Blog Interview: smokebelch

We’ve interviewed a Staff member and an MOC Expert already, so, this time, we thought we’d interview one of the talented photographers on EB. He’s the mind behind the Star Wars LEGO Photography thread, the Photographic Master of Glue, and the maker of Doc’s desktop backgrounds since 2009. Please welcome, smokebelch!

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INTERVIEW: smokebelch
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How did you start with the LEGO hobby and why Star Wars?
Like a lot of people I loved Lego as a child, particularly the space sets. Also was a massive Star Wars fan- I was born in ’74 so the original trilogy hit me at an impressional age :sweet: Can still remember the excitement waiting to see Return of the Jedi at the cinema on its original release when I was 9!
I’m very much an original trilogy fan, George Lucas has done much over the last 15 years to try and dent my love of Star Wars but so far hasn’t managed to knock it out of me!
Came back out of my dark ages due to Lego getting the Star Wars license. Have to say I was never that impressed with the very early sets- but it was the original AT-AT that pulled me in. Can remember Lego advertising it in the monthly film magazines here in the UK, and it looked just so darn awesome I couldn’t resist! Was a slippery slope from there on in.
Star Wars is still my primary Lego interest, though do enjoy a lot of the other licensed themes (Indy, Toy Story, Batman), I’m a massive film fan so they get to my love of the movies. Also like some of the other themes Lego has produced recently like the Alien Conquest line. And the collectable minifigs line has been great as well- who ever thought I’d be able to buy an official Lego Zombie minifig!

How much time do you spend on LEGO? What do people around you think of your being an AFOL? 
Since the birth of my daughter nearly 2 years ago, not as much time as I used too :wink: My daughters now got a nice Duplo tub- trying to start her off early, so hopefully as she gets older she can help build with me.
Due to space most of my sets are currently dismantled and stored away. Not much of a builder anymore, though I often enjoy giving the official sets a tweak here and there. I really think the standard of the recent sets has been amazing, and I’m very much looking forward to the new Jabba’s Palace set in the summer. Really enjoy spending time building the sets (when I do get spare time anyways), and will often dig out an old set and re-build it for fun.
My family all know I like Lego and are pretty supportive of it. They are used to my love of toys and Star Wars so came as no real surprise when I got back into Lego. Last Christmas I made custom figures up of them and placed them into the crackers, which went down well.

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How did you discover Eurobricks and what made you decide to join?
Been a lurker for a long while before I joined up, found it was just a great place to find out info on new sets and reviews etc…
Think it was sharing some of my pictures when I started photographing them that made me finally join up, and I’m glad I did as its a really wonderful community on here… and I’m not just saying that as everyone was so nice about my shots :wink:
Was great to be able to start up the photography thread to show off my work initially, and get some great feedback from you guys. Quite quickly turned it into just a general photography thread for anyone to post up their work, which was great. Think I’m proudest to think I’ve inspired others to have a go at photography, and hopefully been able to offer some advice. I really am just self taught, and a complete amateur so I like to think that I show that anyone can have a go and get some decent looking photos out of it.

How did you start with your passion with LEGO Star Wars photography?
Well I collect all sorts of toys, and started photographing them 5 or so years ago. Was inspired by Brain McCarty’s toy photography at first, taking the toys out into the wild to shoot them in different environments. Just started out using the camera on my mobile phone at first, though the limitations quickly made me purchase a proper camera. Always like the challenge of trying to give them a sense of scale given that they are generally under a foot tall.
Then one day came across Balakov’s Lego shots on flickr, and suddenly though why had I not thought to shoot any of my Star Wars Lego too. I guess the size of the minifigs was a bit of a drawback at first. Hard given their diminutive stature to get them to look good in the real world.
I’ve also always been a huge fan of cinema, and of cinematography, and wanted to try and capture some ‘film’ like stills of the minifigs out on ‘Tatooine’ etc… I live on the south coast in the UK, and I’m lucky enough to live near the beach and forest so had a good couple of locations to experiment.
The first few shots I did came out pretty well, and due to the crazy weather here managed to grab a Snowtrooper shot in the snow, and a Sandtrooper/Dewback shot on ‘Tatooine’ in the same week!

