I’m a photographer and I don’t shoot at fan conventions, here’s why

Aug 19, 2018

Rob Swackhamer

We love it when our readers get in touch with us to share their stories. This article was contributed to DIYP by a member of our community. If you would like to contribute an article, please contact us here.

I’m a photographer and I don’t shoot at fan conventions, here’s why

Aug 19, 2018

Rob Swackhamer

We love it when our readers get in touch with us to share their stories. This article was contributed to DIYP by a member of our community. If you would like to contribute an article, please contact us here.

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OK… so the title is only mostly true. I rarely con shoot. But the reasons for that still come from the same place.

One thing I’ve discovered in all my years of paying attention to cosplay photography is that how much of it is very similar in nature. A lot of it tends to happen at various conventions, or at least in the US anyway. Quite a while back I started noticing this… and I knew I didn’t want my work to be the same way.

But I realized I needed to sit down and deconstruct how I got to this mode of thought. Part of that was to fully understand why I had come to dislike con shooting. And to also understand how maybe things could be done differently to advance the cosplay photography scene.

Don’t Get In The Way Of The Fans

This particular piece comes from my years of concert shooting. Coming up in the VGM/nerdcore/chiptune scenes meant hanging out in a lot of small venues. Which means no photo pit of any sort. So the fans of whoever was playing were right up there at the stage. And they were far more important than I. With that, I would make sure I was not harshing on their enjoyment of the show. If there was a spot that I saw could have a good angle and someone was there I’d go up and ask “Hey, can I shoot from here for like 60 seconds?” And if they were cool with it I’d shoot and once I was done I’d give them a high five/fist bump/beer tap and then GTFO.

Well thought out photography, quite frankly, takes up a lot of space, especially when it comes to lighting, lens choices, etc. I’ve staffed and attended a lot of cons and there have been many situations where I’ve seen that space is at a premium. So to try to do that in those cases is quite frankly not a good choice to make. You do not own that space… the con and the fans do. Learn to respect that.

The Time Crunch Helps No One

I noticed that a lot of con shooters will advertise 45-60 minute slots for shooting (some even as low as 30 minutes). I have to question if this is a good idea. For one unless you’re super efficient and have scouted out a number of spots beforehand you’re bound to run into issues like other people already being there, gear set up, etc.

The more important piece here is that the short time frame doesn’t allow for idea germination. You can still get some good shots within that limitation. But can you truly say you’re getting some of your best shots? When you and the cosplayer have the space to think through what could be done to get good photos that is where everyone involved will shine.

You’re Shooting Where Everyone Else Has

I have an amazing example of this.

The Gaylord National Harbor.

As many years as I have staffed MAGFest I am very familiar with the Gaylord. It’s a wonderful space to have a convention and they have many pieces to define it as their own like the little village down on the lower floor and The Gazebo. The Gazebo is pretty iconic for photos taken during MAGFest and Katsucon.

If I see that gazebo in a cosplay shoot one more fucking time I’ma riot in the streets.

And this is coming from someone who has shot in that gazebo… TWICE.

When you take a photo and someone can pinpoint exactly where you were then you’re not doing enough to make the person in front of the camera the center of attention. Even if a lot of people have shot there think of ways to make it your own and how it can bring out the people behind and in front of the camera rather than the location.

Your Workflow Is Getting In The Way

A common thing I’ve heard of with con shooting is how some cosplayers won’t receive their pictures for a month or more after doing a shoot. If it takes you this long to get material out to someone then there are many things you should re-evaluate especially in the age of social media. If your workload has you taking that much time to get through a set then either look at how to make your workflow faster or consider doing less work.

You Don’t Put Enough Value In Yourself

With con shooting the typical price points you see for a session in the central Texas area is $50-60. While I understand that cosplayers at a con don’t tend to have a ton of money you have to ask yourself if you are being compensated appropriately for the work you are putting in.

A while back I saw a post from a local photographer regarding how much work they put into a con photo session. With the number of hours they said they would put into something compared to how much they charged it put them under minimum wage.

I really wanted to say “Whoa, whoa, whoa, don’t do that.”

Going back to the point regarding workflow: if you have so much work that you constantly have 30+ day turnaround times that is usually a good indicator you should start raising your prices. And that is true even outside of con shooting. If people really do appreciate your work they will stick around even when less expensive options are available.

A photographer’s time is valuable. So this ‘race to the bottom’ with con shooting bothers me quite a bit. You have value as a human and as an artist. Make sure both are taken care of.

Are You Building A Relationship?

One bit I’ve really had to wonder about is if the transactional nature of con shooting. It’s not very often where I’d see those who would con shoot work with the same people outside of the con. On top of that, I often see material where the subject is not local.

There’s a tad bit of disservice to those in you local scene when this happens. You’re missing some possibly amazing talent that’s close to you. When you spend more time and energy with them that’s where the amazing ideas come about and you can do stuff that will blow minds.

Everyone Needs To Invest

Now this point is for the cosplayers.

I get that it took a lot to make the costume, attend the con, etc.

Make sure the pictures taken of you reflect that passion.

If you have a photographer who wants to bring the cosplay out of the con setting then I highly recommend doing what you can to follow through with that. It can take more monetary and time investment compared to shooting at a convention. But when you have the right people, the time, and the mental bandwidth to go for it then it will be totally worth it.

