I've been asked a number of times now to provide some sort of guide, FAQ, white paper, or just plain rambling on the fine art of writing a toy review. I guess they assume that after you do something for many years, over and over literally thousands of times, that you'd gain some sort of wisdom or insight. Aren't they in for a big surprise!
There are two aspects that are equally critical to any review - your text, and your photos. There's a lot ot be said in both areas, so let's split them up for a little easier discussion. There are also some general principles, guidelines, and thoughts that cover the idea of reviewing in general, so let's start there:
1 - Take what you're doing seriously. No, I don't mean that you should lose hair, sleep, family or friends over any of it, but avoid allowing the idea that "they're just toys" to become an excuse for being sloppy, or worse, unethical.
Yes, they are just toys, but these toys not only mean a lot to both the buyers and the sellers, they are the lifeblood for a whole lot of people. The design, manufacture and sale of these 'toys' means that people can feed themselves and their families, and in that way, these toys are just as serious as any other business. Often in the action figure business, there are many artists involved, and God knows, these people can get pretty cranky when you pick on their art. Be mindful of that, and remember that most people arn't trying to do a bad job - it's just that sometimes, their own agenda or the agenda of their company isn't to make the most kick ass Batman action figure ever seen by man.
2 - determine your customer. Who is your article intended to benefit most? You? Don't laugh, as I know lots of folks that have written reviews simply as a way to try to get to other writing gigs.
Toy manufacturers? There are lots of websites who consider them their primary customer, writing features and not reviews. Very little is ever said, other than the general specs and a "go get this!", and you know what? There's absolutely nothing wrong with that. It's a feature though, and not a review. A review is a critical look at a product, not a marketing method.
Toy buyers? That's the target of an actual review. They are looking to you to help them decide whether to purchase or not, and believe me, they really do buy (or not) on the basis of your recommendation, especially once they've grown to trust your
judgment. Toys aren't $5 a piece any more, and high end stuff is now routinely $50 - $200. That's a lot of cash for someone to drop without any other person's opinion. On top of that, the sale of many of these items is becoming more and more a sight unseen situation, and they are looking to someone other than the company to show them the good and bad.
Now here's the problem - you can't make both buyers and manufacturers 'happy' at the same time. If you're looking to provide an additional outlet for manufacturers to market their product through your features, you can still make buyers happy, but you have to be upfront about it. Keep calling your stuff 'reviews', and they'll figure it out. Instead, be clear that what you are doing is feature articles, and the buyers will read and enjoy, because you've set the proper expectation.
Likewise, if you want to do reviews, the manufacturers won't always be 'happy'. You have to point out the good and bad, and even when it's done in the best, most constructive and professional fashion, they won't like it. However, if you set expectations properly, they won't hate it. Manufacturers need to know you'll be fair, if not always positive, and that's something they'll be able to live with.
3 - treat people with respect. This is about the action figure, not the person responsible for it. Don't attack people personally, even if you think it makes you look funny. It's okay to say someone DID something stupid, it's not okay to say they ARE stupid. Subtle difference maybe, but it means quite a bit.
4 - judge the toy for the toy. Don't allow your opinions about a person at a company, a companies past antics, or the fact that
someone that likes this toy has the same first name as a guy that picked on you in grade school, to cloud your
judgment of a figure. If you have an issue with a particular license - either you love or hate it - be upfront about that with your readers, so they can realize that some of your positive or negative reaction may very well come from those feelings. It's impossible for humans to completely shut that stuff off, so the next best thing is to be honest about it.
5 - timing matters. The very best time to review a toy is the same time it hits shelves. That's when people really want to read about it. There are times that companies may send early product to review, but putting up a review 4 weeks or even more at times before actual retail product hits is pretty worthless, and usually quickly forgotten. Also, once a product has been on the shelf for 2 or 3 weeks, any review of it is reaching it's expiration date. If you can't get something up at the right time, move on.
Of course, there are exceptions to the rule. Things that go on clearance are good for a review, to highlight the opportunity for your readers. Also, some things have a much longer shelf life than others, especially things that are very far from the mainstream. It's all up to your
judgment, and your best guide will be what you'd want to see as a reader.
6 - be consistent in your updates. Pick a schedule and stick to it. You need to do regular content updates, and your readers need to know when to expect them. If you leave them to guess when to check on your site, eventually they'll stop guessing.
