The Dummies' Guide To Cosplay Photography in 2014

Andy Ihnatko's golden rule about photographing cosplayers: You must never do anything that makes the cosplayer wish you hadn't taken that photo.

If you live here in New England and the words "This weekend's Boston Comic-Con" don't immediately trigger the the thought "Wow, that sounds like a great time; I'd really like to go," please go and read what I posted to my personal blog last week about the show. Whether you're a longtime comics fan or just someone who enjoys the Marvel movies or Game Of Thrones, it's going to be a swell time. It starts Friday at Boston’s Seaport World Trade Center and runs through Sunday.

I get two particular kinds of enjoyment from a big convention like this one. I love moderating panels and doing onstage interviews. It gives me a certain satisfaction to try to make this one hour of the convention as good as it can possibly be for the 100 to 600 people who'll be attending "my" session. It's a way of paying back all of the people who've made the rest of the show so much fun for me as an attendee.

(I'll be taking care of the Jimmy Palmiotti & Amanda Conner panel on Friday at 6 PM, in the Ampitheater. It's a Q&A, so I'll just make sure there are enough chairs and bottles of water for the guests, ask one or two leadoff questions, and then keep an eye on the time.)

The other thing I love about cons is the opportunities for photography. It's a true festival atmosphere, and the cosplayers put on a magnificent display. Here are a few of my favorite cosplay portraits from last year's show:

Check out the whole gallery if y'like. I've lots of other photos from other comicons in my Flickr feed.

The Dummies' Guide To Cosplay Photography

The majority of the cosplayer photos I take are posed. If you've never taken cosplay photos at a con before, it’s easy-peasy. Here’s the procedure I follow:

  1. Make sure your camera or phone is turned on, set the way you want it, and ready to shoot before you approach the cosplayer. Fiddle with settings during your time, not theirs.
  2. Approach the cosplayer if he or she doesn't seem otherwise busy.
  3. Make eye contact and ask "May I take your picture?" in a friendly way. Bonus points for addressing them by their character name (signifying that you recognize the costume) and for offering a sincere compliment on something you particularly like about the costume.
  4. Allow the cosplayer to take a moment to make any adjustments he or she deems necessary. They’ll probably want to put down the Diet Coke, move their con badge out of sight, and pick up the prop they worked so hard on. More importantly, they’ll probably want to make sure that parts of their costume haven't come apart, or shifted in a way that will cause embarrassment. And they’ll want to settle into a pose that they like.
  5. When the cosplayer is ready, give them a 3-2-1 countdown, so that they know exactly how long they're going to need to hold that pose or expression. Click.
  6. Say "Got it," so that they know the shooting is over and that they can now relax. Or just, you know, blink.
  7. Resume eye contact, smile, and thank the cosplayer for their time.

Supplemental notes:

This is a short version of the procedures and guidelines I've developed over several years of shooting comic-cons.

But none of these items are nearly as important as the one simple rule that I never, ever knowingly break:

You must never do anything that makes the cosplayer wish you hadn't taken that photo.

There are so many ways to violate this rule:

You think someone looks silly, and you wish to humiliate them in your Instagram? Shame on you and don't take that photo.

Their costume has accumulated some damage or stains, and the overall effect is now far less than what the creator would like the world to see? Don't take that photo.

You didn't notice that while you were taking Wonder Woman's photo, some idiot was behind her, making a lewd gesture? That wasn't your fault but still: Delete that photo and don't post it anywhere.

And here’s one that ought to be damned obvious: if Slave Leia is unaware that part of her gown has become caught in the beltline of her costume and that she's showing off more of her backside than she probably intended, do not take that photo! Quietly point it out, in a way that won't embarrass her.

Do not take pervy photos under any circumstances. Many costumes are intended to be revealing, yes, and this cosplayer is a grownup who made informed choices about their wardrobe as is their right. But there’s always a way to shoot Vampirella so that the overall theme of the photo isn’t turbo-creepy...and the cosplayer should always know what kind of photos you're taking. They have a right to that kind of control.

Here’s a photo of a gender-flipped Sark (from TRON), whom I photographed at New York Comic-Con a few years ago:

It represents exactly the end-effect I aim for when I photograph cosplayers. She discovered this photo of her in my Flickr feed a year or two after I posted it, and she was delighted with it. Color me proud! This means that I shot her and the costume well, and that my respect for who she is, and how seriously she takes her hobby, is reflected in the image. And why on earth would I want to post a photo that the subject isn’t happy with?

That's a basic test for any cosplay photographer. If you look at a cosplay photo you've taken and think "No way can I post this," you almost certainly shouldn't have taken it in the first place.

But what about photojournalism?

But cosplay photography has become a little more complicated in the past year or two. Here are three more photos from last year’s Boston Comicon. I like them as much as I like the previous set:

The first set were posed. This second set are all candids. It’s obvious that I didn’t ask any of the subjects for their permission before I took these photos.

