Living with Photography: Shooting Dragon*Con

By Norman Chan

The lessons learned from shooting photos at this year's Dragon*Con, and why it was such a different type of event for photography than Comic-Con.

We went to Dragon*Con last weekend for a couple of reasons. We were there in support of Jamie and Adam, who performed a Behind The Myths show and also hosted a panel, we were there to shoot videos with a few local makers (amazing stuff that'll be up on the site in the next month), and we were also there to cap off the Volpin Project that's been going on for most of this year. In my spare time, I got to shoot some photos. OK, a lot of photos. But going into Dragon*Con--a bastion of incredible cosplay--I really didn't have any idea of what to expect of the shooting conditions. This was going to be a very different event from Comic-Con and WonderCon, the two conventions I've been to this year to shoot cosplay photos.

As with Comic-Con, I wanted to use the opportunity to test some new gear and experiment with some new techniques. As someone still getting used to photography, these types of shows require constant juggling between making the trip a learning experience and getting quality output to share with you guys. And coming out of Dragon*Con, I definitely did not feel as confident about my photos as I did leaving Comic-Con. Today, let's walk through the challenges faced shooting at this very unique convention, and what I did to try and overcome them.

We'll start with the gear that I brought to Dragon*Con and my loadouts for walking through the convention. Once again, Adam was extremely generous in loaning me his camera gear to take to the show. If you recall from earlier this summer, I walked through Comic-Con with two DSLRs strapped around my shoulder--a Canon 5D Mark III as my primary camera alternating between 50mm and 35mm lenses, and a Canon 6D with a 17-40 wide-angle zoom lens. I had also walked San Diego lugging around the Six Million Dollar Home camera bag for the spare lens, batteries, and memory cards.

For Dragon*Con, I wanted to slim down my loadout by not carrying a camera bag at all, meaning no option to switch lenses in the middle of the day. Based on your suggestions, I bought two camera straps: a BlackRapid Classic RS-4 (which I wrote about here) for when I only wanted to carry one camera, and a BlackRapid Double DR-1 harness for carrying both cameras at once. Wearing the Double harness was much more comfortable than strapping two cameras around my neck and shoulder--I didn't feel fatigued at all after a full day of walking around with two cameras. My only complaint with the Double is that it's a hassle to take off and strap back on for when you need to sit down for a moment, for example during lunch. Otherwise, it gets my recommendation.

Zoom lenses were left at home this time around. For the 5D, I chose to carry just the 50mm f/1.2 prime for portrait shots, and put a 24mm f/1.4 on the 6D to take care of group shot and full-body poses. These were very nice lenses borrowed from Adam, but you definitely don't need lenses with f/1.4 for these kinds of portraits. I never shot wider than f/2.5, because getting focus right was more important opening the sensor to more light. The wider you shoot, the more shallow the depth-of-field, and the more difficult it is to keep the focus plane on your subject's eyes. Between the two cameras, I also packed four batteries, two SD cards, a compact flash card (since the 5D can take two memory cards, I used CF for JPEGs and SD for RAW), and... a flash.

Dragon*Con was going to be my first major foray into shooting photos using a flash, which in retrospect, wasn't such a good idea. I bought a Yongnuo YN-560 II Speedlight on the cheap on Amazon, and spent the two weeks prior practicing with it. Long story short--two weeks was not enough to get accustomed to the flash, and I wasn't happy with the flash photos I took the first day at Dragon*Con. Frankly, I just sucked at it. I'll be working more with flash and writing about my experiences with it in the future, but this was not the event for it. A flash was initially in the cards because, unlike Comic-Con, Dragon*Con's ambient lighting was a nightmare.

If you listened to last week's podcast, you may have heard me talk about how Dragon*Con is structurally different from any convention I've ever been to. Unlike Comic-Con, WonderCon, or even CES, the event doesn't take place in a centralized convention center or have a main exhibit hall. At Comic-Con, I know the lay of the land like the back of my hand--the San Diego Convention Center only requires that I consider three lighting scenarios: outdoors in bright southern California sunlight, inside the very brightly-lit exhibit hall, and my favorite place to shoot, the convention center's lobby area where sunlight gets filtered through floor-to-ceiling windows for dramatic lighting. For each of these environments, I have a mental bookmark of camera aperture, ISO, and exposure-comp settings that I know will get me a decent photo. At the unfamiliar Dragon*Con, I had no such experience or luck with lighting.