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Snowtrooper by smokebelch, on Flickr

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Sandtrooper by smokebelch, on Flickr

Key thing I’ve always found with shooting toys is you’ve gotta get down low to give them a sense of scale, and with Lego you gotta get down REAL low, which is not all that easy given I’m 6’4″ :laugh:

Where do you get inspiration/ideas for your photography subjects?
With my outdoor Star Wars photography will often just try and either recreate a classic moment from the films, or generally just try and show off the minifig in an interesting setting. As I mentioned I live in the UK so quite quickly the weather became a factor in my photography… i.e. it rains a LOT here!
Most of my inspiration comes from the movies, always loved a well composed cinematic shot and that’s what I aim for with my photography.

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What kind of camera and lighting do you use? Are you happy with your equipment?
Again I really am just an amateur photographer, and all my cameras have only ever cost me around £150. I just look for ones that will let me tweak the settings a bit, and also most importantly have a good macro function (A huge must for Lego photography). I currently have a cannon PowerShot which replaced my old Fujifilm as surprise surprise it died due to the amount of sand in the lens motor! :oh3:
I’m pretty happy with the results I can get from essentially a point and shoot camera, and I’m always flattered when people think I must use a really expensive DSLR to get my shots.
I’d always shot outdoors as you can’t beat natural sunlight to light with, over the winter when there wasn’t much sunlight about I started experimenting with lighting for indoor photography. I’d previously never been able to get any good looking shots taken indoors, I didn’t have the room or money for expensive lighting kits.
One day was experimenting with lighting with a torch app on my iPod touch, and was amazed by the results that I got! And I still use the same set-up to this day for any indoor photography. Just a plain white piece of A-4 paper as a backdrop, lit with the torch app, and I play round with the exposure times on the camera. Would ultimately love to have both the space and time for a nice proper studio but thats not happening anytime soon, so for the moment I’m happy with my low-tech ‘studio’
For the outdoor shots, you can’t get better than the sun so as long as its shining I’m happy!

Amongst all of the photos you’ve captured, which one is your most favorite and why?
Wow that’s a tough one… Be so hard to pick. I tend to be a bit of a perfectionist, and I’m very rarely 100% happy with any shot. Probably one of the shots that I was happiest with was one that I never thought would turn out well due to the conditions when I was shooting it.

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Sandstorm! by smokebelch, on Flickr

This one while not featuring any Star Wars Lego was shot at my favorite location- the beach aka ‘tatooine’. Features a toy called a Squadt by Ferg & Brandt Peters. Was really blowing a gale that day, and I literally got sand everywhere including inside my camera (which gave up the ghost very shortly after). Was so frustrated with the sand blowing everywhere, but when I looked at the shots back at home the ‘sandstorm’ effect gave the photos a fantastic feel. Would never been able in a million years to have caught that if id tried to go for that look, so was kinda a happy accident. In half the frames the toy had blown over, and I had bought along some Sandtroopers for a Lego shot too, but no chance of that with the conditions unfortunately.

Looking back over my Star Wars Lego shots now, tough call out of these two as to which would be my favorite, both from very early on when I started photographing my Lego.

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Tatooine Sunset by smokebelch, on Flickr

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Stormtroopers by smokebelch, on Flickr

The sunset one was another happy accident really, was just trying for a shot at sunset and only had one Sandtrooper with me. Was taken across a bay with a ferry going back and forth. The little posts that look a bit like moisture vaporators in the distance are actually the ariels on the ferry! Managed to get the shot at just the right angle to hide the ferry and the water. Was think about trying to Photoshop another Sun in, but in the end left it as was. I like to think the other sun had already set :laugh:
The Stormtroopers one was just a simple set up with my trusty bit of A-4 paper and the iPod touch, was just really happy with the effect I could get quickly with a very simple set-up. Always loved the design of the classic Stormie, and hope I’d managed to capture a nice looking image giving the diminutive minifigs a bit more stature. Was made up when Balakov commented that they look ‘most intimidating’ :grin:

Sorry have managed to pick three in the end, was too hard to narrow down to just one!

