Better Cosplay Photos: Before You Shoot

One of the most common myths about cosplay photography (and portrait photography in general) is that doing a shoot is as simple as running out the door with a camera, snapping some photos of a model, and posting the results. With today’s digital cameras, it certainly is possible to shoot that way, but doing so pretty much guarantees mediocre results. So what’s missing?

Bekalou as Youko from 12 Kingdoms. Photo by OscarC Photography.

The most obvious missing piece is post-processing. Almost every shot you take can be improved with a little (1-2 minutes) of post-processing. Pretty much every “WOW!” shot you’ve ever seen has been post-processed to some extent; posting photos straight off the camera is a sure road to average-looking photos.

Another missing piece is photo selection. Choosing what to post is key to making your photos look good. Not only does it hide your mistakes, it prevents your awesome photos from being drowned in a vast sea of mediocre and redundant shots.

However, both photo selection and post-processing occur after a shoot, so I will save them for another time. Just as important as those post-shoot tasks is pre-shoot planning, and that’s the topic for this post.

KittyCatChi as Catwoman. Photo by OscarC photography.

When planning a shoot, the first thing to choose is a location. It should be appropriate to the cosplay, of course, but you should also consider the location’s rules on photography, how crowded the location will be, and so on. (If you’re shooting at a convention, your choices for a location are more limited, but you can still decide where around con to shoot.)

Once you’ve selected the location, you should think from a shoot logistics point of view:

  • How much room will I have to shoot? In a large park, a 200mm lens works great; in a hotel room, a 24-105mm or similar wide lens works much better.
  • What kind of lighting will be available/allowed/possible? Will I need to bring my own? For outdoor shoots, will it be too windy for a soft box? Maybe it will be too windy for even for a reflector? For indoor shoots, can I bounce the flash off the ceiling? Are the normal room lights suitable? Is flash even allowed?
  • What time(s) would work best at that location? Noon on the beach usually isn’t good, unless it’s overcast. Midnight in a bad part of town also isn’t recommended.
  • When is the location too crowded? Does the location have special events that you want to avoid?
  • What’s the parking situation like? How much gear can I get to/from the shooting site?
  • How much background will I want visible in each shot? Do I want to pick up narrow slivers of background, or do I want wide-angle “everything around me” shots? (You can do both, as long as you’re willing to change lenses as needed, or if you are willing and able to juggle two camera bodies.)
  • When does the location close? How much time will I have to shoot there?
  • What style of shots do I want? Sunset photos with the city in the background? High-noon wild-west style? A completely blurred foliage background? etc.

WindoftheStars as Princess Serenity from Sailor Moon. Photo by OscarC Photography.

This info should also help you to pick a shooting time. Most cosplayers aren’t very aware of how time of day affects lighting (for outdoor shoots). You, as the photographer and lighting expert, need to work with them to pick a time that matches the style of shoot that they (and you) want to do. For example, if they request a park shoot at 1pm, you may want to ask if sometime closer to sunset might work better. Don’t forget to allow set up, prep, and warm up time. For example, if you want to do a sunset shoot, don’t meet up 5 minutes before sunset and expect to be able to get the shot.

Once you’ve picked a shooting location and time, determine what gear you will need. For example, if you have multiple lenses, which one(s) will work best for the shots you want? Occasionally swapping lenses isn’t a problem, but if you find yourself swapping your lens every few photos, you probably haven’t planned out your shoot well. Also, what lighting gear will you need? Will you need an assistant?

WrenTheFaceless as Albert Wesker from Resident Evil. Photo by OscarC Photography.

Being prepared for the unexpected is good. Extra batteries, memory cards, etc, are a must. Throwing in an extra lens or a piece of lighting gear “just in case” is good, but if you find yourself bringing lots and lots of stuff “just in case”, that usually means you haven’t thought through your shoot well enough. There’s a fine line between taking advantage of the unexpected and just plain making everything up as you go along.

Ideally, every cosplayer will come to each shoot with a set of character-appropriate poses all ready; in reality, many cosplayers will have no poses ready, or, at best, one or two. Be ready with posing suggestions, and the composition and lighting to go with them. If you wait until the shoot before you start thinking about poses, your best pose ideas will likely occur to you in the car as you’re driving home afterwards. (Don’t ask me how I know!)

Finally, make sure you’re in sync with the cosplayer. Do your ideas for the shoot match what they want? For example, if you show up ready to shoot dark and broody, and they want bright and cheerful, you have a problem. If the cosplayer doesn’t like what you have planned, work with them before the shoot to come up with something mutually agreeable. Also, exchange cell numbers ahead of time, so that you can reach each other if something comes up or if someone has a problem finding the meetup location.

Once you’ve completed the pre-shoot planning, you’re ready to shoot! The planning doesn’t stop when the shooting starts, though, so my next post will discuss at-shoot planning.

About OscarC Photography

Oscar has been a convention and cosplay photographer since 2001. You can follow him on Facebook as OscarC Photography and on deviantArt as ocwajbaum.
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