First version: Feb 5th 2019
Updated: August 13th 2020

Storytelling is one of the most important aspects of Lego-photography. Photos that are nothing more than beautiful will certainly attract your attention and you may be momentarily awed by them, yet, you probably won’t remember them very long. It’s the images that tell you a story, the ones that speak to you, that will linger in your mind for a much longer time.

How does a single image tell stories?

A (Lego-)photo is an image frozen in time. As such, it does not tell the viewer what happened before or what lies ahead. The art of storytelling with a single image involves persuading the viewers to create their own version of a past or future, based on the image you presented them with. In short; a (Lego-)photo doesn’t tell the story, the photo motivates the viewers to create their own personal, emotional stories! And since all people are different, these stories will differ, amongst other things depending on memories, personality and experience.

This also explains why some pictures will tell an elaborate story to one person and are quiet to another. I cannot give you a straightforward recipe. I mean, storytelling through Lego-photograpy can be really hard. However, I can give you a few basic tips to increase the chances of your Lego-photo telling a story.

I need a hero

First off, who or what is the hero in your image? Is it a person, animal or maybe even an inanimate object (for example an old abandoned car, or a lonely house on the hill)? Then ask yourself if your protagonist is interesting enough to make people wonder.  Simply taking a picture of a tree or Lego-minifigure just won’t do it. You’ll have to provide the viewers with some context concerning your hero and ultimately take control of the entire frame. Thus, inviting viewers to (unconsciously) start thinking.

lego photography - lego wizard home potion
Figure 1; Willy, the one-eyed wizard

For example, Figure 1 shows Willy the One-Eyed wizard. As you might know there is an elaborate backstory on him in the first Foolish Lego Comic, and an even more elaborate backstory in my mind. Yet, I wonder, what is your story for him when you see this image? And maybe this Lego-photo fails to tell you a story at all, but, even that is interesting to think about! Why doesn’t it speak to you, what would you have done differently?

 The story is in the details

Second, it may be a good idea to include details! These may be larger or smaller details. And sometimes even the smallest of details may just be enough to get the train of thoughts of the viewer rolling. And a story is born.

Lego photography - Lonely elderly rain
Figure 2; lonely

Figure 2 shows the photo “Lonely”. There are quite a few details in there. For example, the ring and the closed umbrella even though he’s standing in the pouring rain. That alone could trigger a few (love?) stories. Another detail is that the protagonist is an elderly, so maybe he just became a widow? Besides, what is he doing street side, dressed up with a bow tie, but not caring about the rain? Enough to think about.  There are quite a few stories in there as long as the Lego-photo is inviting enough to make people care to look at the image long enough to find the one stories that appeals to them.

Plastic emotions

Third, storytelling through (Lego-)photography is all about emotions! And conveying emotion can be difficult with our little plastic friends, especially because not every facial expression is present in the Lego line-up. Also, body language can be a challenge.

Lego photography - elderly couple happy sunset
Figure 3; good old times

The first thing you need to do is to find a facial expression that fits your image or find a way to work around the facial expression. Take a look at figure 3; I wanted a loving face for the elderly lady, buy could not find one. Yet, by hiding the lady’s face, I myself create the loving face I wanted. On the other hand, other viewers might feel this guy has to make up for something while she is looking quite angry. Again, there are many stories in this one image.

Also, you need to pay attention to the stance of the Lego-minifigures. That is the closest thing to body language they have. And if there is a stance that seems impossible; sticky tack could be the solution to many problems. Also remember to pay attention to the hands of Lego minifigures; you wouldn’t believe what a difference the rotation of the hands can make for conveying emotions.

Lastly, do not forget the surroundings, lighting and especially color. These three elements can drastically change (or destroy!) the emotion and thus the potential for storytelling by your (Lego-)photo.

Go right… AND left

Fourth, if you’d like, you can add ambiguous or contrasting elements in your images.

In general, there are three types of stories that can be told through (Lego-)photography; personal stories, documentaries and lastly ambiguous stories. Documentaries generally don’t benefit from ambiguous elements. Also, don’t use this tip if you are looking to tell a singular story.

That being said; adding ambiguous elements in your Lego-images could increase the potential of your photo for telling more than one story, potentially reaching a wider variety of viewers.  However, don’t overdo it! You don’t want to completely confuse the viewers… unless you do 😉

Lego photography - Lousy hitchhiker with an axe
Figure 4; Lousy hitchhiker

Figure 4 shows “lousy hitchhiker”.  What happened here? And why is this person (M/ F?) carrying an axe in what looks to be a desert? Besides, why is (s)he still holding on to that axe, etc. Questions bring theories, theories bring stories, stories make a Lego-photo memorable.

