2. Objectives and Purpose
3. Pre-Convention Research
4. Pre-Convention Rituals / Planning
5. Packing for the Convention / Gear and Equipment
6. On Location
7. Legal Shi* Stuff!
8. Editing / Distribution
I just wanted to say thanks for taking the time to read what I have to say and ask that you take what I say with a grain of salt-this is purely from my experience and does not necessarily relate to everyone else. What you will find is tried and true applications that I have experienced that just happen to work for me. I hope that by reading this, you will take what I have learned and apply it to your own works and continue to promote and draw eyes to our little subculture that we have chosen for ourselves.
When I first started going to conventions, it was when I had just graduated: 2004, I rewarded myself for leaving the public school system by going to my first convention, A-KON 15 in Dallas, Texas at a hotel now part of the Sheraton franchise. My one real possession at the time was a Mini-DV camcorder and wide-eyes at the mainstream culture I had wanted to be a part of for so long. During this time period, the cosplay photography scene was not as noticeable to me then-everything really seemed to be taking off for the first time, or that's how I saw it. DeviantArt in 2004 was to me, this small little site in the back of my mind that all my anime friends frequented. I didn't realize how big it actually was. But, the anime explosion was about to take off big time, following Cartoon Network's "Toonami."
Six years later, I still continue to frequent conventions and document them.
I'm definitely not as big as some of the regular names people throw around like SkyPirate or Eurobeat King, but maybe someday, with luck and a little refinement of skills, maybe that'll be a reality. At the time of this writing, maybe one or two people have actively come up to me and recognized me at a convention halfway across the state I live in, that I attended for the first time. I am a student of journalism and criminal justice and would like to one day take on photography professionally, or at least, as major hobby. The experiences and memories I've had during this time are all worth it to me as is the forced learning of new skills and techniques as trial by fire, so to speak.
2. Objectives and Purpose
Before you even lift your camera, there is an important thing that you, the photographer, need to recognize: Are your photos for your glory or theirs? Is it for your own personal gain or to spread awareness of our subculture? Is it just to be another snapshot in your pocket, or something you casually throw on Myspace and is it going to be an artistic extension of yourself, for the dramatics out there who live for art. Cosplay has been going on for an extremely long time and still people are finding new ways to make it fresh: like all forms of photography and mass media, it is simply looking at something with a fresh set of eyes that makes all the difference. The mistake people all tend to make about all forms of mass media is that many perceive the world, recording it and comparing it to a reality that exists, but the truth of the fact is that it really is YOUR perception of this reality. What you see and what another person sees can be infinitely different. Photography can also get expensive the more in-depth you get into it, so prepare for this as well before you take that plunge straight into the deep end.
Egos aside (you will face thousands of these in cosplayers and other photographers), the number one thing YOU must remember is that this is all about the cosplayer-they ARE the subject. Having a clear head on what you want to accomplish and setting goals for each convention will make it that much easier to accomplish. The other part of this is that you must remember that with all media comes accountability and that what you do affects everything to the wary public eye. For a convention, you are free marketing and in turn you get hits on your webpage/deviant art as well as recognition within the community as you fine-tune your skills. You are the eyes for those who are not attending and for those who want to see what they may have missed. You are forming memories and shaping public perception and providing historical documentation for both people and the convention, like a normal journalist does with the rest of the world. So put on a good public face and keep cameras welcome at conventions. With this little thing mentioned, let's delve in a bit deeper.
3. Pre-Convention Research
One important thing that I strongly recommend is that you know your location. In the cult classic sci-fi film, Tremors, main badass Burt Gummer always stresses that you "Know your terrain." When you plan to document a convention, you should get an idea of what you're getting yourself into. Statistics of a convention tell you what to expect from crowds, knowing the building and floorplan will help you get an idea of what to expect space-wise. Reading a statistic and showing up to see 35,000 people on a floor are two different things. After your first convention, you'll begin to grasp how big these things can get and certainly, the hazards of these events.
