Living with Photography: Shooting San Diego Comic-Con

By Norman Chan

The lessons learned from shooting cosplay photos at Comic-Con this year.

So how about those cosplay photos? Today marks the culmination of months of anticipation/trepidation, planning, and photography practice to bring you guys my favorite Comic-Con cosplay gallery yet. Earlier this year, I wrote about how taking cosplay photos at conventions was basically my on-location schooling for learning DSLR photography, starting with my time fumbling with a Canon 40D at Maximum PC. It's something I take pride in, not because all of my photos have been good--but because these thousands of photos are a visual timeline of my evolution as a hobbyist photographer (someone on the forums generously called me a gifted amateur), with each year's Comic-Con a milestone for checking in on personal growth. To look back and scoff at my past years' photographs is a wonderful feeling, and I can't wait to look back on this year's photos in 2014 and hopefully feel markedly improved (maybe I'll even start using a flash!).

Photo credit: Nathan Buxton

But let's talk about gear and techniques, since at this point, my process for every con is a departure from the last. Last year's Comic-Con was shot with the Sony NEX-C3 compact mirrorless camera, when I was still shooting only with JPEGs. WonderCon in March was shot with my then-new Canon 6D, using two lenses: a 17-40mm f/4 wide-angle lens and a 50mm f/1.4 Sigma prime lens. I lugged my gear around in an InCase DSLR Pro backpack (still my current daypack), which I found to be a little bit too big for maneuverability on the convention floor. Putting the bag down to swap lenses took more time than I anticipated, and I felt uncomfortable holding up a cosplayer to snap more photos while they had somewhere to go. The plan for Comic-Con--a much larger and denser event--had to be different.

Fortunately, I was given the opportunity to borrow some of Adam's gear to shoot cosplay photos (as well as photos for Adam Incognito). As a like-minded gearhead, Adam doesn't skimp on camera equipment, but I didn't want to bring his entire collection of lenses. In the end, I borrowed his Canon 5D Mark III, 35mm f/1.4 prime, and 50mm f/1.2 prime. Along with my 6D and 17-40 wide-angle, I would have two camera bodies and three lenses to work with at Comic-Con.

To carry the cameras and lenses, I brought along a new Crumpler Six Million Dollar Home shoulder bag, which is advertised to be large enough to to hold a camera body and two lenses. As this would be my first on-location testing of both the bag and the 5D Mark III, I came back with plenty of thoughts on both those products. In short: the camera is great but the bag wasn't big enough.

Choosing a "loadout" for the floor was pretty easy. The 5D was going to be my primary camera, and I put the 50mm prime on that since the 35mm range was technically covered with the 17-40mm on the 6D. The extra 35mm lens, batteries, and SD cards were put in the sling bag, which has one main compartment that can be divided up using velcro sleeves. The front of the bag had pockets suitable for my phone and notebook, but the lone rear pocket wasn't big enough to hold a full-size iPad. iPad Mini, maybe. The 6D with the wide-angle was slung around my left shoulder along with the camera bag, and I held the 5D by hand, swapping between hands every so often to lessen the strain on my wrists and fingers. It's a noticeably heavier camera than the 6D, but the controls were very familiar and easy to adapt to. My lone hiccup was with the "review photo" playback button, which is by the thumb dial on the 6D but on the left side of the camera for the 5D. I would keep on accidentally hitting the "Q" quick-control button when trying to review a photo.

After shooting photos during all preview night last wednesday, I decided that I actually preferred to shoot with the 35mm lens over the 50mm. The 50mm is wonderful for close-up portraits--you can see it how I made use of it in the WonderCon gallery. That focal length is really perfect for capturing a person's face and upper torso, which is ideal for showing off the expressiveness of cosplayers and their awesome make-up jobs. But the 50mm is pretty much only suited for that. If you want to take full-body portraits, a 50mm requires that you step pretty far back from the subject to get their entire body in frame--or angle the camera so that they're not standing straight up across the frame. The further back you have to stand, the more opportunity there is for someone walking the floor to walk into your frame. The 35mm, however, worked really well for these full-body portraits at a manageable distance (in portrait or landscape). One of my favorite shots from the entire convention was of this Maleficent:

The 35mm focal length also was really well-suited for landscape shots with two or three subjects. With a 50mm, I could get approximately the same photo as the one below, but maybe would have had to crop out a significant portion of the Wolverines' claws to get both of them in. And while the 17-40mm lens could shoot at 35mm, it opened at a max of f/4 aperture, which didn't let enough light in on the convention floor. With both the 50mm and 35mm lenses, I shot at f/2.2 indoors with ISO 250, and bumped up to f/2.8 outdoors and ISO 100. The 17-40mm 6D was set to f/4 and ISO 400. These settings gave me a shutter speed of between 1/50-1/100 indoors, which was good enough for cosplayers standing [relatively] still.

And I ended up actually not taking many photos with the 6D. Part of this was because the 35mm was so good for most of my needs that I only brought up the wide-angle for a few group photos. Additionally, the camera bag wasn't actually big enough to easily slide in the 5D with a lens on the floor--I kind of had to cram it in when I really needed to. The bag is just fine for traveling with two lenses and a camera body, but best when that camera body has no lens attached. Consequently, I had to juggle the 5D in my left hand and hold the 6D up to my face to shoot a 20mm wide-angle photo. It wasn't easy, and I looked like a fool doing it:

Photo credit: Michael McMaster

Looking back on my loadout, if I wanted to bring two cameras (and fixed lenses) to a convention, I would want one to use a 35mm fast prime lens, and the other to use a fast wide-angle zoom. In a perfect world, that zoom would be the 16-35mm f/2.8, which I wasn't able to rent in time for Comic-Con (it's $2000 alone). And while the 5D was really awesome to use, it didn't convince me that it was worth the extra $1000 over the 6D, especially for an exhausting event where every extra ounce of weight matters. My favorite thing about the 5D, actually, was its ability to save JPEG and RAW photos to two different storage cards--Compact Flash and SD. And if I only was able to bring one camera, I would bring the 6D with a 35mm prime and rent a 24-70mm f/2.8 as an all-purpose lens (again, $2000 by itself).

Even though the photos look a little better, the lessons from conventions past applied here. Cosplay photography boils down to the three F's: Focus, Framing, and Fortune. Finding focus is never a given, even when using the 5D's 61-point cross-type auto-focus points. It takes a steady hand and trust in the optical viewfinder. Framing is something that just takes practice to learn so you can subconsciously decide on the spot how to compose a portrait. When shooting over a thousand photos at an event, you need to mix it up if possible and try to find interesting compositions--an enthusiastic pose on the cosplayer's part helps tremendously. And then there's the luck of the draw. Even when pacing through the halls of Comic-Con for four days straight (ow my feet), you're not going to run into every great cosplayer, or find every themed cosplay group, or even catch them in good lighting. But that's the fun of Comic-Con cosplay photography--you're constantly thinking on your feet, running through a mental checklist of variables, and keeping eyes peeled for that next great photo.