Remember the effect of color(-temperature)

Fifth, colors convey emotion and have the ability to convey all kinds of information. So, using the appropriate colors and temperature is important for creating your story.
Warm colors (like red, orange and yellow) are exciting and can convey danger, passion, happiness and adventure, whilst cold colors mostly convey quiet, rest, contemplation, and sadness. All colors in between have their own characteristics and possible meanings.

Furthermore, it doesn’t always have to be about light-color. Giving a certain object a specific color can also be meaningful. For example (spoilers in examples); each time something red was shown in the movie: ‘the sixth sense’, a spirit/ ghost was near. And anytime an orange was shown in ‘the Godfather’-trilogy, someone was about to die.

Lastly, combining colors and lighting setup can be even more powerful; imagine a person sitting in a dark cold interior, with warm light coming in through the boarded-up windows; this image talks about someone battling their own dark thoughts whilst happiness tries to reach this person… and fails.

Lego photography - midnight snack dark house
Figure 5; midnight snack

Look at the photo in figure 5. The dark cold outside versus the warm and welcome interior, this person is feeling good! It’s not the build that’s speaking; it’s the color of the light. If the scene was identical and the inside and outside lighting was swapped so the outside light would’ve been warm and the interior blueish and dark, the story would be different.

Framing is key

Filling the frame only following compositional rules is not enough if you want your photo to tell a story. It is really important to focus. As I wrote before details can be important and contrasting elements increase the potential for storytelling. Yet, if you choose to add elements it must be possible for them to come together in the minds of the viewers. If the viewers can’t figure it out, they get confused and a story gets lost. That’s when you know you overdid it with adding details.
Remember that what you leave out from your picture is as important as what you include! Completely unrelated information in your photos will only disrupt the stories in the image. Always ask yourself if each element in the photo helps tell the story.

toy photography - peekaboo
Figure 6; Peekaboo

The photo in figure 6 shows that sometimes you don’t even need any elements at all. I used framing, lighting, focus, depth of field and a close-up and to try and tell a story. Adding any other element to this photo would’ve diluted the meaning of the image as a whole.

Get to know your subject

Sometimes a photo is created featuring a subject that needs more than one image to tell a story OR a subject that has a lot more than one story to tell (and again; the subject can be anything, not only a minifigure). If this is the case, you might consider creating a series of photos avoiding trying to put too much in a single image.
By creating a series of photos; a whole new world might open up. This time I don’t mean comics. I’m talking about showing different perspectives on a single subject, thus creating a whole new, deeper level of storytelling.

lego photography - frankenstein winter coffee
Figure 7; Dwaas enjoys a winter evening

I believe the image in figure 7 is a nice image in itself, showing Frankensteins’ monster enjoying some quiet time with his dog in the garden of his cozy home. However, the story it tells differs and might get to another level if you know who this monster actually is in the world I created for myself. The people that read the comic, also know this is Dwaas a lonely monster living with his ghostly friend Kemi. They also know he loves molded croissants and brings up the mystery of who this dog might be.

Be original

Nothing kills a story more than seeing an image that essentially has been created a thousand times before. Viewers are exposed to many photographic stories each and every day, and the photos that stick are the ones that do NOT follow the obvious path, just take a look at figure 8 (source: insta_repeat). Might be a great photo in itself… but when people have seen it a thousand times before; not so much.

same old, same old
Figure 8; Deja vu

You might have heard about the Pixar rules on storytelling. One of these rules is especially appropriate in this context: “Discount the first thing that comes to mind… and the 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th, surprise yourself!”
This tip might seem very obvious, but you might be surprised by the amount of relatively similar (Lego)photos out there. These more-of-the-same-images generally fail to surprise and engage the audience. Their story has been told too many times before and no one will remember another photo that looks like the one before.

In conclusion

Storytelling through Lego-photography is hard, especially because our little plastic friends generally make it more difficult to convey emotions. I hope to have provided you with a few tips and tricks to get the viewers thinking about your image, thus, creating a memorable image. For now, my last two tips on this subject are; be careful naming you image, because a name could guide away the viewer from a story if you’re not careful. And lastly, create technically good photos! People tend to get distracted if there are obvious – non-intentional – technical difficulties with a (Lego-)photo.

Now go and practice, because as you know; practice makes better. I look forward to seeing your creations and if you have any more tips and tricks, let me know in the comments.

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