Learn what media policies are applicable to you, see if the guests are appealing to you. You may be there for photography, but you should also remember that this convention is why you're here. There's panels, there's meet and greets and autographs and the all mighty dealers room. Some of us spend our whole days in photo rooms, patrolling the floors like a cop on the beat, or casually browsing and watching while we have fun. Knowing what's coming and what's ahead is critical to how well you perform, even before you arrive, otherwise you just might be playing investigator, trying to catch up and see what's going on while others who prepared are well on their way into getting some photos.
Depending on the size of the convention, you may even need to upgrade your equipment to match the crowds. Images are plentiful these days with the rise in social networking and ease of internet access and availability of space-my searches always start on flickr and then move to google images, but the options for search are limitless and most forums have a post with galleries open to browse. These are the best way to gauge the situation, unless it's a first year or a new locale, in which case, YOU are forming future opinions. Seeing what the spread is might make or break it for you, but others as well.
I once cosplayed and felt so out of place that it ruined the experience for me, particularly because no one wanted to photograph my costume, but also because I completely didn't fit the part-I never did it again. I guess you could say this shaped my opinion: my personal policy is to get everything-both the good and bad because what it all comes down to for me, personally, is sympathy and feelings-no one wants to be ignored and I do my best to cater to everyone. I understand that some people choose to ignore overdone cosplays from certain series, but I enjoy it all equally, even after all this time. Though, I will admit, some things are beginning to wear thin. For those of you feeling this, you'll just have to adapt and endure to overcome those feelings-there's a job to be done.
4. Pre-Convention Rituals / Planning
Before every convention, I tend to do a little research on the convention, but aside from that, I do regular equipment checkups. Every month leading up until the convention, I'll tend to go through all my equipment and check it several times. I check the camera straps for fraying and the camera for sensor dust: I go through memory cards and evaluate everything on how it performs up until weeks before the convention. Even on the day of the trip, I'll double check my bags and gear even before leaving and then once again on arrival. It's a very repetitive and compulsive thing, but with only one camera, you might understand. You'll also need to be aware of your pack, the equipment that you carry with you, the weight, the heft and how it comes together in the long-run. College students should be well suited to the task-we carry piles of books regularly. You'll be carrying it for at least six hours a day or more.
One thing I highly encourage is community integration. In my own personal experience, I've found that out of all the conventions I've attended, I've had much more success and reception from those that I have previously touched based with. My approach to journalism has been very hands on, feeling that if you're not there and not part of it, you simply just don't get it. To be an outsider looking in is a very awkward feeling, so if you were hesitant, then brace yourself because you're heading into dark territory and submersing yourself in anime and cosplay head-on. You're either going to love it, or hate it and usually it'll be the fandom that drags down your spirits. Some fans can be pretty crazy, so take it with a grain of salt and just keep on taking pictures.
When you do this, join forums, talk to people and form friendships: besides making picture taking easier, there's a pretty significant bonus from all this, as well. When you integrate and become part of that community, you are made privy to different things that people plan. These activities can range from photo shoots to socials and even group gatherings. Sites like cosplay.com have sub forums that are specific to conventions where these are planned. Conventions are slowly making public photography rooms that are being used, but there's still a secret underground aspect that happens and when you become a part of it, you too are in the loop. That's an edge on others who are only brought in by word of mouth. If you're not social, prepare to be, because it's critical that you talk to people and play well with others in this particular field, especially if you want to improve your skills and your work. If a thread for cosplay meetups doesn't exist, feel free to make one. This is all part of what I call the Cheat Sheet or your personal guide.
Conventions offer guidebooks and daily schedules of events going on, but do not cover that previously mentioned secret aspect. I printout a sheet of cosplay meets and other forum-related things that I find from numerous sites and take it with me, crossing them off as I go through each day. Now that I have an iphone/pda, I can easily accommodate these schedules, set up alarms and more. Despite all this, I still prefer the paper and pencil approach, as batteries fail and often do. Locations are not always specific for many of these unofficial events, so you might need to play detective. At Onicon in 2009, I was to attend a Hitman Reborn! gathering, but the location was extremely vague since venues changed. By looking around and asking cosplayers from that series, not only did I find the photo shoot, but was able to bring in several others who were unaware of it. Never be afraid to ask questions-your fellow con-goer will probably know more than you do.
