We’ve featured a ton of incredible toy photographers over the years. Something we’ve noticed about a lot of them is their attention to set design. Photographer Alpha Whiskey is no different. In fact, they draw inspiration from old-school movies from the 80’s. “This was the pre-CGI era, where illusion had to be created by highly skilled craftsmen building miniatures and using practical effects, says Alpha Whiskey in an interview with us. “…They had a background in art so they understood good lighting and composition.” That’s just a small part of his Alpha makes their work.
We’ve seen a few similar things done to different degrees recently in the movies too! Alpha Whiskey has made an ode to Top Gun. If you’ve read anything about how the new 2022 movie was made, you’ll know that they really didn’t want to use CGI. And as we’ve demonstrated through various interviews, this type of work takes a lot of skill.
The Essential Camera Gear of Alpha Whiskey Photography
I wouldn’t say I find any particular gear essential. I’m often telling parents to try this kind of photography with their kids as a creative exercise and that their phones would honestly do the job. I’ve never been beholden to gear over art. That said, I personally use a micro-four-thirds mirrorless camera, having switched from a full-frame DSLR a number of years ago. The m4/3 system gives me access (should I need it!) to an abundant range of compatible lenses. For most of my images, I use a 12-40mm F2.8, which is sharp and reliable. If I need more compression of the elements in the scene I’ll use a zoom lens such as a 40-150mm F2.8 (80-300mm equivalent focal length). I suppose the most essential equipment is the tripod as I’m often shooting at narrow apertures using the lowest ISO, which obviously demands a slow shutter speed.
Phoblographer: Talk to us about how you first got into photography.
Alpha Whiskey: I’ve always been a very visual person, drawing comics and caricatures from a young age and moving into photography about 20 years ago seemed like a natural progression from that.
Phoblographer: What made you want to get into toy photography?
Alpha Whiskey: I have been lucky enough to travel to many parts of the world and photograph almost every subject, from landscapes to wildlife, sport, and architecture, but eventually one reaches a creative impasse from simply pointing a camera at something and pushing a button. I happened to watch a behind-the-scenes documentary about a movie (Aliens, 1986) and was astounded by the miniature and model work and photography, how they even fooled the studio executives watching the dailies into thinking they were spending a fortune on giant sets and vehicles (Aliens only cost $18m). I also began noticing a lot of toy photography online, for which there is a huge community. And while much of it is very creative, most of that looks too obviously like toys. Making a scale model or action figure look like the real thing, which is my main aim, is so far still creatively challenging and stimulating for me, and employs all the tenets of good photography, such as composition, framing, and lighting. So, I have been doing this kind of photography almost exclusively for over four years.
Phoblographer: Obviously, you’re doing a whole lot of set building for each one of these scenes. Do you feel it’s a meditative process?
Alpha Whiskey: Initially, I spent a lot of time building sets and props, insofar as they contributed to the scene, such as a garage set or traffic cones made of paper. It can be relaxing to do but takes a lot of time, so nowadays I tend to shoot with minimal set building and composite in backgrounds from my travel archives. I have plenty of scenes from forests, deserts and city skylines from my travels. I tend to plan my shoots to allow for that too.
Ferrari in snow, rocks from the garden and flour dusted onto them.
Phoblographer: I’m guessing I know the answer, but how did the pandemic affect your creativity?
Alpha Whiskey: The pandemic simply gave me more time to undertake projects, one of which was Top Gun, and I also had a project compositing my friends with diecast cars.
My friend and a model Car
Phoblographer: Where do you usually draw your inspiration from? I’m assuming movies, but what about photographers? Who have you studied?
Alpha Whiskey: I’m a child of the 1980s and the movies of that era, especially in the sci-fi action genre, such as Terminator, Predator, Aliens, and Robocop (all of which I’ve made projects of!). This was the pre-CGI era, where illusion had to be created by highly skilled craftsmen building miniatures and using practical effects. I also love the way earlier movies by Ridley and Tony Scott would be lit, how they painted the scene with smoke and shafts of light. They had a background in art so they understood good lighting and composition. When I watch films, even for entertainment, I also study the camera angles and framing of the shots. Sometimes I duplicate iconic shots from movies to help recognition.
Phoblographer: How much of this work is done in-camera vs in Photoshop or post-production? For you, where do you think the magic happens to make these scenes?
Alpha Whiskey: I try to do as much in camera as possible as it means less time playing in post. I use practical sets, LED lights or torches and a vaping device for smoke, which helps provide depth to the images. I’ll use fishing line to suspend models. If it looks good practically then you know the image will work. The magic ideally has to happen in camera but sometimes I plan a shoot knowing I can create the result in post with specific effects. In post I’ll add in things like muzzle flash, explosions and headlights, and composite the backgrounds into the shot.
Phoblographer: For this project, why choose Top Gun? And what about a movie lends itself to being a scene that’s easy to recreate? Is it really just about the toys?
Alpha Whiskey: Top Gun was just another project to undertake, and I was looking forward to the sequel movie which has just come out recently. Obviously, I wouldn’t capture the visceral experience of the flying scenes in a still image but I thought I could ignite a sense of speed and action with them. I’m not interested in toys, per se, just the means to create the illusion. Thus, model selection is very important, and the details have to be realistic, especially with figures and faces. A scene may not necessarily be easy to create but I try to capture scenes from movies that are iconic or recognizable.
Phoblographer: What are you working on now? We’re curious!
Alpha Whiskey: I’ve just recently finished a Star Wars-related project with some Hoth Rebel figures. Right now, I’m working on a project of Formula One crashes using tiny (10cm) die cast racing cars, albeit very detailed. I then have another couple of projects to do, followed, presciently enough, by a video for Youtube talking about how and why I do this kind of photography.