7 - avoid flame wars over your reviews. While there will be some aspects of any review that are pure fact, most of it is opinion. Some opinions may have more credibility because of past experience, common sense, or simply perception, but in the end they are still just opinions, and if you're looking for a fight you'll find one every review. When people don't agree, acknowledge it and move on. You'll have a far less stress in your life.
The pen is mightier than the sword!
Your text is obviously half the battle. Finding your own style and voice will be crucial to differentiating yourself from the pack.
1 - Don't be offended when you finally realize that a large percentage of your 'readers' don't actually read most of the text. That's who they are, and it's nothing personal.
2 - Don't be offended when a reader catches mistakes, points out errors, or questions your opinion. You will have readers that are better than any senior editor at Doubleday, and twice as critical. That's just who they are, and it's nothing personal. Smile, say thank you, and keep the whole "water off a duck's back" thing in mind.
3 - Remember what you're trying to do, and don't lose that focus. Your review is supposed to inform the reader about the toy or action figure. Some exposition on the license, the company, or the characters is nice, and can add some meat, but don't make it the theme. When I read a movie review of Lord of the Rings, I don't want two thirds of it to discuss the books and Tolkien, I want at least two thirds discussing the actual movie. Likewise, if I'm writing a review of a Catwoman figure, I don't spend the majority of the article on the history of Catwoman. You are safe to assume that someone interested in a particular action figure of a particular character probably knows the basics.
It is useful to add more on those characters that are obscure, or licenses that are unusual. But never over do it, and keep your focus on the main purpose.
4 - Don't get too cute. You might be the next Dave Barry, but in my experience, the odds are pretty small. Be factual and informative first, amusing second. Adding humor is always a good idea, particularly to something so humor prone, but once again, don't lose your main focus. If you want to be the ultimate humorist, do the occasional feature piece specifically for it.
5 - it may take some time, but you will find your own voice and style. Don't force anything, and don't try to write like someone else. If you use big words naturally, then use them. If you write in simple sentences naturally, go that route. If you start with your natural voice, and add the occasional improvement here or there to your style, you'll get there much faster. Remember, you're not trying to be on the best seller's list, you're trying to inform, first and foremost. Getting too far from your natural voice will mean extra work on every review, which will mean fewer reviews, which will mean less interest to your readers.
I've always talked about how the overall layout of my reviews - breaking each review into specific categories - was useful to the reader, and it is. If you're an articulation junkie, by breaking that section out I can give you a better, more personalized view into what your overall opinion on a particular figure might be. But that's only half the story. That particular layout also works extremely well for me, making it easier for me to do reviews.
If I did a rambling review, like Ebert does of a movie, I'd have to sit down and do the entire review in a single sitting. My thoughts would need to flow smoothly, and constant
interruptions would only increase the amount of time and frustration. That's who I am and how I work. However, by breaking my reviews into logical pieces, I can write sections in short bursts, and complete a review when I have time, rather than in a single sitting. For me, this makes doing the regular updates far less difficult. You need to find a style and layout that works for you, something that allows your natural voice to come through, and allows you to fit the work into what is already a busy life.
All of this doesn't mean that once you've found a particular style or layout, it's now set in concrete for all time. You'll get good suggestions from your readers at times that you should incorporate, and some things may have less value to you over time. Being flexible and adjusting when it makes sense is only logical, but starting out with a consistent pattern will make your life a little less complicated.
Strike a pose, baby!
Alright, so now you know what you're going to write. But what about the photos? Some folks will tell you that the photos are the most critical aspect of your review - I'll certainly say that it is extremely important to do them well. And how do you do them well? There's nothing better than practice, practice, practice.
When it comes to photos, remember your purpose: to inform. You can certainly add a photo or two done in moody lighting with realistic backgrounds to wow the reader, but don't skip all the straight shots that actually show what the figure will look like on the shelf. It's not your job to make the figure look the best it can (remember, that's for the guy writing the feature), but instead make the figure look LIKE IT REALLY DOES.
And while it might be extremely tempting to do nothing but joke photos, the same rule applies. Adding one or two can be great (if you're actually funny), and my favorite thing is to try to come up with a photo that needs no caption at all to get a chuckle. But don't make it the focus, because your primary job is to inform, not entertain.