By having a plan, you will never be at a loss of what to do, where to go and how to approach your objectives.
5. Gear and Equipment
So now that you have a plan, we're getting to the real gear head area: Cameras! They come in many shapes, many sizes, from brand names, no names and offer a myriad of features from auto modes, facial recognition and time travel.
Maybe, not. What you use is not really as important as how you use it. Traditional journalists carry two cameras, one with a wide angle lens and one with a telephoto, but for most people at conventions, it's simply too much gear, too costly and really just gets in the way of your flexibility. Your ideal equipment if you're starting off should be what most refer to as super zooms, more advanced point and shoots-they're cheap enough, have decent battery life and offer a number of options a normal point and shoot doesn't have-you'll recognize them by the big fact that they have a lens that shoots out of the body. This is not to say that I haven't seen impressive things done on point and shoots. What really will help you get along and adapt is how well your camera can adapt to the situation and to make the best you can out of what you have available. Burt Gummer saying number two, comes in here: "Doing what I can with what I got."
DSLRs are increasingly cheap in value and something I would suggest looking into, more so than a super zoom. If you can get a DSLR, do that instead. They have UPGRADES in the form of lenses, they offer more control than even super zooms and are usually faster and better in every way, especially battery life. A DSLR is one of those big fancy looking cameras you see at stores that cost as impressively as the look-but they don't have to. Unless you're doing billboards, you really shouldn't need more than 12 megapixels.
Don't be misled by claims that megapixels make the image. They're a small fraction: what matters most when picking a camera is the quality of the lens, the image sensor and how well it handles digital noise. It also needs to have a hot shoe, which allows you external flash options which definitely stretches the battery life. Everything else should be regarded as bells and whistles. Ultimately, the biggest factor is how it feels. To me and this is just me, Nikons have always felt like toys. They offer better optics, I'm told, but I will always be a Canon fanboy.
When I first started, I was casually taking video, since photography wasn't too big of a deal to me. When I realized I wasn't very good at video (90% of the video was my shoes and that amazing red carpet that A-Kon used to have at its hotel venue then until 2009), I quickly adopted still images and what a hassle it has been until recently. That same year I had been using disposable film cameras with mixed results. The first thing you're going to learn is that the onboard flash on your camera is a nice gesture, but you need more, most of the time.
Diffusion is what makes photography great and is something you will need to learn to use. The same reason light bulbs are painted white and lamps have shades is what you need for your camera. I use a Gary Fong Lightsphere, which is meant for external flash and does a fantastic job. If you're stuck with an onboard flash, try putting some wax paper or putting a piece of milk carton in front of it or part of a clear film canister-there's cheap ways online of how to do this if you simply Google. Diffusion is all about softening the flash that you're hitting your subject with and it's something you can't ignore. It's comparable to a desk lamp with a shade on it-you're trying to soften it up to have a more natural lighting solution. Unless you're outdoors, YOU NEED FLASH and even then it might be needed. One of the best ways to study lighting is to simply take a lamp, have someone stand in a room and circle around them, looking at how the shadows move and change. You can do this with statues, chairs and by simply looking out your window and seeing how the world changes every hour of the day. You will be a student for life.
An external flash, also called a strobe is your best friend-it's got its own power supply, it's a dedicated unit designed solely to charge and shoot the flash, so it's practically going to be light on demand when you want it. If you want to mix things up, you might even want to try using wireless transceivers to take the flash off the camera and play around with it. We call this strobist, lighting and it's full of options and approaches. If wireless is too expensive, you might even consider using an off shoe camera cable which is cheaper. For more information on strobist lighting, hit up Google and look around. You could easily have a full set of three or more lights and set them up wirelessly for under 60-100 dollars. The point of all this is that it's a mobile studio lighting system in a bag and that's a pretty good thing to have.
At this point, I'm going to assume you have a small vested interest and might know a few things about the basics of photography besides simply pushing the button. I don't want to write a book on photography, so please research some of these things to learn more about them.
