Welcome back! In this installment, we’re going to talk about the third-most important thing to consider when photographing cosplay: Environment. (If you missed any prior installments: Part 1 – Part 2.)
Every photograph tells some kind of story. After making sure that the photograph is respectful, and that it’s lit the way we want, now we are starting to consider the story of the photograph. (That is, the story which is external to the inherent story of the cosplay.)
Environment is the surroundings of your cosplay subject – everything in the picture, basically, that isn’t your cosplayer. When you are taking professional cosplay pictures, you usually either try to find a really appropriate location (like, say, Doctor Evermor’s Forevertron, where I would give my eye teeth to photograph some really rad steampunk cosplay) or photograph against some kind of very plain and uninteresting background Usually this is just seamless paper hung from a rod, or walls painted white. The former is just called “seamless” and the latter is sometimes called a “cyc.” (Pronounced like “psych.”) As an example, here are two models shot on seamless, which is literally just a 9 food wide roll of heavy white paper, and a model shot on a crate I found next to the loading dock of a place where I used to have a studio.
The model with the dreads is the same model in both shots – quite a bit of difference, though! In the first shot, the models and their unusual makeup/clothing/actions are the entire focus – they are the story. In the second, while the model is striking, she’s part of a story. The environment tells the rest – and tells us that there’s probably more to the story that we don’t know.
You may not have ready access to either an amazing set or a nice clean seamless drop, but they are great examples of the two basic approaches to using environment in cosplay. Namely, minimization and utilization. If you’re minimizing environment, you want your cosplayer to be the story. If you’re utilizing the environment, you want your cosplayer to be in the story. Although there are no absolutes in photography, these are some pretty firm opposites. Try to decide which you’re doing, and do it as best you can.
If you’re minimizing, minimize. Remove every distraction you possibly can. Look around. Consider what, within the available environment is the plainest, least-distracting possible backdrop. Is there a white wall around? How about a brick one, or one with large, regular tiles or other interesting but not distracting elements? Never underestimate the power of a good brick wall to provide a background that punches up the photograph but doesn’t distract from the cosplayer:
Where can you stand to have the absolute minimum of furniture, equipment, or other people visible in the shot? Can you use nothing for the background (in other words, shoot against a window or the sky itself?) Example:
This was shot on a rooftop: from any other direction, there would have been buildings much closer as opposed to the ones visible in the far distance. However, I wanted the emphasis on the cosplayers. Had it just been one, especially with a more subtle costume, I might have used the buildings to make the image more visually interesting. Here, it’s not necessary – they’re already a highly interesting group.
If you’re utilizing, be bold. Drop that cosplayer in the environment. Make them part of it. (Although it can be clear, as in my crate picture above, that they don’t belong in it, but rather they are something extraordinary which is nevertheless in that environment. It’s okay to look weird: try not to look fake.) Here’s one of the models from the picture above in a much more utilized environment.
In this picture, the model is much more integrated into the backdrop of the city. She’s sitting on a rooftop, with other buildings nearby. You can imagine her looking for someone on the street below, or moving above the crowds unseen. She looks much more human, more a part of her environment, than she did in the first picture. In the first picture, you knew she (and the other models) were badasses. The picture was about their badassery. This one’s different. You wonder how she got there, what she’s doing, where she’s going. But it’s still appropriate for her badass self. The same model, photographed in, say, a kid’s park, would still be badass, but the story wouldn’t make sense. (Unless you were going for surreal. I love a good surreal image, but remember that the failure mode of “surreal” is “pretentious and/or stupid.” Use discretion.)
There are some good examples of the two approaches to a pre-arranged cosplay shoot. What about if you’re just walking the Con? Then what?
Exactly the same thing, that’s what. Here are some examples taken at an auto show, which is kinda like a Con in that it’s utterly chaotic and not very inclined to arrange itself to help you. :
In the first example, the model is against a weird sort of patterned wall thing that I found. (In the compressed version here, it’s a bit moire’d. It’s not so bad in the full size.) Interesting, but with no other actual objects to distract from the model. In the second, she’s in front of a fancy sportscar, looking fancy herself, and with the large ad slogan-which happens to be completely appropriate for the image-placed to make it part of the story, just like the car and the model herself. That’s the whole of it, right there. In the first one, the model is the story. In the second one, she’s in a story.
So, to sum up, ask yourself that question – is my cosplayer in a story, or are they themselves the story? Do I want the environment to be part of the story I’m telling, a character in its own right? Or do I want it to simply be unobtrusive?
If you want it to be unobtrusive, minimize it. Look around, turn and move, to find the largest, plainest, most uniform environment you can.
If you want it to be part of the story, make the cosplayer look like they are in that environment for a reason, that they are moving through it, reacting to it. Use the environment. Make it do some work!
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!