- when it comes to selecting a camera, features are more important that megapixels. If you assume that most of your photos will be web based, a 3 megapixel or more camera will be more than enough to take nice resolution photos. You can use it for the family photos too, as long as you don't plan on blowing them up to 8x10 or 11x14.
However, there are features that you'll want to look for that will make your life easier. A lens that can handle macro photography is key, and your ability to alter the shutter speed and/or aperture will go a long way to getting the best shots. You also want the ability to adjust your white balance, and multiple settings for various types of light sources. This will help with the camera's ability to correctly interpret colors under
fluorescent or incandescent lighting.
I personally recommend Nikon's, because I've always had great experiences with them. Canon users tend to love their cameras too, so I doubt you could go wrong there either. For the types of photos you're looking to shoot, brand won't be as critical as features though. Instead, select a brand based on any information you can find on reliability and build quality, to avoid getting a lemon.
- buy a good, solid tri-pod. I can not stress this enough. When you get to the lighting section, you'll see the commandment that says you will never, ever, under any circumstances, use a flash, but that means you'll need to maintain a very steady camera at some shutter speeds. To get the best pictures, you have to have a tri-pod.
- set aside some space you can use regularly. It helps to have a 5 x 10 area or so that you can use to shoot the photos without having to put everything up and take everything down again each time. This gets back to saving yourself headaches and effort in doing the reviews.
- and that brings us to lighting. This is another key area, and as I just said, you should never, ever use a flash. Okay, so that's a little bit of a lie - when shooting at toy shows and conventions, a flash is almost necessary. However, for shooting photos for reviews, where you are in control of the room lighting, do NOT use a flash.
Digital cameras need more light than traditional cameras. This gap is actually getting smaller as digital cameras improve, but it's still simply a factor of the technology. Invest in some very bright lights, at least 250 watt, preferably 500 watt. You can pick up work lights at your local Home Depot or Lowes that will do the trick nicely, and they will even come on nifty adjustable stands. A hand held version is also nice for adjusting shadows.
Other useful tools are reflective white panels, to use on opposite sides from light sources. These can reflect light back, reducing shadows but not eliminating them. You don't want to be so bright that you wash everything out, and shadows, particularly those around the feet and just behind the figure on the ground, add depth and realism to the subject. Having a variety of light sources will allow you to adjust accordingly. These adjustments will also be different for a figure that's 18" versions one that's 4".
Another useful item to work with lighting is filters to soften the light's glare. Ever seen the white umbrellas in front of lights at a professional studio? This white material diffuses the bright light, cutting down on glare and reflections. You can make your own, our you can buy them fairly cheaply online.
Getting enough light, and good light, isn't super expensive (far less than the cost of the camera), but it is the one aspect that will most improve your photos.
- Your background isn't critical, but is still important. Don't be too busy, but don't go so plain that the overall photo looses depth and perspective. I'm not a big fan of the
bed sheet backgrounds, and paper works much better. If you have the space, you can roll the paper out from the floor to back drop, giving the background an more 'infinite' appearance.
Color can be tricky. White is a common choice, and it works well enough, but lacks some of the depth of colored backgrounds. Certain colors work well with others and compliment the look of the figure more, but to do it right you'd have to swap around backgrounds quite often. I prefer a consistent appearance to the photos from review to review, and I also prefer blue, since it compliments the widest range of other colors.
Of course, occasionally using a specific background for a more artsy photo works well, and can lend a dramatic result.
- spend some time posing the figure. Make sure hands are turned in natural poses, any clothing is hanging flat, limbs aren't at odd angles, that sort of thing.
- shoot the photos at the figures level. When photographing kids, they always tell you to get down on their level for better shots, and the same thing applies here.
- How many photos should you have in a single review? Everyone understands that you can have too few, but sometimes they lose sight of the fact that you can have too many as well. If you're smart, you can show off multiple things with a single photo, reducing your need for dozens.
There are some absolute must haves, of course. First, you have to include a nice, clear, close up of the head sculpt. It doesn't need to be from 3 angles to get the point across, and that's the key - what's the point you're trying to convey. If he or she looks particularly good or bad from a particular angle, then a second shot may be warranted. A nice close up is critical, since it will be a huge deciding factor for most buyers.
