Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for joining us as we continue our newest series: Interview with an AFOL. In the following weeks, every Tuesday and Friday, we will be having interviews with AFOLs of different kinds. There will be photographers, collectors, builders, animators, and even bloggers! We’ll try to learn a little more about them and see how they came to love the plastic brick (or people) we all love. Some of these AFOLs are well known throughout the community, while others, not so much. No matter who they are, they are all incredible people who have at least one thing in common: Love for LEGO.
Today we have Benjamin Crawley, a.k.a. b.a.d.LEGO on Instagram.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I’m an AFOL. Very much a fully grown Adult Fan of LEGO and in every other sense a normal person who works, spends time with family and friends but who happens to have a large amount of LEGO.
In terms of my hobby, I would define myself as a LEGO collector first and a photographer second. I do find myself buying minifigures with photography in mind. My main interest in LEGO is collecting specific themes and series of figures. I am a bit of an obsessive when it comes to collecting certain characters and themes and spend my time keeping up with what’s new.
I work full time so toy photography is a hobby for me but I’d love to develop my photography enough to display it publicly someday. Not for profit but for a sense of achievement and recognition.
How did your journey with LEGO begin?
Like most collectors, I imagine, I had LEGO as a child. My first big interest was the Dragon Castle sets; I was lucky enough to get the Fire Breathing Fortress (6082) for Christmas so I had castles with knights, wizards and dragons and these sets perfectly combined building techniques, playability and storytelling. I have a lot of that stuff still today. Before then I had a hand-me-down box of bricks (which I also still have) and would love making spaceships and cars and buildings. Occasionally I still do make up things but I mostly leave that to the many experts out there.
What about your journey with photography/collecting?
I can’t remember how I got back into LEGO as an adult but I probably found my old LEGO from my parents’ loft and do remember getting some Star Wars sets and the collectible minifigures (CMF) that are still sold now. I’m proud to say I own every one of the CMF released except the elusive Mr. Gold. From having those collectible minifigures, I’ve been collecting ever since.
The photography side of my account started with my phone just taking quick shots of figures in interesting (to me at least) scenarios. I love seeing accounts on Instagram belonging to kids/teenagers who are obviously starting out and I see a lot of my old shots in what they’re doing and it’s fun seeing their pictures develop.
I wasn’t ever interested in likes and followers but I did realise I was posting my LEGO pictures on my personal account and more and more of my followers were strangers who only followed me for my LEGO pictures; I deleted my personal pictures and set up a separate personal account for non-LEGO photos (I’ve always kept my LEGO hobby fairly private amongst friends and family although it’s hard not to be known as the LEGO obsessed guy once people get a glimpse of my collection).
Anyway, I’m going off topic, when I focused my Instagram on just LEGO pictures, it gave me a free ticket to post much more and I began setting up light boxes and trying new techniques and software to make my photography look better. It wasn’t until I got my DSLR for my 30th birthday that I started to take it more seriously and was reading up on photography tips to get the most out of the figures so they’re clear and clean. I still like to post pictures of stories but I also like showing off my collection too. It’s a nice feeling when you have all the Avengers or something.
What do you collect? Sets? Minifigures? Rare parts?
I collect all sorts! I will buy whole sets if I think they’d look good on display but I have boxes of LEGO sets I’ve bought, built and don’t really enjoy anymore… I’ll be busy on eBay soon, I think. With my current LEGO room, I’ve tried to only display the biggest and best and besides bags of figures, I don’t have anything else in here.
In terms of collecting, minifigures are definitely my weakness. I will look at a whole wave of sets to see which figures are in which sets, if any appear in multiple etc. and plan how to get as many figures as cheaply as possible. I even have a spreadsheet for the summer 2020 Marvel wave as I know I won’t buy all of the sets, but want all of the characters!
Below is my LEGO room with my coffee table which serves as a desk for taking photos on.
Are you a purist? Or do you collect custom figures as well?
I’m 99% purist. I probably only own 3-4 unofficial figures which represent characters that don’t exist in official sets. Daredevil from NY Comic Con was bought for me and I bought myself a Shaun figure from the movie Shaun of the Dead as I know he’ll never be released officially and the one I have is made out of official LEGO pieces so looks and feels really good. I recently bought a figure from eBay that is as fake as it comes and is of the character Galactus. If we ever got an official version, I’d buy that but for now, this one will do. Although I wouldn’t be surprised if the arm broke off. You get what you pay for.
What has been your biggest challenge in acquiring something you want?
Easy! Not enough money. I have every Marvel movie figure released so far except 2. Both are San Diego Comic Convention exclusives and are very expensive to buy (over £300) and as much as I love LEGO, that’s too much for me. Maybe one day I’ll treat myself but for now, I will stick to figures that are much more affordable.
What do the people around you (friends/family/spouse/children) think about your obsession?
I mentioned family and friends being aware, how could they not? My LEGO gets everywhere. My partner is fully of supportive of my obsession although she “jokes” that when I bring new LEGO into the house, some existing LEGO has to go. Our recent house move was more stressful thanks to me having boxes of LEGO that needed to be moved but I have my own LEGO room and I don’t spend nearly as much as I used to and I no longer buy any old set that comes out. There are so many it would be impossible.
What is your favorite theme?
