Interview: Ateens

As a professional landscape photographer, Ateens uses his skills in figure and doll photography. His magical night sky photos are unique enough to make his work easily recognizable.

When did you decide to start collecting scale figures and dolls and why? Was it your intention from the beginning to photograph them? Did you have any experience with photography when you started to focus on figures and dolls?

I received my first figure, Fate Testarossa by Good Smile Company, from a friend around 2006. Well, at that time I was not so interested in figures which my parents forbade me to buy. I watched anime, bought anime CDs and sometimes some anime books, but I never thought of buying a figure (Conversely, nowadays the only anime products I buy are one or two figures a year. Sadly, I am not so young to collect anime products anymore.).

Speaking of figure photos, everyone wants to take a photo of them, don’t they? XD

The Moment of Twillight

At first, like everyone else, I was just taking photos because I thought they were pretty, just casually and for fun. But sometimes the world we live in seems to be a place which does not allow people to do things only for fun – I love to take a few shots when I get a new figure, I usually put them on my bed, and pick a small camera to take a few shots and upload them to forums. Then some guys in Baidu Tieba (one the largest forums in China) say that all my photos are rubbish – no composition, no control of exposure, no lighting setup, and so on. At first, I was surprised, but this behaviour irritated me more and more. And so I decided to dedicate myself to figure photography.

About 10 years have passed and I often think that without these guys I would not have taken all my photos.

The truth is that my father and I are both professional landscape photographers and this has had a very important influence on my figure photo style. I work almost exclusively outdoors, and I usually take two or three “safe” figures (safe means small, without too many small items, easy to pack, and less prone to damage) with me during my annual trip to different parts of the earth. I usually take two camera systems with me, one (below as ‘camera set B’) for my landscape work, the other (below as ‘camera set A’) for environment checking, composition experiment, and more often for shooting figures. These two sets of equipment are important since they are connected to my technique in figure shots.

Magic Moment

Your photos capturing the night sky are truly magical, I would say they make your work unique and easily recognizable. Could you take us through the process of creation?

Night photography is an important part of landscape photography, and perhaps the most difficult one. First, you need to find a suitable place with a dark enough environment; second, due to an equipment shortage, night photography is a battle with noise (digital distortion) as it requires delicate work in the later process and special techniques in an exposure.   

My night shots are divided into three parts, each part requiring an independent exposure and processing, and when they are merged, the overall second processing stage is inevitable. The first part is the foreground and the figure itself; for this part, I use camera set A. The best light source is the moon since she is still a nightlight source. I heard of a guy teaching others to shoot figures a few moments after sunset, which I disagree with. For this part, the aperture can be a bit small, like F8 with a long enough exposure (1 minute to 10 minutes or even longer) with suitable ISO (no more than ISO 1000). This is to make sure you take figure shots in night light with enough detail and less noise. The second part is the sky and horizon line which is called the background, the part using camera set B, with a large aperture (the larger the better) and high ISO (4000 or higher) and no more than a 30-second exposure. The third part is the middle-range ground, the sight between the figure and the sky/horizon: in this part, I need to use both set A and set B to take a shot with different exposure set-ups and select the most similar works to emerge. Generally, for the Milky Way shots, I have 10-20 shots to process.

Then I use PS to combine the foreground, middle ground, and background. Because I am very bad at using the PS tools, I have to use LR for all the work with light, texture, and colour. I love to use blue tones for the night sky which I believe is the best way to show an anime-like scenario.

You travel a lot to take these pictures. What is your favourite place you have visited thanks to figure/doll photography?

New Zealand. The starry sky in the southern hemisphere is completely different from in the north.

Starlight Concerto

What about your favourite figure/doll photo you have taken? Which one do you treasure the most?

It is very difficult to decide which is best. Regarding dolls, the one I took in New Zealand is perfect: My Everlasting Song. As for figures, it will be Kaori: To the Heavens.

Is there any upcoming figure/doll project you are going to surprise us with?

As I said earlier, I am a bit old to continue putting so much energy into figure photography, and my wife would also complain because I am really bad at taking portraits of real people. Still, I have a few ideas I have not realized yet. So, let’s see what happens in the future.

What cameras and lenses do you use to capture the figures/dolls?

I use a Nikon full-frame camera and all my favourite lenses are ultra-wide-angle.

It’s only the fairy tail

What would you recommend to someone who is considering collecting figures or dolls and taking photos of them? What camera and equipment would you recommend to start with?

Speaking of equipment, I will not recommend a DSLR camera. It is already 2020 so the time of SLR (Single Lens Reflex) has ended and people should look ahead.

If someone decides to take up figure photography specifically, I can recommend small, light cameras such as a Fujifilm-X, or a Sony non-full frame camera. Those are sufficient for nearly all types of figure photos. As for lenses, I suggest a pair of fixed focus ones, one is 24mm, the other is 50mm; if you are interested in a landscape figure shot, you can change the 24mm to a wide-angle lens of 10-24mm.

If someone decides to really learn to photograph (not only figure photography), then, if the budget allows it, a full-frame Sony A camera is the best choice. The first reason is that Sony has been making non-SLR cameras for many years, so the quality and techniques are guaranteed. Secondly, Sony has a complete line of full-frame lenses while Canon and Nikon are just starting and, frankly, the quality of Sony lenses is quite good now. It is ridiculous to use an adapter on a Nikon Z7 in order to use a Nikkor 14-24/2.8, you know. Regarding lenses, I suggest a 24-70/2.8 for a start, which is a Mr-Do-All lens suitable for nearly all types of photos you can imagine. Once you find your photo style, you can move on to a special fixed-focus lens, but that is still far away.

Do you have time for any other hobbies?

Yeah, playing open-world games and watching beautiful scenarios in them, LOL.

Travelling, of course.

Collecting anime CDs. It is an old habit of mine, which I have had for more than 25 years.

What is your favourite anime and anime character?

My favourite anime will always be The Vision of Escaflowne and Maison Ikkoku.

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