How I Continually Improved A Photo about Totoro

The final iteration of my photo

One of the many things I learned from Walt Disney that I still use in any aspect of my life is the concept of plussing up. Anything can be improved by changing just one aspect of it.

The same approach goes with photography. No matter what step you are in taking a photo, whether you are in ideation mode, actually taking the photo or in the post edit phase, take a step back and look at your photo objectively. Imagine what one extra aspect you could change about that photo, and just do it.

This article will break down how over a few months, I continually improved an idea I had for a photo of my Totoro (from the classic anime ‘My Neighbour Totoro’ for the uninitiated) paperweight in the rain and made a great photo out of it.

Attempt 1 — Among the Leaves

The original idea began when I was working in my room and it was raining hard outside my window.

This is the view I see outside my window

I turned my head back to my computer and I see my Totoro paperweight looking straight at me.

A Totoro paperweight I bought at a Ghibli store in Tokyo

Then I thought wouldn’t it be a great photo to have Totoro among the leaves in the tree outside whilst it was raining heavily outside. It would be like he was trying to poorly shield himself from big heavy rain droplets.

I went outside and put Totoro on a tree branch. I then set up my tripod and attached my camera, ready to shoot thousands of photos for the one right photo. I got a hose and rained down from the top of the tree so droplets would come down. I took a whole bunch of photos quickly and the following photo was the best of the bunch.

Although the droplets looked good, there are a couple of things in the photo that can be improved.

  • The right hand side is blocked off by large leaves.
  • The photo could use more depth as it’s hard to tell the foreground elements apart from the background elements
  • Totoro should be the main subject of the photo but he’s sort of lost among the branches and leaves.

Next time I needed to make an effort to compose the next shot and have everything in its place before taking another photo.

Attempt 2 — Ready for your close up Totoro?

So I copied the same camera setup as in the previous photo, but the main difference was I moved the camera closer to Totoro whilst also risking my camera lens getting wet. The other difference was I took the photo earlier in the day so that more sunlight would expose the background better. This is the result.

There is already a huge improvement as Totoro is clearly the subject of the photo and is off centered. There isn’t anything else to distract you, and there’s a nice mix of light and shadows. I like that Totoro has a larger than life feel to this photo.

My main criticism is no matter what I did, it was hard to recreate the big droplets I wanted, and you can’t really tell it was raining. I wanted the water to be like a second character in the photo, which I haven’t been able to capture in the last two photos.

Attempt 3 — Balloon Drop!!!

For this attempt, I filled up a balloon full of water. Then I got a ladder and climbed up on it so I was a significant distance above my Totoro paperweight. Then with a pin, I pricked the balloon so a huge gush of water would envelop the figure like a tidal wave.

The final result looks like below.

I like how there’s something hypnotic about the water in this picture. The water looks like it’s alive and is going to eat Totoro alive.

I think a couple of criticisms here is that the water looked just like a large water splash and nothing like rain droplets. Another criticism is that the picture needs more light and highlights. You’d have to focus to identify Totoro, in this picture.

I could try to expose Totoro better in post editing phase and get some artificial brightness. Or I could redo this shot with so much more sunlight. Which is what I did next.

Attempt 4 — Trying to manage the drops

So using the same setup as Attempt #3, the only difference was that we took the photo in the morning with more sunshine.

The photo below is the best photo of that shoot (In post editing phase, I brought down the shadows and blacks to get more focus on the droplets this time).

The major improvement here is that Totoro isn’t being overpowered by the water and he’s the focus of attention here. Extra sunlight is always a positive, and worth considering having it for all photos. The colour palette for the last photo was dull.

However, the same problem persists here as it did for the other photos. The problem is that it is so hard to control how the water splashes appear and where they appear. I could be bursting water balloons all day and I might never get the shot I want. It was then I realised that I could never get the big raindrops I wanted from the balloon technique.

Back to the drawing board.

Attempt 5 — Being Faithful to ‘My Neighbour Totoro’

After the previous four attempts, I was done with the concept of Totoro under the rain.

By chance, I rewatched “My Neighbour Totoro” again and then I saw this scene.

Courtesy of Studio Ghibli

I then thought I should do try to retake this photo at nighttime. Since I didn’t want to be outdoors at night to do the photograph, I shot the photo indoors in a dark room. With a water sprayer, I sprayed at the top of the leaf so the water drops slide to the end of the leaf so you get the big droplets I wanted to get. Finally, to mimic the scene from above, I place a flashlight beyond the left side of the camera to act as the source of light from an incoming bus. The final photo is below.

The biggest improvement I see here is its simplicity. You can tell Totoro is the main subject, and the few droplets grab your attention as opposed to hundreds of them.

I think my main criticism is that there is a bit of coldness to it. I wanted to bring some warmth to this scene, hence the next attempt.

Attempt 6 — Nice and Simple does the Trick

So I feel like this is Deja Vu, but for this attempt, I repeated the same setup as the previous setup but made sure to get the shot during sunset. This is the best shot I got (Which is also the same shot as the cover shot of this article).

So by looking at this photo, you can see how I’ve fixed up all the mistakes made in the previous photos. Comparing the first photo to this photo, you can see the following improvements include:

  • Totoro is the clear subject of the photo, and the big leaf complements him and the little leaf he’s holding above his head.
  • The nice lighting from the sunset adds so much character to the photo.
  • Control over the droplets makes them look nice and cartoon like.
  • The minimalism helps sell the story better. The first four photos were way too busy and your eyes were darting everywhere.

The only thing I would ding this photograph is that it doesn't have hundreds of big droplets raining down which I originally envisioned.

Final Lessons

So before I let you go, to sum up everything I learned during this process:

  • Always have a rough idea what photo you want to take before you take it. Even though you will evolve it and make it better, it’s always good to have a solid foundation first
  • Never be afraid to change and evolve your photo as you get new and better ideas
  • A photo can ALWAYS be improved
  • Sometimes less is more.

I hope you enjoyed reading that, and if you liked my photos, you can follow me on Instagram at @ash_skywalker10

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