Mike Kowalek of Eleventh Photograph is a Toronto-based, Canadian photographer who has been photographing cosplay since the first time he picked up a DSLR. He’s known throughout Canada for his simple, clean portrait style and vibrant post-processing. Here he shares with Ger Tysk how he got started on his photography journey, his thoughts on the World Cosplay Summit coming to Canada, and his motto, “Look how sharp the eyes are!”
Cosplay Photographers: Hi Mike! Tell us how you first got into cosplay and photography.
Eleventh Photograph: I found out about cosplay through a 2003 airing of a YTV program with Sugar where she attended Anime North of that year. They showed various clips from the con including cosplay; the show had me hooked and excited so I did some research and made sure I attended the next year’s Anime North.
Cosplay Photographers: What inspired you to start shooting cosplay?
Eleventh Photograph: The cosplay photography bit came a few years after that. Many years ago my dad bought me my first DSLR camera, a Nikon D40 with a basic 18-200mm lens, it only spiraled-out from there (no pun intended). It was a big upgrade from the point and shoot I used to carry around to conventions before that. Like everyone, I enjoyed taking photos of the various unique and funny cosplays. I started noticing around the same time online that certain cosplayers had some fantastic photos of their costumes. It blew my mind how cool some of those shots were. That by itself wasn’t enough; I had to experience first-hand a few simple photo shoots of my own when I was still a cosplayer in the past. Naturally, instead of a single shot, I then wanted to get a bunch of different shots from various angles. Little did I know that I was actually doing something of a photo shoot. So it was cosplay photography that truly got me into the art of photography.
Eleventh Photograph: Cosplay is still the biggest part of the pie, but now I also do some sports, nature, product, and event/journalism photography away from the convention scene. Other things I like to shoot: sunsets, landscape, fireworks, events, stars at night, and my favorite, color charts.
Cosplay Photographers: What is your favorite kind of cosplay to shoot? Any favorite series or shows?
Eleventh Photograph: My favorite type of cosplay to shoot depends on where I’m shooting at! Trying to make the scene fit a character that doesn’t really belong there is difficult! Costume-wise I don’t really have a preference so long as the cosplayer themselves can bring me energy and poses to work with! : ) As for favorite series, I don’t really have any favorites in terms of cosplay shooting, I more enjoy what the model can bring me in terms costume, poses, and attitude!
Cosplay Photographers: What’s it like being a cosplay photographer in Canada?
Eleventh Photograph: Being a cosplay photographer in Canada is like being a Polar explorer, constant snow and subzero temperatures. I kid. Right now it’s so hot and humid that it’s not cool. I’ve never really considered myself (or any other Canadian photographers) as “different”, I mean we still do the same thing in essentially the same way, which is take photos of cosplayers.
Cosplay Photographers: What are the best conventions to shoot cosplay?
Eleventh Photograph: Too be honest, not too many conventions in Canada that I’ve been to really shine as being optimal for shooting different sorts of cosplays. For example, Fan Expo can cater to cosplayers who need a city landscape, maybe some grungy alleyways; otherwise you don’t have many options. I think my favorite would have to be Otakuthon which takes place in Montreal. Oui Oui! It has a lot of nice old-style buildings, Churches/Cathedrals, and even a Chinatown marketplace just down the road. I find you have the best number of locations to choose from compared to other Canadian cons.
Cosplay Photographers: World Cosplay Summit was just announced as coming to Otakuthon! Any plans to cover it, and are you excited about the costumes that will be represented?
Eleventh Photograph: Definitely an exciting development for staff of Otakuthon and Canadian cosplayers to have the WCS happen at their event. I’ll be looking at doing some sort of coverage, but I’m not sure at this point. I am excited knowing that people will bring their A-game and show off some amazing costumes. I’m looking forward to everyone’s effort, good luck!
Cosplay Photographers: Conventions can pose challenges for photography, such as bad backgrounds and harsh lighting. How do you overcome these challenges?
Eleventh Photograph: I use the same applicable strategy at any con I’m at. If it’s a quick hallway shot that’ll simply go to my general con coverage gallery, I won’t fight the fact too much that there’s going to be people in the background and the lighting may be horrid. If I’m doing a private shoot, we normally look for a location where there is a minimal amount of people, and use a backdrop that is appropriate for them. I find using tight composition, low aperture, and a longer focal-length lens helps separate your subject from the background so it’s what I do. Focus on the cosplayer, and not so much on the background if it doesn’t do anything to help the overall image.