Dragon*Con takes place across five hotels in downtown Atlanta, some of which are connected by elevated walkways so attendees don't have to cross the streets outside in the humidity and heat. If any place could be called the central hub, it's the 52-floor Marriott hotel, which sits in between the Hilton and the Hyatt. The Marriott is designed around a massive atrium spanning the first three floors of the hotel. It's at this atrium that most people congregate throughout the day (like a space station!), and where I found myself wandering during most of my free time taking photos. Unfortunately, the lighting on the atrium is atrocious. The first two levels are illuminated by low ceiling lights distributed unevenly across the floor. Photos here were cast in a garish orange hue that post-adjusted white balance struggled to correct.

On the top atrium level, the situation was improved but still confounding. At certain spots near the center of the room, natural light from the skylight would provide stronger illumination, but the light came almost straight down onto subjects, giving everyone unslightly shadows over their faces--AKA raccoon eyes. This was also something that post-processing couldn't completely eliminate. By the end of the weekend, I had learned to ask cosplayers to tilt their heads to let the natural light hit the sides of their faces, which alleviated some of the problem and gave the photos a slightly more dramatic look.

Worse yet, areas at the outer edge of the Marriott atrium were lit by two different light sources: some natural light bleeding from the skylight, and indoor flood lights underneath overhangs. The color temperatures for these lights are very different, so correcting for white balance meant that at least one part of the photo turned out very cold or very warm.

That's why every professional photography I saw wandering through the Marriott atrium was equipped with some kind of flash. I saw flashes with a variety of diffusers, bounce flashes used on the lower levels (where there was actually a ceiling to bounce off of), ring flashes, and even several backpack rigs with dual-flashes mounted high above the photographer's head. Those more experienced photographers were able to get much shaper and detailed photos than I was able to my settings: ISO 800, exposure stepped 2/3 stop down, and aperture at f/2.5. Whenever I used my flash, the foreground would be sharp and evenly lit, but the background would be obscured in darkness. The reason I prefer natural lighting is because it takes advantage of the shallow depth-of-field of wide-aperture lenses. I think bokeh is best when the environment can be seen to show the difference in focus between foreground and background. That doesn't mean it can't be done with a flash, of course--this photographer took some truly amazing photos with his D600 and flash. I'm just not there yet.

Side note: a few of my favorite photos were taken with light "borrowed" from other people's flashes and lighting setups, such as this astronaut and this action shot.

Feeling pretty defeated by the lighting conditions on the Marriott atrium, I walked around to try and find other populated locations that had better lighting. That wandering took me to the 10th floor of the Marriott, an open floor with no hotel rooms or furniture, surrounded by windows. This was a happy place. It was also where the pro photographers had set up photo shoots with some awesome cosplayers, so I was also able to take advantage of their availability and request some photos during their downtime. All of my best-lit indoor photos from Dragon*Con were taken on that 10th floor, even if it wasn't the most populated area. If you see pro photographers' Dragon*Con photos with that tan background, it was likely taken on the 10th floor against one of the big pillars in the middle of the room.

Finally, one more unique photography experience I had at Dragon*Con was the opportunity to join other photographers during a massive cosplayer meet-up. On Sunday, friends clued me to a gathering of Marvel-themed cosplayers that met up for group photo shoots. This was an incredible sight to behold--over a hundred cosplayers dressed as Marvel superheroes and villains in one outdoor courtyard, and organized into themed sections for fun group photos. A team of Avengers assembled to fight an Ultron (or two). A legion of Asgardians stood tall while thunder rang in the distance. Twenty Spider-men posed together to poke fun at the Clone saga. It was the most fun I had all weekend taking photos, and I was able to piggyback on other photographers' shoots to get some practice with dramatic poses.

Coming back from Dragon*Con, I spent all Labor Day processing photos in Lightroom. The techniques used there were similar to the ones I used at Comic-Con, ie. generous use of Lightroom 5's radial filter to compensate for poor indoor lighting. One new trick I started using, due to the difference light sources in some photos, was adjusting individual color luminance and saturation to make backgrounds look less orange. It was tricky to do that without fading skin tone or taking the color out of costumes, but I think I managed OK.

The big takeaway from Dragon*Con was learning how to adapt to unfamiliar lighting conditions and find ways to make the best of your environment. Proper use of flash still looms over my head as a white whale, and I welcome suggestions and advice from more experienced photographers about the best way to approach it.