Thursday, August 10, 2017

Taking My Cosplay Photos To The Dark Side

I've been photographing conventions for about seven years now, and while I still love everything about it, I've been itching to bump up my game. Every con I get home, download my pics, and grouse about how terrible they are. Blurry faces, bad lighting, photobombing Deadpools - there's always SOMETHING, and it takes a lot of work in Lightroom to salvage most of my shots.

I've known for some time that using flash was the answer, but figuring out HOW was another story. John and I've chatted with lots of pros over the years, but most have heavy equipment or tripods and umbrellas to lug around. We were especially awed by one guy who set up two big flash strips in the shape of an L, because his photos had a completely blacked-out background, without the use of a backdrop. He wasn't mobile, though; he had to set up the lights and then get cosplayers to come to him, which is definitely not my style. (I like the hunt, chasing 'em down.)

I follow a few convention photographers online (you can't beat David Ngo for sheer quantity, btw, if you're looking), and one of the greats, Tristan Dudine, also has blacked-out backgrounds, like this:

Gorgeous, right?

I first thought he did these in a studio, so when a mutual friend told me nope, Tristan shoots AT the convention, it kind of blew my mind. Newly inspired, John and I began searching online for answers. We discovered there's a whole subset of photographers who do this, called "strobists." Again, though, most seem to use fairly cumbersome equipment, while we were determined to be completely mobile: no tripods, no umbrellas, no bulky or heavy gear.

Two days and dozens of photography boards, reviews, and tutorials later, John ordered these flashes from Amazon along with these diffusers. Next he moved to the garage to build some custom handles, and within three days we were taking practice shots of our Jawa. (Not the most cooperative model, but hey, she works for free.)

As luck would have it, MetroCon was happening that weekend in Tampa, so we packed up the crew, got a grip, came quick, grabbed the proton packs on our backs, and we split. (Bobby Brown is my jam. WHAT.)

John and I spent a deliriously wonderful day at MetroCon. We were running on about 3 hours sleep, but DANG was Metro a great con! I had no idea! There were Disney and Hamilton sing-alongs in the lobby, every other vendor had adorable plushies and chibi cuteness, and man oh man, sooo many great costumes! I could go on for pages about how MetroCon has single-handedly turned me on to anime conventions, but you're here for photography stuff, I know, so let's get back to that.

First, let me show you some of the successful shots we took that day, all on the vendor floor in the middle of the crowd:

[Rage Cosplay]

(I'm trying to play it cool, but this is like magic to me, you guys. I'M A LITTLE EXCITED.)

I like that we were able to light most - if not all - of the body sometimes. Most strobist photos are from the waist up, and with good reason, which I'll get to in a sec.

Here's the gist of the "secret," which I'm sure you photographers have already figured it out: You set your camera to manual with a fast shutter speed, high F-stop, and low ISO, so it won't record ANY ambient light. (Without flash your photo would be completely black.) Then you use off-set, diffused flash(es) to illuminate your subject. Since the camera ONLY records the light from the flash hitting what's closest to you - ie, the cosplayer - none of the other light in the room registers, leaving a pitch black background.

Confused? So was I. But go check out this incredible tutorial by Glyn Dewis; he explains it much better and in great detail.

This still took a lot of trial and error to adjust to, so my shots from the end of the day were definitely better than the beginning. Even so, and even with botched settings and a few literal misfires, I only had a handful of total losses. Most still look cool even when I did it "wrong," like when you can see the background because I forgot to angle away from the windows:

Of course you can always paint the background to solid black in post-processing, but for this one I kind of like the look.

When my settings were right and I wasn't facing into a bright window, the background was consistently blacked-out, with very little - if any - of the background needing processing:

Now here's the part where John and I put our own spin on this technique.

Instead of using tripods for the offset flashes, John holds them, allowing him to re-position on the fly. To do this, he made custom handles for the flashes: one longer for the overhead flash, the other shorter for the side flash.

John used a light-weight wooden dowel for the handles, painted and lacquered so they look professional. The metal loops at the bottom are for elastic straps that go around his wrist, so he can let the flashes hang down while he's walking. (They're so light John insists this is completely secure, plus it's added comfort and security.)

So here's the total amount of gear we used to get these shots:

  Not bad, right?

The flash attachment on my Canon 7D is also light, so I almost forget it's there:

And I'm shooting with the same 17-50 Sigma lens I always have.

Because he's holding them, John can get the flashes much closer, and angle them to compensate for large hats, props, etc.

Here you can see how John held the top flash lower and angled upward, into Sora's face.

