Tag Archives: Cosplay

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.

Where would YOU paint an 11?

The San Diego Comic-Con (aka Comic-Con International) starts up in just a week or two. I’ve attended only once, back in 1999. I’ve always wanted to go back, but the show has become truly crazy-go-nuts-huge. Given that I almost certainly can’t line up a gig to cover my expenses, I suspect that after only my second day packed in a convention center with 125,000 people — at least 20% of whom will have probably never heard of The 5-2-1 Rule(*) — I’d be asking myself why I spent $1500 on a trip that didn’t involve white sand beaches, open spaces, and the possibility of spending less than $16 for a slice of pizza and a medium Coke.

A few years ago, my BFF John’s employer decided that taking a booth at Comic-Con was good for business, so he started attending Comic-Con on an annual basis. And on an annual basis, John urges me to join him. I’m always tempted as hell.

By now, I’ve got the choreography of my little “will I or won’t I?” Comic-Con dance down cold:

  1. John tells me that I should totally come with him this year.
  2. I tell him that I totally will.
  3. John asks for my final go/no-go, shortly before it’s time for him to book a hotel room.
  4. I chicken out. See previous point about $1500 and 125,000 people in a convention center.
  5. A week before the show, I’m wracked with regret; every friend of mine who’s attending is asking me if I want to get together at the show.
  6. Three days into Comic-Con, I’m wracked with anti-regret; every friend of mine who’s attending is Tweeting about the crowds and the noise and the bother and complaining about the general inescapable nimbus in the air.
  7. I decide that I’m totally attending next year.

And there’s one more annual tradition. It takes place somewhere between #5 and #6: “I come up with what I’m convinced is the most awesome Comic-Con costume idea that’s ever been conceived, or ever will.” This idea is usually beautiful in concept and easy to execute.

We’re right on schedule. If I were attending Comic-Con this year, I’d totally spend a day walking around dressed as this character:


I would walk the aisles in my bowler hat, striped shirt, spattered smock, and hi-top Chucks. I’d have a brush clenched between my teeth, a paint bucket in one hand, a precise number 5 in my other hand, and in my eyes you would see the darting, predatory look of a man on a mission. From time to time, I would hold the number against a plain surface. I would peer at it thoughtfully and then shake my head in disappointment and move on.

I realize that not many people would “get” this costume. But I’m certain that the 48 among the 125,000 attendees who did recognize the character would pack their bags and go home after getting their picture taken with me.

They’d (correctly) figure that the whole rest of the Con could only be a letdown. On their way to the door, they might stop just long enough to punch a Steampunk Stormtrooper Vampire in the throat. Sure, they were going to do that anyway, but they’d suddenly feel far, far more justified for doing so.

(Note to Stormtroopers: actually, I love your costumes. It’s just the “freestyle” sub-section of Star Wars costuming that makes me a little impatient for the Biblical apocalypse. 1,000 identically-uniformed Stormtroopers = an awesome display and a convincing simulation of what would happen if Lord Vader had tracked the Millennium Falcon to a comic book convention instead of a mining colony. 2 people dressed as “Sonny and Cher as Stormtroopers” = oh, honey. You’re very sweet, and I can see you put a lot of work into your Bob Mackie-inspired armor…but you’re really trying too hard.)

If you’re attending Comic-Con, you’re welcome to my costume idea. You’ll be my barometer for future attendance. If you show up in this costume and are not immediately presented with the key to the whole god-damned city, then the San Diego Comic-Con will be dead to me evermore.

(*) “The 5-2-1 Rule of Conventions”: During each and every day of a multi-day comics/pop-culture convention, you must get a minimum of 5 hours of sleep, 2 real meals, and 1 shower. NO exceptions, NO excuses.