Cosplay: How to Take Pictures at Comic-con

OK, with SDCC literally days away, I’m embarking on a group of posts specifically about cosplay in relation to conventions such as San Diego (holey moley TWO DAYS ahhhh). Of course, they’re applicable elsewhere, but the idea is that, in addition to the usual Cosplay Round-Up photo posts, there are some key areas in the cosplay world that I’d love to see improved. So, starting at the beginning with a simple post: how to take photographs at comic-con (in my opinion).

I know, it’s pretty straightforward. There’s a ton of tutorials out there for how to actually take a photograph – proper exposure, dynamic compositions, framing your subject, etc. There are tutorials for photographing moving objects, still life, children, animals, you name it. There’s even tutorials for taking photos with your cellphone.

However, with all the recent dramarama that’s gone down post-cons about unintentional (or intentional) insults and mistreatment, I think it’s important that we have an article that is exclusively dedicated to the most IMPORTANT part of your photograph: the subject.

If you’re photographing a cosplayer, there are some things to keep in mind.R-E-S-P-E-C-T
  • Your subject is human. Or a pet, I suppose, but for the purpose of this, we’re using human as a basis.
  • Despite dressing like a character that’s an asshole, your subject probably is not really an asshole.
  • Therefore, you should treat your subject as a person first, and a character second.

I realize this is a messy distinction. People who cosplay (myself included) often play the role of their characters when costumed, but that shouldn’t be an excuse to treat them disrespectfully. Addressing me as Harley Quinn and making a jab about my Mr J is one thing, but are you really smacking my ass because I’m Harley, or because I’m in spandex?

I know that there’s a reverse to this. Some cosplayers respond better to requests for photographs when the photographer has a DSLR or “professional” looking camera, as opposed to someone with just a cellphone. They want good photographs of themselves just as much as you, the proverbial photographer, want to take a good shot. That means, even with a quick photo at a convention, there has to be a give-take with respect from both sides.


Look at the difference between these two photographs:

Myself as Harley & Claire Hummel as Ivy :) Photo on leftt by sharky-san, Right by ktbuffy
Myself as Harley & Claire Hummel as Ivy 🙂 Photo on left by flickr user sharky-san, Right by ktbuffy

One of those photos is candid, and the other isn’t. One of those is a much better photograph than the other.

I’m not saying candid photography is always bad, because it’s not. As a photographer, I really enjoy street photography, which is just that. Capturing children running around laughing, or a look exchanged between a couple, those are great moments that aren’t easy to replicate by asking permission first. Sometimes it’s definitely better to shoot first and ask permission later, showing your subjects the photograph and making sure it’s OK.

But there’s a distinction to be made here.

Those examples I wrote? They are moments you’re capturing. Are you really excited to capture the moment of me walking across the street? Or is it just easier to photograph it instead of pausing and asking me to pose?

Photographers can get a lot of really amazing candid photographs of cosplayers at conventions, but the difference is the moments they’re choosing to capture and the reasons behind it – because it’s a great moment that should be captured, not because it’s easier.

This is how I break it down, when I want to take a candid photograph:
  1. Is this a moment that I’d want to show to the subject?
    I’ve had some great candids taken of me and while the photographers haven’t always shown me afterward, it’s not something that bothers me, because the moment was something worth capturing.
  2. Would I like the photo if it were of me?
    Look, okay. I get that less-than-appealing photos of usually-appealing people is a thing. Rag mags make a ton of money off just that with celebrities. They also get a bad rep. Is that really something you want to be?
Right Times to Photograph
It’s not accurate to say that people cosplay for the photographs, but it does play a huge part of the experience. It’s usually safe to assume that if someone is in costume, they’re okay with being asked for a photograph.

With that being said, there are definitely moments where bugging someone for a photograph is probably not a good idea.

A prime example of this is eating. Especially at a con as big as San Diego, it’s hard to find time or remember to eat, especially when you’re in a costume that is, maybe, completely spandex and therefore makes lunch bellies very visible. Asking someone for a photograph when they’re in a restaurant in the middle of eating and half undressed is disruptive and probably won’t get you the answer you want. Or, if they do agree, it will be pretty half-hearted because they don’t necessarily feel comfortable saying no.

I have had people interrupt me very rudely about this, but I’ve also had very kind people ask if I could stop by their table on my way out for a photograph, or something like that. An acknowledgement that yes, I want your photograph but I know you’re eating and taking a break. It all goes back to that respect thing.

Hands Off

Ugh, I hate that this is a necessary topic. And it’s definitely not exclusively related to women in spandex, either. Men dressed as idolized characters get just as much boundary-crossing attention, too. It’s important, again, to remember that behind all the armor and masks and spandex is a person.

Most people know better than to smack asses or drape themselves all over someone, but this isn’t just about that. Hands off also means you shouldn’t reach out and grab for someone to stop them and demand a photo, either.

Granted, there are acceptable ways to get someone’s attention that aren’t completely hands off, but there are nicer ways than grabbing at someone’s arm or even their costume. A tap on the shoulder or arm, something polite, but also, a gesture that doesn’t risk the integrity of the costume. A lot of cosplay is pieced together with items that are not actually as strong as we’ve made them look.

Moreover, would you really run up to someone and grab their arm to pull them where you want to go, if they weren’t in costume?

nk You

I can’t tell you how many times people have outright reached out and grabbed my arm to pull me to a stop, take a photo the second I grin, and then walk away.

I know the stereotypical joke is that nerds lack social skills, but really? REALLY?
This relates back to the initial argument: treating cosplayers like a person first and a character second. Chances are, the majority of those people are probably really nice and are just really excited about spotting someone in a costume they like or recognize. I doubt it’s maliciously done, but you know, it’s still disrespectful. Imagine yourself in the cosplayer’s shoes. Here you are in a costume you have spent months working on and are incredibly proud of. You’re really excited to show it off at SDCC and spend a lot of time in the early hours of the morning perfecting it. When you enter the crowd, you expect to be jostled and understand that not everyone is going to recognize you. Maybe even only one person will, depending on the character you chose.

Someone walks up and grabs you, cellphone held out in front of their face like a mask, and then walk away just as quickly and as silently, without a thanks or anything. How do you think it would make you feel? I mean, people thank Disney characters for their autographs and photographs. They thank celebrities for the attention. Hell, they thank the Starbucks barista for their tall macchiato. Why is it any different for people to thank a cosplayer for the photo they’re posing for?

In the end, all it takes is a little respect.

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Comments (2)

Great piece! A must read for Con Goers!


Great how-to article! Can't wait for more convention-specific cosplay pieces from you this week!

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