West Coast photographer and cosplayer SpookyElectric won our Best Photo of 2013 Contest with the stunning diptych of Kenshin and Tomoe from Rurouni Kenshin. We go in depth and behind the scenes to find out how exactly that image came about, as well as chat about the joys and difficulties of being both a cosplayer and a photographer.
Cosplay Photographers: Thanks for joining us today, SpookyElectric! Please tell us a bit about yourself.
SpookyElectric: Hello, World! Thanks for selecting my diptych as the winner of your contest. I’m a cosplayer, and until recently, would have argued I’m not really a photographer. Currently, I live in Los Angeles, just down the street from UCLA, a frequent setting for my shoots.
Cosplay Photographers: Nice! A number of other cosplay photographers are in the Los Angeles area. Did you grow up there?
SpookyElectric: I grew up in the oil refinery garden state: New Jersey. Then moved to the West Coast for school in Santa Clara. As a side effect, I’m somewhat bicoastal – East coast cons and gatherings can be paired with family visits.
Cosplay Photographers: How did you come up with your handle, SpookyElectric?
SpookyElectric: When picking a name for cosplay sites, I decided to try that since it seemed like a cool and unique name. It’s a side character from Boogiepop Phantom, one of my favorite anime. (Even though I had to watch it three times to make sense.) It also seemed appropriate – I like series with an eerie element like Boogiepop, Lain, and Satoshi Kon’s works. And Internet = Electric…kinda.
Cosplay Photographers: You’ve been in the cosplay scene for a while now. How long has it been?
SpookyElectric: I discovered the world of cosplay through Kevin Lillard’s now defunct A Fan’s View website. I found out about a local convention in Santa Clara and decided to check it out. Fanime 2002 was my first convention. It was first time I cosplayed. (Though at that time I was just modifying existing clothing.) And first time I pointed a camera at a cosplayer:
I’ve come a long way from there.
Cosplay Photographers: How did you get into photography?
SpookyElectric: My interest in photography started with my interest in Astronomy. I wanted to try astrophotography – a pretty technical challenge. And that was with film, so pretty demanding on patience too. I really never did get very good at that, but from the start I was shooting full manual. I still take a perhaps all too technical approach to taking pictures.
Cosplay Photographers: What about cosplay photography?
SpookyElectric: I started taking pictures with a point&shoot at cons just to share with my friends and family; I wanted to show them the cool stuff I saw at the con I just went to. I still have many of the older pics online – you can see a pretty drastic evolution from then to now. I posted the photos online, since that was a convenient way to share them, and would also link to them on cosplay.com. Cosplayers seemed to like them – I think they we’re just happy at the time to have anything. But, that was encouragement to shoot more cosplay – shooting for the cosplayers themselves, not just to share with my friends. A few years ago, I moved to Los Angeles for work and I noticed there was a pretty active cosplay community. I thought it would be a good chance to level up with lots of local gatherings. So, after much research, I bought a Nikon D40, my first DSLR, and started to make photography of people a real hobby of mine.
Cosplay Photographers: So which do you enjoy more, cosplaying or photographing?
SpookyElectric: Cosplay! Making costumes is a lot more fun than editing photos, and better suited to in-person hangout times. It’s just unfortunately also incredibly time-consuming.
At events, I think it’s easier to connect with other cosplayers than photographers. One of the initial appeals of cosplay is that despite being a quiet person, when wearing a costume, I’m screaming in a sense that I’m a fan of whatever I’m dressed as. So then it’s easy meet people over a mutual interest in what I’m dressed as. And then also easy to be silly and weird together derping around in-character.
Cosplay Photographers: Do you think being a cosplayer gives you any unique insight into cosplay photography?
SpookyElectric: I think it gives me a slightly different perspective, but not significantly. I feel I’m more inclined during shoots to make sure I cover costume details, since I can relate to wanting to showcase costume craftsmanship. For example, did I get a shot with the back detail? or their cool boot covers? or prop details? However, that capturing detail is still a secondary goal, after creating in-character fanart. I feel being a cosplayer has also has helped guide my essential supplies. I pack certain non-camera gear in my camera bag when shooting: safety pins, fashion tape, scissors, mirror and comb.
Cosplay Photographers: It’s sometimes hard to shoot while in costume. Do you build modifications into your costumes to make life easier while you’re photographing? Or do you not shoot in costume at all?
SpookyElectric: Fortunately, I have a bias for uniform or formal-wear type outfits, which for men are usually pretty versatile. So I have shot a lot while in cosplay, and I haven’t modified a costume to facilitate that. However, a couple of outfits definitely are not well suited for it due to limited mobility or being too fragile or both. So I have planned shoots around when will be good or bad times based on what I’m wearing if it will get in the way. Either I’ll shoot early out of cosplay and get changed later, or not shoot until I have changed later.
Cosplay Photographers: Do you do photography full-time?
SpookyElectric: Not even close. I don’t have as much time for it as I’d like. I have a full-time job as a software developer – a form of creative work, but a very different type. I also cosplay, sewing my own outfits. Between work and hobbies, I have some vague sliver of a social life, and of course unwind by watching the anime that I’m likely to shoot someday.
Cosplay Photographers: Have you ever considered making the switch and doing photography full-time?
SpookyElectric: I am occasionally asked if I’d consider photography as a profession. Only recently do I feel I can promise people that I will deliver photos that don’t suck. I think I’m still a ways away from guaranteeing something awesome. So for now, I don’t think I would make it as a pro. Even if I could, I hope not to pursue it as a career ever. When something becomes a full-time job, it can lose a lot of its fun. And then I’d be doing what others want rather than what I want. I also don’t want to make an income out of it as a side job. As long as I’m not paid, I’m not professional. That opens some more locations for shooting to me. It also means my apartment renter’s insurance covers my camera. If I were paid for photography, I’d need separate insurance.
