I can’t even begin to tell you how much fun photographing Comicon was last week. Over the course of a few hours I bagged Harley Quin, a Hellboy, several Spidermans (Spidermen?) and a whole host of characters who fell squarely into the “no idea who they are but DAAYAMMMN that looks awesome” category. I can only imagine how much fun it would have been if I knew anything about comics.
Apart from banking a load of potentially quite useful images (Comicon London fell in the same week as Halloween) for newspapers, it struck me that if you were looking to fine-tune your portraiture skills, you could hardly find somewhere better than Comicon.
Think about it – the participants are making LOADS of effort, with often really incredible results, which means even if you mess it up you’ll probably get something pretty cool looking. They’re also fully expecting to be bothered by people wanting photographs. They’re ALSO really into whichever character they’re dressed as, which means you won’t be coaxing people into a smile or an interesting face; they’ll just do it for you.
So: first time portrait photographer? It’s easy! Here are seven things you should know.
You’ll want a light.
Not a fancy light, necessarily, but a light. Firstly, exhibition centres tend to be fairly dimly lit: Excel London, where Comicon was held this year, is basically an aircraft hanger and therefore all the lights are dim and far away. For portrait photography you want a light which is bright and close.
You can definitely get away with a Speedlite – and I did, and you won’t necessarily even need a softbox or any of that malarkey. Look!
That’s a single Speedlite, with a diffuser, on a cable, with the model shot against a plain black background I happened to spot. Get hold of a flash cable, though, as you’ll want to be able to move your light around.
Stop down a bit
Since you’ve brought your flash (and some spare batteries, yes?), take advantage of it by stopping down your lens. My lens – which for this shoot was my unbreakable, beloved 24-105mm f/4 workhorse – is good when you shoot it wide open but frankly unbelievable around f/8 - f/11. A flash lets you do that. It even lets you do it at pretty low ISO. I was at less than ISO 400 most of the day, which in combo with small apertures means deadly-sharp images that will print well at RIDONKULOUS sizes.
Ask a lot of people
So here’s the thing people don’t really know about portrait photography: most people, the overwhelming majority, in fact, will say yes to you trying to photograph them. There are exceptions, and obviously people have turned me down before, but it doesn’t hurt that much and people are generally pretty happy to be photographed. Comicon, actually, is an exception to that, because EVERYONE I asked was happy to be photographed. Everyone looked awesome, posed beautifully, moved if I asked them to and so on and so on. Unless you’re wearing your “Comix suck!” t-shirt I’d be surprised if anyone photographing at Comicon has less than a 100 per cent success rate. See someone that looks cool? Ask them for a picture. They’re going to say yes. If you’re a bit nervy about asking people if you can shoot them, Comicon is a great place to go because you’ll get nothing but positive reinforcement all day.
Bring some toys
Since you’ve brought your flash, you might as well bring a few modifiers, and for me that meant bringing a light stand, an 80cm softbox and a set of PocketWizards, which let me do stuff like this:
The softbox – close enough to the subject to give them a tanline, please – means really fast light-fall off and dramatic lighting, and being on a wireless flash, rather than a Speedlite cable, means you can really back away from your subject and shoot wide. I think that looks pretty dramatic, and the dark negative space is handy-dandy for magazine and newspaper designers.
What’s nice about using a big, tall light that’s close to your subject is that you can set your camera up to really, really underexpose the background. This is useful – although there are always a few plain-looking backgrounds in a convention centre, if you’re on foot and moving around a lot the background is generally going to be pretty busy. Under-exposing it means it really doesn’t matter what’s going on there.
The only warning I’d offer is that I shot Comicon the second the doors opened on a Friday morning, when it was pretty quiet. By the time I had a decent set of images, around lunchtime, that light stand and softbox was beginning to get a) pretty heavy and b) underfoot as the convention got busier. If your softbox is seven feet off the ground it’s going to make a lovely crashing sound when someone knocks into it, so take care.
Shoot wide and tight
Since your light is now detached from your camera, you can move around and get dramatic wides as well as tighter shots without having to move your subject. Frame tight, then back up a bit for something wider. Try not to trip over anything behind you.
Even if photography is your livelihood, take business cards, jot down email addresses and send your subjects a snap or two. It’s the friendly thing to do.
Don’t get bitten by anyone
This is just common sense.
And here’s what I would do differently
Not much, frankly – as a one-man band there’s only so much kit you can take. Since most of my backgrounds aren’t problematic a faster lens wouldn’t have helped and I love the sharpness of my 24-105mm when it’s stopped down. A hair light – the opposite side of my subjects and just behind them, would have been nice, but carrying one softbox and lightstand was bad enough; two would have been asking for trouble. A bit more time would have been nice… there were enough Doctor Whos there to make that happen, surely.