Tips For Convention Photography
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At geeky/nerdy conventions of all types and genres, two things will always be true:
- The number of photos taken at the con will exceed the number of attendees at the con by an order of magnitude.
- The number of photos taken that are worth looking at, to anyone other than the people/cosplayers in them, will be in the double-digits, on average.
Yes, as sad as it is, it seems like the vast majority of convention photos are terrible, and unfortunately, the terrible ones are what get posted to any public image galleries on the con's website, if they're the sort that anyone can submit images to. Now, I'm no expert photographer, but I've captured some pretty good images at conventions, and learned a lot about how to do it right, so I wanted to share at least some of that with the world. Please note that while I own and shoot with a digital SLR, most of these are things that apply to photos taken with any camera, including cellphones.
- Use good photography techniques. I'm not sure why, but I've seen truly talented photographers who, in the excitement of the con, throw everything they know out the window and turn into a Facebook shooter. Don't do that. Take your time, pay attention to your composition, and focus on quality over quantity.
- Quality over quantity. Simply put, unless you're the con's official staff photographer, don't try to photograph the entire con, or every cosplayer you see. Unless you dedicate your entire con experience to it, it doesn't work, and even then, you have to be fantastic at rapid composition. Focus only on shots that are interesting to you, and everything you take will instantly be better simply because you weren't rushing. Hundreds of mediocre or bad shots will blend in with the tens of thousands of other mediocre, bad shots, but a dozen or two truly good shots will stand out beautifully, even in a flooded public gallery.
- Cookie-cutter poses make cookie-cutter photos. This is as much a tip for the cosplayers as for photographers, but when cosplayers stop for photos, pay attention to their poses. If they just stand there in one of the same poses that every other cosplayer uses, they're not worth photographing, because there's little to no way to make a photo of them interesting. Focus on the cosplayers who really get into their character, like this guy. The resulting shots will be much more interesting, even if you're a complete beginner taking cellphone photos.
- Sort your shots, young padawan. Raise your hand if you've seen 3-4 of the exact same shot, or very similar ones, posted in a row in a con's public gallery by the same photographer. Raise your hand if you've seen blurry, out of focus, or otherwise poor-quality shots posted to a con's public gallery. Good, every single person reading this has their hand raised - now don't be one of those people. This seems like it should be common sense, but if you're posting your photos online, regardless of where you're uploading, only upload the good ones. Sites other than Facebook make it really difficult to batch-upload an entire directory anyway, so go through them first, omit the bad ones, and use one shot per subject/pose. It greatly reduces the volume of photos of the event that interested viewers have to wade through, and decreases the likelihood that viewers will just skip over yours. Because unless someone is obsessively searching for a specific person/cosplayer, no sane person will flip through hundreds of shots of the same event by the same person unless they're AMAZING photos.
- Know the low-light limits of your gear. Most of the blurry, out-of-focus shots come from cameras that don't handle low light very well, trying to take photos in low light. This is especially a problem for cosplayers, because the ones worth photographing (see above) tend to be very animated, moving around quite a lot. The fix for this is to shoot a faster shutter speed; my advice beyond that varies based on what you're shooting with.
- Film: Get fast film, and if you can, fast glass as well. I know grain is a problem, but faster film will be worth it, and nowadays, grain can be fixed digitally if you're posting things online. Also, if you're shooting film at a convention, you officially rock, and you're probably a way better photographer than me who doesn't need to read this.
- SLR (digital or film): Convention photography is almost entirely indoors, so don't use an outdoor lens. Zooms are nice, but prime lenses are your friend for a con. I recommend 50mm, with a 100mm or longer on standby for panels/stage events, but above all else, get a fast 50mm. It's a good idea to have one in general, but it'll be your best friend at a convention. It doesn't even have to be a top-of-the-line one, any fast 50mm will be better than a narrower-aperture zoom lens, especially if it's a kit lens. You probably won't want to shoot wide open, to make focusing easier, but f2-f2.8 is a good aperture if you're not used to shooting with a narrow depth of field.
- Compact/Cellphone/Point-and-Shoot: If you have a compact camera or cellphone, the best thing I can tell you is to avoid low-light conditions. This limits where you can shoot a bit (convention center atrium or outside, instead of hotel hallways, for example), but the resulting photos will be much nicer to look at. Keep your camera set on Action mode, if you don't want to mess with exposure settings. And if you're using a lightweight camera (especially a cellphone), find something to brace it against for your shot. I don't recommend using a wall, but signs and furniture work for this, or ask to lean your camera on a friend's shoulder. Seriously, you'd be amazed how much motion blur comes from simply holding the camera, especially on a cellphone, where image stabilization is typically useless or nonexistant.
- Built-in flash adds light, at the expense of character. Regardless of the camera you have, whether it's a high-end digital SLR or an off-brand cellphone, one thing is always true: The built-in flash makes photos look awful. Many will turn it on when lighting gets low, or let the camera auto-fire it, but this typically results in awful-looking lighting. Unless you know how to properly adjust flash compensation, and use the direct-facing flash very sparingly, (I wouldn't go above a flash compensation value of -1, if that), just keep the flash off and use the available lighting. Or, if your camera has a hotshoe, use bounce-flash to illuminate the immediate area.
- SLR Note: External flashes for SLR cameras tend to be very powerful, and can reach a long way, but don't expect to get great shots out of this. Direct-flashing someone on a stage with a high-powered flash is no different than direct-flashing them with a point-and-shoot from a few feet away.
Hopefully, this list will help you create some photos that, instead of just showing what the convention looked like, show what it felt like to be there. Which is, after all, the entire point of photography.