Welcome back! In this installment, we’re going to talk about the least important thing to consider when photographing cosplay: Equipment. (If you missed any prior installments: Part 1 – Part 2 – Part 3 – Part 4.)
“Why is equipment the last thing you talk about?” you might ask. “Isn’t a big fancy camera the most important thing for taking good pictures?”
In response, I offer you this joke, a favorite among photographers:
A photographer was invited to dinner at a couple’s house. He brought along his portfolio and showed the couple some of his work before dinner was served. “Those pictures are amazing,” they said. “You must have a really nice camera.”
The photographer just smiled and thanked them.
After dinner, the photographer turned to his hosts and said, “That dinner was wonderful. You must have some really nice pots and pans.”
BWAHAHAHA I LOVE THAT… Sorry. I got carried away. I do that. The point is, as I hope is obvious. the camera doesn’t make the photographer, any more than the pot makes the cook. A more powerful camera can give the photographer options a less powerful model can’t provide, but, as Henri Cartier-Bresson, one of the greatest photographers in history, once said, “The best photographer in the world is not as good as the worst camera.” Hand Henri your iPhone (and show him how to use it) and he could have made pictures with it that you and I couldn’t make with a $10,000 dSLR.
Incidentally, the excellent photographer Chase Jarvis makes the same point in his excellent book, The Best Camera Is The One That’s With You. He uses nothing but an iPhone to make some excellent photographs, and explains how he did it. If you’re mostly going to use your phone or tablet camera – and phone/tablet cameras have gotten scary good – I recommend the book to you.
So, given that equipment isn’t all that important, what should we know about it to improve our cosplay photography? Well, the same thing as we need to know about it to improve all our photography. Namely, we need to know how to use it. First, go back and read all the prior articles in this series. (I’ll wait. Okay, you back? Good.) Note that there is nothing in there that is camera specific, although some of the ways you can control light (f-stop, shutter speed, ISO) can’t be used if your camera doesn’t offer those settings. Learn all that, and you already know 90% of what you need to know to use any camera.
Once you’ve got the basics of photography down, it’s time to learn the basics of your camera. What do all the buttons do? Where are the settings menus? Which settings can be manually controlled, and which ones can’t? You learn this by reading the manual. Camera manufacturers spend millions of dollars developing those manuals. They are, usually, not that hard to read. Get it out, get your camera out, and go through it. As you read, pick up the camera, and play with the settings that are being described. Doing it as you read will help you remember much better. If there’s something in the manual that doesn’t make sense or you can’t seem to make work, visit the manufacturer’s website for more information, or just Google the name of the feature. You’ll find that no matter what it is, somebody else has already had the issue, and somebody else has probably told them how to fix it. Yay, Internet!
Okay, now that I’ve totally denigrated the importance of equipment, I will discuss a few of the more important items you can get to improve your cosplay photography.
1) A tripod, a monopod, or both. One of the cardinal rules in photography is, “If you can get steadier, get steadier.” Removing camera shake lets you take sharper pictures and/or open the shutter longer without having to worry about camera blur. If you’re in a position to use one, use a tripod. If you’re going somewhere where a tripod would be in everybody’s way (remember, respect) you could consider a monopod. Plus, if somebody annoys you, you can really whack a person good with a monopod at full extension. (DISCLAIMER: Do not whack people with monopods unless you are legally justified in doing so.) You can even get tripod adapters for iPhones, etc. Try one, you’ll like it!
2) A portable reflector. It’s unbelievable how much just a little more light can improve a photograph. Find something shiny (although not colored, because if it’s colored, where it reflects will have a different color cast than the rest of the image.) Use it to reflect a little light onto the subject’s face, or that amazing decoration on their cape, or what-have-you. In a pinch, you can use a large piece of paper, but portable reflectors are awesome. Plus they make you look like a pro – a pro who knows magic. I have a Litedisc Photoflex, like this one:
Folded up, it fits neatly in my camera bag. When I want it, it opens with a snap of the wrist. Plus if I want to warm up the subject a little (Fluorescent lights, need I say more?) I can use the gold side, or I can just shine accent light with the white side.
