Lights! Camera! Action! 3 Steps to Taking Epic Cosplay Photos

So, you’ve put in the hours, created an awesome cosplay costume, and maybe even rocked it at a convention.  Now you want to share it with the world…

You want cosplay pictures that can do your costume justice, but when you look up your favorite cosplayers online, it can be easy to be intimidated by the amount of digital manipulation in a lot of the pictures.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I love Photoshop—it allows the kind of world-building that can take your creations to a whole new level—but remember that every epic edited picture began as an epic unedited picture…

This post explains the basics of taking cosplay photos ready both to stand on their own or to be digitally enhanced.

I like to think of these fundamental principles as falling under three categories that should be pretty familiar: “Lights,” “Camera!” and “Action!”

Lights!

When and where you take your pictures is extremely important. If I take a picture of myself standing in my bathroom wearing a suit of armor, I could Photoshop in the world’s most incredible background and the picture would still feel like I was standing in a bathroom.

Here are a few steps to choosing the right time and place for your photo shoots:

1. Use Natural Light

One of the main reasons that a bathroom photo looks like a bathroom photo no matter how you edit it is artificial lighting.

Indoor lights have a yellowish cast to them which looks out of place in other settings. Furthermore, pictures taken indoors tend to have light coming from unusual places (from below, directly overhead, etc) that create double shadows, intense shine on skin, and other unnatural effects which feel dissonant when the background is switched out for something out-of-doors or ancient.

This video by Ameena Falchetto does a great job of highlighting how different indoor lighting situations can affect the look of your photos:

Now, a lot of these problems can be solved by going to a professional photography studio, where the color, intensity, and position of lights can be carefully controlled. But if you’re reading this post then my guess is that you don’t have access to a studio and want to take the pictures yourself. If that is the case then your best bet is to take your pictures outside.

2. Choose a Place that Inspires You

Any place outdoors is better than taking cosplay pictures in your bathroom, but some sites are definitely better than others.

As you choose a site for your photo shoot, the first thing to consider is your character. Where would he or she be at home? It might be a mountain trail, a grungy train yard, a busy metropolis or a sandy beach.

When you photograph in the right setting, you will feel more like your character and you will appear more genuine, even if you end up editing yourself onto a different background.

If you choose a place with a lot of innate beauty, you may find that you don’t want or need to do so much editing after all. For example, this picture was taken in front of the spectacular flatirons of Boulder, Colorado, which have such a natural fantasy feel to them that no additional editing was necessary.

Although there are many epic landmarks out there, you’ll always want to be careful that you don’t make your setting so recognizable that your friends will think “Hey!  I’ve been there!”  This breaks the illusion of your photo and transports you back into the real world.  Unless you’re doing a city shoot, try to avoid signs of industry like telephone wires, manicured lawns, street signs, and well-kept trails as much as possible.

Finally, make sure that you know whether the place you choose is private or public property, and pay appropriate fees or obtain permission to use them if necessary.

3. Diffuse Lighting

Unless you’re certain that you want sunrise and sunset pictures and nothing else, avoid these times of day.

At dawn and dusk the sun casts long, horizontal shadows which are very distinctive and direction-specific. If you take pictures at these times and then edit yourself onto a new background, you’ll be forced to create some kind of strong light source in all of your pictures or you’ll look out of place.

Bright, cloudless days can present the same problem. Your face will be covered in dark, clear-cut shadows in this kind of light which can be difficult to edit out.

Try to shoot pictures in the mid-morning or afternoon, with a slightly overcast sky. Clouds will diffuse the sunlight so that it seems to come from everywhere at once. This will make it easier to match your body to a variety of settings when you edit your photos. Shadows are easy to add, but hard to take away.

Camera!

You can have the best lighting and location in the world, but what’s the point if you can’t capture it?

The first thing you’ve got to do is bring a cameraman. If you’re planning to use a selfie stick or the auto shoot function on your smart phone, you can expect a lot of frustration.

Clever…but still clearly a selfie-stick photo (photo by Spidey Morpher).

Choose someone who shares your vision for your character—someone creative and with an artistic sense that you trust. Again, a professional photographer would be an excellent choice, but I’ll assume you’re reading this article because you want to do it yourself.

For affordable, but beautiful pictures, consider buying a DSLR camera. Smartphone cameras are convenient and are taking better pictures all the time, but you’ll still get the best image quality, the fastest shutter speed, and the most flexibility out of an actual camera.

Choose a camera with high image resolution (12 megapixels or more). You can use a high resolution picture for almost anything (posters, large photo books, etc.), while a low resolution picture will confine you to small photo prints.

One of the most important must-have features for your camera is a rapid-shoot sports mode for capturing multiple high-fidelity images of moving objects and people, with only split seconds between each frame. I’ll explain this in the next section.

Action!

Any good cosplay photo shoot will include a lot of action shots. You become your character much more fully when you are doing things that character would do.

Action, however, cannot be faked.

Consider these action shots (all taken with the sports mode on a DSLR camera):

In these pictures we can tell there’s actual motion going on because of the way the models’ hair and clothing reacts to the movement. What’s more, their bodies are in off-balance positions that we know could only happen for a moment. It takes actual motion to make these things happen, and our brains know it.

A picture of a Jedi and a Sith with lightsabers crossed but with hair and clothing hanging limply will never look like a ferocious battle.

Before your photo shoot, you should consider what motions you want to capture. You may need to choreograph and practice your action ahead of time, especially for complex sequences like waterbending or martial arts. The irreplaceable realism will be worth the extra time and effort.

If another person is modeling your costume, then you might want to consider a dancer for your model. Dancers tend to have a natural grasp of aesthetic movement that will turn more of your photos into keepers.

One great way to enhance your action shots is to bring a second person to play off of. This doesn’t have to be another cosplayer, and you may end up editing them out of the picture in the end, but a real person to interact with gives your model a clear part to focus on, and can generate some natural reactions, movements, and facial expressions that you can’t get any other way.

For example, during a Legend of Zelda photo shoot this simple piece of choreography…

…produced a wealth of final pictures.

Note, we shot this action sequence numerous times from numerous angles to get these photos.

Of course there is a lot of value to still shots and quiet themes, but you never want to look “posed,” and if you want action in your final pictures, you’ve got to have it in your photo shoot.

Summary

There are many more advanced tricks available to the experienced photographer, but if this is your first DIY cosplay photo shoot, then just remembering “Lights! Camera! Action!” will be enough to get you well on your way to high quality pictures.

If you’ve done a really good job, then the photos you snap should look great on their own even without digital manipulation.

Be open to experimentation. Keep practicing and trying new ways to improve your photographs. Who knows? Maybe the next professional cosplay photographer could be you!

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