Cosplay Photographers: The first time we happened upon the amazing Jay Tablante was his stunning photo of international cosplayer Alodia Gosiengfiao as Jean Grey/Phoenix and we featured it as one of our Daily Features. Since then, we’ve been fans. His amazing photographs, style, and easy to approach attitude make him an easy selection for Cosplay Photographer’s presitigous honor: Featured Photographer of the Month.
Jay, thank you for taking time out to do this interview with us. Can you tell us where you’re from and how you got started in photography?
|Jay Tablante||Quezon City, Philippines||https://www.facebook.com/jaytablantephotography|
Jay Tablante: I’m from Quezon City, Philippines. 🙂
Photography was never really part of the original picture. I actually wanted to be a game developer/designer back in college. Back then my cousin was into photography and decided to put up a dark room in the house. I fell in love with the entire film developing process and that was the start I guess. From that nudge, I apprenticed under a professional photographer for 2 years before striking it out on my own, mainly doing product shots and interior work under him. Since then, I’ve been shooting professionally for nine years mostly for fashion magazines, commercial and advertising. I starting experimenting with cosplay photography back in 2007.
Cosplay Photographers: When you struck out on your own, did you struggle to find work or did success come pretty early on? What kind of support did you have from your friends and family?
Jay Tablante: Like any start-up business, it was difficult. I took out a “parental” loan to purchase my first set of lights and professional camera equipment. First few months didn’t crop up much work, and was sitting on my butt most of the time. With a lack of a choice, I took on a part-time job working as an art director for a publishing company. I was assigned to their showbiz magazine (something like a local version of People). Because of my photography background, they had me double shooting local celebrities and doing layout at the same time.
School mates and friends who ended up working for advertising agencies were my first contacts. They gave me my first breaks in the industry. The small print-ads, and gigs here and there started consuming more time in my “day job” until I took the gamble of resigning. I concentrated on doing photography full time since then.
Cosplay Photographers: That’s awesome! So it seems you primarily do commercial photography. Do you dabble in weddings, events, fashion, or anything else?
Jay Tablante: Starting out meant having to do all sorts of odd gigs here and there, so I basically did everything. But eventually, most of the work started revolving itself around fashion, glamour (FHM and Maxim) and advertising.
Weddings is a totally different sub-industry, which I only dabble in whenever a relative or a friend would insist (and that’s a whole lot of insisting) on getting me.
My commercial portfolio could be partially found here.
Cosplay Photographers: So how did you get into cosplay photography? Was there someone who introduced you or did you randomly stumble upon it?
Jay Tablante: Getting into cosplay photography came from two fronts.
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve always liked comics. The very first comic book I bought was Uncanny X-MEN #1, with the multiple gatefold covers when I was ten years old. Ever since I’ve been a fan of the X-MEN, and my love for pop-culture grew from there. I started watching anime when I was in high school after my parents brought me to Tokyo for a summer vacation. So you could say my base geekdom is comics, and anime a close second. I never outgrew them for some reason, and even until now you’d have me watching anime or read comics on a regular basis.
There are lots of professional photographers in Manila, and a good number of us dwelling in fashion/advertising. This made the marketing competitive over the years, and I sought out a means to separate my images from the rest. I’ve had my fair share bending on the bandwagon themes of “fashion” and “glamour” — I was itching to do something new, and uniquely mine. I started dabbling into surreal / fantasy themes when I started holding one-man exhibits back in 2005, and eventually into more pop-culture theme work in 2008. It was then when I touched on doing a comic book panel as part of that overall homage. That image perhaps was the first “cosplay” image we came up with.
Cosplay photography eventually became the avenue for me to express my love for comics/anime combined with what I did for a living.
Cosplay Photographers: So this is the inspiration where the famous Jean Grey/Phoenix shot of Alodia came from? Walk us through the workflow and concept for one of these shots. Like how do you decide what character or theme and how do you make it all happen from finding the cosplayer, location, and etc.
Jay Tablante: I could explain Phoenix best against an earlier piece we did back in 2010.