Did I do something I shouldn't have?

My pre-2014 answer would have been "No, clearly."

I like taking photos of cosplayers but I also like to try to tell the story of the Con, for the benefit of everybody who's interested but who couldn't attend. A little boy dressed as the Doctor, asking a question during a Q&A panel with the Doctor Who comic's writers, is Just Damn Adorable and it’s a great part of the story; Boston Comic-Con is a family-friendly show that attracts every generation and stripe of fan. I took a photo of Bumblebee out of his Transformers mecha costume not to make fun of him, but to illustrate just how complicated and heavy this gear was, and how much comfort he was sacrificing by choosing to walk around in it for everyone's amusement.

And as an amateur photographer, I'm much more interested in the cosplayers than in the characters they portray. I'm never taking a photo of Batman. I'm taking a photo of this interesting person who went to the time and expense of assembling, or even hand-making, a costume, and who wears it with such obvious pride and pleasure. I'd much rather get a shot of him smiling and enjoying himself than snap "the pose" of him being brooding and dark for 1/125th of a second (the flash sync speed of my camera), before he goes back to a more sincere and fun-loving expression.

So that's one of my justifications for my not having always asked explicitly for permission. If I have to ask before shooting every photo, I can only tell a fraction of the whole story.

Reasonable Expectation Of Privacy

This phrase comes up in any conversation about whether or not a photographer should do "street photography" in a given situation. Is this subject in a place and/or engaging in an activity in which no reasonable person would expect privacy? They might be mad that someone took their photo...but do they have a rational right to be mad?

My favorite personal example of this happened at a town Fourth Of July parade a few years ago. A man was literally parading down the middle of Main Street and he got upset that I took his picture from the sidewalk. It was such an absurd objection that I couldn't imagine that he was serious. I laughed and gave him a thumbs-up. He didn’t take that well.

And just to complete the word picture: he was a white guy dressed in an outrageously-offensive Halloween-style Indian (assuredly not “Native American”) costume. Apparently he was marching as part of a pre-Civil War (and, deservedly, near-extinct) fraternal organization that I'd never heard of. They were also leading their smiling wives (?) down the parade route on ropes tied to the women's wrists.

(I s*** you not, dear readers. I’ve lived my whole life in New England and, thank God, I've only ever seen these characters this one time.)

But the main point here is that no, if you're literally parading, in costume, down the middle of Main Street, then you have no reason to expect not to be photographed. If you wanted to not be photographed, then you should have stayed home. Period.

Noted. But people without a "reasonable right to privacy" still have feelings! Legal questions aside, the photographer still has an ethical obligation to treat others with dignity and respect.

I had nooooooooo qualms about taking more pictures of Racist Parade Guy. I feel differently about a another photo I took that day. An antique fire truck overheated and its driver pulled off into a side street. I shot a very pretty picture of the truck's owners working under the hood while steam gently rolled out of the engine compartment. But one of the guys noticed me snapping away and sighed "Aww...please don't take a photo of this."

I immediately felt ashamed and I lowered my camera. I realized that I'd failed to look at this scene from his side of the lens. He'd put so much love into getting this truck running for the parade. He sure didn't want there to be photos of it not running.

Needless to say, I took no more photos of his truck. The experience has informed the sort of shots I've taken ever since.

So what about my candids of cosplayers, then? Well, I shot those because I think a cosplayer comes to a comic-con fully aware that they're likely to be photographed. I don't believe they're going to have an issue with a journalist, or even just a fellow attendee, who includes candid photos of them as part of their "my day at the con" photo collection. I believed that the "no harm" rule was in effect and that I was free to shoot.

Just as importantly: it feels...awkward...to insist that cosplayers have special rights at a con that the rest of the show's attendees don't. It makes me feel uncomfortable to think that it's OK for a photojournalist to take a picture of someone sifting through a longbox of comics when they're in jeans and an X-Men shirt...but hey, if they're dressed as John Constantine, whoah, suddenly they're off-limits.

In truth, I think it shouldn't matter how someone is dressed. If I wanted to not be photographed on that day, then I shouldn't have come to a convention hall where thousands and thousands of people with cameras would be milling around.

But It's Not About Me!

I still think all of those arguments are valid, and I'm not at all apologetic about any of the candids I've ever shot at cons.

(Andy said, carefully reminding you of his "never take a photo that he'd be ashamed to post, or which the subject wouldn't be delighted to discover in Andy’s Flickr feed" law.)

Things feel a bit different here in 2014, though. Thanks to the efforts of many brave people, we all have an increased awareness of the problem of sexual harassment at modern conventions. The stories are shocking: men who (perhaps) wouldn't dream of committing criminal acts in a public park or in a shopping mall somehow think that the rules inside a conventional hall are different. Or, that someone wearing a costume is somehow less entitled to fundamental respect, dignity, and safety than someone wearing clothes from Old Navy.

