I wanted to check out what sort of helpful supplies they might have.  Well, I found all sorts of interesting things, from sheet styrene made to look like siding, tiles, and sidewalks, to trees and mountains for model trains, to.... well, just about anything you'd need to build a diorama.  The biggest problem for me was that I couldn't afford much of anything after all the money I spent on toys that morning.  So I decided to challenge myself and see just what sort of diorama I could make without spending money, or at least spending as little money as possible.

Now, I hope I can share some of what I've found with you.  I'm going to try to explain some of the thinking behind my dioramas, and along the way I hope to include some helpful tips for folks who want to make better dioramas for their own photos.  Along the way you'll see some of my photos, good and bad, old and new.

But first, let's go over a few things you should consider before you begin.

Chapter 1: Use what you've got!

There's nothing cheaper than something you already own.  Look around your house -- you'll find all sorts of things that can be used to make a diorama.  Look in the kitchen.  Look in your sister's closet.  If your house is like mine, you've got a lot of junk hidden away.  The trick is seeing what you might be able to turn into a new treasure.

Also, always keep your eyes open.  Sometimes that Tupperware lid can mimic a starship wall if it's turned the right way and viewed from the right angle.  When you look for stuff to use in your dioramas, look at it from various angles, from up close and from far away. You'd be surprised at how different some things look from a new perspective.

In the previous photo (above), the wall behind my Saurian is a Tupperware-type lid, the adjacent wall is the bottom of a small electric heater, the base he's standing on is from the Star Trek Captain/First Officers boxed set, the console is an accessory from the 6" Dax, and the floor is... well, I don't know, but it looks like some kind of metal grating/speaker cover.  I found it in the storage room at work, and the boss said I could have it, so I snatched it up for dioramas.

But you want to see more pictures, don't you.  so let's look at a different example.

Project:  Jungle/Swamp



Live Plants 

FREE (already owned them)

Fake Plants

FREE (from defunct fish tank)

GI Joe Signs & Accessories

FREE (remains of Chip's childhood)

Mayan statue

FREE (found around my house)

Fishtank backdrop

FREE (from defunct fish tank)

Green Felt

FREE (bottom of a lapboard)



MY Cost Sheet for Jungle/Swamp Project

With this diorama, I literally spent nothing... except a few hours scouring my house looking for appropriate stuff.  After gathering a few items, I arranged everything and started taking photos.  You'd be able to see how these things were arranged if not for the blurry photo on the left -- remember what I said about verifying your settings?  

Let me describe what you're seeing in this blurry photo.  I started with the bottom of a lapboard because it's green felt would nicely mimic ground cover.  Next, I placed a few of my houseplants in the rear of the scene, and I filled in a few gaps in the greenery with some fake aquarium plants.   After taking a few photos I realized that I could still see too much background through the gaps in the greenery, so I propped up a fish tank backdrop to add to the background forest clutter.  Then I got my camera close enough to cut out any other offending background and took some pictures.  A lot of pictures.  Since I was using a digital camera I took as many pictures as I could, hoping that out of the 20 to 30 taken with any one diorama I'd get lucky with a few of them.   I think I did.

A note about the second photo:  I've seen this faded border effect used before, and I wanted to try it out to see if I'd like to use the effect throughout my website.  It creates an interesting look, but I ultimately decided I preferred to stick with the straight edges on my website.  This was the only photo to survive that period, and I thought I'd include it here as an example of how you can affect the look of a picture through digital manipulation. 

Chapter 2:  Search for bargains everywhere!

Keep your eye open.  Bargains can be found at auctions, yard, tag or estate sales, flea markets, or even clearance sales at regular-priced stores.  Discount stores like the Dollar Tree and Big Lots also offer nice custom diorama fodder.  We acquired most all of the buildings in these dioramas through all these ways and more.

Chip's dad found a Ghostbusters Firehouse 3-story building playset at an auction and bought it for his grandkids.  Well, I found it first and made sure Chip claimed it for our action figures :-),  and it has served as an excellent backdrop for many of my urban crime fighters.  Also, right after Christmas that same year I found the Gotham City Bank playset on sale at WalMart marked down to $7, and I couldn't pass it up.  Soon after, Chip found Wayne Manor at a yard sale for $2!!!  So now, I can butt these buildings together, along side the BTAS Villains boxed set (which has the facade of the Gotham City Police Department on it), and I've got a very good sized city block for my figures to pose in front of.