The Tea After Party image taught us the value of production design, and preparation prior to shooting. “Alice” as it was more popularly nicknamed (because of its obvious subject), was the result of an entire month of pre-production, an afternoon of setup and 30 minutes of actual shooting. The post-production took about 2-3 days give or take. Subsequent images that came after concentrated on getting everything on the set. My philosophy here was all about saving time and effort in post-production. We relied on practical effects to achieve what we wanted, and for two years, our cosplay images were made in the same manner. We reveled with the idea of having a working template to get our work out there faster. Phoenix has always been a character in our list, not only for the popularity, but simply because she was a character worth doing. I found our first attempt at Phoenix rather botched with afterthoughts of doubt —at least that’s how I felt. Something wasn’t right during our shoot. I wasn’t fully able to pin-point it properly, and just shrugged it aside. When it finally came into post-production, a lot of things were left lacking. The end result was something half-baked and completely below our standards.
Eventually, it wouldn’t only happen with Phoenix, but on a good number of ideas we had. There are some cosplay shoots that never made the light of day. Some important learning:
- I was trying to apply practical effects over a character which needed something more “fantastic.”
- I failed in translating my imagination into real-world execution.
What I learned with Alice had to be unlearned when we shot Phoenix the second time. I was too concerned with capturing the image as a whole at one go, whereas Phoenix required a treatment to take the image apart and visualize the end result in a purely imaginative realm. It contradicted my initial notion of making it easier for the post-production team by having everything in-frame. This new “material” setup emancipated them from the boundaries of what my camera originally captured. We could then compose images as we saw fit. The challenge in photography now is shooting individual elements, yet making the overall lighting coherent so when things are finally put into place, it resembles one image.
Each and every cosplay shoot presents a different workflow, so it’s hard to pin-point a particular method. But in broad strokes, we usually cover the following bases.
- Character (based on iconic status — we look for established characters, but aren’t over-exposed)
- Concept / Art Direction
- Costume / Styling
- Cosplayer / Model
- Production Design
The important ingredient to make all of this work is the coherence of the big idea. Without it, the visual elements would stick out of place.
Cosplay Photographers: Wow, quite amazing all the parts that go into crafting a masterpiece. This goes back to one of our theories that as the photographer, you’re more than the just the person taking a photo. To truly create a piece of art, you have to be the director and offer guidance to all the other “departments” like make-up, lighting, and etc. and at the same time be a technician in that you need to know enough about make-up, posing, lighting, camera settings, post processing, and etc. to understand and provide the guidance. But what a difference approaching an image not as capturing the image in one go, but rather in the sum of each parts to create the final image! Do you approach your commercial stuff such as advertising and fashion the same way?
Jay Tablante: The cosplay and advertising work actually have this symbiotic relationship for us. What I learn from one, I applied in the other. The people who I work with in the industry are the same ones in our cosplay photography endeavors. I see advertising as creativity with parameters of working within a brand. The art directors who pitch in the concept creation come from ad agencies who just want to do fun stuff on the side. They bring in the science of storyboarding, pegs, scripts, and process.
We also get to employ the help of Filipino Marvel/DC artists (Carlo Pagulayan, Leinil Yu, and Harvey Tolibao) into the picture. They provide the illustrations and human anatomy poses most of us can’t imagine. Sometimes, they would even complete the artwork, sign and give it to the model / cosplayer.
It’s that kind of discipline and attention to detail we get to bring into the cosplay photography realm. Vice-versa, cosplay photography frees us to think out of the box in approaching images.
Cosplay Photographers: We were going to ask if you had a team that you regularly work with and it sounds like it. So let’s talk education for a bit. How did you learn about photography? Was it mostly self-taught, workshops, school, or etc.?
Jay Tablante: It’s not really a solid team per se, and members have changed over time. Give or take, there are consistent members who have been working with us for as long as 8 years.
Photography was more of an accidental love back in high school and college. I was pretty much into graphic design and layout for much of high school, and I thought of getting myself in photography as a natural course. It didn’t last pretty much and laid dormant until latter part of college. My cousin who stayed with us for her college, got into photography because of her dad. She took up summer courses in film in a neighboring university, and often went home with rolls of film and manuals. We put up a makeshift darkroom in the house thanks to my dad. I would often accompany her in that cramped box for all-nighters just developing film and prints.
