How to Photograph a Convention

How to Photograph a Convention

The following post is from Australian photographer Neil Creek who is part of the Fine Art Photoblog, and is developing his blog as a resource for the passionate photographer.

Shooting pop-culture conventions has been one of my favourite photographic pastimes, and I have learned a great deal of what I know about photography there. At conventions I have honed my skills in portrait shooting, event photography, working with clients, whether they be the attendees or organisers, off-camera lighting, low light photography, stage performance photography, rapid refining and processing of big shoots, and more. These skills have been a great help in related photography, especially portraiture and wedding photography.

Besides all of the valuable experience, con photography is fun! There’s an atmosphere of shared excitement, many people dress in costume giving you many photo ops, and they are usually more than willing subjects. There’s always something new to see, and there is often a wide variety of locations and backdrops.

Many of the tips in the great How to Photograph a Conference post featured here a couple of weeks ago apply, so read that as well. The advice that follows, however, comes specifically from my experience photographing conventions.

So how can you be the best convention photographer possible? Well, there are a lot of things to consider. Here are some of the lessons I have learned over the many years I have photographed conventions.

Preparation

Be prepared. There’s lots happening at conventions, and sometimes it can be a real endurance test, especially those that span several days. A little preparation can make everything a lot easier.

  • Make sure your gear is ready, batteries charged, extra cards on hand, sensor cleaned, etc.
  • Take essentials with you: sturdy bag/pack for your gear and extras, water, snacks, pen and paper, headache tablets, sticky plasters, etc.
  • Make contacts. Knowing people before you go makes it easier to break the ice and get your foot in the right doors. More on this below.
  • Know your gear. The fast-paced, unpredictable nature of convention photography means you need to know your gear inside out, and how to change lenses or settings at a moments notice to catch a fleeting photo opportunity.
  • Pre-book your ticket. Any time you can avoid standing in lines is time that you can be shooting.

Working with costumers

The costumers and cosplayers at a convention are the real draw card for photographers. Beautiful, sexy, impressive and cool costumes parade by you faster than you can shoot them. You won’t want to miss any opportunity to get the best photos you can.

  • Respect. First and foremost, respect your subject. They’ve put a lot of work into their outfit, and just because you know they want you to take their photo, doesn’t mean you have the right to be rude to them. Without them, you don’t have a photo.
  • Be friendly and talkative. Costumers can still get shy or uncomfortable in front of the camera, especially first-timers. Smile, be friendly, and engage in conversation: ask them about their costume, how they like the convention, about the character they’re dressed as. Keep their mind off the lens in their face.
  • Show them the photos. If you have time for more than a couple of hurried photos, show the subject your first couple of photos on the screen. It will relax them, and if they think they look cool (that’s up to your excellent photo skills!) then they’ll be more enthusiastic about posing for more.
  • Find some good locations. Shooting in the traders hall is bad, anywhere you will hold up traffic to get a photo is a mistake. Try and find somewhere with open space and an attractive background, for example a foyer or exterior grassed area.
  • It’s like portraiture with a twist. Most of the same rules for portraiture apply, such as the rule of thirds, angling the body to the camera and adopting dynamic poses. However, with costuming the subject is taking on a character, so work with that. Let it inspire poses and inspire the subject to act in character.
  • Worthy of a post on its own. I’ve covered the subject of shooting costumers and cosplayers in more detail in a pair of illustrated video tutorials at my blog. Watch them to see some more detailed specifics on this subject.

Getting the good spots

Getting a good vantage point is essential for good photos in some convention events, such as costume competitions. To avoid waiting for hours in the queue to get the best seat in the house, it helps to be “in the know”.

  • Make contacts. Find out who’s organising the convention, and particularly the organiser of the events you want to shoot. Introduce yourself and try to negotiate special access.
  • Show your folio. The best way to show people you’re serious, is to show them examples of your work. No one would put aside a front row seat for a poor photographer. Talk yourself up by showing your best work.
  • Share your pics. It helps to get yourself respected by the organisers if you’re already known and respected by the attendees of the con. Let your work be known to them, and if they like you, they may demand you get support.
  • Start talking early The sooner you can make yourself known to the organisers the better. They can plan to make room for you, they can internalise the idea of having you there, and they can maybe work with you to make the event photography friendly. Leave it too late and you’ll just be another stress they won’t want to worry about.
  • Get a press pass. Ask if the convention has a press pass. This should hopefully let you skip queues, guarantee you good seats and give you preference over other photographers. If they don’t have a press pass, offer to write a proposal to introduce one.
  • Stay out of the way. If everything works out for you, and you’re given special access to events, don’t jeopardize your position by getting in the way. Stay in the background, don’t make unreasonable demands, and help out the organisers at the event if you can. They’re likely to be very stressed and without the time to help you.
  • Build your reputation To get to this position, and to solidify yourself as a “pro” photographer to the convention, you need to build and grow your reputation as a professional photographer. Read below for more tips on how to do this.

Respect, Reputation & Results

  • Reputation is everything. As a photographer, it is crucial to foster a good reputation. This is true no matter what kind of photos you take, but when you are dealing with people, it is even more so. Especially if you depend on that reputation to get you favoured treatment among many other photographers.
  • Build it and they will come. As you build a reputation as a skilled and professional photographer, you will find people asking for you. If attendees expect you to be at a convention, you will have a lot of influence with the organisers.
  • Process all pics. Every photo can do with some tweaking out of the camera. Give every photo this attention, and it will show in the results.
  • Be brutal in the cull. Every photographer should know this, but take many photos, and show far less. Take thousands, share hundreds.
  • Don’t upload anything unflattering. This is key – if people can’t trust you to make them look good, they won’t want you to photograph them.
  • Get the pics online asap. The longer you make people wait, the more the buzz from the event will die down. You want to process your photos and get them online as soon as possible so that everyone will look for photos of themselves and their friends, and share the links, while they’re still on a high. People will love you for it.

