Photographing Your Dolls
by Gloria "Mimi" Winer and Jim Winer

An earlier version of this article appeared in Vol 4, No 3 of Let's Talk About Dollmaking magazine. ODACA has permission to reprint it here to help doll artists produce the highest quality of photographs of their work.


Selling your dolls or patterns is easiest when the buyer can look at the doll in person. Unfortunately, neither you nor your dolls can be everywhere at once. A good photograph is the next best thing to being there—particularly if it runs in a magazine for free.

We get many photographs of beautiful dolls that we just can't use in Let's Talk About Dollmaking On-Line Magazine or on the web site. Like most other magazines, the pictures we choose to print are those that are the best photographs—not necessarily the pictures of the best dolls.

This non-technical article will help you solve or avoid five common problems with doll photographs. By just using a checklist of five simple items, you can immediately improve not only your doll photographs, but many of your family pictures as well.

Even if you're not interested in taking better photographs yourself, the information in this article will help you deal with other photographers when you need beautiful slides for admission to a show or color advertising, or when you need spectacular black and white "glossies" for free newspaper or magazine publicity.

Your Camera and Film

You don't need a fancy camera or expensive film to take good pictures. You need to select the correct film for the way the pictures will be used and you need to know how to use the camera you have to the best advantage.

Slides or Prints?

Most of us use our cameras to take color pictures or prints. It is easier for us to have something that we can hold in our hand and look at and show to others without geting out a slide projector and setting up a screen. Juried shows (where a group of judges decides who can and can't participate) and color magazines usually want slides. For show juries, the slides are projected so that all of the judges can see what is being discussed. That way when one of the judges makes a comment about your work, the other judges can see the slide while the comment is being made. Color magazines prefer slides because they can be a more accurate representation of your work than prints.

Aside from whether you want the convenience of showing a print without a projector, or have need for many people to see it at the same time, the most important difference between a print and a slide is that the slide is processed once while a print is processed twice. This has two consequences:

  • A slide is as accurate as it can be, given your camera equipment and skill. There is no opportunity to mess it up during processing. There is also no opportunity to fix it up during processing.
  • A print is processed once as a negative (which is pretty standard), and once as a print. When the print is made from the negative, the skill of the finishing lab can make the print either better or worse. Most printmaking is done by automatic machines that seek an "average." If you are doing something wrong, or your camera equipment is poor, the "average" results may be an improvement. If you are a good photographer, and your camera equipment is working well, the "average" results will make your pictures look worse.

In short, it is easier to get good prints than it is to get good slides. You need a better camera and more skill to get good slides.

It is also easy to become a better photographer. Then you may have to talk to the people who process your film and ask them to print it "right" instead of printing it "average."

A Word on Black and White

Newspapers, and magazines that print in black and white, prefer "8 by 10 glossies." These are black and white prints that have been enlarged to 8-inches by 10-inches and have a glossy finish. Any problems with contrast are immediately obvious in a black and white print. The glossy surface retains sharpness in the details.

Textured surfaces cause the detail to be lost when the picture is copied for making a printing plate. If you use color prints for newspapers or magazines that will print in black and white, be sure to avoid the "textured" finish. (The "normal" finish is slightly matte and will be okay.)

Because color has become so popular, it is very difficult to find a processing service for black and white prints. When you do find one, it will usually be a custom service intended for professionals, and will usually be much more expensive than color printing. If you know an amateur photographer who does his or her own black and white processing, try to have them do your black and white work. It's actually very easy and inexpensive on an amateur basis.

If you have found an amateur photographer to do your black and white print processing, see if you can get them to take your black and white publicity pictures too—they may have a better camera than you do, and they may be better at taking pictures. (After all, you're better at making dolls.)

Choosing Your Film

Unless you are an expert, and have a good camera, the easiest film to use indoors is Kodak® Gold 400 color print film. For outdoors, use Kodak Gold 100 color print film. This is a print film so that some of the problems you might have with your camera or technique can be fixed in the film processing lab. The 100 speed film is well suited to the amount of light outdoors. The 400 speed film is four times as sensitive and is well suited to indoor use with a flash. It may be too sensitive to use outdoors. (The 100 speed film will make your flash batteries run down four times as fast if you use it indoors.) There are other brands and types of film that are just as good, but for simplicity, you can't go wrong with the Kodak Gold 100 and 400.

