Communication, respect, and consent: the three simple tricks to cosplay photography

The word “cosplay” is a Japanese portmanteau, where long foreign words are shortened and combined to save time and syllables. Thus, “cosplay” (コスプレ) is derived from “costume play.” Enjoyed by fans around the world, cosplay blurs the line between reality and fiction, blending canon with personal interpretations. Another side to the cosplay community is the photographer — spreading a cosplayer’s work far beyond a convention or even a country. The cosplayer and photographer enjoy a relationship similar to an author and an editor, or a musician and a recording engineer. Respect, trust, and understanding is needed on both sides to be successful.

While I cannot speak from the side of cosplay, I can share some of the insights I have learned while working with friends and cosplayers throughout California.

Point 1: Preparation and communication is key

The cosplayer should have an idea of how the shoot would go. The photographer should do their research on how to best capture these scenes as well. Clear communication to plan the cinematics is vital to creating a breathtaking set of photos. First questions to answer may include: What is the context? What is the ambience? What kind of atmosphere do you want to convey? This generally leads into finer setup details: Where should we shoot? What time should we shoot? What kind of props are needed?

cn: Yuki-Chan cosplay ~

An analogy I like to think of is preparing for a performance with an ensemble. The months before a performance is dedicated to exploring the possibilities and interpretations in a piece of music. After a “draft” is formed, more fine-tuning is done. Finally, during the performance, you use the elements you learned before, but adjust accordingly if things deviate from what you expect. You wouldn’t stop in the middle to ask “Well, what should we do next?”

A shoot should be similar. If cosplayers decide to shoot as a group, they should coordinate their costumes and schedules. The photographer should read further into the series, prepare any necessary equipment setup, and brainstorm some ideas to shoot. Both sides should then coordinate to decide what poses are “must haves,” and how to manage time more effectively. Ideally, the time during the actual shoot should not be spent on figuring out what to do next. Obviously, this is often impossible to execute in real life, but everyone should do their best to minimize the time spent on planning during the shoot.

Point 2: Respect each other’s efforts

cn: Momotan ~ | TeaTimed Cos ~

Cosplay often involves a lot of sweat and tears (sometimes, quite literally). Photography can often take a twist where you end up crawling into mud puddles trying to get the right moment with the right angle. Done well, both sides requires huge amounts of patience, incredible stamina, and great care. Thus, both the cosplayer and photographer should do their best to help each other out.

This means the cosplayer shouldn’t brush off laziness with “Eh, the photographer will fix it with Photoshop.” The photographer should try to consider workarounds to make the cosplayer more comfortable — for example, if you’re not shooting full body photos, the cosplayer can temporarily not wear high heels. Don’t downplay a cosplayer if they bought their cosplay. Don’t laugh at a photographer if they trip while trying to carry all their gear. If anything, do your best to be firm but polite. This is a collaborative effort, not a competition of who worked harder.

Finally, we come to the most important point to taking amazing photos — not just of cosplayers, but the art of photography in general.

Point 3: No means no

The above two points can sometimes be bent or warped as circumstances see fit. This one, however, is set in stone. It has not changed, and it will not change. If a cosplayer (or anyone, really) is uncomfortable with what you are proposing to do, or what you are currently doing, and want you to stop. Stop. “But this will help me understan-” No. Stop.

If a person says no, it means no. It’s that simple.

Holding a camera does not mean you are immune to social conventions. Photography is the art of painting with light. It is not a means for ulterior motives, including, but not limited to, blackmail or picking up girls. The cosplay community should be a place where everyone is safe and supported. This ties in with the two points discussed above: always ask and make sure the cosplayer understands what you want to do, and only proceed if they agree. Don’t be pushy. Ask beforehand if it is okay to take a photo — most of them will be happy to do so. If you want to adjust their pose, ask beforehand if it is okay to touch or move them. Your camera, no matter how expensive it is, does not entitle you to breaking the rules. Don’t be a PINO (“Photographer in Name Only”). As sad as it is to have to spell out common sense in print, always remember that cosplay is not consent.

As for cosplayers, remember that you are important in this equation as well. Most photographers agree — convention event photographer PC writes that “It is perfectly ok to say no to a situation that you’re not comfortable with. Saying no can be difficult because of social-pressure/dynamics, but it is ok.” Although others claim that “this is an industry standard” or “everyone else does it”, if you are uncomfortable with what is happening, refuse firmly. It may be difficult, but your safety and well-being takes priority over everything else.

If we were to (nonsensically, really) ignore the human side of this concept, remember that the best photographs come from where a photographer and cosplayer work comfortably together. You can’t hide tension or distress in a photo, and there is quite literally nothing to gain. The photographer ends up with unusable photos while simultaneously breaking the trust and friendship of the cosplayer. Nobody wins.

These three surprisingly simple points will help a beginner in the cosplay community flourish in the vibrant world of costumes. From its root in fashion and media, both cosplay and cosplay photography is a continually evolving art form. From a photographer’s perspective, the key to having gripping photographs is to make sure you plan beforehand and collaborate with the cosplayer in order to produce work both sides are happy with. Additionally, you cannot produce good photographs without mutual respect and trust in each other. This means understanding that there are boundaries that should not be crossed, and backing off if a cosplayer says no.

Perhaps the best way to summarize this article is to remember to have fun and to make sure others are having a good time as well.

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