Shooting conventions has led me to photographic places I couldn’t have imagined. I’ve made contacts and friends that have enriched my life and my skills. Don’t underestimate the power of these connections. Besides, shooting cons is fun!

Read more from Neil on his blog, including projects, tutorials and lots of photos. You can also connect with Neil on Twitter, where he is happy to answer photography and other questions.

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Neil Creek is a professional photographer from Melbourne, Australia. He has been shooting with a DSLR since 2004, and blogging about his experiences since 2006. Neil has authored five ebooks and a video training course, all designed to help others improve their photography. View Neil's folio at his home page. Learn about his publications here.

Some Older Comments

  • Erin March 6, 2009 07:18 am

    This post has good and valuable information, thank you.

  • Karsten January 10, 2009 07:51 pm

    I've been taking pictures at anime conventions for about ten years now, starting with screen grabs from a video camera, to film, to digital, to DSLR, and I still love articles like this because there's always something new to learn.

    Most recently, I took pictures at San Japan in San Antonio, TX: http://www.flickr.com/photos/kse3/collections/72157606626757098/

    In a month I'll be at Ikkicon (in Austin, TX) with yet another camera upgrade and a bit more knowledge.

  • Beth January 9, 2009 08:55 am

    Wow, this is great! I photographed my first convention this past August, the Star Trek Convention in Las Vegas. I was pretty pleased with the results, despite the fact that the low light, movement and a very long lens resulted in lots of noise.

    Here's the Costume contest:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/pixellle/sets/72157606692201110/

    And here are the rest:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/pixellle/collections/72157606694147583/

    A few months after the convention, I started learning Photoshop, so I was able to go back and correct the skin color a bit more, but I never re-posted the corrected ones to Flickr. But I was pretty satisfied that I'd captured some good expressions and actions.

  • Hexlord January 9, 2009 12:20 am

    Thanks for writing this article, it is excellent stuff :)

  • Nakey January 6, 2009 10:11 am

    Reputation wise, it does help when the cosplayers cosplay at events outside of the convention. you keep going to events, and make your name that way. this way, the cosplayers will start specifically asking for you. Even to stuff that isn't specifically cosplay

    And when you're that well known, even being a little late with the PP and uploading isn't that bad as they'll start chanting your name to encourage you to do it =] course, it is always good to do it ASAP.

    Having a press pass or being someone that's seen predominantly taking photos of cosplayers will make you "that guy taking the photos". Relish it, it's generally a good thing. people who cosplay generally do it for the attention they get. in 7 years of Anime conventions, 4 as a cosplay photographer, i've met 2 that cosplayed that didn't want their photo taken.

    One good thing about some conventions is that there's fellow camera newbies floating around. I think i spent time with about 3 DSLR shooters at Manifest last year helping them get better shots. Doing that sticks in the minds of people. I wouldn't be into cosplay photography as much if a certain someone didn't spend the time to help me. You learn from the way they shoot, the way they interact with people.

  • Michael Warf January 6, 2009 05:44 am

    I would add "pack portable light" to that list (David Hobby style). His monopod flash mount idea has become the staple for additional light at conferences and events.

  • Alex January 6, 2009 03:22 am

    Wow this post is fantastic! I only wish this was available last year when I went to photograph New York Comic-con '08 (Flickr Set http://www.flickr.com/photos/alexerde/sets/72157604660596483/), I went under the guise of taking photographs for my digital photography class final where I tried to recreate art and historical photographs with cosplayers (the results http://www.flickr.com/photos/alexerde/sets/72157604801669070/).

    These tips are great and I definitely did not think of most of these while shooting, I ended up running around the convention hall looking for different cosplayers which just frazzled me when I should have planned much more in advance, but it was a last minute decision to go to the Con and to do the photo project.

    I really should have talked more to the people I was photographing, some of the cosplayers were very serious about their character which did make it rather hard and actually made me quite nervous just asking if I could use them in a photo. A lot of the time I was incredibly shy about asking people to pose for a shot.

    I actually shot most of my photos in the hall, which I can now see as being a bad idea, I was too shy to ask the cosplayers to come with me to another location, which I now regret. Although I did take a photo of one group of Star Trek cosplayers recreating the Kent State massacre that did have an interesting effect where I had some onlookers (http://www.flickr.com/photos/alexerde/2432691901/) in the photo.

    My reputation is definitely something that needs to get fixed, during the last con after a day or so some people I asked to photograph already seemed to know about me as "that guy" I wasn't sure if this was a good or bad thing, they would just sort of go "oh hey, so your that guy taking the photos", I probably should have asked if that was a good thing, but I was taken off guard, do you have any suggestions about how to go about doing this?

    I also screwed up by waiting a week or more after the convention ended, and I didn't process any of my photos, only the ones I used for my project and just put all of them in one big flickr set which I now just cleaned up and hid some of the repeats and shots of the same person from different angles, although I still need to do more of that but I have trouble choosing.

    Wanted to know if anyone from the dps community would be going to the '09 NY Comic Con, I would love if we could set up something like a photowalk through the hall.