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Cosplay is made up of so many different elements and aspects, we wanted to find out more about photography. Using his own images, perps (otherwise known as Geoff) breaks down his photography from concept to post production. This means he not only gives you tips to the trade but actively provides examples of where he applies them. As the guide goes on you’ll start to see all the different elements Perps uses fold together to create some of the best photographic cosplay character images we’ve seen in a long time!

We’ll start off with a run down of Perps, so how did you enter into the world of photography?

My father was a wedding photographer and I grew up with a camera in my hand, although until the coming of digital, I wasn’t doing much. I’ve been a member of the SWPP Photographic Societies since 2007 and in 2011, was Runner-Up for the SWPP Contemporary Portrait Photographer of the Year Award. In 2015, I completed a formal qualification, an HND which broadened my perspective a lot. For the past 2 years or so, I’ve been immersed in photographing landscapes. Living in Northern Ireland I’ve been surrounded by the beautiful scenes used to film Game of Thrones, Vikings and Dracula Untold and it was as I was photographing these scenes as well as finding out some of my friends were involved in G.O.T. that got me thinking about getting back into portraiture and specifically Cosplay Photography. Here in N.Ireland we have the MCM ComicCon and the QCon and I attended both this past year. I met some very interesting people with amazing costumes and out of that, shoots began to come together. I’ve always been a massive comic and movie superhero fan and finally I had the opportunity to actually photograph some of these amazing characters!

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Planning a photo shoot and what it involves. Photography Guide by Perps Portraits.

Well, it all begins with an idea. Sometimes very specific, at other times quite vague. If I am honest, my Cosplay shots have been of characters that I’ve grown up with, like Spiderman & Judge Dredd. With Cosplay the key is knowing the character and the genre. Spiderman has very specific things that work well for him as does Batman or the Joker.

One thing I have learned to value is research. You can never do too much research and yes, sometimes it involves many hours playing Assassin’s Creed or Batman Arkham Asylum!. The only problem with that is that sometimes you end up with too many scattered and varied ideas, especially if the characters are cross platform, such as comics, games, cartoon, movies…

Once I’ve decided on my character and have researched thoroughly, I have to narrow down the concept. Its gradual of course. The further along in the process, the more specific it becomes. A massive factor too though, is who is available. At this moment I want to photograph real people with their own cosplay outfits, not models portraying a role. This means working with who is out there. The beauty of the Spiderman shoot, for example, was that the cosplayer, John Donaldson actually had 3 different suits: Comic-book; and from the movies, Amazing Spiderman 1 & 2.

I then have to decide on what it is that I want to SAY. How do I want people to SEE this character. I am a big believer in being as authentic as possible. I want people to look at my images and say… “That’s Spiderman!” Not… oh there’s a guy in a Spiderman suit. I want my work to be believable.

Choosing a location

Choosing a location is dependant on a lot of things. For my current work, its quite simple. I work in a studio setting with a black background. However, for this Joker shoot, I liked the idea of shooting on location, but then you add a lot of variables to the shoot that can’t be controlled such as distractions and weather. So, I decided on a compromise. I would still shoot my classic studio shots, but then I would also shoot greenscreen and create composite images. I will be out and about in Belfast shooting street scenes for my backgrounds and will then decide what works best after I shoot, in post-production. Truthfully, the composite idea interests me, but I’m not that stressed about it if it doesn’t come together. What’s most important to me is getting the character shots with the black background.

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Can you tell us why you use a black backdrop for your images?

I really like the black background. Today’s studio world has been taken over by high-key photography where everything is white and totally overexposed. For me the black background allows me to place emphasis on shadows and texture. Working with a black background means that you need to focus your light on the subject. Light spilling onto the background just creates more work afterwords in Post.

I am always experimenting and learning. For some characters you want them separated from the background, for others, like Batman or Judge Dredd, you want them in the shadows… blending into the background. There are a lot of other things to consider.

I also really like using this style because I feel it is classic and very different from what you’d expect to see at a convention. To me, getting the soul of the character is the key to getting this right, after all there are no other distractions with a black background. For me it’s a passion. I love my characters and I love being able to photograph them and I take a lot of satisfaction in seeing people enjoy them too.

