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Photography Tutorial: Night Photography with Continuous Lights

I spend quite a bit of time looking at cosplay photos and I’ve come to a conclusion that there are not enough nighttime cosplay photos, of which I think is a wonderful time that many cosplay photographers are missing out on to do photo shoots. Having spoken to a number of cosplay photographers, I’ve heard a number of excuses: it’s too dark; my camera sucks at higher ISO; my shots are always blurry; I don’t know how to do night shoots; I don’t know how to use flash thus I can’t shoot at night; and more. Well, guess what folks, you’re in for a treat! For today’s Cosplay Photography Tutorial, I’ll be showing how you can easily do nighttime photo shoots.

Equipment

You don’t need much to do nighttime photo shoots, but having a better camera, for example, can certainly help with image noise control. Also since this tutorial article is specifically geared towards using continuous light, you won’t need flash for this. In addition, if you have a fast lens, that will immensely help you as well. So here are some recommendations for gear to invest in:

  • LED light: Don’t waste your money buying the brand name Litepanels as they don’t offer anything special for paying 5-times the cost over a knock-off. I have the 126 LED Light Panel from ePhotoInc (my favorite store for accessories) and they work like a charm. They only cost $54.99, so they’re an excellent investment. I use them in my wedding work quite a bit as well. Make sure the light panel you purchase has an intensity control as this is important to give you maximum flexibility.
  • Light stand: Since I do a lot of mobile shooting, I value light weight and small kits so that they are easy to carry. I have a few of the older, portable LumoPro LP604 light stands, but the new LumoPro LP605 is even better. These are the knock-offs to the more expensive Manfrotto Nano 5001B. Any light stand will work really, but I suggest investing in light weight, portable ones so that it’s easier to carry them around at a convention.
  • Umbrella brackets: Any that takes a standard flash will work. I use the Cowboystudio swivel brackets because they are cheap and swivel in any direction. Be warned, the umbrella hole is a bit small for lots of umbrellas.
  • Fast glass: I’m a strong believer that everyone needs at least one fast prime. If you have the money, by all means invest in the professional grade prime lenses, you can’t go wrong. But if you cannot afford or justify it, then there are a number of more affordable primes you can get for cheap, such as the 35mm f/1.8, 50mm f/1.8 (Canon version), as well as Tamron or Sigma versions.
  • Camera: I’m purposely leaving out the discussion regarding camera because it’s a significant investment for many people and telling them to go out and get a 5D Mark III or D800 is not good or useful advice in regard to this. With any camera you have, you can take great shots as long as you know how to exploit the limitations of your camera. Don’t get bogged down with “I need a better camera” or “My camera isn’t good enough”, focus on getting better.

High ISO and Noise

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I also wanted to take a moment and talk briefly about noise. Honestly, I don’t know what all the fuss is about when photographers get into such heated debates about noise. For me, especially as a wedding photographer who lives in the ISO 6400 range, it has always come down to a choice: miss the shot or get a “noisy” shot. I’ve never heard of a client complaining about a photo having too much noise, but I’ve heard plenty about blurry shots or a missing shots because it was too dark. We could spend a whole article talking about noise, but that’s not the topic for today. I’m going to give a very simplistic explanation and leave it at that, but you can read more about noise in this Adorama post. Your photo will get noisier the closer you get to your camera’s maximum ISO. But here’s some food for thought, even at higher ISO, if your subject has light on them, there is very little noise! The areas that aren’t lit (the shadows) will definitely have a lot of noise, but if you keep the most important parts of the image lit, then who cares about the noise in the background, right? So that’s the trick, when using high ISO, make sure there is light on your subject! Easy! Also any noise can be easily controlled in post production. I use Adobe Lightroom 4 and it does amazing in terms of noise reduction!

Step-by-Step Directions

Step 1, Determine what your scene will be. How dark is it? I recommend that you choose a scene that is fairly lit for night photos as having a black background is very boring. Often, I’ll look around and look for existing light sources to use either as my key light (the light that will light the cosplayer) or background lights. This way, I’m working smarter and not harder. Also, here’s something important to consider. The light falling on the cosplayer should make sense. What that means is that if your background has lamp posts, the light from your continuous light source should light her in a similar angle as if she was lit by a lamp post. If you lit her from the bottom, the photo would look wrong because all the lights in the photo would suggest up above lighting. Something to keep in mind.

Step 2, Pose your cosplayer. Here are things to keep in mind: Are you going to have her sit or stand? Will she stand next to a light source or will you need to light it with a continuous light source? Often time I will try to use existing light sources to light my cosplayer to keep it easy, but that doesn’t always work because you might be shooting with a less than desirable background. If the existing light source isn’t where you need it to be, then pose your cosplayer where you want her.

