How to Photograph a Cosplay: A Good Costume, Preparation, and Inspiration are the Foundation

How to Photograph a Cosplay: A Good Costume, Preparation, and Inspiration are the Foundation

How can you make costumes really shine in your photos? In this article, you’ll learn where to find models for cosplay portraits, how to prepare for the shot, and what to concentrate on. Then we’ll illustrate it all through the example of a real-world shoot. 

Costumes are quite a photogenic subject. In this article, we’ll give you a few tips on how to photograph them.

The most important thing before you get started with the shoot itself is preparation. Underestimate it, and you can find yourself gawking at your model and wondering where to start. But what precisely should you focus on during this preparation?

Cosplay is short for costume play, and as the word implies, it’s about both the costume and playing a role. Besides imitating a character visually, the cosplayer has usually also studied their nature, history, habits, and typical phrases.

Preparing for a Cosplay Shoot

Where should you seek your models? Instagram is definitely one place. Look for the word “cosplay” itself, as well as “cosplayer.” Instagram’s costume fans are always hungry for good photos of themselves. If you enter the hashtag #cosplay plus one for your local area, you’ll find a wealth of cosplayers to choose from. You can find and approach someone on Facebook similarly. If you enter “cosplay” in Facebook’s search box, it will find lots and lots of pages from enthusiastic costume creators. And it works the same with costumes from live-action role-playing (LARP) if you enter “larp” instead of “cosplay.” LARP costumes are non-character-specific and are generally historical.

How to Photograph a Cosplay - a knight
Important is not just the overall look, but detail as well. Nikon D750, 35 mm, 1/400, f/1.4, ISO 200, Zoner Photo Studio X.

Choosing a locationis a topic that’s really worth an article of its own. But the foundation here is simple: the costume has to fit your chosen environment. It’s best to photograph fantasy costumes at castles or in forests, sci-fi in modern buildings, post-apocalypse “urbex-style” in abandoned places, western in small towns (ideally with tumbleweeds), etc.

How to Photograph a Cosplay - Illidan cosplay
Here even though I’ve downplayed the background, it’s still boosting the photo’s overall impression. That’s why I’m glad I put this castle to work for my photo of Illidan from the Warcraft fantasy series. Nikon D750, 35 mm, 1/500, f/1.4, ISO 200, Zoner Photo Studio X.

It’s equally important to seek inspiration. Our recommendation is to browse pictures and photos that are related to the costume. They don’t have to be photos or paintings of that same costume; feel free to pick different ones. But we do recommend that you stick to the same style and narrative setting, and a similar choice of location. This browse-through will help you to expand your horizons, but watch out! It’s not easy to precisely copy someone else’s work, because you can end up with your hands tied.

How to Photograph a Cosplay - witch cosplay
This model is wearing a witch costume, so why not let her do some witchery?

Be sure to take some time and get to know the costume. Always keep in mind that you’re photographing a character (probably one from fiction—a game, book, or film). That character has their own history. Because of this, it pays to take the time to learn where they come from, what they’ve been through and what they’re like, and ideally to get to know one of their typical poses.

How to Photograph a Cosplay - Harley Quinn cosplay
Crazy and playful character perfectly portrayed by model. You can see her wepon as well, but it is not the central theme of the photo. Nikon D750, 35 mm, 1/4000, f/1.4, ISO 100, Zoner Photo Studio X.

The more you learn about the character, the better you’ll work with them afterwards. You’ll be able to imagine the faces they’d make and how they’d sit, and you can even think up entirely new poses. If you’re having trouble with this process, try asking your model—they will generally know “their” character.

How to Photograph a Cosplay - Sansa cosplay
This model is cosplaying Sansa from Game of Thrones in the pose that has come to define her. Nikon D750, 80 mm, 1/320, f/2.8, ISO 200, Zoner Photo Studio X.

If you’re not photographing a costume based on a particular character, but some “random knight” instead, don’t worry. That’s where the real fun begins, because you can think up all the needed details on your own. Their personality, past, goals, and motivations… all of this will be all up to you. So the character, the costume, and in turn your photo will be that much more original.

How to Photograph a Cosplay - post girl
Some photos require further changes in Zoner Photo Studio, but the results are worth it! Nikon D750, 50 mm, 1/320, f/1.4, ISO 200, Zoner Photo Studio X.