A good portion of my basic knowledge came from books and self-study. But I’ve always reminded myself that breaking into the business meant having to learn the ropes from an actual professional. So I became an apprentice during the weekends and after school during college. I did all sorts of stuff from carrying gear, setting up lights to cleaning up the studio after shoots. In exchange I was taught the basics of lighting, and all the gear that went with it.
Cosplay Photographers: What method did you find to be the most efficient and effective in regards to learning photography?
Jay Tablante: The longer I’ve been shooting, more the I realized that necessity is the best teacher. It’s better to know a few techniques that you get to use over and over, than overloading yourself with so much stuff from workshops you’d hardly be using. Let the concept dictate the technique you would need to learn. Understanding through forced practice ingrains the knowledge better than blunt memorization from spoon-fed sources. It actually took awhile before I learned how to shoot with natural light; it wasn’t until several projects that came along requiring it.. then I had to evolve and learn.
Cosplay Photographers: Great advice Jay! So let’s talk gear for a bit. I understand you’re a Canon Brand Ambassador (or Explorer of Light?) so I’m guessing you use Canon? Share with us the tools you have in the bag.
Jay Tablante: Yep! Though the Asian counterpart program is called, Crusaders of Light… same banana though. I think they want a more superhero-ish flare to it? Hahaha.
I currently have a 5D-Mark 3 and a 1DX for my camera bodies. Lenses, there’s always three (3) that I use almost everyday: 17-40mm, 24-70mm, 70-200mm. I also keep some macros with me for food and product work, but that’s about it. I never really keep alot of lenses, since maintaining them could get cumbersome. The rest of my gear is actually lights, and that’s what I really invested in over the years.
Cosplay Photographers: Well, that’s certainly one of the best advantages of being a Crusader/Explorer of Light, you get to use the latest and best Canon gear! So, in regards to the age old argument over equipment vs. photographer, does shooting with the latest and greatest of Canon help you, hurt you, does nothing for you? What do you like best about each camera?
Jay Tablante: I always saw whatever technological advantage high-end Canon camera provided as more of a justified necessity for our line of job. We use them simply because we earn money from it.
The supposed rhetorical argument of equipment vs. photographer is something incomparable, like apples to oranges in my honest opinion. A bad idea with the good equipment, and a good idea with bad equipment would have the same result: a lousy photo. The photographer thinks about the “what” and the equipment takes care of the “how.” The way those two factors are balanced determines end the result of your work. If your equipment can’t handle the concept then adjust your idea, and if you have too much gear for your idea, perhaps you’re not pushing it hard enough.
A bit on the technical side, I like how Canon has developed the AF systems for 5D Mark 3 and 1DX. It actually allowed me to experiment more with natural light and more raw feel images. The grain profile on both is also amazing. You don’t see the grains until you’ve past 2400 ISO, etc… and even that point, it’s quite minimal.
Cosplay Photographers: Was there any specific reason you chose to use Canon?
Jay Tablante: Canon has amazing technical support here, especially for us professionals. Other camera brands, can’t boast that level of service and manpower. Plus it’s a system I’ve grown to use as 2nd nature of the years.
Jay Tablante: I invested heavily with lights, since that’s what makes or breaks the shot over and above the camera gear if you’re forced to prioritize. I have an Einstein/Alien Bees/White Lighting setup, as well as a complement of Phottix, Hensel, Aurora Genesis lights. Most cosplay shoots average about 8-10 lights on the setup. The Tea After Party took 15 lights, and White Phoenix about 10. We have about about 26 lights total in the studio.
There’s no particular setup really, and that’s something I’ve been trying to avoid: getting locked down to a particular formation. Each and every cosplay shoot presents a new challenge, so no 1 setup would work. I let the concept dictate the lighting formation as needed. But common elements you would see in most of our cosplay shoots are strong highlights and shadows to make the image 3D-ish in appearance especially when post production has gone through with it.
Cosplay Photographers: Wow, you’re kinda like Joe McNally in the number of lights you have there! But at the end of the day, lighting is one of the most important aspects of photography and the more control over light you have, the better the shots can be right?
So how do you come up with a concept for the shoot? Is it mainly you and then you find the people to achieve that or do you get people together and decide on a concept?