Do you have other favorite SW photographs/photography experts?
Well for overall toy photography Brain McCarty is a hero. For the Lego/ SW stuff aside from Balakov I really love Powerpig’s photos, and he builds some great stuff too. And also Avanaut is a complete genius. The photographs he creates are amazing, particularly his ‘Hoth’ shots, I’m in awe at the way he creates these often with ‘snow’ flying through the air. Really puts my ‘piece of white paper’ method to shame! The time and effort he puts in to creating these scenes in a studio really is jaw-dropping. The most I’ve ever managed is dumping half a bag of icing sugar out to create my Hoth! :laugh: (and I should point out my wife was less than impressed with the mess I made!)
And of course Eurobricks own Fenris’ shots are wonderful, I know he’s been lacking in time and inspiration recently but hope he returns with some new stuff soon.
And a shout out to all the photographs who contribute to the Star Wars Photography thread, as I’ve said some fantastic work being done there.

Do you photograph any subjects other than LEGO?
Well as I mentioned I started out photographing some of my other toys, and still very much enjoy that. Its nice to mix it up a bit, as will often struggle for any inspiration for a Lego shot so can grab something else to shoot.
Also now I have my daughter so she has become my main subject for photography… Though I do have to say now she’s walking around its a whole lot easier shooting toys as they don’t move every 2 seconds :head_back:

Who’s your favorite SW character?
Ooohhhh that’s another tough one. As a child was a tie with Boba Fett, Chewie and Yoda. Now I’ve still got a lot of love for Boba (seriously what Star Wars fan hasn’t?!), but I don’t know if I’d necessarily choose him as my favourite. One of my favourite figures as a kid was always the Gamorrean Guard, and recently with the new Hasbro action figure they made of him (check it out if you haven’t seen it, its truly amazing) its kinda reignited him to my favourites. Also the new minifig version in the Jabba set looks awesome too.
So lets say the Gamorrean Guard for the moment… Though ask me again on another day and it’ll probably be someone else.

… Actually I’ve already changed my mind, Its now the Biker Scout!… No maybe the Snow Trooper… Or perhaps IG-88… Oh darn and I also really like Sandtroopers. This is too hard. Its just not possible to pick- there’s just too many cool characters and designs to pick just one favourite.

Aside from LEGO, what other hobbies do you have?
Well aside from the general toy collecting, I’m a massive movie fan. Really do love all sorts of films. Just some of my favourite directors are The Coen Brothers, Terry Gilliam, Jim Jarmusch, Wes Anderson, Sergio Leone, Akira Kurasawa… Favourite fims Brazil, Blade Runner, Repo Man, Empire Strikes Back (of course!), Rashomon, Rushmore… And I adore pretty much most of Pixar’s film, and its great now my daughter enjoys watching these now as well. I could go on, but I’ve probably waffled on enough already!
Also a big music fan, any and all sorts though currently very obsessed with the Ghost Box label here in the UK which specialises in ‘British Cosmic Music’
Also love comics and art, a couple of favourites being Mike Mignola’s Hellboy, and Ashley Wood’s World War Robots.

What’s the reason behind your online monicker ‘smokebelch’?
Well it comes from a track by a band called ‘Sabres of Paradise’, from the early 90’s. I first used it many years ago online as no-one else had used it so was good for e-mails etc.. Just kinda stuck I suppose. My wife continually points out its kinda revolting to have ‘belch in my username everywhere, but its grown on me, and besides its too late to change it now!

Any tips for all the aspiring and up-and-coming SW photography buffs out there?
I would just say that you really don’t need expensive camera equipment to achieve a good looking shot- and I hope my photography shows that. The main thing you would need is a decent macro function on whatever camera you are using.
The key thing is just to experiment and have fun with it. The best way of learning is by doing, just take loads of shots using different angles etc and see what looks good. With digital cameras now you can just shoot away and delete the ones that you don’t want. Sometimes with my shots there will only be one shot out of hundreds that works!
Also contribute to the photography thread, some great work being posted up on there, and a great place to get feedback on your shots.

Oh, and get used to weird looks from passers by when they see a grown man lying down on the beach for hours on end taking photos of LEGO *huh*

Can we expect more breathtaking SW photography from you in the near future?
Wow I dunno about breathtaking! Thanks for the compliment :sweet:
Still try and find time for new photos when I can, though having a daughter now means I don’t have as much time as I used to for my photography.
Really looking forward to trying to get a nice new shot of the 2012 weathered Sandtroopers on location at Tatooine… Haha watch this space :wink:

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“Before I go, I’d like to take a picture of all of you. Say cheese!”

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