Exceptions To The Rule and the Other Paths

As I mentioned in the opening statements I rarely con shoot. And that’s because I put more energy into bringing the person and the character out of whatever I shoot which works much better outside of a convention setting. There have been moments where I have been able to pull some great shots at a con. But those were very special cases where I had control over a number of factors that I would not have otherwise.

There’s been one thing we’ve talked about within MTA is how there’s such a stark difference with cosplay photography in the US versus the rest of the world. Elsewhere it seems to be more location and studio shoots. And both of those tend to be really well planned out and turn out some amazing photos.

It’s those ideas that excite us and drive what we do.

Not that con shooting at its core is a bad idea. There’s just a lot more that can be done when you take the cosplay out of the con.

And we really want to see what people can do once they remove the limiting factors.

About the Author

Rob Swackhamer is a creative nerd who likes to make really awesome art. Rob is also a pinball nerd and cat dad with over seven years workign in the video & photography industries. You can find out more about Rob at Make Them Awesome. This article was also published here and shared with permission.

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8 responses to “I’m a photographer and I don’t shoot at fan conventions, here’s why”

  1. Roy Bridgewood Avatar
    Roy Bridgewood

    On the fence here. If you attend comic cons and have cos players matched up with sets props or even just backdrop ir empty space you can pull of some amazing work

    Where I agree is when shooting cosplayers in spaces with too much going on but then this can sometimes work

    One thing cosplay does is offer opportunity and I would recomend everyone to try it once. Its not going to earn you any money but it will allow you an enjoyable few days behind your camera

    1. Rob Swackhamer Avatar
      Rob Swackhamer

      I don’t know of many cons that will set up more complex backdrops for people to use (Anime Expo is the only one that comes to mind… and I think Anime Matsuri used to). And depending on the venue there can be very specific rules in place what equipment you’re allowed to set down (Gaylord National Harbor has them). So if you try to get more complex than one speedlite you might run into issues unless you’re trying to do something outside. And given we’re all located in Texas we try to be outside as little as possible during this time of year.

      Con shooting does offer opportunities. Part of the reason I met Allybelle was there was a group photoshoot at a local con a couple of years ago that I went to go check out. Through her I met Tacocat and Mermaid Child… and look at where we are at today. :)

  2. Michael Groah Avatar
    Michael Groah

    I do and I provide services both at con and out of con. I find that being at a convention helps build the relationship of a cosplayer that you might not have gotten the opportunity to shoot with had you not gone. There are several photographers there also networking, and people trying out a form of fashion photography that they may not have the funds to support otherwise. Everythings relative but it is true that it can certainly feel like a battlefield out there when competing for space and a cosplayers valuable time.

    1. Rob Swackhamer Avatar
      Rob Swackhamer

      If anything I just use cons for networking though our group is going to start trying to get tables in the Dealers’ area to sell prints and whatnot.

      One thing that really made me think about this was when I’d go search for #cosplayphotography on Instagram on my personal account where I follow a lot of cosplayers pretty much all I would see were convention pictures. But then on our Make Them Awesome account where we were following barely anyone I started seeing more of what we being done outside of the US and I would run into more pictures that made us go “Whoa”. We want people to get same reaction with our work and we would love to see more photographers in this space get the same thing.

  3. Keith Rowland Avatar
    Keith Rowland

    Absolute waste of time having anything to do with cosplayers and conventions; I learnt the hard way and it was an expensive lesson…..

    1. Rob Swackhamer Avatar
      Rob Swackhamer

      Yeah, there’s certainly a cost/benefit ratio that has to be considered. With a lot of the larger cons it’s probably not worth it. Especially if there’s any sort of significant travel involved.

      I did run into an example that was a bit more extreme than even my ‘less than minimum wage’ bit that was in the article. When we were doing some research for this we actually found someone who was offering shoots for $20 and would also give them all the RAW files. That blew my mind.

  4. Robert Williams Avatar
    Robert Williams

    I’m one of those people that takes my snapshot, and moves on. In fact, I find the idea of obstructing traffic while trying to get a whole set of photos from an individual or group while in the lobby of one of the hotels with thousands of other people that are trying to get somewhere to be very obnoxious.
    And, having been an official convention photographer for more than 1 convention for the past several years, I also think a lot of the people that show up at cons to do commercial shoots are more than a little obnoxious. Selling photo shoots to people inside the convention is the same as somebody sitting in the lobby doing sketches and selling them without getting an artist alley table.

  5. Daniel Grove Avatar
    Daniel Grove

    Wow I havnt disagreed with a well meaning article on so many points before.
    I shoot conventions in San Antonio’s Texas and got some t down to an easy science that gets my customers amazing photos and values my time.
    I can honestly say my best work DOES come from those short time constrained shoots and I only do 20 minute shoots!
    I plan ahead of time poses and lighting setups that present the character in an authentic and crrayive way. I also have scouted out locations at my con center and plan each shoot at a strategic looking spot.
    I stay out of people’s way while getting unique photos. But there’s nothing wrong with featuring known features of a lovely building. But like you said they shouldn’t be the main focus of the photo.
    I charge 80 per shoot and I do 12 Friday and 12 Saturday all back to back. My point is not to brag but to say it can be done!
    Danielgrovephoto.com/cons see for yourself.