A photo mentor once told me the background of the photo was MORE important than the subject itself. At the time, I thought he seemed a bit extreme, but a trip to Nagoya got me to thinking how right he might have been.

I had the pleasure of going to Nagoya the other week for a cosplay photo session. There were eight Japanese cosplayers who were very excited to don their respective costumes from their favorite game and anime, Kantai Collection, AKA Kancolle.

Despite being interested in Japanese pop culture, I had no idea what Kancolle was. After researching and binge-watching the show, I’ve got to hand to the Japanese for their sense of creativity. Who else would think of creating a world of characters personified from World War II Navy battleships?

Source: Kantai Collection, English Wikia
Source: Kantai Collection, English Wikia

Yes, that is a Japanese Navy Aircraft Carrier, if you were curious.

The Background Hunt

To get the 1940s feel of the characters, the photo venue was important to take into account. We used an old community center with rentable multi-purpose rooms. Once I saw the interior of the venue, I absolutely thanked my clients for being so thoughtful of and thorough about our photo session. The interior matched well with the era of our characters.

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The venue used was the Nagoya Pottery Center「名古屋陶磁器会館」located 5 minutes from the nearest station in downtown Nagoya. It was built in 1932, well before World War II, making it a pretty authentic location for eight Kancolle cosplayers to get into character for a four-hour photo shoot. Once the cosplayers and I were all set, we were confident about our shoot.

Cosplayers can put hours of effort into their costumes to create the perfect photo of their favorite characters and these eight cosplayers for this photo shoot were no exception. But the most frequent problem with capturing the full package for most cosplayers is pairing their awesome costumes with an equally awesome background!

Con Photos

I’m a bit shy to show these, but I took them at my first and second trips to Comiket in Tokyo a few years back.

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Sure, we can see the cosplayers’ efforts in achieving the authenticity and quality of their costumes and yes, they are both in character, but the harsh lighting of the sun and eyesores in the background make these photos unfit as a feature photo for a blog, magazine, or any publication. The Monster Hunter cosplayer on the left could better achieve the full effect of his costume in a more natural area, whereas a dark and urban environment would be ideal for the Watchmen cosplayer to the right.

Meanwhile in Nagoya

Back to the 1940s setting of Kancolle, the background of these photos not only set the mood and story a bit better but also adds authenticity to the costumes.

Kancolle in Nagoya Jan 2017-15  Kancolle in Nagoya Jan 2017-22  Kancolle in Nagoya Jan 2017-109

Kancolle in Nagoya Jan 2017-101  Kancolle in Nagoya Jan 2017-95

The background for the gentlemen in the first two photos really enhanced the militaristic mood of admirals whom they were dressed as. The lovely lady in the third photo got fully into her character, Z3, a shy yet powerful character. Using the window perch to rest on, viewers can easily piece together a story of a potential attack!

The last two, I enjoy a lot. As my clients were there with me as we took photos, they explained the similarities the bricked hallway had with a scene in Kancolle. Just listening to their excitement as they pieced together which character should sit with whom and where the Shuri bucket, or Repair bucket, should go allowed me to put the shoot together. Despite not being familiar with Kancolle, I was happy to bring my client’s vision to life.

The efforts to find the perfect background may seem a bit too much effort, not to mention the fact that some amateur cosplay photographers are simply happy to see their favorite characters in the flesh. This makes the desire to find the best background a backburner task. But let’s be fair, there are tons of convention attendees who bring their cameras and excitement to con events all over the world. It’s a pause in life to bring out the fantasies they often enjoy. How often does your average Yuri!!! on ICE fan get to see Victor Nikiforov? As amazing as it would be to photograph a Victor Nikiforov-clad cosplayer in real ice skates on an actual ice rink, it’s not going to be a doable photo at ANY local convention, ANYWHERE!

So, what do you do? 

Well you could do what some of these guys do at conventions:

But if bringing the expensive camera, lenses, the reflector, the speedlight and diffuser is a bit too much, bring a business card. Serious cosplayers most likely have their own business cards to exchange with other photographers, cosplayers, and media outlets. So exchange cards and plan out simple and easy to do photo shoots with your favorite characters. Scout out that ideal location or background that would best fit the character and go for it! Most likely, if the cosplayer agrees to a future shoot, they will love the photos as a keepsake to post online and will be open to participating as long as you respects their conditions. The cosplayer might bring a friend, present their own contingencies, or simply decline your request. In the end, it is best to respect the choices of the cosplayer and settle for a simple photo with the best background you can find at the convention site. Like this one:

The walls in Makuhari Messe at Tokyo Comicon created a believable background for Chell at the Aperture Laboratories from the game Portal.

Whatever tactic you decide, whether you are photographing your favorite character or taking snapshots of friends while out and about, do consider what is behind your subject before you press the shutter. You’ll be surprised at how much better the photo looks when taking that bit of extra effort. My mentor will thank you.


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