Welcome back! In this installment, we’re going to talk about the second-most important thing to consider when photographing cosplay: Lighting. (If you missed the first installment, just click here.)
Photography, as we word-nerds know, translates as “writing with light.” Light is everything in photography. If it’s too dark, you can’t make a good photograph. If there’s enough light, the only problem is harnessing it. (If there’s too much light, we also have a problem but that’s much easier to deal with.)
So, first ask yourself: Is there enough light here?
If there isn’t, you have some options. The easiest one, by far, is to move to where there’s more light. Back up a few steps and get your cosplayer in the sunbeam coming through the front doors of the convention center, or closer to a lighting fixture.It doesn’t take much: what may not look like a very bright light to you might be more than your camera needs. Your brain automatically adjusts the apparent light level you see – the camera doesn’t. What looks like just a little more could be plenty. And you can be creative about using light fixtures. For instance, I wanted a dramatic shot of this model at a trade show. There were lights in the FLOOR. Problem solved!
Get them out of the shadow they may be standing in. Move toward a large light-colored wall, which will reflect light from the room onto the cosplayer and illuminate them more strongly. Look for light. Go to the light. (However, if you see a small woman saying, “Come to the light, my children,” consider not getting any closer. And possibly fleeing. I’m just saying.)
Your second option is adding some light. Is there a light nearby you can turn on? Does your camera have a flash? Try it and see if it helps. Here are two pictures taken seconds apart. In the first one, there’s no flash – the background, where the stage lights are, is too bright and the dancers are too dim. In the second one, I turned on the flash (although it wasn’t aimed directly at them – see the upcoming “Equipment” post for information on bounce/indirect flash. It’s easier than it looks)
Your third option is helping your camera use what light there is better. Here are the potential adjustments you might be able to make to get more “light” out of your camera.
A) Does your camera have an aperture setting? This is usually labeled in f-stops or just “f” and then a number. Don’t worry about what the numbers mean: that’s advanced level. Just remember that the lower the number, the more light will get into the camera. At f4, a lot more light gets into the camera than at f16. The “middle” of most f-stop ranges is f8, which is a nice compromise between letting in light and losing depth-of-field, which is the tradeoff you get when you use lower f-stops. (Not going to explain depth-of-field as it’s usually not that important in this kind of photography: Google it if you’re interested.) Start at f8 and go up or down from there. Changing the aperture – lowering the f-stop number – is usually the best bet for trying to improve your chances of a good picture in low-light situations. But not the easiest, because you still have to set it manually. Easiest is increasing the ISO setting – see below.
B) Does your camera have a shutter speed setting? If so, decreasing the shutter speed will let more light into the camera. If you go from 1/100th of a second to 1/50th of a second, you’ll get twice as much light! But the longer the shutter is open the more chance things have to move while it’s open. If the camera moves, you get camera shake, and the entire photograph will be blurry. If the subject moves, you get motion blur, and whatever moved will be blurry. Either way, blurry. Unless that’s what you want, blurry is bad. So try not to decrease the shutter speed any more than you have to to get the shot. This is why messing with shutter speed is probably the least good way to get more light.
As a rule of thumb, most human beings in reasonable health can handhold a shot at 1/60 of a second or faster without much difficulty. If you have to go lower than that, get as steady as you can and if at all possible get your subject to hold as still as they can. The best way to get steady is to use a tripod, but that’s obviously not good for spontaneous photography. (It’s WONDERFUL for planned photography. If you’re going do any serious photography, get a good tripod!) So short of that, improvise. Can you put the camera on a table? Can you sit down and brace against the arms of a chair? Can you lean against a wall or a pillar? Whatever you can do to get the camera steady, do it, and you can get away with surprisingly slow shutter speeds (I’ve successfully taken photographs handheld at 1/5 of a second with minimal blur, and acceptable photographs that just looked a little soft at lower speeds than that.)
C) Does your camera have an ISO-equivalence setting? That’s a number, usually starting at 50, 100, or 200, and going to anywhere from 800 to 25,600. What it means is “how sensitive do you want the camera to be to light?” The lower the number, the less sensitive. “Why don’t I just leave this turned up all the way all the time?” I hear you ask. The reason is that the higher the ISO setting, the “noisier” the photograph will be. “Noise” is the digital equivalent of grain in film photography – the picture gets less detailed and starts to look “speckled.” Noise isn’t inherently bad, but most of the time we want the least noise we can get away with, so we want the ISO setting as low as we can get it. Upping the ISO, especially higher than 400 or so, is our last choice. (ISO 400 or lower, in most modern cameras, is pretty darn good and noise shouldn’t be all that big a deal.) However, if a higher ISO makes the difference between getting a good shot and getting a picture that’s motion-blurred, shaky, and dark, up the ISO and be glad you can.
Here are two pictures, taken with everything exactly the same except the first was taken at ISO 100 and the second was taken at ISO 12,800 (which is as high as my camera goes.) No other adjustments, no added flash. Just changed that setting.
Again, big difference! Now, you can’t really see much in the first picture, but the second one does have some grain or noise – speckly distortion bits, to use a technical term. That’s the tradeoff. However as you can see modern cameras (and the camera that took that isn’t even that modern, as I took it several years ago) are pretty good about minimizing noise. So find that setting and go to town!
Another sort of compromise is to see if your camera has an “exposure compensation” setting. This is usually labeled “EV,” and you can move it up or down in increments. Moving it up will make the camera try to make the photograph lighter. Moving it down will make the photograph darker. Changing the EV is a lot easier than manually changing aperture, shutter speed, or ISO, so if you don’t want to monkey with manual settings, look for EV and give that a go first. Note that many less expensive cameras which may not have manual setting mode will still have EV settings. Even some high-end cell phones have it. Find it. Play with it.
Once you’ve got enough light, look at where the light is coming from. Is it right behind the cosplayer? Is it right behind the camera? Is it to one side or another? Whichever it is, is that the best angle, and if not, can we move the light or the cosplayer? Moving the light is often tricky. If you’re in a convention center and don’t have your own lighting equipment, it ain’t gonna happen. So if you can’t move the light, move the cosplayer.
Here is an example of using the light you’ve got well, followed by an example of… not.
Notice that in the first one, the light (from a large fixture) is coming from the subject’s right and in front of him. It lights up the important part – his face and hands – and provides dramatic shadows. In the second one the light is coming from directly above them. I did get the marvelous Malificent costume reasonably well lit, but that was at the cost of the shadows on their faces.
In my defense, the second picture was a candid. I did ask, and they were very gracious. But I didn’t want to wander them all around the con (this was GeekGirlCon 2014) to get perfect light. I just wanted a memento. And there’s nothing wrong with that! Don’t obsess over everything, and don’t think all your pictures have to be perfect. If you just want a picture of a cool costume to remember it by, ask and snap away. These tips are for when you need more than that, and to encourage you to be mindful of the light. And if I’ve helped make you more aware of how being mindful of light can enhance your photographs, they are a complete success.
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!