Taking a posed photo of Power Girl just because the cosplayer has a large chest and is in a revealing costume is creepy, but not illegal...

Oh, dear. Would you look at me, judging a photographer for taking a photo with full consent. Okay. I apologize and I confess to being a bit of a prude when it comes to those kinds of pictures. But I often see a cosplay photo taken by someone whose sole artistic statement seems to be "BREASTS!!!"

Many other photos of these same cosplayers look creative and respectful. I'm saying that a photographer and a Vampirella cosplayer, working together, can create a great, sexy photo...and there's nothing wrong with sexy. But when the photo turns out creepy (for reasons that have nothing to do with the stage blood dripping from the corners of Vampirella's mouth), that's 100% on the photographer. End of apology, end of judgmental aside.

Fine. But: following a cosplayer around to sneak a camera under her skirt isn't just creepy. It's a criminal act for which the perpetrator should be arrested. Not "thrown out of the convention." Taken out of the convention. In handcuffs.

Sadly, an attacker who sticks a hand down a cosplayer’s blouse or pants is not such an uncommon occurrence that cosplayers and convention organizers can dismiss the possibility of it happening to them, and at their show.

This is the world that cosplayers must confront when they step out onto the convention floor. Such incidents are finally receiving the attention that they deserve. They're no longer being explained as "this completely unforeseeable thing that happened one time at a poorly-run con." Cosplayers and convention organizers are treating these crimes as ongoing problems that can be addressed through education, and by new, more serious policies and procedures. Everyone involved in conventions -- including every attendee -- is directly and indirectly being asked “is this something you condone, or something you want to help to stop?”

This is why the environment on the con floor is different, here in 2014...and thank God (or whatever) for it!

I'm still the same "do no harm"-motivated photographer I was a few years ago. But I should overclock my empathy circuits. I must be aware that cosplayers have no way of knowing my intentions. If I see a Batman, a Superman, and a Wonder Woman hanging out together at the 7-11 outside the convention center this weekend, all chatting and laughing and enjoying Slurpees in "Guardians Of The Galaxy" commemorative cups, yes, I will so totally want to take that photo! It's the classic DC Trinity, soon to be featured in the next DC movie blockbuster. It's a cool street photo, and it won't look nearly as nice if these three people pose for it.

But what might Wonder Women think when she hears the clk-clk-clk-clk-clk of my SLR taking a bracketed sequence? Well, if you ask me, I think it’s most likely that she'll realize that this is just a candid street photo, and then think nothing more of it.

It doesn’t really matter what I think, though. I’m a white guy. I don’t spend any time whatsoever worrying about someone on the street exploiting or attacking me. When I was in high school, I did spend one intensely-memorable night being chased off of the road and through the woods on foot by a pack of guys I’d never met, who declared their intention to beat the crap out of me when they caught up with me. Incidentally, I lost them, and made it home safely.

As bad as this personal experience was, I quickly shook it off. It was in no way emblematic of how society treats white teenaged boys. It was only emblematic of the jackassery of drunk idiots who lead lives of intense personal frustration. A mere aberration. I think I took a different route home for the rest of the month, but it didn’t teach me a lifelong lesson that "this is how white teenaged males get killed: exactly like this. At any time."

Wonder Woman (the cosplayer, not the Amazonian) lives in a different world. When she realizes that I took her photo without her knowledge, she might instinctively worry about me as a possible threat, and start thinking through the possibilities. Has part of her costume come undone? Is there an angle at which some creep with a telephoto lens can see into the gap between her metal chestpiece and her skin? Or...is this guy with the camera up to something even worse?

If she thought any of those things about me and my camera, then she would, of course, be incorrect. And maybe she'd think it for only a fraction of a second before she realized that I had good intentions.

But for that fluttering fraction of a second, maybe she would feel unsafe.

Do I want to be responsible for that?

My desire for a photo of Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman enjoying Slurpees doesn't trump Wonder Woman's desire to feel safe and comfortable in her costume. Because no, it's not all about me. And for the record, it's not all about Wonder Woman, either. But it's easy for me to do the math on this one. In this scenario, my not having a photo of The Slurpee Trinity is far less costly to me than Wonder Woman’s possible moment of worry would be to her.

The Challenge To The 2014 Con Photographer

Mind you, I still think (in the closed, sanitized theater of a collegiate debating society) that cosplayers shouldn't expect to always be asked before someone takes their photo at a comic-con. And not because they're dressed as Father Greedo Sarducci. No, because they're in a place where nobody should expect to go unphotographed.

