The Best Lens for Cosplay Photography

“What’s the best lens for cosplay photography?”

This is one of the most common questions that photographers ask early on during their quest to grow as an artist. The short answer is … it depends. To get the real answer for this I’ll turn it around and ask you a question: What look are you trying to achieve? Then I will pick a focal length for your shot based on the look you want and recommend a corresponding lens for that focal length. In this quick guide, I’ll show you a few images using different focal lengths to achieve a certain look so you can get an idea of what to look for. Thanks to Desu for being the cutest and most patient Alice ever and to Hall for the behind-the-scenes coverage.

To start, when picking the right lens for your shot, consider what you want to include in framing your image. This is one of the first things to consider when imagining how your final shot will be. For example, look through this series of photos below taken at differing focal lengths:

Cosplay-Photography-Focal-Length-comparison

Focal Length Comparison

What we’re looking at here is essentially the same shot framed using different focal lengths. I tried to keep the subject as close to the same size and position in the frame as possible between each shot and my focus point was on her nose. Each shot was taken at an aperture of ƒ/4.0. The most obvious thing you’ll notice is that the background elements change between each shot. This is what you need to consider in framing your shot. Ask yourself, “Self, what things do I want to see in the background of this shot?” and work forward to your subject from there. Are you working in a crowded space and need to “frame out” some distracting elements (buildings, boats, people, etc.)? Is this body of water in the background a vital compositional element that is part of the character and you have to show the vast expanse of it? This is an artistic choice that affects your focal length decision.

The next thing you might notice is that the background gets progressively blurrier between each shot. This is another aspect of lens choice to consider and also relates to your framing choices. It’s a bit more difficult (read: expensive) to achieve soft, pleasing background blur at wider focal lengths, if at all. Everything appears in focus at 17mm, ƒ/4.0. In contrast, at 200mm, ƒ/4.0, the background blurs away nicely, defined objects blur out, and our subject is well isolated from the background. You can always adjust your aperture down to get more background elements in focus, but it’s not always possible to get wider apertures to blur out the background. What area of in-focus elements you want (depth-of-field) to show is an artistic choice that affects the focal length, and ultimately the lens, you’ll use.

Another minor thing to consider when choosing the right focal length is how much working space you have. In a crowded convention setting, you might not have very much room to work and shoot. If you wanted a full body shot of a costume, you would have to use a wider focal length to frame them and maintain a normal working distance of 5 feet or so. If you’re shooting in an open park like I was here, I have a clear 30 feet behind me to move around and frame as needed while using a much longer lens. Here’s another series of head and shoulder shots for another comparison:

Cosplay-Photography-Focal-Length-comparison2

Focal Length Comparison – close ups

Additionally, to frame closeups using a wide angle lens, you have to get quite close to your subjects. Uncomfortably close!

Uncomfortably close!

Uncomfortably close!

There are also some words of caution to keep in mind when using various focal lengths. Wider lenses tend to distort people. In the full body shots, you’ll notice that Desu’s legs appear very long and then normalize as we go to the longer focal lengths. When doing close ups, wider lenses have a tendency to distort facial features. Elements near the edges of the frame using a wide angle lens get stretched. This might not be so bad for legs, whereas faces, ears, or heads aren’t quite as attractive when stretched out. Elements closer to the lens may also be distorted. Most notably, noses tend to look bigger or longer when taken with a wider lens. (If you’re not shooting people, then this isn’t really an issue.) Weapons placed toward the edges of a wide angle image usually give an interesting effect. Here are a couple of examples of using wide angle distortion for effect. Can you guess what focal length was used in each shot?

Aku as Elsword by FiveRings

Aku as Elsword by FiveRings

Death Note by FiveRings

Death Note by FiveRings

And here’s one using a longer focal length to constrain the frame:

Dogs: Bullets and Carnage by FiveRings

Dogs: Bullets and Carnage by FiveRings

 

Conclusions

So what IS the best lens for cosplay photography? Well, it depends! First, figure out who, what, where, and when you’re shooting, then pick the lens accordingly. For most situations, your average beginner kit lens covering the 18-55mm focal range is sufficient. On a full frame camera, the 35-50mm range is considered “normal”. This means that it is approximately what you would see if you were standing in the same position without a camera to your eye. For close-up headshots or portraits, a longer telephoto lens is usually preferred. These are typically done with lenses in the 85-135mm range.

Of course none of these rules are written in stone. You can see from the images above that just about any focal length can be used to take any shot you want, given enough working space, as long as it gives you the look you want in your final image. You may even want to step out of the “commonly used” focal ranges and try different things. Try using a telephoto lens for landscapes and wide scenes or use a wide angle lens for closeups to see the effect it has on people’s proportions. Experiment and do something out of the ordinary!

I hope you found this article informative. Please leave a comment if you have any questions or send me a message on facebook and I’d be happy to answer any photography-related questions.

If you found this article interesting, be sure to join our Facebook group, Cosplay Photography Discussion Group. It is a place for cosplay photographers of all levels to learn from each other. Don’t forget to like us on Facebook as well!

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Tim is the principal photographer for FiveRings Photography and co-founder of Cosplay Photographers. When not shooting cosplay and writing about it, he's busy photographing engagements, motorsports, and fashion. He can also be found playing Diablo 3, Starcraft 2, World of Warcraft, or Bejeweled when he should really be editing photos.

7 Comments

  1. Nice Article. It cover the most of the popular ranges and show their differences.

  2. I like the charts, well done!

  3. This was really really helpful, thanks a ton. I’m hoping I find some specific lens mentions in your other posts, as this was informative.

  4. Pingback: Sakura-Con 2014 Cosplay Photos (Canon 24-70mm and Group Photography) | (The) Geek Hobbyist

  5. I like your tutorial. This is also a very frequency asked question in my country. Would you mind me to translate it?

  6. Well explained !

  7. What lens were you using for the 17mm photos? And was it on full-frame?
    Thank you ^^

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