Project: City Street



Ghostbusters Playset

FREE (gift from Chip's dad -- found at auction)

Gotham Bank Playset & accessories

$7 (found at Walmart on clearance)

Wooden tires, barrels, planters and such (required painting)

$2 (found at FleaLand @ 50¢ each)

Box from B:TAS Rogues Gallery set

FREE (well, I already owned it)

Various GI Joe accessories

FREE (from Chip's childhood)

Porch light cover FREE (knocked off our apartment during Spring Storm '98)


FREE (found scattered around my yard after Spring Storm '98)

Cutting board, broken into blocks FREE (Chip's inheritance that fell apart in the wash)

Other accessories (crates, etc)

FREE (accessories from other toys I'd already bought for custom fodder)



Cost Sheet for City Street Project

Here's our city street diorama as it's currently set up.  The city remains on display on this groovy bar year-round.  Hey, ya never know when the urge to take pictures will strike.  Plus, when not taking pictures we have a place to display customs.  

From left to right:  Adventures of Batman & Robin Rogues Gallery boxed set; Ghostbusters fire house playset; alley way, made from cardboard, flea market finds and action figure accessories; Chinese restaurant, made from the top of a porch light and cutting board blocks (features "Buffet $5.95" sign made from a GI Joe accessory and a post-it note); Gotham City Bank playset; more blocks disguising our bar light; and the Wayne Manor playset, flanked by small wooden planters with a 6" Swamp Thing's alternate rose hands for flowers.  The street itself is made of shingles, which I think look somewhat like asphalt when photographed underneath action figure feet.

Here are some images of our city street in action.


Chapter 3:  Put your computer to work

Sometimes you want your figures in scenes that are just a bit beyond your ability to build.  I had such a dilemma when I finished my Green Lantern Corps.  While I could have posed them in my city, I knew that I wanted to put them in space.  I decided to put my computer skills to use and create the space scene the GLC needed.

While I'm not going to try to teach any computing skills here, I want to mention ways that you can use them to make your dioramas better.  With a scanner, a color printer, some time, skill and ingenuity, you can create very nice backgrounds for your figures.  And if you want to get into digital image manipulation, you can insert your figures into any background imaginable.  While that can produce some interesting effects, I'm going to stick to the method I've used more often -- photographing in front of paper scenery.  

Hubble Space Telescope Photo 
from NASA website (printed out on color printer) 

These photos show one of my favorite methods for extending the possibilities of my dioramas.  I knew I wanted my Green Lantern Corps (GLC) in a space setting, but I didn't know how I'd do it until Chip's sister got married last year.  While watching the photographer work, I noticed the background he used was rolled out like a movie screen, but was long enough so that it covered the floor on which the happy couple stood.  I knew instantly that with some practice I could use the same technique with my figures.  


I surfed over to the NASA website and downloaded a few large scale images from the Hubble Space Telescope -- something cosmic but not too recognizable.  Then, I printed the image using my color printer.  Finally, I taped the top of the page to the wall (or canisters, as the case may be) and then stood my figures on the bottom half of the image.  After cropping out my kitchen, I was left with heroes in a star field, with less computer work than would be required to digitally composite the two images.

One problem I had to overcome was shadows.  It wasn't a huge problem with my GLC because the background was rather dark anyway, but with my Aquaman/Lagoon Boy picture (Tatooine base, computer generated ocean and sky on paper behind), the light colors meant that any visible shadows would blow the illusion that the figures were really standing on the beach.  My solution -- an old standby from the days before I had a digital camera w/ flash -- take the pictures outside, away from direct sunlight.  Outdoors, as long as the sun isn't directly shining on you, shadows aren't nearly the problem that they can be using flash photography. 

Chapter 4:  Finally!  Taking Photos

Setting up your figures

Now that you've got someplace cool to display those figures, you can take pictures of them in their neat new locales for your webpage (you did intend on sharing your creations with the rest of us, didn't you?).  It will help if you are fairly comfortable using your camera, the close-up options in particular.  While I'm not going to teach camera usage here, I have written the article "Taking Digital Pictures (what I've learned so far)" where I discuss digital camera usage issues for beginning action figure photographers; for a much more detailed course on taking photos in general, I suggest Agfa Online Photo Course

Now before you just grab the camera and start clicking, take a good look at your figure.  A GOOD look.  A CRITICAL look.   Is there a small ding in the leg where you didn't get it sanded all the way down?  Does the right eye look better than the left eye?  Is there paint wearing away where you accidentally rotated the left shoulder?  Make mental note of these things, and use this knowledge when you pose your figures.  There's no reason you can't turn your figure's bad side away from the camera.  Or if you're photographing several figures together, there's no reason that someone's flaw can't be hidden by another figure standing in front of him or her.

Setting up the layout for your pics can be one of the most critical areas for getting good photos, and that leads us directly to....


Composition refers to the overall layout and design of your scene.  Sure, you could simply stand the figure in a row in front of the diorama (I do that often myself, especially when I want to emphasize the simplicity of my animated figures' lines), but straight-standing figures can look awfully boring after a while.  Why not pep it up by altering the composition of the photo? 