With a flash and a camera ready to go, you're going need to eventually invest in a lens. Wide angle is favored by most over telephoto lenses and usually have numbers associated with them such as f/4. What this refers to is the aperture-that funny little eye on the camera that snaps open and closed. You might see a photo online, for example with a person in focus and the background blurred. This photography technique is pulled off by having a tiny aperture, because in photography, the way numbers work is entirely backwards, when it comes to this particular instance and with full frame, everything changes. Let's say your lens says 28-174 or something. With a full frame camera, what it says is what you get. With anything else, there's math that comes into play on what the real magnification is, but for the average person, you'll never know. I won't go into too much detail on this as math isn't my best subject.
The concept of aperture and focal planes took me almost a year to finally grasp. An example would be f/22 which is great for the outdoors: everything's going be sharp and crisp most of the time. With f/5.6 and lower, you begin to lose more of image fidelity as the eye on the front gets bigger. This is great for making a subject stand out from their background. Each camera and lens are different so take the time out to play and study how it works.
The other key to your success is your camera bag/backpack. This will hold all your batteries, memory cards and other things you aren't using. I like to pack light and be ready to move to another area quickly if I need to. Satchels can cause back pain over long time while backpacks can be big, clunky, but balance the load well. It's ultimately down to personal preference and accessibility when necessary, so just do what feels right: you will be carrying it for days.
One of the most important tools at your disposal are business cards. Having a card establishes you as a professional, first off and gives your subjects a location where they can find what they're looking for. This enables you to build up a reputation as well as keep the community as a whole happy and perhaps inspire others if that is your intentions. The backside, I try to keep blank and provide an e-mail address for contact purposes. Having some good pens also lets you put notes if requested or exchange of numbers. One thing you should note is that you should never try to force the card upon people, but have them if they're asked for. With these things established, it's time to pack up and move out.
6. On Location
At the convention, I usually arrive a day in advance to prepare. After all the gear is up in the hotel room and I've had something to eat after the drive or flight (DO NOT allow yourself to become sick, though accidents do happen), it's advisable to get out and explore the area where the convention will be held.
Walk the floor, see where rooms are, talk to people and become acquainted with others. On the day of the convention, hopefully, by scouting around, you'll have become prepared for the onslaught and chaos that conventions in their true nature, can be.
Be polite, be courteous and always ask for permission first and be prepared to be denied sometimes. One of the indicators I've typically found associated with first time cosplayers is that they're a bit shy or nervous about being photographed or simply confused by your expectations. Even established cosplay veterans can exhibit this and you may have to guide them in posing, but you should never go hands on to pose them. How you work reflects on all of us. You also may need to be descriptive when asking certain things, such as asking for the right hand on the hip, etc. Remember to be aware of the convention area itself, as it contains furnishings and architectural goldmines for backdrops and usable things, but also be aware that you may be intruding on locked off areas as well. Be mindful of the crowds, because you never know when a hazard may arise to you, the cosplayer or your camera equipment in the way of a running glomp at someone or individuals who have felt the need to chain themselves together.
Lastly, you should be aware of your intrusion on the convention as a whole. When you stop to take someone's pictures, most people tend to stop and let you take the picture without getting in the way. Others will blindly waltz into the shot and you'll have to recompose and take again. During this time, a hallway may become crowded, people may be blocking stairs or a door and that tends to get staff angry at you. Remember, always, that you are there on their terms and if you play by their rules, you potentially have unlimited freedoms. Cosplayers being photographed also tend to find themselves in a camera trap, where photographers can encircle them entirely and keep them stuck for times of up to 30 minutes. I try to be quick and get what I want in the picture with minimal hassle on the cosplayer so that I can continue on and they as well-everyone has somewhere they want to be.
When doing photoshoots, I've found that large groups of people can quickly degenerate, so it is your job, the photographer to take charge and direct people and keep order when possible. Ideally, two to three people are easier to control. With large group shots, you must also remember that your camera lens can't get everything and you may need to request people to move around. Do not be afraid to ask for poses or to ask certain cosplayers to move forward and others to move back-most people will understand. Cosplayers also need to understand that we photographers would like to guide this process to get what we'd like as well. An easy way to keep things in order is to establish a pose/character pairing, set a time for photos (no more than a minute or two) and then change to something new.