Choosing lighting

 

Lighting and location tend to go hand in hand. If I decide to do composite images, then I need to consider that when I do my street shots for the backgrounds. For example the direction from which light is shining and how its causing shadows to fall has to be consistent, photography is painting with light and if the lighting or shading is wrong, then you will be struggling. Many photographers will use light meters. That works for them. For me, when I start doing that, I lose focus on what I am there to do and that is capture great images. So, for me, I experiment with the lighting. I play with it until I get it right.

I personally use Bowen 400 & 125 lights – These are fairly much the standard when it comes to lighting. A lot of people are using continuous lightings now instead of flash. But I tend to start with 1 light and then as I need it, add another. The most I’ve used on these shoots is 3. Depending on the background and subject combination, I may introduce a kick-light or hair-light to give separation between the 2 (I position it behind the subject to give a halo effort a white edge to dark subjects against a dark background. I did this with some of the Spiderman shots, but I didn’t use it for the Judges as I wanted to play on that darkness a bit.). I will also shoot something using a backlight, especially if I am wanting to highlight the outfit too. I always try to do both because I know the cosplayer will want both. Atmospheric shots and detail shots. Atmospheric shots give a sense of the role being portrayed, but detail shots allow me to highlight the work that’s been done by the cosplayer to create such an amazing costume. I will probably then introduce one more light to balance things. However, if I can use the Octabox*, its an interesting light because its quite big and gives me freedom to move about and can create some nice shadows too. Sometimes its personal preference.


*Octabox / Strip boxes – These are just attachments for my studio lights that allow me to soften or modify my light to create results. You could easily get away with just one Octa and be very creative.

D71_2438 (1)Moving on to concept images! Can you tell us the process of taking these concept images and why?

The concept shots were really just part of my planning. Usually concept images give me an idea as to what something will look like, for example, in the Spiderman shoot, I had a poster from one of the Toby Maguire Spiderman crawling up a wall on his belly… I wanted to recreate that same vibe rather than recreating someone else’s work. I like to have them to hand once I start to shoot to refer to as well as any interesting poses or ideas. I also tend to use my iphone a lot in creating composite images and this was a good way to experiment.

We’re very excited to be showcasing your Joker and Harley shoot, can you explain the concept behind this?

Each of the Jokers and Harley’s I researched had a very distinct look.The Heath Ledger Joker has now become the stuff of legends and is easily recognisable. For that reason, I decided to keep him exactly as he is and then reimagine a Harley that would fit into HIS world. But it took a lot of research for me to get to this point. I have 100’s of Joker & Harley images. Screenshots from comics. In a sense these have become my Mood Board. The epic colours of both characters will remain the same.

The more difficult choices came when I was deciding on which Harley would work well for this particular Joker. However, there was one problem. The Heath Ledger version of the character doesn’t have a Harley. The first time we will see the 2 together on screen, is the upcoming Suicide Squad (which I can’t wait for!) Knowing I was working with such a fantastic make-up artist, Margaret Cupial, I felt the makeup would help to achieve the element of madness I wanted. This way I can portray the character as I want to see her.

The face is probably the biggest change and this is where Harley was broken down and rebuilt. I wanted face paint that would tie in with my Joker. the Heath Ledger Joker is a bit disheveled and at times looks like he might sleep rough. The makeup is applied quite messy. Also the facial scaring is extreme. So, like in the movie, I am sure that Joker has taken his knife to Harley and done the same messy job that he has done to himself. The makeup around the eyes again will be messy on Harley to tie in with Joker.

Joker & Harley Quinn’s relationship is turbulent. At times he’s tried to kill her, other times he dotes on her. But most of the time, Harley is totally devoted to Joker. There was one aspect to Joker & Harley Quinn that I wanted to make sure I captured. The fact that both of them are completely bonkers. Again, my need for authenticity.That’s the reason I decided to re-write Harley especially, in my own image. By that I wanted her to look totally different from any cosplay Harley I’d seen and the makeup was key to making that possible.

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How do you work with your subjects for a shoot?

I think that a photographer needs to keep creative control of a shoot, but it’s still important to feed off the energy or ideas that the rest of the team bring to the shoot. I work closely with everyone on the shoots. I like as much input as possible. My partner Rosemary is a great source of ideas for me do. We see things totally differently so it’s a good reality check for me to bounce ideas off her. For this Joker/Harley shoot, it’s been great that everyone involved has an opinion and that’s helped me to formulate my ideas and understand what is feasible. Ultimately, it’s my shoot and I will have to make the final call on how I want things, but I would struggle if I didn’t listen to others.