It's nice to always include a package shot, whether or not you care about packaging as part of the actual review. This is because folks like to know what they are looking for on the peg or shelf, and it makes it easier for them to see it when they're out shopping. Again, though, no need to go nuts. One front on shot is almost always enough, unless you're attempting to make a specific point about a specific feature of the box or
card back in the text of your review.
A scale shot is also critical. While it's useful to tell someone in the text the height of a figure, that's rarely enough for them to visualize how the figure will look with others. There are a number of options that work, and it's up to you to pick one that you like the best. For example, some sites have done a great job using a 'line up' type approach, with the figures standing up straight next to each other with a ruled background behind them. I often use two different techniques - in one, I'll gather like figures together that you're most likely to use to display the figure (horror figures with other horror, cartoon with other cartoon, etc.); in the other, I'll use wildly different licenses, but include them to show the variation in scale (a 7" horror figure with a 6" superhero and an 8" movie property, for example). Another technique I've considered but not yet adopted is the inclusion of 'real life' items, like a Mountain Dew can, or ball point pen, to give the reader something well known as a reference point. Any and all of these techniques, plus plenty of others you can come up with, will fulfill the general purpose.
The last required photo is a full on frontal shot. I usually try to include all the accessories in this photo as well, in an attempt to avoid duplication or waste.
If the character includes a particularly cool accessory, or a particularly neat diorama base, throwing in a shot of this item by itself is often useful. It's not necessary however to shoot every accessory individually.
Now it's up to you to add in the number of additional pose shots you think fulfill the need without wasting space. It will also vary from review to review, based on many factors. For example, if I'm doing a single figure review, I expect to use four or five additional pose shots beyond the four requireds (headshot, full shot, package, scale). These might be photos with other figures for fun, special poses with bases or accessories, or close ups of other important details. If I'm shooting multiple figures in a single review, I try to make sure that each figure has at least one additional pose shot besides the full frontal.
I think it is quite possible to go overboard with photos. A shot of the front, left, right, and back for every figure isn't critical. Shots of individual accessories, 10 different poses, 3 or 4 head shots, and close ups of anything and everything will just add bloat to your review, while providing very little to the reader. Everyone realizes that an editor is an important job, taking the waste and bloat out of even a great writer's work. People understand the value of saying things succinctly and clearly, without adding in a lot of
unnecessary words. This same rule should apply when doing your photos.
- once again, don't get offended if someone doesn't think you're the next Ansel Adams. Remember, the photos should inform the reader, not become the actual focus themselves. Throw in an artsy photo here or there and experiment, but don't make that the majority of the photos.
- and the final, most important tip - take lots and lots of photos. I don't mean lots of different poses, although that's not a bad idea either. No, I mean take 4 or 5 of the same pose, and vary your settings and set up. Yes, I know you have that cute little screen on your camera that shows you the photo, but just how good it is won't be completely apparent til it's on your computer screen. Adjusting shutter speed and aperture will have a big effect on depth of field, lighting and 'feel', so taking multiples is always a wise idea. Besides, it's a lot easier than finding out that one shot you thought was so damn cool ended up slightly out of focus.
There are times I use photos that I'm not completely happy with, and generally it's because I simply didn't take enough shots. I've never said to myself "Gee, I wish I hadn't pushed the button so many times!" The other big advantage to taking lots of photos of the same pose, but with different settings, is that you'll learn far more about photography than any book is ever going to teach you. They'll explain to you all the manual adjustments you can make, and what that technically means, but until you do it yourself, repeatedly, you won't really understand. Do it enough, and the understanding will actually become second nature, making it easier for you to get great shots with less adjustment.
But what about all the pretty buttons?
If you've been paying close attention, you'll notice I haven't really said anything about your site itself - just the reviews. Of course your overall site should be visually appealing, and most
certainly easy to navigate. But once again don't lose focus - people aren't coming to your site first and foremost because of the pretty logo, it's to read your reviews. Content is king. Remember that a monkey can put on a tuxedo, but the only one who will think he's anything more than chimp in a suit is the monkey.
You're going to have a finite amount of time to spend on your reviews and/or site. Any time you spend on the site, updating buttons and graphics, adding features, tweaking layouts, is time you won't spend writing reviews, the main reason people are coming in. The occasional site redesign is always a welcome thing, but don't over do it.
Of course, if you're doing reviews for someone else's site, you won't have those worries anyway. Consider yourself lucky.