Jay Tablante: Concepts are always a team effort, and ideas could just come from any of the members. At the end of the day, an idea is always presented on the table and the team at large deliberates over the feasibility. We always consider the world the character revolves in, and situation he/she might be doing. It’s a delicate balancing act between running wild with your imagination and reality (a.k.a. financial and logistical constraints).
The characters we choose more or less belong within a common knowledge between the team, so everybody has something to bring to the creative table.
Cosplay Photographers: So how does a cosplayer work with you? Do they contact you, do you contact them, combination of both, random lottery, or etc.?
Jay Tablante: I would love to work with Vampy. Too bad we just couldn’t find a common time during NYCC ’11, but we’re hoping to do something next year for SDCC ’13 perhaps. There’s actually this Hungarian cosplayer, Enji (http://enjinight.deviantart.com/) who I really want to work with. She has the best Supergirl cosplay I could find.
Cosplay Photographers: Are there any photographers (dead or alive) that you would love to meet? What inspires you about each one?
Jay Tablante: If I had my wishlist, I would love to have a drink with the following (not in any particular order):
- Annie Liebovitz
- Herb Ritz
- Mark Seliger
- Antoine Verglas
- David La Chapelle
- Dave Hill
- Jim Fiscus
The common denominator among these photographers is pushing what can be imagined, and they just make it real for us to experience. Particularly Annie’s work the re-imagination of Disney characters was just amazing. Dave Hill and Jim Fiscus have mastered hyper-reality that makes you think if it was still a photograph.
Jay Tablante: To be candid with you, I never really bothered looking into other cosplay photographers’ work. There are images that catch my attention, but most are a fleeting feeling. Strange as it may seem for a good number of people who might be reading this, but I find alot more inspiration looking at anything but photography. I hang out more with comic book artists, writers, sculptors, etc.. rather than my own kind. Cosplay photography maybe my outlet of expressing imagination, but at a base knowledge, I’m a fashion and advertising photographer. I’ve always looked back the masters of these genres for wisdom.
Cosplay Photographers: Very interesting; a refreshing looking. So what conventions have you attended? Any particular ones that are your favorite?
Jay Tablante: I’ve been attending STGCC (Singapore Toys, Games and Comics Con) for the past years, and went to NYCC ’11. I guested in MGCC (Malaysian Games and Comics Con) with Alodia and ICDS (International Cosplay Day Singapore) with Yaya Han this year. Work doesn’t really permit me to travel around and attend international conventions that much. There are lots of local ones like Komikon, HERO, etc…
Of all cons I’ve gone to, NYCC would’ve taken the cake easily out of sheer size. I also got to meet some idolized writers and artists in their artist’s alley as well.
Cosplay Photographers: So what is in-store for Jay Tablante in 2013?
Jay Tablante: Could be summed up on one event: San Diego Comic Con!
Cosplay Photographers: That’s awesome! We gotta get a bunch of people together to give you a proper greeting! Any big projects we should be on the lookout for? Don’t worry if it’s a secret, you can tell us, we won’t tell anyone!
Jay Tablante: Well, there are stuff to watch out before this year ends.
I’m tapping back into old anime and video games in my youth. So you might just see a Macross cosplay shoot, complete with an SDF-1 in the background. 🙂 But that’s still in the pipeline. 🙂
Cosplay Photographers: If a new cosplay photographer came to you asking for advice on how to get better, what are the top three things you would tell him or her?
- Choose a shoot a character out of your own childhood experiences. There is no better connection than something you grew up with. You would have a personal stake and contribution to the image.
- Get out of your comfort zone, and learn the craft on the other side of the camera asides from being behind it. A working knowledge in make-up, styling, and production design could go a long way in setting the direction for your work.
- Get inspired outside of photography so you could bring in something new every time.
Cosplay Photographers: Great tips! So if you didn’t become a photographer, what would you have been?
Jay Tablante: I originally wanted to be a game developer.
Cosplay Photographers: Well, we’re glad you became a photographer so we can enjoy your amazing works! Is there any big regret that you wish you could change?
Jay Tablante: For sure there are lots, but without those mistakes, I wouldn’t be learning what I am learning now.
Cosplay Photographers: Jay, thank you so much for sitting down with us today. We can’t wait to see what else you have in store. Do you have any parting words for our readers?
Jay Tablante: Never lose the child in us.
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