I’ve obviously got to be aware of the lighting and the general principles. Things like perspective can make a bit difference. Shooting from a high position can make your subject look like an Ewok. Not cool. On the other hand, you can make someone look taller by shooting from ground level up. There’s lots of little tricks like this that come into play. Your subjects won’t always be aware of things like this so its up to me to guide their thought process to create the best images possible.

The models are very important too. This is especially true in Cosplay. Your models usually know EXACTLY how these characters are to be played. Joker,Spiderman and Judge Dredd all have very distinct personalities and cosplayers will have been practising those poses, moves & mannerisms regularly so they naturally fall into the role and its quite an easy aspect. For this very reason, I try not to over direct them. But I do direct when I need to. I’ve developed some ways of doing that which make it easier to communicate. That’s something that comes with experience. You need to be clear with your direction. Sometimes I have to assume the poses myself so they can see what it is I want. But definitely, everyone brings there own part to the shoot which I really value.

I do have a shot-list on my iPad, which I try to get as much from as I can, but I believe you need to work with what is in front of you on the day. Sometimes even better ideas present themselves on the day. But it’s perfect to have that shot list for those times when you hit a creative brick-wall. I also like to work closely with the model beforehand so they have an idea what I’m wanting and that usually helps make things flow better. At the start of a shoot I don’t really say much about posing etc. I use that time to get lighting as I want it and to help the model relax in front of the camera. People then feel more at ease with you.

What do you do in post with your photos?

First of all there are a couple of different ways to shoot. A lot of people shoot in JPEG which is smaller & quicker to save on a camera, but you are limited in what you can do with it. RAW is very different. The files are larger because they contain a lot more information. This means I can adjust the images a lot more. Needless to say, I shoot RAW. The beauty of RAW is that it gives you so much more control in post-production, especially with white balances, exposures etc. I tend to try and get as much tonal range within my shots as possible, meaning I want to see lots of variations and shades in colours, not just simple colours and strong blacks and whites.

With most images, I tend to just pre-sharpen the image and adjust things like clarity, white and black points and exposure. I will also work on little things on the background or the subject if I feel they are unflattering or distracting. I do use a plugin sometimes to boost contrast a bit. This just helps the images to “pop.” If I’m printing the photos then I will post-sharpen them as well.

But a lot of the images I do are pretty much as they come out of the camera. It’s better to get as much right IN the camera as you shoot, as to do it later in post-production. When you have a lot of images to process, it all makes a difference.

Can you tell us about the camera you use and why you use it?

My camera is a Nikon D7000 which is a 24MP camera one of the best resolutions on the market at reasonable money. But this kind of thing can be shot with anything really so its not essential to have a modern DSLR. You just need to know your equipment and how to get the best out of it.

I tend to use 18-200mm lens and at times an 11-16mm superwide. Primarily this is because these are the lenses I currently own. I love to try new things so even a super wide can be interesting as you get some unusual results with them at times. I want to be able to move about and play with the subject. Also perspective is important… that is, where you shoot from. But those are things that you have to experiment with. From your research you’ll know the character and how they should be seen. I often have a bunch of images on my ipad that i will scroll through to help me keep the overall feel of what I am trying to do.

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And finally what’s your ultimate goal with your cosplay photography and how can we get in touch?

If I’m honest I want to create something better than a lot of cosplay photography we currently see. I want to create a sense of class. I want my images to stand out. To look classy and high-end. So much cosplay photography today is taken at conventions and either its set into a cosposite shot using green screen or its shot with a lot of distracting stuff in the background. For me using this background isolates the subject. It’s definitely ALL ABOUT THEM. Their costume and posing, all the time they’ve invested on getting things exactly right. I think its great to do photography at conventions and Comicons, but I think every cosplayer wants something like this. Something that highlights THEM and their feeling about how important their cosplaying is to them.

You can get in touch by either e-mailing me at: perps@geoffmcgrathphotography.com or checking out Perps Portraits on facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/perpsportraits/?fref=ts

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Join the discussion One Comment

  • A MASSIVE thanks to everyone at Costume and Play for the amazing article and the opportunity to talk about what I love doing, taking these amazing images!!
    Feel free to check my work out on Facebook at “Perps Portraits” 🙂

    All the best with the new design website!! Looks fantastic!!