Let me break up the seriousness with a second (but this time non-racist) head-shaking example of a profoundly disconnected expectation of privacy. Boston Comicon, 2012, I think. I showed up early, because I had to set up my panel room. On my way into the convention center, I remembered to shoot an "establishing shot" of the 9 AM line for the con floor's 10 AM opening, in case I wanted it for my story later. I clicked a wide shot of hundreds of people in a line that stretched all the way down Boylston Street and around the corner.

The guy at the head of the line grumbled. "Hey! You have to ask my permission before you take my picture!"

I reassured him that it was a shot of the whole line, not of him specifically, but he didn't think that made any difference. "You still have to ask my permission!!!"

Well. Well!

I was about to peevishly ask him if he honestly expected me to ask 300 people, individually, standing and sitting on a public sidewalk, to consent to be photographed. But I realized that this would be a totally unnecessary argument with a complete stranger. I promised to crop him out of the photo (an ethical obligation; it's the same photo without him at the extreme-left-edge of it, so why not exclude the person who didn't want to be photographed?). Then I simply walked into the convention center without any further discussion, and went to work.

I also think that the blanket policy statement "no taking photos of people at Comicon without their permission" that many cons are enacting is fundamentally untenable. It needs fine-tuning. It's literally not possible to take a photo of anything at a Comic-Con without accidentally taking photos of people in front of, behind, and around the thing you actually want to shoot.

But as I've said, I intend to do no harm with my photography. If I truly mean what I say, then I need to figure out how to balance my "rights" (note the quotation marks) as a photographer and journalist with the cosplayers' rights (note lack of quotation marks) to feel safe at conventions.

I can't say that I know what the correct final answer will be. I don't think the cosplaying community or the convention organizers do, either. We need to all work together to solve the problem because if we don’t, then a type of community event that we all enjoy so much will be ruined by the creeps and the criminals.

In the meantime, I intend to err in favor of the cosplayers.

I already have my camera gear set up for this weekend’s Boston Comic-Con. SLR-style compact system camera; two batteries; utility zoom, long zoom, fisheye lens; second, pocket-sized camera that uses the same lens system as the first; sling for pocket camera; big flash head. I charged up my batteries, cleared a memory card, and set this aside a few days ago. Today, I got an email from Boston Comic-Con with instructions for the press, including a new "no taking photos of people without their permission" rule.

I'm going to accept that as a creative challenge. I'll shoot my posed photos as usual. But if I see a great candid happening in front of me, I will use a new process. I will approach. I will say that what they're doing would make a lovely photo, and is it OK if I take a few shots why they keep right on doing that exact same thing and oh please please please just pretend I'm not here?

It will be very hard.

Because so much of photography, even the hobby-photojournalism that I enjoy, is about capturing a shot that happens in just a fraction of a second before melting away forever. Some of the photos I'm most proud of are the result of my noticing something out of the corner of my eye. I raised my camera to my face and squeezed off only one shot. I did it just in the nick of time, and then poof, the critical moment was gone forever.

But I’ll try out this new procedure. I must. I have done the math on this one. In this environment of greater awareness, I know I will be happier if I come home with fewer great photos than I will if I come home with the worry that I might have made someone feel uncomfortable...to say nothing about breaking a rule set by the con.

After all, I’m just a guy taking photos of a con. I’m not a UN investigator documenting human rights abuses in a war-torn nation. It’s fine if I don’t get all of the shots I want.

I will also quietly urge cons to come up with a more practical photo policy than "no photos of cosplayers without permission." But until they do, yes, I will have to be the stammering idiot who awkwardly asks Ant Man if he would please jam his iPhone back into his helmet as a hands-free device, like he did about twenty seconds ago, because it will make an awesome photo, no please don’t smile or look at the camera, I mean, if you could just keep on talking as though...no, I understand, it doesn’t seem like an interesting picture to you, but I promise you that what I'm seeing in the viewfinder here is...

Maybe it’ll help if I’m the stammering idiot who’s trying to explain all of that...as well as someone who’s happy to give Ant Man a $5 Dunkin Donuts card for his trouble.

Okay. Well, suffice to say that this is going to be a period of adjustment for everyone involved. But it's well worth the effort, all around.

Published 4:00 am Fri, Aug 8, 2014

About the Author

Andy Ihnatko writes about technology for The Chicago Sun-Times. Links to the writing and podcasting projects that people pay him for, as well as the writing and photography that no sensible publisher wants any part of, can be found at Ihnatko.com.

From our forums

  1. phidauex

    I mostly get what you are saying, but you lost me at "privacy concerns of one gender." The reason the concerns are stronger for women is that women have more to be concerned about. No one is trying to take pervy pictures of you, so of course you aren't concerned about it.

    And while our rights to expression are valuable and protected, remember that events like this aren't "the town square" - they are private functions that can set rules of decorum that trump your constitutional rights. You say if they don't like it they can stay home - well the same is true of you.

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