From a character perspective I would say I love the Marvel figures (both movie and comic) and cannot resist buying any new Spider-Man figures from Bricklink. They appeal to the photographer in me and I love telling stories through those figures. However, I love to build all sorts so from that point of view I don’t have a favourite theme. I really enjoy making the modular buildings and my all-time favourite set to make was the Ninjago City despite not being a big Ninjago fan. The overall look of the build drives a lot of my purchases. Even if a set has figures I want, I’ll still need to decide if the overall build appeals to me and would be something I’ll enjoy looking at / photographing afterwards.
Who has been an inspiration to you?
LEGO-wise? That’s a really tough question… fellow collectors and photographers in particular are always really supportive and never quick to jump down on your mistakes. I have been really inspired to join a few specific communities that combine a passion for photography with toys and @_toyphotographers_ on Instagram (toyphotographers.com) is a great place to meet others and hear podcasts and get tips. It was through this group that I went on my first (and sadly only) toy safari in London which really gave me the courage to go out in public and take photos of little plastic people. Non- photographers were all really curious and I realised my fears about being embarrassed by my hobby were holding me back. It was very liberating. If you’re like I was and embarrassed I would see if you could go out with a friend or two to get your confidence up.
What kind of gear do you use for your pictures?
I have a Nikon 5200 DSLR which I love. They’re daunting at first but practise and more practise pays off. Playing with it in the safety of my toy room means I can take it out and try other types of photography which I never dared to do when I first got it. I also have a memory card dongle which has a lighting connection on it so I can take out my camera’s memory card and download pictures straight onto my iPad.
I haven’t set up a light box or anything yet but just stick some white card to my laptop and have made a LEGO stand for my iPad so I can turn up the brightness and use an app called Pixel to illuminate my scenes. It’s great as I can try different colours to change a mood of a photo. Or just plain white if I need some bright even light. Other than that, that’s all I use.
Would you say you’re more of an indoor or outdoor kinda person when it comes to photography?
Indoor has the advantage of being under more control but you’re required to build or find a background and for some bigger pictures this is difficult. When shooting outside the opposite is true, wind can make outside photography almost impossible but using natural light and getting some real depth from existing backgrounds means photos are, for me, more interesting. Each has its benefits and I try and use both because what I shoot varies.
What kind of preparations do you make before taking a picture?
I can spend days thinking about a picture, sketching out where figures will go and what position they might be. Other times I will look at a figure and think “he looks like he’s blah blah” and the story writes itself. I try not to plan too much as often the final image doesn’t quite live up to my imagination or my imagination doesn’t take into account how difficult some pictures are to take.
Below is a picture that just worked. It’s of Dennis Nedry from Jurassic park (having been attacked by a spitting dinosaur) with his nephew Danny who I’ve made him look like he’s been playing around with a paintball gun. This picture took seconds to think of and was taken in less than a minute while I was taking other pictures.
How much do you edit afterwards? Do you have a favorite software or app?
I edit pictures a lot more now. The only downside to having a better camera is you start to see dust or pet hair stuck to your figures so I use a free app called Photoshop Fix on my iPad to remove blemishes. I also use an app called Lightroom which is also free and this allows me to adjust the light and colour of pictures more easily than you can in Instagram or on the iPad itself. I use a few others too for creating compilations, or adding effects but that’s quite rare. Despite some tweaks, the pictures I post are close to the original shots.
What is your biggest challenge when photographing?
Like I said before, my imagination is often more ambitious than my skills. I’d love to create some of the masterpieces I think of and see others creating but a lack of time and patience means I sometimes compromise. This is something that has improved in 2020 as last year I took part in the 365 project which requires you to post a picture every day. You can see the days I had little time, inspiration or energy (or all three) and as a result I haven’t done it again this year.
Where do you get your ideas?
A big source of inspiration for me is the various hashtag challenges that pop up across my feed. Various groups and individuals come up with month long challenges which may even be incentivised with prizes but sometimes they appear and I get an instant idea for a photo that meets the criteria.
I find recurring hashtags useful too. #nofigurefriday challenges you to post a picture tells a story that features accessories or bricks instead of a minifigure. And #spacecowboysaturday is always fun!
Other than that, movies, TV, art and news are great sources of inspiration.
Any advice or tips you’d like to share? A secret of yours, perhaps?
Since hitting 10k followers I’ve been approached a couple of times by LEGO fans who want to grow their accounts on Instagram. My advice for them is don’t worry too much about numbers of likes and followers. I might use likes to see which of my posts are well received and I can use some insight data to see most of my followers are in the US or my followers are mostly online around 6-9 pm but my favourite pictures are often the ones that get less likes. And this doesn’t stop me taking photos like that because they’re the ones I enjoy and will print off for me to frame and enjoy in the real world.
I do this because it brings me joy. The feedback and comments are great and I love that people really engage with my pictures but if Instagram stopped existing, I’d still want to take pictures and would find a way of sharing my hobby.
In terms of secrets, I try and make my figures look like people. Get low to make them look bigger so it looks like you’re on eye level. Put them in front of buildings/trees etc. so they look like they’re in their own world and think about what they’re doing to tell a story. You’ll be surprised about how they can be made to look like they’re alive!
The image below is of one of my favourite photos and features a character with my name “Benny” – so I’m really glad I got this printed and framed.
And that’s it, folks! Thank you, Benjamin, for having this interview with us and letting us take a sneak peek into your world. As for everyone else, don’t forget to check out Benjamin’s Instagram page and give him some love! He truly has an incredible collection and he proudly shows it in his pictures!
All the images belong to b.a.d.LEGO