During the Shoot

Once you start your shoot, try to keep up communication with your photographic partner. You’re the one who has to make sure their costume is and stays OK. If any part of the costume gets damaged, it’s your job to alert them to this. Tell the model where the problem is—and don’t forget to also give them advice, suggestions, and ideas. “Try this pose, and this one.” “Look heroic.” In this phase you’re the one leading the shoot, and you have its final look in your hands. Don’t be afraid to take the initiative.

How to Photograph a Cosplay - animefest photo
“Look heroic.”

After or during the shoot, try sitting down with the model and talking about the photos. Agree with them on which ones look good, and find out which photos and expressions “work.” You can also take this moment to think up some post-production edits together. It’s no problem to complete the photos’ atmosphere in Zoner Photo Studio and make them more expressive.

How does it all look in practice?

During the shoot itself, it’s good to concentrate on three basic areas:

  • details
  • the whole costume
  • the model’s face

We’ll demonstrate this process with the help of our model Tina, who’s showing off a costume based on the game The Last of Us. She’s cosplaying a character named Ellie.

How to Photograph a Cosplay - Ellie cosplay
Model Týnka represents character of Ellie from the game The Last Of Us. Nikon D750, 50 mm, 1/400, f/1.4, ISO 320, Zoner Photo Studio X.

Make Use of Details

First look over the costume and find anything about it that stands out. Here there are several such interesting aspects: the guitar, the hand and face tattoos, and the original makeup. After picking out these three particular details, we put them to use in the shoot. For example we can photograph the model in a way that makes the tattoo stand out. Or think up a pose where the main subject is the guitar.

How to Photograph a Cosplay - Ellie cosplay, tattoo and guitar
Here we’ve managed to simultaneously make use of two of the themes we’ve mentioned—the tattoo and the guitar are both in the foreground and stand out fantastically.

And Now the Character

After photographing the details, move on to the costume overall. Taking the full-body shot itself is simple, but how do you make sure it’s special? Here’s where you should remember everything you learned during your preparations for the character. In this case we knew that Ellia lives in a bleak post-apocalyptic world. And that she’s brave and strong. So we gave her a pose where these aspects could stand out. The choice of location we discussed above really comes into play here as well. We let the environment’s atmosphere breathe from the photo.

How to Photograph a Cosplay - Ellie cosplay and ruins
The model herself has been photographed from a distance so that the ruins around her can come to the fore.

Don’t Forget Emotions

Now comes the third area—the model’s face. One reason why portraits are so popular is that people use them as profile pictures. So how do you make face portraits look special when they’ve become so common? Emotions. Let’s go back to Ellie’s history. What are her defining emotions? Well, Ellie has seen people die and survived the end of the world. So sadness and rage will be the order of the day.

So ask your model to keep all of this in mind for the shoot. It’s good if they give themselves up entirely to the emotion you’re trying to portray. Smile or roar if that’s what needed. Or remember their sad moments. Or you can tell them a horror story and get them scared. And then act fast! These artificially evoked emotions don’t last long. You have to be swift to capture the emotion at just the right moment.

How to Photograph a Cosplay - Ellie cosplay close-up photo
We can see in the model’s face that even though Ellie is scarred, she also has determination.

You may find yourself intuitively taking a liking out of nowhere for some place, pose, or object that you find. Don’t hesitate and snap that photo right away. It’s precisely those photos where you get inspired and “time stops” while you’re taking them that tend to be the best.

Cosplay’s Over!

Cosplay photography is creative and fun. You can go to extremes, involve your imagination more than usual, discover new places, and for example use new things in your pictures. You can try out photos with fire, animals, smoke, and more. And “your” cosplayers will be very grateful for the photos, because you’re immortalizing something they created themselves, something they’re proud of. In short, it’s all a nice and new experience.

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AuthorZdenka Povolen

I haven’t been a photographer for long, but I certainly love taking photos. I like creating atmosphere in my photographs and adding emotion. I think it’s important that a photo has substance. I predominantly photograph people, often in costumes, sometimes nudes, and photographic storytelling series. I value effective communication and a pleasant atmosphere in my photoshoot. I like to use practical effects such as smoke, fire, sparks, light, or movement of cloth and fabric. I know that I still have a lot to learn, but that will come with 20 years of experience under my belt. I believe in lifelong self-improvement.

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