Technique - Cosplay Photography: Think before you shoot
Article by Nic Walker (nic0) posted Wednesday 14th November 2007
by Nic Walker
With the ubiquity of cheap digital cameras today, any given anime convention is awash with people photographing the costumes on display. Traipsing through the aftermath of conventions on forums and photo sharing websites one would be perhaps forgiven for being a little disappointed at the thought that goes into some of the photos on display. They can often be hurriedly composed, one-shot affairs taken more as a record of the event - a reminder of a costume - than an honest effort to record the quality of it.
Cosplay photography can make or break a costume. Although the costume is worn for only a day or two, the photographs live on long after the original clothing has been stuffed in the back of your wardrobe. The photos end up in cosplay profiles, blogs, forums and photo sharing sites for months and years to come. As someone who is photographing someone else's costume you should do your best to make the outfit look as good as possible. Here are some tips on how you might make those photos a little better and maybe help them stand out from the crowd.
1) Get your camera set up to take the right picture
A good portrait needs you to have set up your camera before you take the shot. If you spend a few moments setting it up before you shoot, you'll appreciate it when you get the photos later on. Most digital cameras will let you choose from a series of preset modes and the more expensive ones will let you alter things like aperture and shutter speed independently. These adjustments are important because they can affect the way your subject stands out from the background. Portrait mode, or a low aperture, maximises the background blur, or bokeh, and can help to highlight the subject in front of their backdrop.
So, set your camera to "Portrait" mode. If you have a fancier camera with "Aperture Priority" or "AV" mode, select it and set a low aperture. Some cameras might give you better background blur if you stand back from your subject and zoom in, some might be better if you zoom out as far as you can and move in close. You might also find that zooming in from afar has a smoothing effect on their facial features, the nose will appear less prominent and this is usually flattering. Some professional portrait and model photographers zoom in so much and shoot from so far away that they need radios to communicate with the models. Experiment!
Other things to check on the camera before you take a photo: turn the flash off of automatic mode. Cheap built-in flashes will almost certainly make your photo look awful.
Most modern cameras also let you adjust the ISO setting of a photo. ISO is a way of measuring film sensitivity. Higher is more sensitive and can take photos in darker conditions but at the cost of making the photo look grainy. However, since most photos end up on the web and shrunk to screen sizes, up to ISO400, you're probably not going to mind about that grain. Some cameras deal with this better than others. Again, experiment with photos at different ISO levels and see what effect it has on both grain and your ability to shoot in low light.
2) Position your subject
Once you've found your subject, you need to put them somewhere. This is rather dependent on where you happen to be, but here are some tips on what to avoid and what to try:
- Go for natural light, try and position your subject where their face is nicely illuminated with the fewest stark shadows - especially across their face. Pay close attention to this, it’ll pay dividends later.
Stark Shadows Across Face
- Avoid any stark contrasts in the background: it can be difficult for the camera to pick out detail if you have very bright and very dark in the same picture. On bright days, this often means finding a scene where the sky isn't a feature: it's usually just too bright and will make your subject look too dark and the sky will be a swathe of bright white.
Over Exposed Background
- Unless you’re trying to be clever and compliment the costume’s theme, the more neutral the background is, the better. The costume's the interesting bit so don't put them in front of things that will draw the eye away from the costume.
- Don't photograph your cosplayer with other people behind them, it'll draw attention as well. Wait a few seconds for passers by to get out of the way, don’t panic!
- Stand your subject a few metres in front of walls, plants, backdrops - it helps draw the subject out from the background in the resulting photo. If their back is right up against a brick wall, the picture will look flatter and less dramatic.
Against Wall vs Away From Wall
3) What are you photographing?
Ok, you're taking a photo of a costume. The average person stood normally will take up the middle third of your frame from top to bottom and leave the edges woefully empty. This is a problem! You can do a few things to fix this:
- Pose! This can be tricky for you, as a photographer, but many cosplayers have it all ready to go. Ask them to pose. Something that makes the picture more interesting, full of character and hopefully, fills out your frame. Try and make sure, whatever happens, that they aren't just standing facing you, head and shoulders in the same direction - it's a recipe for a boring photo! At the absolute worst, get them to stand at a slight angle and look over their shoulder.
- Diagonals can help. Tilt your camera to capture the cosplayer at an angle. It fills out the frame and can let you move in a little closer and capture more detail. Be sensible, sometimes it can look a bit odd. Use your artistic judgement.
- Get closer. If you think the top half of their costume is particularly good or representative, sometimes you can move in closer and take a top-third portrait. This usually makes a better photo, but can also miss out important aspects that the cosplayer would rather you photographed. If they spent two weeks making those fancy shoes, you'd better include them!
4) Take the photo
If everything is ready, you've thought about what's in front of you and you're happy, then you're nearly ready to hit the shutter release. Make sure your subject is posed and ready with their smile or grimace or theatrical frown. Make sure you have a good steady stance and you're holding the camera firmly. Depress the shutter release halfway to focus, and make sure you're focussing on the eyes (always the eyes!) and release the shutter, making sure not to wobble the camera.
5) Review the photo
Your camera should give you the option to review the photo on the screen on the back of the camera. Is it too bright? Is it too dark? It might look fine on a tiny screen, but have a closer look: zoom in close on the face, is it in focus? If not, try again. If it's too dark, maybe raise the ISO or move them to a brighter place.
6) Back home
When you get home, process your photos before you upload them. Look at each photo and pick the best one or two of each cosplayer. Discard photos that you think aren't so good. Once you have a batch of photos you are happy with, process them in a photo editing program.
- Take a close look at the contrast and brightness and adjust these so the photo looks how you want it to look.
- Adjust the colour and saturation of the photo so that it best reflects the costume. Keep a close eye on the skin, keep it looking natural. Don't let it become too green or too orange!
- Crop the photograph if you've included too much above and below the feet or accidentally included a stray finger or someone's shoulder. Be bold in your crop: quite often the closer the crop, the better the photo.
I’ll leave the question of how much you want to touch-up and enhance the picture as an exercise in photographic ethics for the reader. There’s probably nothing wrong with touching up the odd spot or loose hair, after all these things are minor affairs and flatter the subject rather than making a substantial change to the nature of the person you photographed. Going much further than that, though, and you begin to tread on the toes of reality: are you still documenting the costume or creating a false impression of it?