This setup also means we can go TO the cosplayers, right there on the convention floor. No need to set up somewhere, or hope that the crowd flow brings people to us. I can get in the crowd and chase people, one of my favorite parts! That's especially essential for Dragon Con, where half the time the crowds are so thick you can't move without bumping elbows, and even a tiny tripod could be a major safety hazard.

In all my years at cons I've never seen another photographer shoot exactly like this, because it requires two people. It's perfect for us, though, because John and I are always together anyway, and now it allows John to be part of the process. Photo-taking has always been my thing, with John trailing behind and honestly being a bit bored. Now it's a collaboration, and that alone makes it a million times better. (Every project is better when you get to work with John.)

Here's a fun comparison to show you one of the best parts of the strobist technique. MetroCon and Tampa Comic Con are both held in the same convention center. Here's a shot I took of a Belle at Tampa (using my old method) vs a Belle at Metro (using the new one). Both cosplayers are in the exact same spot: same floor, same lighting, same seating area behind them.

See why the strobist method is such a godsend? NO MORE DISTRACTING BACKGROUNDS. Yay!

The strobist method does have drawbacks: it can easily be *too* dark - losing costume details - and lots of dramatic/harsh shadows. I find it takes about the same amount of time for post-processing as I've always taken, just with infinitely better results.

Besides, that dramatic look is perfect for cosplay, and I've found the flash makes everyone look twice as gorgeous. It's just universally flattering.

Oh! And no more yucky green casts from the convention hall lighting! YESSS. I didn't have to color-correct a single one of these photos. That alone is minor miracle.

Here's a comparison of straight-off-the-camera to final edit:

You can see I've lightened her up, cropped, brought out the shadows, boosted the color, and spot-edited out the overhead floor lights. That's a pretty quick edit, but other times I had someone walking close behind or other minor things that needed more extensive brushing-out. Not a big deal, but taking even 3 minutes per photo can add up when you take hundreds - and I generally spend more than that, because I'm a perfectionist. (For my finished 100 shots from MetroCon I spent over 8 hours editing, or roughly 5 minutes per photo. That's about average for me, but again, the result is SO MUCH BETTER.)

If you want to give the strobist technique a shot (heyooo), then here are a few tips I've learned the hard way:

- Angle AWAY from bright windows or lights when possible. This will save you editing them out later.

- Don't have your cosplayer stand in front of a vendor booth or wall, have her stand with her back to an open space. Remember, people in the background won't show up, provided they're at least a few feet back.

The exception to the "no walls" is if it's one you don't mind showing up in your photo:

White walls bounce back too much light, though, so steer clear of those.

- Be prepared to adjust your camera settings a lot on the fly. Darker costumes and skin tones need a lower F stop or a brighter flash, lest you get this situation:
She was also in front of a black wall. Boops.

(Again, that's a "mistake" - but it still looks kinda cool, right?)

- You *can* do group shots, if you arrange them right:

Have your subjects get snuggly, then make sure the farthest person is forward slightly into the light. Also be prepared to boost her exposure the most in post-processing.

Of course rules are made to be broken, so here's an example where I did none of that, but I still love the look:

These floors have a suitably BioShock-y feel, so I left them in. In fact, if you squint you might even see the people in the background, since I didn't bother painting them out, either. (Believe me, the temptation to spend another hour editing each photo to perfection IS STRONG, but I wanted to get this post up quickly.)

To be honest I feel pretty silly offering you guys advice, since I'm the newest of newbies myself and have only the barest idea of what I'm doing. Still, I figure if I can help even a little, why not share the dark side love?

[Duy Truong Cosplay]
John tells me this is his favorite shot. After years and years of crying over blurry photos, I love how razor-sharp all those costume details are.

Oh! Another thing I learned? Once you start using flash, everyone wants a business card. Most cons I'm only asked a handful of times for a card. This time I ran out of two case refills in just a few hours. Apparently flash = you know what you're doing, which was especially nerve-wracking considering we're still learning. I kept waiting for someone to yell, "FRAUD!" or quiz me on F-stops. Ha! Plus I was too scared to ever ask for more than 2 quick shots, even when I knew they'd turned out bad, because I hate inconveniencing people. :(  

                                [Little Songbird Cosplay]

For the most part we did pretty well, but it would be fun to have a solid few minutes with each cosplayer to really nail the angles. So hey, if I'm ever taking your picture, tell me if you've got extra time, yeah?

MetroCon could have been renamed Overwatch Con, btw, there was so much incredible game cosplay. It was AWESOME. I mean, just look at this Symmetra:


Well gang, I think I've covered everything? You'll notice I left out any technical advice on camera settings, because I'm still too new to give any. Just go read that tutorial I linked, then get to practicing!

