Text and Photos by Dave DeBaeremaeker
Recently I had the pleasure of hosting the Traveling Ultra Platypod. I found the experience creatively rewarding and a great deal of fun. What surprised me the most is how a simple thing like a tripod replacement allowed me to expand my creativity and inspire me to create shots I didn’t even think of beforehand.
I believe this is because the Platypod solves problems I didn't know I had. Once those problems were no longer present, a whole new playground of possibilities opened up.
You see, I am a toy photographer. I make my art using 6” and 12” figures. This means I need to get down low to take a photo of an action figure at ground level. I am a middle age dude with bad knees, so getting down low to the ground is not that easy for me. I do a lot of my work on a table in my studio in a lightbox and composite figures into existing scenes. I tend to not do a lot of outside shots because it is simply too hard for me to get down low.
The first shot I had envisioned to take with the traveling Ultra was a shot of a mysterious figure walking in the rain under a street lamp. This shot would involve spraying water and smoke to create a misty rain storm effect, so I wanted to do it outside so I wouldn’t have to clean up the mess (and my wife doesn’t complain about the smokey basement). This also made a very complicated shot as I had three things to do, and only me to do it.
So to set up the shot I placed the figure (a 12” Rorshach figure from The Watchmen, tho for this photo he was just acting as a stand in for a dude wearing a trenchcoat) out in my backyard, and posed him so he’s walking towards the camera. I put a Lume Cube on a C-stand to simulate the light from a street lamp. I put two Lume Cube Airs on paint cans behind the figures to provide some back light to illuminate the rain and mist. The camera was on the Platypod Ultra, with a remote trigger for the shutter.
To create the mist effect I used a combination of a spray bottle, and a bee smoker (to create a mist/fog effect). Once I was all set up, I went through the complex process of taking the shot, First I triggered the camera to take a continuous stream of photos at high speed. Once the shutter was clicking away, I grabbed the smoker (with my left hand) and blew in smoke at ground level just behind the figure, while simultaneously spraying water with the spray bottle (in my right hand) down in front of the figure. Once I had some shots I thought I could use I put everything down, stop the camera shutter, and reviewed what I captured.
I finished the image by merging two of the shots together in Photoshop.
This was a complicated shot to create on my own. Normally I’d require someone to assist with the smoke and water, while I was working the camera. However because the Platypod was able to bring the camera down low and stable, I was able to set-and-forget the camera, and concentrate on the special effects. Handy!
The next pair of images I took was on the sand at North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. I was traveling there for a weekend away with my extended family, so it seemed like a good time to get some images in sandy environments. Beaches make a great stand-in for desert scenes, like the famous Star Wars planet Tatooine. So I used a Star Wars character for my first image: a Scout Trooper riding a speeder bike, kicking up sand as he speeds along.
This setup was similar to the first one, except I had no need for extra lights, and the smoke was replaced with blowing sand. I also had an assistant in the form of my son Zeke. However the Platypod provided another valuable service: keeping my camera out of the sand. Beach sand can be pretty nasty for electronics, so I was happy to have the Platypod keep my precious camera safely and securely away from the sand, but still allow it to be nice and low to get the right perspective for the speeder bike.
When I was done getting the speeder bike shot, I literally turned around 180 degrees to face the setting sun, and set up my second shot of the evening: a musical figure walking through a dystopian landscape at sunset. This time my daughter Abigail played assistant by positioning the figures, and adding some extra light to the figures.
The last image I took with the traveling Platypod I hadn’t really planned on until the last minute. I took a Sunday afternoon drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway, a scenic drive through the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina and Virginia. As is normal for me, I brought along some action figures in case inspiration struck, but I had no specific plans to shoot anything.
As I was driving home, facing into the setting sun, I got an idea. Bandai has this awesome series of Star Wars and Marvel characters reimagined as samurai figures. I had the Boba Fett Ronin character with me, and figured having him facing into the sun would be a dramatic scene. So I pulled over at the first overlook that had the right things I needed: A good clear view of the setting sun, and a low stone curb to place the figure.
I set the figure on the edge of the curb, with the sun in the background, and my camera on the Platypod on the asphalt parking lot. This is where the Platypod showed off another handy feature. If I placed the Platypod directly on the ground, the camera was too low for the angles to work out properly. Fortunately Platypod comes with some screw feet that solved my problem.
I believe the screw feet are primarily added to help level the Platypod on rough ground. However they also allows me to adjust the height of the Platypod by over an inch. That inch can be huge when dealing with 6” figures, and was the perfect solution for raising the Platypod, and my camera, to the right height for this shot.
Having the camera securely locked down on the Platypod also allowed me to get and keep focus which was surprisingly tricky for this shot due to the silhouetting. My autofocus was constantly getting the focus wrong, so I had to use manual focus mode. Once the camera settings were locked in, I could concentrate on creating the rest of the shot, which involved holding a reflector to bounce some of the sunlight back onto the figure to bring out some of the figures details, and remotely triggering the shutter.
The Platypod has proven itself to be a highly useful tool in my creative toolbox. It is a solution that allows me to lock my camera into a secure position while still being low enough for 6” action figures. It gives me one less thing to worry about, which frees up mental space to concentrate on my goals: create interesting toy photos.
I have to send the traveling Platypod on for it's next adventure, but the one I ordered for myself is going to play an important part of my creative workflow for years to come. I can’t wait to create more magic with it!