3) An external flash. You can get what are called “slave” flashes which have little electric eyes on them. When they see a bright light, they go off. These can be very useful even if you don’t have a camera that has a “hot shoe,” which is the bracket you use to mount a flash on a camera, and that’s why I list them before a dSLR. Here’s an example:
These will even work with tablets and cameras, as long as they have a flash. You just put them where you want some extra light. However, if you plan on getting a dSLR, it’s probably better to wait and get one that goes with your dSLR (see below.)
Like reflectors, external flashes allow you to put more light where you want it, but unlike reflectors, they let you ADD light when there’s not enough. Plus, with the flash further away from the lens, the phenomenon usually known as “red-eye” is greatly reduced. (That red glow in people’s eyes is caused by light from the flash bouncing off their retinas, which are red. If the flash is off-axis with the lens, the amount of light so reflected is reduced or eliminated.) If at at all possible, get a flash with a “bounce” capability – in other words, a flash that pivots. This gives you far more options when using it. I love to point my flash at the wall behind me. This lets me add what is effectively a very large, very diffuse light that hits the whole scene without causing red-eye or “hotspots” where the flash is concentrated.
4) A Digital SLR or dSLR. This is basically the sort of camera that serious photographers have been using for decades, only instead of 35mm film it has a digital sensor in it and saves the image to a memory card. (Speaking of memory cards: buy several. Swap them around. Don’t rely on just one. Generally speaking, it’s better to have two 4GB cards than one 8GB card, because if a card dies you only lose half as much.) As for which one, well, buy the best one you are comfortable spending the money on, and other than that, don’t worry about it. They’re all pretty good, really. I shoot Canon, but I’ve used Nikon, Sony, and Olympus dSLR’s and they all worked fine.
If you have a friend or family member who shoots a particular brand, you might think about using the same brand just so you can ask them for advice (or *ahem* even discreetly ask to borrow things.) Otherwise, shop around. Go to a store and see what fits your hand. Visit review sites (my favorites are Steve’s Digicams and DPReview) and see what people are saying about current offerings. What’s important is to get what seems to suit you best.
NOTE: Do NOT, I repeat DO NOT, get all worked up about megapixel count. I’ve licensed photos I took with 6MP dSLR for book covers and major academic presentations. A good, clear, sharp picture at the resolution of even a starter-level dSLR is fine for almost any commercial use, let alone taking good pictures at a Con for your website. If your budget is comfortable with an intro-level Canon Rebel series, get a Canon Rebel series. It will make great photographs. If you have the budget for a six thousand dollar 1D, and you want to tote around a brick like that, go for it. It’ll make great photographs too.
If you get a dSLR, one purely optional but really nice accessory to have is a “battery grip.” They’re called that because they a) allow you to put two batteries instead of one in the camera, and b) they give you an extended area to hold on to the camera. However, what’s really nice about them is that they have an extra set of exposure controls on the corner. (Warning: Not all battery grips have this feature, especially third-party battery grips. If you’re going to get one, make sure it does.)
Here’s why that’s important: Normally, if you want to take a picture in “portrait” aspect – i.e. the picture is taller than it is wide, which is how you usually photograph people – you turn the camera sideways and twist your arm around to work the controls. With the battery grip, there’s a shutter button and exposure dial on top of the camera when you turn it sideways, and you can hold it normally. Plus if you have larger hands like I do, it makes it much easier to hold on to the camera, while not making it awkward for more petite users in any way. It just makes life much, much more pleasant, trust me.