I've posted the rest of my MetroCon photos on Flickr, so click over to my album to see the rest. (It was especially hard to choose favorites this time, believe me.) You'll see that some aren't edited as perfectly, or were shot with the wrong settings, so there are some visible backgrounds and too-dark faces, but overall I'm over the moon with this as a first test run.

I hope you enjoyed all my rambling and the fun eye candy! Feel free to ask questions in the comments, and I'll do my best - or I'll just have John answer all the hard ones. :)


  1. These are BEAUTIFUL! The lighting is stunning and what lovely crisp details on all the costumes. I never would have guessed they were hall shots.

  2. what fun. and SO GOOD!
    thanks for sharing all the info. you (and john!) are appreciated.

  3. Welcome to OFC! ( off camera flash) I follow a group where the leader sells those flashes and vatteries. I havent tried any yet vut seeing your con pics has me sold! Time to upgrade. :)

  4. That's some seriously cool photography! I'm in awe of how great the shots are - especially knowing what was happening around you. You guys rock!

  5. These are beautiful. Sometimes I like seeing that people are at a con and feeling like part of the event, but I also like how detailed and intimate these look. Really the angled light makes many of the characters more cinematic. If I was Cosplaying and someone got a beautiful photo line this of me, I'd happily pay for a print to put up like a portrait at home.

    1. This is exactly what I was thinking!

    2. Wouldn't this be fun for wedding photos?

    3. Thank you! The loss of the whole "con feel" is a real consideration for me, since I want to show off great costumes AND make readers feel like they were there. On the other hand, the amount of pro photographers at even the little cons has quadrupled over the years, and I feel like I've been taking the same shots as a dozen other photogs. It's discouraging when you don't feel like you're adding anything original, so this technique can help me bring something new to the table for everyone.

      I'll definitely try to still take some good atmosphere and crowd shots without flash, though: spontaneous dance parties, Deadpool conga lines, etc. ;)

  6. Really amazing! I love what you do and what you two do, together! Great write up, as well (as usual). :D

  7. Those are amazing! Thanks for letting us in on your secrets!

  8. That is super cool! Well done on your first attempt at this. What a great technique. Can't wait to see what you find at Dragon Con! And if I find myself at the other end of your camera at D*C, I'll definitely give you all the time you want! :D

  9. AHHHH I spy a great Magnus and Taako from The Adventure Zone in your album!!!

  10. Even though you thought it was an 'oops', I *LOVE* the one on the black background! I think it illustrates your point perfectly (plus the texture of the wall in the background is a cool effect). You guys continue to rock everything!

  11. Awwwww, now I kinda wanna go to a con in Florida just to have my picture taken by you two!!!! These look just as awesome as (and way cooler than) the official event photos I got from prom this spring. In other words, YOU ARE PRACTICALLY PROFESSIONALS! Yay for learning new stuff!
    Pinkie Welborne, 16

  12. That is seriously cool! I'm amazed :)

  13. "Every project is better when you get to work with John." <-- That should be the subtitle for your blog. Or your life. Jen, I've been following you for literally *years* and it gives me warm fuzzies and renewed faith in people and love watching (er, reading about) you and John geek out together and support each other and generally be amazing nerdy adorable people. Thank you!

    1. So true on the subtitle thing! Ha! If I ever get John to want to write a book with me, LOOK OUT. ;)

      Thank you for the sweetness, and for hanging around with us for this long!

    2. I was going write a comment that is essentially what katie said. I have *also* been following you for years, and it makes my heart glad to see how the two of you work and play together. Definitely feeling the warm fuzzies!

    3. You two are just too cute! Great collaboration and outstanding results.

  14. I see I am not the only one who owns the Ghostbusters 2 sound track.

  15. These are gorgeous! How easy would this technique be to do solo?

    1. Your only option doing this solo is to set up the flash(es) on stands, so you'd be stationary. I *have* seen photogs manage to hold a camera in one hand and hold up a flash umbrella in the other, but that's more a fill flash, not the same effect.

      If you're really trusting, I also watched a photog once enlist the cosplayers' friends/family to hold flashes. You'll rarely see a cosplayer alone on the floor, so that's an option... but you're also handing expensive equipment to strangers and instructing them on the fly!

  16. I don't know a thing about photography, but these photos are incredibly gorgeous! It's hard to believe these are taken in a crowded hall!

  17. Daaaaaang! Those are practically magic!

  18. This is wonderful. Not to nitpick, but the only thing missing from your tutorial is a photo of you and John in action! It would totally complete the description to see an image of you photographing while John is angling his flashes. The next time you do this, I hope you ask for a third party to photograph you two with your subject!