Cosplay Photographers: Makes complete sense. Are there any cosplay photographers that inspire you and why?
SpookyElectric: When I started taking a more “serious” approach to cosplay photography, ZiggyBecket, Shiroin, AndyRak, and Hexlord were certainly inspirations. The works of ZiggyBecket and Shiroin lead me down the rabbit hole of off camera lighting. More recently, BigWhiteBazooka and Masakocha are favorite photographers of mine. I’m also regularly blown away by the works of Russian cosplay photographers (and the cosplayers they shoot) that I see on DeviantArt like Kifir, TaisiaFlyagina, and Onkami.
Cosplay Photographers: Definitely a great list! What about photographers in general?
SpookyElectric: I spend more time actively following other cosplay photographers rather than photographers in general. I’m sure I’m missing out of awesome work as a result. A few that I do follow are Chase Jarvis, zemotion, Elena Kalis, Benoit Paillé, and Ben Von Wong. Adam Chilson (NSFW) sometimes shoots cosplay, but I’m sure wouldn’t consider himself a cosplay photographer. He has been a strong influence – particularly in water shooting. I had a helpful learning experience working with him a few summers ago. He is also part of my inspiration to build sets.
Cosplay Photographers: Ah yes. One of the biggest things that we think set you apart from other cosplay photographers is the level of dedication to your craft. One thing people might not know, you actually build sets for shoots. Can you tell us more about it such as why, the difficulties and challenges, and etc.?
SpookyElectric: My first set was rearranging my apartment for a Serial Experiments Lain photoshoot. It was one of my first shoots where I approached the cosplayer with an idea of mine. The startup I was involved with had a lot of spare hardware we were going to get rid of. I thought it would be perfect to use for shooting Lain, so I asked Mari if she’d be interested, since I felt she looked the most lain-like of my friends. I combined that with some of my own equipment as Lain’s server farm. It was sort of a spur of the moment thing, but since then I started thinking about more than just suitable locations.
Another dream shoot of mine has been Kenshin x Tomoe. I wanted to recreate the rainy night Kenshin and Tomoe met, but we needed a place to shoot. Sirian mentioned we should find somewhere with a Japanese style wall. But who would let us make it rain? And pushing it further, who would let us splatter fake blood all over their wall? Thinking about it, I realized I could probably make something. I used to make sets for plays in high school. I can build things that look decent and are barely structurally sound enough. And it wouldn’t even cost much – far less than any location would. So, I built it on a patio at my apartment in Westwood. I could do it all in post-processing. I do edit my photos, but I don’t really enjoy that. Building things is much more fun. It worked out and I got a lot of use out of it for other shoots.
And I started dressing my apartment into more things: a night club, a surveillance center, Revy’s bedroom, the Einzbern home, and some Sci-Fi metallic place, among others. This January, along with Elberberry’s help, we created a fake stained glass window for an Inori photoshoot. In my mind I thought it would be on par with effort of the wall, but really it proved a much bigger endeavor. It is a lot of work, but it’s really a lot of fun and I hope to do more.
Cosplay Photographers: For people who want to build sets but have no idea where to start out, can you give some tips? Is it expensive?
SpookyElectric: I think the best tip I can give is remember that it only needs to look good in photos. Wide shots (to hide poor small details) or narrow shots (to hide the very unrelated content just off frame), or shadows (to hide flaws in darkness) can hide a lot.The biggest investment is the tools, much like with cosplay. Though you can probably find someone to borrow them from.
The cost otherwise can vary a lot depending on how resourceful you are and what you’re trying to do. I built the set for the Kenshin shoot for a little over $100 at Home Depot, but that doesn’t include the circular saw, paint brushes, staple gun, and drill. Inori/Guilty Crown set ran over $200 because we used so much fake stained glass paint. Dangan Ronpa set supplies were something like $60-80. Saber/Einzbern shoot was about $50 for flooring & curtains. Most of those can get at least some re-use as well.
Cosplay Photographers: How do you go about finding inspiration?
SpookyElectric: Inspiration to shoot is easy – after a long day at work, I’m very happy to shut down and watch some cartoons…er…anime. I get attached to stories and characters and want to produce fanart. My forms of fanart are cosplay and cosplay photography.
It’s a bit trickier though, to get from the idea in my head to an actual photo. I pick up bits of inspiration for how to shoot from all over – particularly letting myself get lost on the Internet: deviantArt, tumblr, YouTube, etc, etc. I track what I like in my deviantArt faves (http://spooky-epiic.deviantart.com/favourites/) and vi.sualize.us (http://vi.sualize.us/epiic/), occasionally looking back on those for reference when trying to better understand what I don’t like about my own photos.
Inspiration to edit… I’m still trying to figure that one out.
Cosplay Photographers: And now for something fun for our last question: if you were stranded on a desert island and could only take 3 things from your photography gear bag, what would they be?
SpookyElectric: Band-Aids – Because I’ll manage to hurt myself, and if not, they can be used as tape. (Or maybe just bring the spool of gaffer’s tape and rip up clothing for band-aids?). Clamp – Because an extra hand to hold things is always helpful. Fast Lens – Fire starting with the magnifying glass trick.
Cosplay Photographers: Any parting words of advice?
SpookyElectric: Photographers: Don’t blame your gear – good gear can make a good shot marginally better, but it won’t save a bad one. Nor will software. Cosplayers: Don’t be afraid to ask for shoots. The worst that will happen is you’ll be told “no”. Just don’t push it and no one will hold it against you.
Cosplay Photographers: Thanks so much!
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