March 2014 Featured Photographer of the Month: Nelson Castro

This month The Bui is filling in for Ger Tysk, who is busy cleaning up her place after a little flooding.  Nelson Castro, aka LAPhotoNet, is a Southern California-based photographer  who has been creating some really interesting photos. He’s perhaps best known for his Suspended Elegance series in which Lolitas appear to be floating. Read on to learn more about this great photographer.

Cosplay Photographers: Thanks for joining us today. So tell us a bit more about yourself; where are you from?

Nelson Castro: Hello, Thank you for having me. My name is Nelson, and I’m a super amateur/hobbyist photographer. I live in Los Angeles, born and raised here. I’ve been an “Angelino” as long as I can remember.

1966373_747019421988432_332529711_o

Cosplay Photographers: So how did you get into cosplay photography?

Nelson Castro: It’s a standard story. I bought an affordable entry level DSLR (Canon 400D) back in 2006, attended a convention for the first time in 2007 (Anime Expo). I fell in love with all the geeks.

Cosplay Photographers: How did you get into photography?

Nelson Castro: It’s tough to answer, I’ve always loved art. So the first time I got my hands on a DSLR it was game over. I’m the type of person that has to give 100% to whatever I do, so when I purchased my Digital Rebel XTI, I just had to teach myself photography. I’ve never been formally taught, nor have I gone to school for photography. I’m picking  up bits and pieces from everywhere and everyone. I bet you hear this a lot, but I just fell in love with photography, especially portraiture.

Cosplay Photographers: We have certainly met many passionate people. Do you do photography full time?

Nelson Castro: No, unfortunately. I have a day job, so I do photos on weekends, or whenever I get some spare time. It’s been pretty tough to get spare time lately.

Cosplay Photographer Location URL
Nelson Castro Los Angeles, California, USA https://www.facebook.com/pages/Laphotonet/139781049414659

Cosplay Photographers: Sounds like most people. It’s certainly hard doing photography full-time. So what do you do full-time?

Nelson Castro: I work for the L.A. School District (LAUSD). Smack in the middle of downtown L.A., in a little brown cubicle, in front of a computer, eight hours a day… five days a week… Gawd, I love photography.

Cosplay Photographers: Are there any cosplay photographers that inspire you and why?

Nelson Castro: Too many to list, but so far I really love Beethy photography, Martin Wong’s colorful work, Michael Ooi Photography‘s tack sharpness, and Darshelle Stevens’ epic-ness. Not just because their photos look great, but because they’ve found their style, and their work is consistent and bold. I’m going to be like them when I grow up… I mean, I’m 32, but still.

Cosplay Photographers: Certainly good choices to look up to. What about photographers in general? Any particular ones that inspire you?

Nelson Castro: Right now I’m in love with Karl Taylor, Joel Robison, and too many others who mostly do conceptual photography/composites.

1920920_747019358655105_1494933211_o

Cosplay Photographers: Speaking of conceptual photography and composites, that’s something that you’re doing a lot of lately, no? Can you tell us more about it and your Suspended Elegance Project?

Nelson Castro: I just started experimenting with composites and I do them whenever I can. The process has been developing slower than expected, and I’m not too happy with what I’ve done so far. That doesn’t take away the fact that I love it though. I really should focus on doing more of them with my cosplay photography.

Suspended Elegance is a series I’ve been working on for a while now. It’s basically levitation photography/composites focusing on Japanese Lolita fashion (floating Lolitas). It’s one of my favorite things to photograph and the Lolita community has been very supportive of it. I still have many ideas for the Suspended Elegance Project and will be starting a new series soon, also involving Lolis.

Cosplay Photographers: We like what we see so far. The Suspended Elegance series is definitely very cool! How did you get into the Lolita community? Did someone introduce you to it or did you kind of just fall in?

Nelson Castro: Thanks! I didn’t choose the kawaii life though, the kawaii life chose me. <3 My wife is a Lolita, and she started several years ago. Back then I was the “bring along husband/boyfriend with camera”. Eventually, I made my own Lolita friends, and now I’m an honorary Lolita! I don’t really know how I got so deep into the frills, and I only know a handful of photographers who are an active part of the SoCal Lolita community. So far it’s been a very positive experience for me.

Cosplay Photographers: It’s great to be accepted to such a tight-knit part of the community! You definitely are doing something right. With the Suspended Elegance Project for Lolita, do you have any exciting projects in store for cosplay?