    1. Oh, I second this! I would love to see how you and John are positioned while taking the photos.

  19. ... I think I may have a teensy little crush on the steampunk March Hare there.

  20. Wow, those photos look amazing! Thanks for the tips - I probably would never have done the work needed to search all that out myself. (And you're the only blog I follow that every feature cons, so don't worry about looking like others - I'd never know :-) )

  21. This is so exciting! I've always been impressed with your convention photos, this just brings a whole new level to them. Great job.

  22. These are fantastic! Great job. I'd love to see one shot of you and John taking the pictures so I could get an idea of how your set up together. I wish I had a photo Sherpa to hold flashes for me - your so lucky! Love these pictures.

    1. Sure thing, we'll try to get someone to snap a pic of us next time - or I can at least show you guys how John stands, since that's the main difference.

  23. You all should try out a Q-flash! A little heavier, but more settings, more flexibility, & a power pack! You might be able to rent them at s camera rental shop. For the flashes you have now, they make battery packs too, it saves you from missing anything because you're changing batteries or waiting for dying batteries to recharge a flash. Plus, John will feel super pro-assistant with those slung over his shoulder! When I was working as an assistant, we called the people holding lights/flashes human light stands. Happy flashing!

  24. So clever! And what fantastic results!

    I thought you might like this link:

    I imagine you are aware of the graphics fairy site already, but I've just discovered it - I read this and thought, "Jen would love this!" 😄😄

  25. That's GREAT, I'm so excited for you! I've always loved your con pics, so I'm super excited for your future endeavors!

  26. Kind of off-topic but definitely inspired by the topic: Last month I went to a Steampunk con here in Detroit. Instead of wearing my usual stuff, I made myself a Victorian Wonder Woman outfit. I was amazed at how many people wanted pictures of me. I'm usually self-conscious about posing for photos so I thought of your con photos and struck action poses. That made the photographers happy and me smile, which further improved the photos. And when other people saw us, they came over to get photos of my poses. It was a different experience for me and one I might not have had if I hadn't been a regular reader. Your con photos inspired me and I had a great time.
    --Karen in Michigan

    1. Ahh, this makes me so happy! Action poses make such a difference all 'round; I'm so glad you took a chance and had fun with it!

  27. These shots are soooo cool! I love that you and John do so much stuff together -- you are an inspirational couple! :) I also wouldn't say no if you included a Deadpool conga line in your next post. That must have been a sight to see!

  28. Jen this is so great! My husband and I really enjoy going to cons and photographing cosplay, this exact setup would work for us so well. What cool results! This is super exciting, thank you so much for sharing!

  29. Wow, these are gorgeous! And I agree with another commenter up-thread, that wedding shots done this way would be super cool.

  30. Amazing stuff. I wish for another lifetime so I could do everything I could learn from you!

  31. every single one looks like a studio portrait. this isn't just fancy lighting and (what the...?) F stops - you have a real talent for this. i LOVE seeing them.

  32. She's a witch! MAGIC! OMG, I know nothing about photography and have been more than happy to go through every set of convention pictures you've offered. But these are pure magic and witchcraft and I'm quite upset about the fact that such sorcery can be done. Also thanx for explaining, although I didn't understand anything. Oh wait, I did understand again what a brilliant couple you are! Those who play together, stay together. You rock (my world, too). :)

  33. I have so much admiration for you two - creatives who share SO generously with the community. As per usual you describe one of your complex and clever endeavors in such a way that makes it sound so accessible and attainable. Inspiring! (even to this non-photographer...unless you count iPhone cat photos???)

  34. These photos are so amazing!!!
    Do you have any images or videos showing how you and John position yourself and the diffusers in regards to the photo subject? Using a flash is totally new to me so that would be helpful.
    Thanks so much!

  35. Jen, I LOVE how much you and John are a team in all aspects. You are my heroes.

  36. Love these!
    I have only one flash at the moment, and no trigger and no idea what I'm doing ... but I'm thinking of playing around with some of my very willing and cooperative vinyl "friends". They tend to be much more patient than my flesh and blood family and friends.

    I'd love to see some of your EXIF data on these, just to give an idea of starting point. I know every shot must be different because of whatever light happens to be where you are, but seeing some real numbers might be helpful.

    I like Patee333's question, too, wondering if anyone takes pictures of you and John taking some pictures. It would be great to see you in action. I know it would require another person, but if it would be super helpful to us other newbies.

  37. These are incredible! I would have thought they were studio shots for sure


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