The Art of Cosplay: How to Photograph Cosplayers

This time, I’d like to tell you about a very cool genre within portraiture: Cosplay Photography. If you’re not familiar with it, Cosplay is a HUGE cult inside geek culture where people make costumes and dress up as their favorite characters from comic books, movies, video games and more. You often see it at conventions like Comic Con, Dragon Con, Wonder Con, etc. People either buy costumes or work for a really long time putting them together. Lots of famous cosplayers have big Instagram and Facebook followings. Cosplay photography has a huge community and following all over the world and it’s a field of specialty in portraiture photography and graphic design. There are different levels of Cosplay photography, from simple portraits at comic conventions to sessions in studios or on location. Editing is a big thing with Cosplay photography as many photographers spend hours creating fantasy backgrounds, locations and effects to make the photos look more like the source of inspiration.

Cosplay photography is super cool and fun to get into but before I explain that, let me tell you how I got into geek culture.

It’s the mid-80s and I’m possibly living the happiest days of my life as a kid. I am being introduced to TV shows like Batman, Green Hornet, and Alf; I’m attending costume parties dressed as Batman and Spiderman; I have an awesome one-piece Superman pajama; I just turned 5 and I’m seeing Star Wars for the first time–I’m hooked for life on sci-fi and geek culture. For most of my youth, I was obsessed with comic books, cartoons, sci-fi novels and movies. If I wasn’t playing football, stick ball or hockey on the street, I’d be reading a comic or watching some of my favorite cartoons; but it all changed when, for my 13th birthday, I got an electric guitar. I swapped comic books for tab-books and toys for pedals and CDs, but that’s another story.

Nowadays. I consider myself a moderate geek or poser geek if you’d like to call it that. I don’t read comic books anymore, I don’t like video games, nor watched a single episode of Game of Thrones or what’s hot on TV, but I know what’s on and try to inform myself to see if I like something. I’m more into sci-fi and martial art movies now, and I keep up with what’s being produced. In fact, I spend a fair amount of time watching movies and memorizing stills and frames for photographic purposes, and I freaking love Star Wars!

This fascination is the inspiration source for this project I call THE ART of COSPLAY, where I make portraits of Cosplayers at comic-conventions with the most amazing costumes and try to replicate what I see in my head. It’s a two sided story – on one end I want to get an epic portrait of my favorite characters and on the other, I’m making a tribute to the Cosplayers and their effort put into the costume.  

Let’s talk Cosplay Photography.

The Convergence of Geek Culture and Photography

As I mentioned in a previous article, I grew up as the only child in my family. I had to keep myself entertained, so besides going through old Life magazines that formed the basis of my photographic eye, comic book vignettes and movies frames shaped my creative eye. It wasn’t until I started to learn more about photography that I understood the similarities between a drawing and a photograph. Just like paintings, ALL artistic rules apply, like composition, rule of thirds, golden ratio, leading lines, colour palette, light and shadows to name a few. I learned a thing or two about portraiture most likely through comic books and movies. In fact, Cosplay was very helpful when I was determined to give it a go at making portraits. I thought if I could replicate the poses from my favorite characters, and frame my subjects just as they were on paper and film, then I could learn a lot about poses. The problem was getting the people in front of the lens, the people skills, etc.

Somehow, I found out about London Comic-Con, the biggest Cosplay event in Europe. It’s Cosplay heaven and everyone is dressing up and taking pictures, so I did extensive research and became fascinated by the huge Cosplay community. I had no idea how big and important it is and how serious it can be. For real, some of the Cosplayers are treated like celebrities and call themselves Professional Cosplayers. There are companies making props, costumes and all sorts of paraphernalia for Cosplay. So, I started following Cosplayers on Facebook and realized Cosplay photography was a thing just like wedding or sports photography. I was surprised to see there are no limits to what Cosplayers and photographers can do and started following Cosplay photographers too.

After attending my first comic-con, I realized I LOVE Cosplay photography and everything that goes with it: attending conventions and spending time with Cosplayers, they all have amazing stories to tell and we are so similar in many ways so this fascination became a project as I mentioned before.

If you ask me, Cosplayers are super cool people, really friendly, chilled and easy to talk to. I know it might seem intimidating to ask for someone’s portrait but trust me, they’ll appreciate you asking for a picture and engaging in conversation, ask them about their costume and tell them how cool it is.

Photographing Cosplayers: The Ins and Outs

For all the gear-heads out there, I started out with a Nikon D90, a kit 18-105mm and a “filthy-fifty” 50mm 1.8D that years later won me two awards in food photography. Now I use a Nikon D800 and the same 50mm under natural or available light. I will try some luck in October with the Fuji X100T and a Nissin i40 flashgun just to do something different.

At the beginning, expectations were very vague in terms of photography but I knew I wanted to photograph the most amazing Cosplayers in the most epic poses. It’s easier said than done. It took me a few conventions to learn how to interact with them and get the unspoken code of conduct. Little by little my social skills improved, therefore my way of communicating with them got easier and I was able to ask for poses, and portraits. 

In terms of editing, I want to focus on the Cosplayer and the costume so I learned how to delete backgrounds from Youtube, It’s a long and painful process especially if there is hair involved. The idea is to make them look as epic as possible and have a recognizable style. I’m not interested in creating fantasy backgrounds with fire and dragons or the Death Star behind. Sometimes I’ll add a flare or alighting effect if the Cosplay has lights.

Approaching a Subject and Coming Up With a Great Image

The way I approach my subjects is pretty simple. I walk around the convention and look for costumes and characters that I like; I ask them for their portrait, say how cool their costume is, talk about my project, ask for their details, exchange cards and move on. There are times when the Cosplayer has a ton of photographers around so I just wait to make eye contact, show my camera and wait for approval. Contrary to my ninja street photography style, on Cosplay photography I want to be noticed, ask for permission and engage in conversation.

Cosplay Photography allows me to explore different areas of photography and editing; I look at a cosplayer, the available light and in my mind I get a picture of how the final edit will look so I play with the settings on camera ignoring the metering. It makes it easier knowing the character so I can ask the Cosplayer what pose to pull off. If I don’t know the character but I like the costume, I just ask and have a chat with them and find out more about the character. Cosplay photography has taught me how to better frame a subject and to get an even light on them. I don’t use flash guns or reflectors, just natural light so placing my subject at the right angle is essential.

I seriously recommend you to give it a go at least once if you’re into geek culture and photography. Like I said, there are no limits on how creative you can get with Cosplay photography. If you plan to attend a convention, just stick to a few rules and you’ll be fine:

  1. Check the convention photography guidelines.
  2. Respect the Cosplayer and ALWAYS ask to take their photo.
  3. Don’t be a creep, don’t be a perv.
  4. Don’t touch…anything!
  5. Have fun and be friendly, compliment the Cosplayers.
  6. Be creative.
  7. Get there early and do your best.

Personally, I have no intention to commercialize these shots, they’re just for fun so I’m always happy to share them with the Cosplayer. I’m aware that by doing this they might turn them into posters, cards or whatever profitable goodie they can think of, all I ask is for in exchange is credit and links to my work. It’s my way to support them and allow them to carry on doing what they’re doing. It’s a collaboration.