Nelson Castro: Thank you, I really hope so. I have no new plans for a cosplay series right now. I’m going to be focusing on shooting cosplayers privately (non-convention). I have had rare instances where I’ve done this, but I need to increase the amount of private cosplay shoots in my life. Shooting at conventions has left me with much editing to do, but little usable portfolio-quality work. I’m also going to continue exploring compositing and special effects. Making hadoukens in Photoshop is always fun for me.

Cosplay Photographers: Speaking of Photoshop, I’m sure you’ve seen the comments and endless discussions/rant regarding Photoshop and its use, misuse, overuse, etc. What are your thoughts and opinions on this whole topic?

Nelson Castro: Why you do dis? This is such a sensitive issue, and I’ll try not to bore you too much.

From what I’ve observed, Photoshop has become the industry standard for mostly all advertising photography, and such. Everything is touched up and “fixed” to be more aesthetically pleasing, and for our “enjoyment”. We can complain all we want about distorting beauty, and the social repercussions. The truth is that whenever you have a person taking a photo, you’re looking at what that person wants you to see. “Photoshopping” or modifying photography in order to express an idea is as old as photography itself. Civil war photographers used to blend two images together whenever they would take a post-battle photo; dead bodies lying everywhere in the foreground and a darkened sky taken from another exposure used as the background. Now is this unethical? Or just merely the expression by the artist of a sad/morbid scene? I think that it IS abused,  misused, and overused, but by those who abuse, misuse, and overuse it.

I tend to lean on the artistic side of photography, where anything goes. The end result of what I’m trying to convey only matters, even if I have to shop some elf ears on someone. When I want an honest photo, straight out the camera shot, I’ll use those kinds of images as well, as long as it conveys the message/story. It’s a case by case issue for me. In my case, I can’t live without it. I’d die. I’d die so much.

Cosplay Photographers: Yes, great response! We’ve also seen that Photoshop has gotten an unnecessary bad reputation as of late. There’s all types of levels of Photopshop and to completely discount Photoshop entirely is like asking a painter to only use half the colors of paint. Sure, it can be done, but it’s not as interesting. So obviously you use Photoshop. How much time do you spend in Photoshop?

Nelson Castro: I spend a good amount of time edting in photoshop. I usually cut some of that editing time by using both Lightroom and Photoshop together. It does depend on the image that I’m working on however. As you can see, I like special effects and composites. Plus, I’m learning the same time that I’m doing, but it ranges from a few minutes to a few hours on any given digital image.

Cosplay Photographers: Interesting, but let’s move on for now. So we noticed that you do something very interesting before your planned shoots, you sketch out your concepts on paper much like another one of favorite photographers Joe McNally. How did you get into this and how has it helped your photography?

Nelson Castro: I grew up drawing and painting. It’s natural for me to sketch out an idea prior to making it a photograph. I’ve always done it, but never realized the importance of it until recently.  Before it was just a quick doodle on a post-it or napkin or something whenever an idea would hit me. Now I use an iPad app (Paper) to not only doodle my concepts, but to keep them categorized, and handy to view whenever I need them as reference for a shoot. It’s also a big time saver since you can show the subject the drawing and they understand exactly what you want. It works so well, now I do it for most of my photo shoots.

Cosplay Photographers: What app is it so that others might want to try it?

Nelson Castro: http://www.fiftythree.com/paper.

1903465_747019355321772_751276330_nCosplay Photographers: How do you go about finding inspiration for your photography?

Nelson Castro: Inspiration (like spare time) is difficult to come by these days. I’m an introverted weirdo, problem solver, brain have-er, plus I’m my own worst critic (I suck, I know I do). So I need to be isolated and by myself to get to the point where I’m creating mentally. This usually happens really late at night. I also try to think of stories to tell, and this method usually inspires most of my ideas. I love telling stories; stories about stuff and things.

Cosplay Photographers: You’ve certainly found the right craft to tell stories! What’s that old saying, “a picture is worth a thousand words?” So what’s in the bag?

Nelson Castro: Right now I’m shooting with a Canon 5D MKII, an 85mm 1.8, a 5-in-1 light reflector disk, and a lot of luck… Very minimal equipment.

Cosplay Photographers: Wow, you only have one lens? Why the 85mm?