5) Once you have a dSLR, obviously, you need lenses. Lenses, dear reader, are all about compromise. There is no One True Lens. If you get a lens with a large zoom range, it will be heavier than a lens with a shorter range (or a fixed or “prime” lens) and will not be as sharp at the extremes of its range, nor will it be as “fast.” That is, it won’t have as large a maximum aperture. Plus it’ll cost more. If you get a lens with a shorter range, well, it has a shorter range. So what should you do? I recommend two lenses to start with
a) A reasonable zoom lens with Image Stabilization. Image Stabilization is a technology where the lens has a little gyroscope in it that it uses to try to compensate for any camera shake. It sounds like magic – because it is. It really works. Anyway, most entry-level dSLR come with an Image Stabilized 18-55mm lens these days. That’s perfectly serviceable for learning. If you can spend a bit more money, you can usually upgrade when you purchase and get a faster 17-85mm or so lens instead of the 18-55mm lens. This is definitely worth it. It’s heavier, but not dreadfully, and that extra zoom can really be very useful. This is your “walking around” lens for most Cons and other cosplay situations, and can be used for studio shoots as well.
b) A fast prime lens. A “prime” lens is a lens that doesn’t zoom. It only has one focal length. If you want to zoom out, you move back. If you want to zoom in, you get closer. Ugh, sounds primitive, doesn’t it? Well, it is. But there is a reason to get one. In fact, there are three.
i) First,they’re WAY lighter and smaller than zoom lenses. Much less intimidating to potential candid subjects, much easier on your back.
ii) Second, they produce sharper, less color-divergent images than zoom lenses at equivalent focal lengths.
iii) Third, and this is the big one, they are much faster than zoom lenses of equivalent price point. You can buy the Canon “Nifty Fifty” f1.8 50mm prime for a hundred bucks, and there’s a similar lens for Nikon and most other dSLR. F1.8, dear reader, is screaming fast compared to the standard zoom lens, or your phone camera. You can take pictures without flash in fairly dark rooms and they will actually look like something.
I have a 35mm f2 and a 50mm f1.4 (the 1.4 is only a third of a stop faster than the Nifty Fifty, but it costs four times as much because it’s better made. It’s a semi-pro level lens. I love it, but you’ll be fine with the f1.8 to start with.) Depending on what I’m up to, I might walk around a Con with the 35mm on instead of my zoom. It’s faster, it’s less intimidating, and I don’t have to shine a flash in people’s faces. If I’m going out at night, I’ll put on the 50mm f1.4. It can take pictures, with the ISO cranked up, of things I literally can’t even see with my actual eyes.
Speaking of lenses, it is probably worth noting that often manufacturers or retailers sell cameras in “starter packs” with a bag and some lenses, one of which is usually something like a 75-300mm non-stabilized lens. I have one of those, but I never, ever use it for cosplay or convention work. I only use it for landscape and sports photography (which I rarely do.) If your subject is going to be indoors, you absolutely do not need that 75-300, and you’d probably be better off buying a different configuration of stuff. Likewise, the manufacturer bags aren’t awful, but you can usually buy a much better bag for not much more money. Plus, they don’t have big ol’ “Canon” or “Nikon” logos on them, which are often interpreted as “I am full of very expensive camera equipment, please steal me” badges by people of questionable morality.
Note also that I didn’t talk about things like studio backdrops or strobe lighting. They’re awesome, don’t get me wrong. However, once you decide to spend that kind of money, you need to do your own research into the current state of the market as well as your specific needs and desires, and that’s outside the scope of these articles. You’re welcome to inquire by email as to my opinion on any particular piece of equipment you’re considering: you’ve probably figured out by now that I love to talk about photography!
I will put in a quick plug for Alien Bees, though. In my opinion they are the best intro level studio lights for serious beginners. You can see them here:
Note: I don’t get paid by Paul Buff to plug Alien Bees, nor have I been provided any other incentive to do so. I have owned four Alien Bees lights and a Vagabond pack for years and they have served me well, and that is the entirety of my relationship with them. That being said, Paul, if you see this, I’d love some free stuff, or maybe just some money in a box.
I hope you enjoyed this article and that you find it useful in future. Please check out the other parts of this series and the rest of our articles here on Sew Your Cosplay!
You are welcome to ask questions in the comments and/or by emailing me at any time. Thanks for reading!