The Man Who Shot Superman

The Best You Can Do

The last of my photos from New York Comic-Con are finally up. It took me two months, sure, but do you want them Right Now, or do you want them Done Right?

(Eh? You don’t want them at all?)

(Go to hell.)

New York Comic-Con 2010 – The Costumes

I get truly excited when I know I’m coming to an event or a place with terrific opportunities for picture-taking. It’s like a wonderful scavenger hunt. I know that there are incredible photos hidden somewhere inside this enormous place and I have just three days to find as many of them as I can.

There’s also a serious puzzle-solving component to the adventure and that part of it can deliver as much frustration as pleasure. Some elements were easy: there were going to be lots of colorful people at the event (check) and all of them were going to be perfectly happy to stop for someone with a camera (DOUBLE-check).

Fab! But they’re walking around inside the Javits Center. I’d attended plenty of shows there. Even compared to other convention centers, I knew that this was one dark, dark set of exhibit halls.

So I came to New York with pretty much the whole inventory of photographic armament. I had my D200, the really fast 50mm lens, the plain-jane wide-to-telephoto zoom lens, and an external flash. Clearly I was going to have to rely on a lot of trial and error to get decent results.

Ach. It was kind of even tougher than I had imagined. I’d hoped that I’d figure out the right combination of equipment and settings that would yield clear, sharp, colorful photos with a properly-illuminated subject and background. Instead, I had to file this under the “accept the things that I cannot change” part of that embroidered poem you’ve seen hanging on a wall at your aunt’s house.

Over those three days, I think I tried every trick and combination of settings imaginable. But nothing was really foolproof. Even using rear-curtain sync (a slow shutter gathers a blurry handheld image of the background, while a pop of flash at the very end overlays a sharp exposure of the person in the foreground) didn’t work 100% of the time.

Here’s the solution I came up with to the problem of Ambitious Javits Center Photography. These notes are for my future benefit as much as anybody else’s. Alas, it’s rather boring:

  • You need a real SLR. Cameras with big image sensors can handle high ISOs very well. Almost any pocket camera can barely take a decent photo at 400 ISO.
  • 800 or 1000 ISO seems to be the sweet spot. With my SLR (and most others) that’s enough sensitivity to pull details from the background without introducing so much noise that it starts to get in the way.
  • Simple, direct flash is the only surefire solution. I wanted three things in each image: sharp detail, strong colors, and lots of background detail. It seemed as though I could only have two of them at once. If it isn’t in sharp focus, it isn’t a usable photo. And what’s the point of shooting costume photos with dull color? Sometimes you’ll get lucky and there’s enough light in the background to give you some kind of detail. Or at least enough light that you can salvage it in Photoshop. But in the end, it’s best to simply accept that some venues just aren’t great for photography.
  • Just trust to luck. After assuring myself that there was no one Magic Answer, I settled into a routine of taking two separate shots, with the flash on and off. My camera has a user-programmable function button, which made it easy. I didn’t even have to take the camera away from my face between shots: I just hold down the function button with my ring finger, sight-unseen, to suppress the flash. One of those two shots would come out OK.

So that’s what I wound up with for shooting costumes at the Javits Center. I hope to do better next time. And there’ll definitely be a next time: I had a great weekend at the Con, and much of what I did there was actually job-related.

I did take away two lessons. Next time, I might decide to more or less set up camp in the Javits’ atrium area. It’s loaded with people coming and going and there’s plenty of great light. It sometimes seemed as though everyone you’d ever want to shoot was walking through there at one point or another. All of the photos that made me think “Hey, that one came out great!” were shot outside of the exhibit halls.

And the experience underscored how handy it’d be to own a fast, wide-angle lens. Remember, when I snap the 50mm onto the SLR body, it turns into a telephoto-ish 75mm lens. I tried using it during the first day but I was missing way too many shots because I just couldn’t get my subject into the frame. Digital SLRs are popular enough that prices of nice, fast, 30mm lenses are starting to come way down.

8 thoughts on “The Man Who Shot Superman”

  1. Sounds like fun! It’s always dicey shooting in conventions.

    You know, the newer DSLR’s go up to 6400 with remarkably clean noise free images, much better than the D200 (which is also what I have). I’ve been eyeing the new D7000 and wondering how much my D200 would fetch on ebay…

  2. Just picked up a Canon 60D with a 28mm f/1.8 prime lens. The lens is a beauty, and I want to take it to the Javitz Center for the next “comic” convention in 2011. You’re right — after the crop factor, the near 50mm view is perfect.

    Shot a band in a dark bar and made decent enough images (after black and white conversion and NoiseNinja filtering) at ISO 4000 at f/1.8.

    I no longer fear ISO 2400 and up.

    But, yeah, with the D200, it might be a bit trickier. Are you using any sort of noise filtering plug-ins? Thanks to MacBreak Weekly, I’m playing with Topaz’s new inFocus this weekend. Maybe that’ll help a blurry NYCC photo or two?

  3. I suggest going to strobist.blogspot.com, David Hobby will get you to the point of being able to take wonderful images with minimal gear, as any image can become a killer with the right application of flash.

  4. All those photos, and Andy didn’t take a photo of the biggest hero at the convention (in my opinion). To do that, he would have had to turn the camera around…

    For being the Voice of Reason, and giving me the best advice of the 3-day Con (namely, “Maybe you should go home and lie down”) – a very public “Thank you, good sir.”

    There’ll be a little something extra in your check this week…

  5. For these situations, I’ve always found it useful to hold the flash up with the left hand diagonally and away from oneself as if hailing a cab. If the D200 built in flash set to its minimum output isn’t triggering the strobe, then flashzebra.com is the place to go for a reasonably priced TTL cable.

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