Nelson Castro: I love the 85mm. I wish I could get the 1.2 version. It’s the best lens for portraiture in my opinion, but I think it’s just preference. I like that it maintains proportions (doesn’t distort much). That’s very important to me, it captures the person as they really look, plus it’s great on a full frame. I can also get a nice comfortable distance from my subject, which makes for a very non-creeper-like shooting environment. I’m looking into getting other lenses soon, but the 85 just works. I love it.

Cosplay Photographers: Do you ever feel limited by just having an 85mm?

Nelson Castro: Yes, all the time. Telling a story requires wide angles (which provide context) most of the time. The 85 has a very narrow window to play with, and it also minimizes backgrounds. Luckily, I came across an interesting blog post by another great photographer that I admire, explaining how to stitch multiple frames together. Honestly, this has changed my photography greatly, and I appreciate awesome photogs like these, that share their amazing knowledge with others. You might know this guy haha -> http://blog.buiphotos.com/2009/07/the-brenizer-method-explained-with-directions/ Thanks for this by the way. I’m still learning how to do it properly, but it really minimizes the limitations I have shooting with the 85mm.

Cosplay Photographers: LOL, I’m certainly honored by that. I learned it from another person, Ryan Brenizer. You have been doing some great stuff with the Brenizer Method. When people share knowledge, great things can happen. So you only have the 85mm right now. What is the next lens you would like to add to your kit?

Nelson Castro: The next lens I have my good eye on is either the 50mm 1.2, or the 70-200mm 2.8. Both very good portrait lenses. It would be a dream come true!

Cosplay Photographers: The 50L was my absolute favorite and most used lens. Do you use any flash in your work or are you mainly shooting ambient? Any particular reason?

Nelson Castro: I mainly shoot ambient, there’s something romantic about it. I used to shoot with off-camera flash all the time, and I liked it very much. Unfortunately, my home was burglarized a little over a year ago, and all of my lighting equipment was taken. I know this is weird, but I think it helped me. I never really gave natural light a chance before. I was in such a hurry to adapt to other cosplay photographer’s methods, and at the time all the photogs were using multiple off camera flashes and strobes (they still do). I took this chance to kind of force myself to really understand ambient lighting. I’m far from where I would like to be in my understanding of natural/ambient lighting right now, but I would really like to master it one day… and of course, I’m typing this as I’m scrolling through the Paul C. Buff website (http://www.paulcbuff.com/). *sigh

Cosplay Photographers: Can you describe your typical workflow from after a shoot to posting on Facebook?

Nelson Castro: Workflow? Ok, I’ll have to summarize this. I usually take my RAW image files and catalog them in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom. I then select which images I like by “flagging” them with the “P” key on my keyboard. I apply my settings in Lightroom, then transfer the file over to CS6 and begin applying non-destructive layers to my image. It usually goes like this: skin clean up, background clean up, dodging and burning, color correction, levels, curves, sharpening (high pass filter), vibrance, a tiny bit of liquify (shhh), cropping if needed. This is a typical image with no special effects or compositing. I save as a  JPEG, this gives me files that range from 8 to 15 megabytes. I upload the originals straight to my website. My site can resize the photos for me for web use, and watermarks them for me. I then upload to my social networks.

Cosplay Photographers: What are the top three things you’ve learned so far that has helped you grow as an artist?

Nelson Castro: So many things I’ve learned.

Firstly, I’ve learned to not be afraid of being terrible at something. I mean, don’t be afraid to suck. You’re not going to be great at something on the first try. Use critiques and failures as stepping stones towards positive/constructive growth. You can only get better with practice, but you have to be able to see what needs to improve, and that usually comes through someone else’s observations. This is especially difficult when our work is posted on the internet, ready to be torn apart by unsolicited criticism. It’s either that, or everyone tells you that your work is perfect, which is equally as detrimental to your artistic growth. Secondly, Evolve. Floating Lolitas are nice, but how long will people be interested in that? Is it already worn out and I haven’t noticed? I constantly brainstorm and conceptualize. Many of my ideas never make it into becoming actual photographs, but the fact still remains; that my techniques and methods are evolving. A lot of photographers (especially the famous ones) make the mistake of developing a REALLY amazing style, and never doing anything new. Five or ten years down the line, younger and newer more daring photographers are applying new methods and new technologies to their photography/art. All while Nelson is still trying to make Lolis float with an 85mm. It might be time to go mirror-less.

Lastly, and most obviously, learn your craft. Duh right? Equipment will not substitute skill. Learn your exposure triangle, lighting, composition, and practice your butt off.

