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Living with Photography: The School of Cosplay Photography

By Norman Chan

Why I take cosplay photos at conventions, and the lessons I've learned from that experience.

I've taken a lot of cosplay photos. It's become sort of my thing at comic book conventions, the first one of which I attended in 2003 (as it was the first year WonderCon was held in San Francisco). For me, going to a convention used to be about waiting in long lines for artist autographs and sketches, even longer lines for panels to get a sneak peek at the next year's movies, and picking up collectibles and goodies that were exclusive to those events. These days, it's mostly me wandering the floor taking thousands of photos of booths, toys, memorabilia, and yes, the people who dress up as their favorite fictional characters. Part of this is practical--I've put up a gallery every year since 2008 for the places I've worked for--but it's increasingly become an educational exercise. Taking photos of cosplayers at comic book conventions is my idea of photography school, and I probably learn and practice more photography during the few days at a convention than I do the rest of the year.

So let's go though my cosplay photos over the years and talk about exactly what I've learned, what skills the convention environment is conducive to teaching, and which cosplay photos have been my favorite.

Convention floor cosplay photography is a lot of fun because it's like having a full day at a photo studio to practice photography, but without the actual studio. Instead of having to hire friends or models to sit in a room all day in front of hot lights, cosplayers--if you ask politely and courteously--are often willing to stand still for a photo. They're wearing elaborate costumes, have unique makeup, and often have several different expressive poses they'll do based on the character they're portraying. These are all traits that are wonderfully conducive to interesting photographs...if you know what you're doing.

But these photo opportunities also force the photographer to think on their feet and multi-task, since you're only going to get a few seconds to take a photo without imposing on the cosplayer. They're doing you a favor by letting you take a photo of them, and the last thing you want to do take up too much of their time or make them feel uncomfortable. So these are the things I've learned to keep in mind every time I'm at a convention, and they're lessons that apply in many other photography scenarios.

Plenty of light behind these guys, Norm.

Lighting is paramount. I didn't realize this for the first few years I was taking photos, and it's the number one reason why most of my older photos are crappy. Since I don't like how automatic flashes work, I've been shooting with natural and indoor lighting at every show. But the conditions under florescent lights of a massive convention hall, under natural lighting filtered through windows in a convention lobby, and outside below the Southern California sun require very different finessing. Because Comic-Con is spread through many locations, indoor and outside, I learned to adapt exposure compensation settings to accommodate for lighting. This is why I shoot at 1/3 stop down in exposure by default and adjust from there. More recently, the rapid shift between shooting indoors and outside has made me aware of the max shutter speed of my cameras, even 1/4000sec is sometimes not quick enough at midday.

Balance shutter speed and ISO. With lighting out of my control, there's only so much that exposure comp. can do without shutter needing to ratchet down to get a clear shot. That's when changing ISO comes in, and I've used convention floor cosplay portraits to figure out how fast I need a shutter to be to get a sharp photo of someone standing still indoors. Through hundreds of blurry photos, I've learned how different a portraiture is from still life photography, so I aim for at least 1/50 sec shutter and bump ISO up to accommodate that. I still try to keep ISO as low as I can, so my fingers automatically adjust from 400 to 200 ISO when I walk outside.

Indoor vs. outdoor lighting. The other thing that shooting both inside and outside of the San Diego convention center has taught me is the effect of white balance, and how colors show under sunlight vs artificial light. This is, of course, when I was still shooting just JPEGs. Auto-white balance doesn't always work the way you want if someone is wearing a costume that's overwhelmingly one color. I started manually adjusting white balance presets for indoor and outdoor conditions, which helped give me a better starting point for color correction in post-processing. Another consideration is how much to color correct for indoor lighting. If the hall lighting cast a slightly yellow light on everyone, is it accurate to completely correct that out of the scene or is that something I want to show? This is something I still wrestle with.

Good costume, god-awful photo composition.

Composition and framing helps. As I mentioned earlier, cosplayers are wonderful because they can exude so much personality, often in their facial expressions or poses. They can also come in different shapes and sizes, and when factoring in props (eg. large swords or stilts). That has taught me not to shoot every cosplayer the same way, and that I should experiment with composition to best show off that personality. If a cosplayer has cool makeup, then a face portrait may be more suitable than a full-body one. Likewise, for a dramatic action pose, I've learned to experiment with dramatic angles to put the entire costume in frame. It's also good to mix things up when shooting hundreds of photos in a day, so that a gallery has some variation to it.

Shift focal length. The difference between a wide angle and mid-range telephoto lens can be very dramatic, not just in how much of a costume you can cram into frame, but how those focal lengths distort faces and bodies in a portrait. I've shot entire conventions with lenses ranging from fast wide-angle primes to telephoto zooms, and on camera with different crop factors. In the moment of a shot, the only that matters is the lens you have attached to the camera at that moment, but that's where planning and foresight comes in. Going into a hall with a 24mm prime and you're limiting yourself to only a few styles of portraits. But from experimenting with lens switching mid-convention at WonderCon this year, I'm not convinced it's worth the hassle without having two cameras on hand. For Comic-Con this year, I want to rent Canon's 24-70mm f/2.8L lens, as that'll cover 95% of the shots I want. Another thing I had to consider is how close a wide-angle lens lets you get to a subject. Oftentimes, they're not aware that you're shooting wide-angle, and so a camera two feet from their face may feel awkward.