Set the figure down in the diorama where you think it would look nice.  Now take a look through the camera, but don't take that picture yet.  Use your viewfinder/LCD panel to imagine how the overall image will turn out.  Since your figures aren't going anywhere, take your time to make sure all the details look pleasing together.  Make note of shadows which might cover important details in your figure.  Make note of how the diorama looks behind the figure.  Make note of particular details in the diorama that you might want to spotlight, and then look at how well your figure's placement accentuates or distracts from this detail.  If you can't see all the details you want, make note of other angles from which you might get a better shot.  

Here's an example of a picture where I DIDN'T pay attention to all the details.  I had several JLA members set up for in a nice pose, and I took about 10 pictures, but when I saw them on the computer I was amazed to find out that I'd included an extra figure in my JLA.  Chip saw the picture and said, "Oh, Wonder Woman looks BAD!"  Seems Mulan's grandmother was left over from a previous photo shoot and just hadn't been moved -- I didn't realize that I'd be shooting in a direction which would make her visible.  Oh well.  That's why I like digital cameras -- nothing wasted but time and electricity.

If you want your pictures to seem like they were literally pulled from an action figure world, try to crop your photos so that the diorama's edges are never seen.  Even if you're showing off the diorama more so than the figures, how much would be lost if you got in a little closer so that every inch of the frame was filled by diorama?  Keeping the edges of reality out of your pictures can make them look cleaner and, oxymoronically, more realistic.  

Depending on how large your diorama is, however, this can be a challenge.  In the picture of my Saurian officer on the Enterprise bridge ($7 at the same yard sale as Wayne Manor), I really liked how the swoop of the console directed your eye through the picture, but upon closer inspection I realized that you could see my wallpaper at the top of the image.  After studying it a bit, I ultimately decided that it wasn't too intrusive and so I kept the picture. 


Your images will be more pleasing if there is balance throughout the picture.  What do I mean by balance?  Ask yourself this: are the elements in my photo distributed throughout, or does any area seem heavy?   Check out the two photos below.  The first one features a decent shot of my Star Trek Pakled, but the picture is too heavily balanced to the right.  There's a heavy piece of machinery on the right, the figure is in the center, but the left side is fairly empty.  This makes the image almost seem like it's going to topple over towards the right.

The second image, however, has shifted the center of attention slightly so that the Pakled takes up the left hand side of the image while the machinery fills the right.  This helps better balance the photo, making it feel more like it's not going to fall over.  This off-centered balance works quite well when there's an element in your diorama that you want to show off, perhaps an element which ties in nicely with the figure (such as the machine above, which sharp-eyed readers will recognize as the accessory that comes with X:Men: Evolution's Nightcrawler).


If you're going to be taking pictures of Blue Beetle, you should note that he won't show up as well in photos if it's taken in front of a blue diorama.  The blue of the figure can blend in with the background, making him almost disappear.  He'll stand out much better against something a bit more contrasting.  But be careful, because if a figure stands against a background that is of completely contrasting colors or pattern, it can come out looking garish.  It's important when choosing where to photograph your pictures to consider how the figure looks against the background color or pattern.  



I've read that the majority of all photos are still taken at eye-level.  Why not shake things up a bit?  

Sometimes you might want to take your pictures from strange camera angles.  Ever notice how when artists draw Spider-Man flying on his webbing from building to building, the backgrounds are often skewed at a strange angle to the center of focus of the picture?  This is because diagonal lines can enhance a picture's sense of tension and motion.  Want to make a picture a bit more active than a simple centered vertical shot?  Skew the camera a few degrees and turn those vertical and horizontal lines into diagonals.  You just might find your pictures look much more interesting. 

Take this picture of Gorilla Grodd (OK, he's really Kerchak, but we pretend he's Grodd) scaling a tall building.  I like the way that the woman seems to be cowering back in fear as Grodd scales the building's vertical face.  But let's look at this scene from several different angles and see why I finally settled on that one.


The above pictures are all different views of the same scene -- nothing has been moved.  Notice how the first two, with their horizontal and vertical layouts, really don't seem like all that much action is happening.  The photos almost seem static, frozen like a diorama -- exactly what we don't want.  The next two pictures, taken at skewed angles, display much more action, but I didn't choose them as my final image either.  The third picture shows off the building fine, but you're seeing Grodd from behind.  And since he's the center of the action, I wanted to see his face.  The last picture came out quite nicely and displayed the scene pretty much as I'd imagined it, but I was disappointed that I couldn't see more of the building.  But I do like the sense of vertigo created by the strange downward camera angle.  That Grodd is in focus while the woman is a bit out of focus helps make the building feel taller and also lends to that sense of vertigo.  This picture just might show up on my Grodd page along with the topmost one.