Cosplay Photographers: Great points! What has been your favorite shoot and why?

Nelson Castro: That’s difficult to answer. I tend to act out a vicious cycle of liking my work, for like two days, then hating it immediately afterward. So I would have to say that my favorite photo shoot is the shoot that I’m conceptualizing at the moment. It’s the excitement of seeing if I’m able to execute the idea I’ve doodled on my iPad, the excitement of bringing it to life. I’m weird.

Cosplay Photographers: Weird is exciting! We like exciting! So on the other hand, what has been your most challenging shoot to date and how did you make it work?

Nelson Castro: I did a photo shoot not too long ago with a Spawn and Angela cosplay from the Image Comics series SPAWN. This shoot was SO difficult/challenging. It was shot during Comikaze Expo. I did it RIGHT after work, I had to meet the cosplayers at the convention, and find them (this is more difficult than it sounds). I needed to meet up with my assistant (wife) at another location. We then needed to get to the shoot location, which was already taken by Hollywood film crews. The light was fading fast since it was in the afternoon, and we had to find a new location. We had to work fast, and the concept was a VERY complicated composite. Everything was bad, the light, the location, and no time to find a new one.

I didn’t let my frustration show. I stayed positive, and that was accompanied by everyone’s awesome attitude and hard work, which made the shoot work. I hope no one noticed that I was worried that the photos wouldn’t come out. Although I didn’t get what I was expecting out of the shoot, it was not a disaster, plus I learned so much from all the mistakes I made while capturing these shots. I also learned a lot during the post processing of these photos (they took SOO long to edit). I still have some of these to process, and whenever I think about it, a cold chill goes up my spine, lol.

Cosplay Photographers: Very nice. So what’s next for Nelson and LAPhotoNet?

Nelson Castro: The future looks bright, Richard, and not just because I’ve been staring at my monitor at work all day…

Like I have stated before, I’m constantly conceptualizing. There are tons of ideas buzzing around in my head right now for cosplay concepts, Fashion and Lolita photo shoots. Not only that, I’m always looking towards learning and improving. The exciting part about learning photography is that there is always something new to apply to what you already know. I enjoy the ride, and look forward to tomorrow. I’m a happy person, and I hope to continue to reflect and spread that through the medium of photography.

Cosplay Photographers: What are you favorite conventions to attend?

Nelson Castro: My favorite cons are all in California, lol. I hardly venture out from my State. We have so many cons here in SoCal. I love Anime Expo, Comikaze, Pacific Media Expo, Anime L.A., and WonderCon. I’m sure that I’m missing some, but those are the ones off the top of my head.

Cosplay Photographers: How do you go about finding cosplayers to photograph? Do they come to you? Do you ask them? Do you contact them in advance?

Nelson Castro: All of the above. My preferred method is to contact them in advance to schedule an appointment. I usually look for the people I want to shoot with, and try to book some time with them during a convention. I approach them with a very professional and detailed message, and a link to my work. I usually get bombarded with requests for the larger conventions by my Facebook cosplayer friends as well, but I’m trying to stay away from that right now. It leaves me with a GIANT back-log of images to edit and upload.

Cosplay Photographers: LOL, well put my friend! How did you come up with LAPhotoNet? Any significance?

Nelson Castro: Everyone always asks me that. LAphotoNet is a dumb story. The original name was supposed to be LA photography (of course it was taken). Couldn’t get it, so I clicked the auto-generated suggestions option. I saw LAphotonet. I said “meh”, and clicked the “buy for 6.99” button. It’s been years already, with auto-generated suggestion name LAphotoNet (doesn’t mean anything). I was thinking about re-branding, then I remembered how much work it is to start over… I’m so lazy, but even if I did, I would probably end up with some name that’s even more strange.  like… Nelsonphotoz_yolo_lolitakawaii.org (perfect).

Cosplay Photographers: That would be an easy URL to remember…not! Are there any last words you would like to leave for our readers?

Nelson Castro: I would like thank Cosplay Photographers for having me. I am humbled and honored to be included among all these talented artists. When I received your message, I was sure you had probably sent it by mistake, haha. Thanks to all the fabulous cosplayers, Lolitas, and models that help us with our portfolios, we can’t do this without your talent. Also, to all the new cosplay photogs out there, keep shooting, keep learning, ignore the negativity, enjoy yourself, and most importantly, like me on facebook. ;D

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!

Notice a problem with this article? Let us know.

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

2 Comments

Leave a Reply