Step 3, Before setting up your continuous light, take a photo. This is so you can determine the settings for your scene. If your cosplayer isn’t being lit by an existing light source, then yes, she will be dark, but that’s ok for now. It’s more important that we establish the exposure for the scene first before lighting the cosplayer. This is how I determine what the settings for my camera is:

  1. Set your camera to Manual mode. It’ll be much easier.
  2. I would set my aperture at the maximum aperture to allow for the maximum amount of light to hit the sensor. This is where having a fast prime is very useful. So if I was using the 50mm f/1.8, I would set my aperture to f/1.8.
  3. Depending on how dark or light I want the background to be, I would start with a shutter speed of 1/50th. Why 1/50th? It’s a slow enough shutter speed to let light in but fast enough to hand hold and avoid blurry shots.
  4. Set your ISO to 400. You’ll most likely have to go higher than this, but ISO 400 is a good starting point.
  5. Take a photo. Again, don’t worry that your model isn’t lit or too dark, we will address that last. Look at the photo. Is the background too dark or too bright for your taste? I generally light the background based on the mood: darker if I want something for creepy monsters and/or evil character and brighter if it’s hero. If the background is too dark, take your ISO up to the next stop. 800. Chimp again. If it’s still dark, keep going up in ISO until the background is roughly lit the way you like.
Cosplay-Photographers-continuous-light-ISO-example

Step 4, Light the cosplayer. Now is the time to setup the LED light if you haven’t already. I usually throw it on a light stand and place it out of the camera’s field of view facing toward your subject. Turn it on and set the intensity to quarter power.

Step 5, Take a photo. Is your subject too bright or too dark? If she’s too bright, turn the intensity down on the LED light panel or up if she’s too dark.

For this photo, I really wanted to blow out the background as it was at a movie theater and I wanted to be a wash of light, so I increased my ISO an extra stop from 3200 to 6400.

Advanced Tips and Tricks

You’ll most likely notice that the light on your subject might be cooler (more blue) than your background (more orange). This is because the color temperature of the lights are vastly different. If you buy the LED light panel from ePhotoInc, it comes with 3 covers that slide in front of the light: transparent, orange, and pink. I would use the orange to match the background’s orange color and then fix the white balance in post-production or in-camera if you’re skilled enough.

Did you know that your iPhone’s little LED light makes an excellent light source as well when in a pinch? It does. So does LED flashlights. The key to remember is that light is light. Learn to shape it and use it.

What is the single quickest giveaway that a photo was lit with a continuos light source or flash? Look at the way the light spreads on the floor and the shadow of the subject. Unless the photographer used a big huge apparent light source, you’ll often find the light falls off quickly on the legs and the ground. One trick to fool people is to use another continuous light source or a flash set to very low power to just provide light spill on the floor. It’s not something important, but it adds a little more authenticity to your photo and makes it that much harder for people to tell that it was a small light source. I didn’t do it for this article because I only had one light source on me.

Some Behind-the-Scene Photos Deconstructed

The photo of Living Ichigo was shot at Fanime on Day 0. This shot was taken out in front of the Convention Center using the normally boring wall as a background. There are also a number of lamps that light this area and I took advantage of it as a fill light and using the LED light panel as my key light. Also because the lamp light was a different color, it really helps to set him apart.

For the shot above of JoJo PandaFace, I moved her near a lamp post and decided to use that as my keylight. Unfortunately the direction I wanted her facing would result in lots of shadows on the left side of her face, so this is where I used the LED light panel as a fill light. You can tell the difference in power by looking at the line on her face. If I had not used the LED light panel, that whole other section would have just been dark.

Conclusion

Using a LED light panel has many advantages. One being that you can shoot at night. Also it’s not as complicated to use as flash is since you can see what your results will be immediately. The LED light panel is a good stepping stone going from shooting with purely ambient lighting to having control over your lighting. So go out there and do more nighttime photo shoots. Experiment, change it up, and see what you get. Nighttime isn’t the only time to shoot at either, also consider shooting at the Golden Hour using the LED light panels to see what cool sky colors and etc. you can get.

I also want to thank Kyoka Ichinoya Cosplay for lending her time and beauty to do this photo shoot so I can write this tutorial.

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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The Bui is principal photographer at Bui Photos specializing in wedding and engagement photography. He's also a co-founder of CosplayPhotographers.com.

6 Comments

  1. this is amazing. my yongnuo 560 recently broke at a con, and i’ve been debating what i would do to replace it. i am definitely giving this a shot. do you ever use multi-led set ups at conventions?

    so many photographers are afraid to post their ‘secrets’ online, thank you so much for sharing!

    • I currently only have one LED since I’m more of a flash photographer, but I’ve borrowed a buddies and done mutli LED light shots before. Light is light! Bookmark this site and keep checking back, more tutorials are always coming!

  2. Pingback: Photography | Pearltrees

  3. AMAZING! thank you for your tutorial and what i all need, because using a flash is complicated at times, keep adjusting at night time and night time shooting was not my thing but im now looking forward to it! thank God i found your tutorial, you really gave me hope!

    • Jon, thanks so much! Please report back to how well your shoot went!

    • thanks! and i will post photos!

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