7. Legal Things
The legality of photography is something not often touched on, but an important issue, nonetheless. There are various constitutional rights that you as a photographer are entitled to and cannot be denied. In a post 9-11 world, the paranoia of cameras and video devices has made the divide of trust even larger. Bert Krages, a lawyer offers a free printable pamphlet from his website which contains a basic summary of what you are entitled to and should be memorized. You must first understand though, that you will not always win.
Some of the important things I will touch on: No one may confiscate your equipment unless they are a licensed peace officer-such as a cop. Traditional security may do no such thing, otherwise this is theft. This is usually also accompanied with a writ or warrant to claim it. If you are being confronted, always ask for a superior when in these situations. If something is taken, do not get into a struggle, simply get a name and handle it appropriately. You can be banned from a property, asked to leave, asked to not take photos but nothing can be taken. If you are advised to leave and do not, then it can be considered trespassing, which is also a crime.
Public property is free game provided you're not zooming into windows or invading personal property-this is common sense. Places like malls fall under both public and private, but ultimately are considered private property. It is usually good to get clearance if you are unsure, but at malls and other public places such as restaurants and such you may be asked to not take photos. Respect this or face the consequences.
It is a crime if you intentionally photograph someone to cause harm or personal distress. The current criminal justice system these days does not forgive ignorance when a "crime" has been committed.
When publishing images, it is always important to have a release form. What this in its core is, simply state your purpose, you the photographer, them the subject, at this time and date, this picture is taken and they authorize you to use it in the mandated way. This is usually accompanied by a date, signature and contact e-mail or phone number. This is basic legal protection from litigation provided you make a cosplay book or something that generates revenue and others want money.
DeviantArt and flickr are usually fine and if someone requests an image be taken down, I usually comply out of respect for their wishes. Remember to always get EVERYTHING in writing. You'll be better off.
8. Digital Distribution
With all this said and done, you need to have a plan on how to approach the convention. You simply can't take the bull by the horns and get through it flawlessly. Let's say that you take some pictures and are now back home: what's next? Flickr.com has excellent hosting, but this is just one of many sites that people frequent to upload. At the end of conventions, on the forums is a great place to advertise yourself-post links on the photo thread, or start your own for others to add into.
One example of how I handled A-KON in 2009, might be considered extreme: My camera, the Canon 50D with battery grip, tends to last me a full day of shooting, or some 4000-5000 pictures. Once a memory card or both are full, I'll take it up to the hotel room, dump the cards onto my laptop and come back down with fresh memory cards and continue. If a battery indicator flashes, from previous experience it will last another 30 minutes to an hour before it's out. To prevent this, I'll take a 30 minute to an hour lunch break during the day where I let it charge to full and during this time begin an automated upload to my Flickr gallery for as live as a feed as I can get. It's also a useful backup should something happen to the laptop. My external flash for my camera, the 580 EXII runs through 4 double batteries twice during the day. When recharging the main camera, I put the used double A batteries into a separate charger and load fresh batteries in. Next year, to better prepare myself, by having two ready to go backup camera batteries would save me this hour of charging as well as double the required amount of double a batteries.
By knowing your limitations and more, you can prevent a battery crisis during critical times where you'll regret it later. This is just one way I handled a "live" convention, as I call it, trying to beat everyone to the punch and deliver as fresh media as I could. I will go more into digital distribution later on.
Having a limited knowledge of Photoshop is crucial if you're taking a more artistic approach or even want to correct blemishes, correct the white balance of the camera, adjust levels of color, resize, crop, rotate and even conversion to black and white the proper way (NEVER grayscale). It also might help to watermark or embed a website on the image to help direct traffic and avoid image theft. Various websites have their ups and downs so explore before you decide on where you'll do your final uploads.
A common rule of thumb practiced by many is that you keep your high resolution files to yourself and offer the resized or edited versions to the public. Thus you maintain some control over the original images.
Thanks for reading. I hope that you have found this guide useful. It's in its infancy right now, but in time, I hope to refine it to something a bit more in depth and perhaps better written as well. Thanks for sitting through my rambling and I hope what I've learned over time can be useful to you as well. I realize there may be some things needing editing and correcting, but I wanted to get this up for everyone to read.
I hope to work on a convention survival guide soon as well.