Using Your Film

One more important thing about film—any kind of film: it doesn't keep well in heat or after it has been exposed. This means three things:

  • Don't store your film or leave your camera in a hot place like a closed car. Excess heat will cause colors to be funny.
  • Buy your film fresh before you are going to use it— don't keep it around for a long time and expect it to still give good performance.
  • Process your film soon after you use it. Don't leave it in the camera waiting to use up the rest of the roll—film deterioriates. If necessary, waste the rest of the roll. (You don't have to rush right out to the processor though, a couple of weeks won't hurt.) You won't be charged as much for processing if you don't use up the whole roll.

Getting the Right Processing

In spite of the fact that we speak of dolls as having "skin," they don't. They are really made of cloth or porcelain or polyform or plastic or wax or some other material. Making the distinction is important for only one reason —these materials do not reflect light the same way that real skin does—therefore, they don't photograph the same way that real skin does. In particular, dolls with light-colored "skin" reflect much more light than light-colored people and dolls with dark-colored "skin" reflect much less light than dark-colored people.

Also, if you look carefully in a photograph, real people have lighter and darker areas of skin. Dolls have much more uniform "skin" tones — it makes them harder to see in photographs.

Two of the most common things that go wrong with doll photographs (and sometimes with people photographs) are washed out faces on light colored dolls and blacked out faces on dark colored dolls. Both of these things can be fixed during processing of prints.

As I mentioned earlier, most prints are made by automatic machines that attempt to make the print come out "average." This has a specific meaning:

  • The light and dark parts of the picture are adjusted so that it will be of average brightness. If there is lots of dark and only a little bit of light, everything will be made lighter so that the picture averages out to a medium brightness. If there is only a little dark and a lot of light, everything will be darkened so that the picture averages out to a medium brightness.
  • The colors are adjusted so that the picture is an average gray overall. The blue and the yellow are balanced out so that they add up to gray. The red and the blue-green are averaged out so that they add up to gray. The green and the magenta (red-blue) are averaged out so that they add up to gray.

In short, everything is adjusted so that most people's messed up snapshots will wind up looking better.

But, if you happen to know what you are doing, or if you happen to have photographed your doll against a solid color background, or if you happen to be photographing a face that reflects light differently than real skin (like a doll), this averaging just messes up your picture.

There is something you can do. If the faces are too light or too dark, the detail is probably still there on your negative, but the machine averaging has just taken it away. Send the film back to the processor to be reprinted with the faces lighter or darker. Note: this will lighten or darken the rest of the picture—you may lose the costume to gain the face.

If you shot your doll against a colored background and the colors seem strange, the culprit may be machine averaging again—this time averaging of colors instead of dark and light. Send the film back to the processor to be reprinted with the color corrected. Include a note telling them what color the background is supposed to be. (Note: if you ruined the film color by storing the film in a hot place, it's not fair to send it back to the processor, and it won't do any good, anyway. This kind of problem is called "color crossover" and can't be fixed—something else will just be the wrong color.)

You should not be charged for corrections to processing—if they are mistakes by the processor.

Learning to See

The hardest part of photography is learning to really see what is right in front of you. The biggest improvement that you can make in your photography comes from learning to see the finished picture in the viewfinder before you push the shutter button. It doesn't cost anything and you can do it by the numbers until you learn to do it automatically.

Experiment a Bit

One of the nicest things about the 35 mm color film that most cameras use is that you can get it in short rolls. Buy two or three 12 exposure rolls and do some experimenting. Make notes as you take the pictures. When you get results that you like, look at the notes to see how you did it. It won't take you long to become a much better photographer.

A Polaroid® or Minolta® instant film camera is even better for experimenting. Be sure to use a fresh film pack. Polaroid film doesn't keep well once it's in the camera. The Minolta InstantPRO® camera has a nice close-up attachment and uses Polaroid's latest Spectra® high definition instant film.

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