How to approach people. Technical edification is a welcome bonus to having fun taking cosplay photos, but the most important thing I've learned at conventions is how to approach strangers in a respectful way to ask for their time to take their photo. There have been many discussions online of late about the rude treatment of cosplayers at conventions--especially female ones--and it's disheartening to hear that this type of behavior comes not only from immature gawkers but also photographers. Cosplayers go to a convention to have fun, to celebrate their fandom, and if they want, to show off their craft. Wearing a costume does not automatically imply consent for someone to take a photograph, and nor does it ever hurt to ask permission to do so. Doing so politely and being mindful of the situation is the best way to approach anyone to take their photo, whether it's at a comic convention or just in the street. Basically, don't be a creep or a jerk.

Now let's go over some of my favorite shots from the past five years of cosplay photography.

Taken at Comic-Con 2005

This first photo was taken in 2005 at my very first San Diego Comic-Con. I was shooting with a Canon G5 back then, which was essentially a point and shoot with a few manual controls (which I had no idea how to use). It also had a built-in flash, which popped for this shot of a really cool Xenomorph costume. I remember opening this photo up when I got home and being really happy with it. It's a perfect example of cosplayers striking a pose and letting you compose a photo around them. If I was shooting this today, I would've leaned in even closer to get better look at that jaw and the person inside, or shot with a wide-ish (~24mm) lens.

Taken at Comic-Con 2008

This next photo was taken with the Canon 40D I had at Maximum PC, with a 17-40mm f/4 zoom lens. I had little idea what those specs meant at the time, outside of how to zoom and focus and changing ISO in Program mode. I remember going through my photos after the show and liking this one in particular, asking myself why that was. The lighting (and color) looked really good, which prompted me to realize that sunlight was coming in from outside into this lobby. It's made me keenly aware of where I am in relation to the sun whenever I have a camera in my hands. One thing I'm also cognizant of now is how I'm framing subjects. So if retaking this photo, I wouldn't have cut off their feet and left so much empty space above them, or would have zoomed in closer to frame their legs out.

Taken at Comic-Con 2010

Jump to two years later and I'm now shooting with a 30D and a 28-200mm f/3.5-5.6 lens. The photo was taken in almost the same location as the 2008 photo above it, but you can tell I'm better about positioning subjects in front of interesting backgrounds (when possible). I really love this photo for three reasons: that the crown on the Princess's head is right between the words "comic-con", that I shot this at a slight angle so that her dress flows into the bottom lefthand corner, and that the light was falling almost perfect on her hair and face. It was one of those moments at the convention where I had to stop and do a double take because the cosplayer was standing in the exact spot to look extra radiant.

Taken at Comic-Con 2011

For Comic-Con 2011, I rented a prime lens to put on the 30D, the first time I had tried BorrowLenses. The Canon 24mm f/1.4L helped my photos so much, especially for the shots inside the poorly-lit convention floor. It also allowed me to shoot at higher shutter speeds, which is the only way I could've taken this photo of a Tinkerbell in a semi-candid moment. Right as I was taking a photo of her, someone ran behind her and almost knocked her wings off. The photo is her reacting to that guy while turning, which is why the wings are slightly in motion. But it also captured this great over-the-shoulder glance from the cosplayer as we were all caught off guard. Her head turn gave some good contrast between her face and neck, and showed off her ears. I also like how the lights above the hall look like they're forming lines to direct attention to her face as a focal point.

Taken at Comic-Con 2012

Last year's Comic-Con was a great experience because I was shooting with the Sony NEX-C3 for a change. The small size of the camera and its swivel LCD let me take photos from different angles quickly, which I thought resulted in more dynamic poses. And with a much better APS-C sensor than the 30D or 40D, I experimented in bringing the camera closer in to take photos that were more like portraits.

Taken at WonderCon 2012

Finally, the two photos of the Mass Effect character Samara above and below, taken almost one year apart at WonderCon in Anaheim. The first photo was one of my favorites for the entire year, as a profile shot perfectly showed off the unique silhouette and detail of this amazing prosthetic (which takes the actress three hours to put on). And it's a lesson learned in how you can always improve, because I am even happier with the one I took this year, seen below. It's not just that my new full-frame camera shows much more detail, or that I shot in RAW for the first time at a convention and had the opportunity to tweak the photo in post. It's also that I the expression is much more natural on Samara's face. It looks much less like she's posing for a photo with a blank stare and just having a quiet moment of contemplation. I'm still not perfectly happy with the framing of background, so maybe I'll get another chance next year.

Taken at WonderCon 2013

Last week, I started our weekly photo challenges in the Tested Flickr group. That's a not-so-subtle reminder to join the group if you have a Flickr account! The first challenge was to take a photo of your favorite coffee mug--no other rules required. Thanks to those of you who contributed! Of the submissions from you guys, the one below from Daniel Taylor was my favorite. The composition is similar to one that I favor--positioning an object at the edge of a table and cutting off the corner of the table in the shot. In fact, it's actually kind of similar to the photo I took for this challenge too!

Photo via Daniel Taylor from the Tested Flickr group

But the thing I like most about Daniel's photo is the candle in the back. No only that it's still smoking (i had experimented with getting a photo of steam from my own coffee cup but wasn't happy with the results) but also how the gold and red colors of the candle match the colors of his mug. Congrats, Daniel--you win this week's no-prize :) With more people contributing, maybe I can scrounge up some actual prizes for the challenge. Anyway, my own contribution is below.

For this next week, the challenge is to take a photo of any piece of sports equipment. This can be a football, hockey puck, baseball bat, or anything other piece of sports paraphernalia you can get your hands on. I find that sports balls tend to have interesting textures, which would be interesting to capture. Again, here's the link to the Flick group!