Here's another example of how camera angles can affect the outcome of a photo.  This image of Rufuss, a friend's RPG character, was taken with the camera at a very high angle, almost over the shoulder of the old woman.  I like this image a lot, and I think the angle lends to the tension of the fight they're having.  Notice there are almost no horizontals or verticals in this image -- only diagonals.  Diagonal lines tend to cause tension in photos.  

One other think I especially like about this image is the way the plant spills over into the frame.  The plants, while close up, adds a sense of depth to this photo that none of my other images of this scene had.

This image looks quite different when compared to one which was taken at a more centered eye-level angle, yet the figures haven't moved an inch.  The only difference is the angle from which they were taken.  Which photo do you think shows more tension?   Did you also notice that the camera angle in the above image hides the fact that the old woman is smiling?

Here are some more examples of pictures which use diagonals and skewed camera angles to increase motion or tension in the picture.


In the center image, I could have increased the action by placing the line of clouds below Arisia in a position which crossed the line of her body.  Unfortunately, the size of paper I was using as a background prevented that angle.


Mood can be tricky to alter in photos of action figures, especially if you're primary intent is to show off your figures to the world because you'll have to keep your figures somewhat visible.  Two ways to alter mood are things we've already discussed:  the setting and the angles in your composition.  The setting, or diorama, in which you plan to take the photo has a huge impact on the final mood, however don't discount the ability of a camera angle or diagonal lines to change the feeling in an image as well.  But since we've already talked about these, lets move on to lights and effects.


You can't very well show off your figures if they're so dark as to be virtually hidden in the shadows.  But sometimes you might want your figures to be displayed in a bit darker setting.  While it can be hard to balance the amount of light to get the right mood and still get a visible photo, the effort is worth it.  

This picture of Green Lantern was taken using a black light because the figure is painted with glow in the dark spray paint. In addition to the black light, I had to use several other lights for the image to be clear and viewable.  But even though the glow doesn't really show up in the photo, the black light helped cast an eerie nighttime pallor across the  image, creating an interesting effect.


You can also use special effects to alter the mood of your images.  I've used special effects to mimic fog in my photos, using both smoke and dry ice as the fog.   They handle fairly differently.  Smoke has a tendency to rise upwards, while dry ice fog tends to flow downward.  My preference is dry ice because it's thicker and lays on the ground, although you have to be careful that there's a lip to hold it or else it will all roll off onto the floor.  Smoke, on the other hand, will fill an entire room throughout a bit better, although not as densely as with dry ice.  But used separately or in conjunction they can create moody, atmospheric images.  

The picture of Silver Banshee on the left was taken using dry ice for the fog, and the image was shot at a slight angle.  Looking back, the angle should have been a touch sharper.  That's something I'll try to fix the next time I play with dry ice.

This Dr. Fate image employ several techniques to create a mood.  Dr. Fate's lair is actually the top floor of the Ghostbusters Firehouse.  Its setting was decorated using a variety of action figure accessories and other assorted artifacts.  If you've purchased as many figures as we have, you probably have a box-load of accessories somewhere.  Go through it and pick out anything that might be useful in your dioramas.  Sure, most of them didn't show up in the final photo, but that's not the point -- they add to the atmosphere, the mood.  I'm not sure how many things you can pick out of this photo, but if you look closely you'll see a large portrait and throne from an Anastasia playset and a table from some Hunchback of Notre Dame figure.  There are various bowls, urns and chests scattered about from who knows where.  And Dr. Strange's mystic crystal ball  is sitting on a "hear no evil..." monkey tookpick holder (thanks, ma!).

I also used dry ice in Dr. Fate's mystic lair, although it was more challenging than my previous dry ice photos.  In addition to the fog issues -- the setting featured flooring grates into which all the dry ice fog fell -- I also had lighting issues as well.  I knew I wanted the major light in the scene to come from the skylight above Dr. Fate.  But reaching a balance of light through the skylight with ambient light making the scene actually visible was difficult indeed.  In order to balance all the issues involved, I had to have several helpers holding lights, pouring fog and blowing smoke.  In fact, crowding was also an issue, in part because the top floor on this playset is a bit claustrophobic, and in part because of the number of people involved in the picture.  I wish I had a picture of that chaos to show you, but we really didn't have a free hand to take it.   But believe me, it was a lot of fun.

And that's really it... for me, setting up and photographing my customs are almost as much fun as making them -- perhaps more so, since this part is sorta like play.  And if you're into toys as much as I am, you've got to be a big kid at heart.  I hope I've been able to give you some pointers on how to make your action figure photos better through the usage of dioramas.  If you'd like to see more of my figures and pictures, check out Chip'd n' Stone Customs.