Eleventh Photograph: Thinking about it, it’s kind of difficult to describe my own photography style. I’ll instead make notes on what I find myself doing in most of my photos.
I’m a believer in filling the frame, you’ll notice that most of my shots tend to fill the frame. I also try to make sure each shot is different, I don’t like slightly different photos. Not that backgrounds aren’t important, I don’t tend to do landscape-type photos where the cosplayer ends up becoming a small part of it. I’m not against it, and I’d certainly be up for doing more of those types of shots when opportunity show itself. I’d say 80% of the time I use some flashes, it really depends on where we’re shooting, time of day, and what I’m trying to achieve mood-wise.
Cosplay Photographers: Do you do any research on characters or reference poses before photo shoots?
Eleventh Photograph: I probably don’t do as much as I should haha, mainly because I forget things easily. I feel confident in getting poses out of my models on the spot though. For example, I’ll talk to them during the shoot and they’ll explain the character to me and various applicable scenarios, I’ll take that information, figure out a scene and compose the shot; so we really do work both together. I hate one-sided shoots where either the model tells me exactly where to stand and aim the light, or vice-versa me just standing there pressing a button. I love to collaborate.
Cosplay Photographers: Tell us about your gear!
Eleventh Photograph: What can I say, I’m a Nikon fan. I currently use a D800 as my main body, and mainly use the Sigma 35 f/1.4 & Nikkor 85mm 1.4D lenses in photoshoots. I’ll also pull out my 16-35 F/4 for some wide-angle shots when I feel the need. I have one SB600 and one SB700 flash coupled with Yongnuo transceiver. I have a reflector, puffer, back-up batteries, fast Memory cards, small portable LED light, portable USB battery pack, comb for cosplayer’s wigs, electrical tape for quick-fixes, and other misc accessories in my new Lowepro x200 Rolling Camera Bag.
Eleventh Photograph: Lots of fantastic Canadian Cosplayers! I’ll try and name off a few that have either been working with me for a while now, or ones who I have had shoots that really helped me develop myself as a cosplay photographer. VickyBunnyAngel is a talented long-time cosplayer and was actually my first cosplay photo shoot model! When I was starting out she was the one with the experience in photo shoots so it was really helpful for me having someone with that confidence and knowledge of how to pose in character. Really fun to work with!
Ottawa-based cosplayer, MeltingMirror, is another person who I admire for her craftsmanship and her ability to cosplay every version of Korra(!) Very fun and easy to work with and I get to try out new techniques. Iridescent_Fall is another Canadian cosplayer who doesn’t make as many costumes every year, but each one she does put together, gets me really excited to start taking pics! Her Zekrom is a phenomenal piece of work which I really enjoyed shooting.
Cosplay Photographers: Have you been to other conventions outside Canada?
Eleventh Photograph: I’ve been traveling to US cons since 2010 and will admit they are on a different level than Canadian cons. Just size alone, they’re much larger than any Canadian anime conventions. I wouldn’t say it’s a fair comparison, but convention centers in the US are also significantly larger and better thought-out in my opinion. For example, the Toronto Convention Center is basically a warehouse like facility with a hotel, while the other convention center (TMCC) is split into a smaller more-crowded North building, and the underground South building. Neither one of them can really measure up to a facility like the Baltimore convention center, or the NY Javitz building, or even a grand hotel like the Gaylord National in Washington DC. And I’m not saying this is the convention’s fault, but just as an unfortunate observation. Otakuthon in Montreal does actually have a nice, decent-sized convention center. It’s located in the downtown core with plenty of space and hotels near it.
Cosplay Photographers: Have you ever had a shoot that just did not work out? What happened and what did you learn from it?
Eleventh Photograph: I’ve had a couple shoots that weren’t up to my expectations, and nothing to do with the models, but rather with how I went about shooting. I think what I learnt from those experiences is when something isn’t working as you’d like, scale back your project and simplify it. Take down the strobes, find a blank wall, forget the Dutch angle, and work with the basics. Take some simple portrait shots, & document the costume. I mean, I truly don’t know what the images look like until I bring them home and load them up on my 24” monitor, at which point, it’s up to my editing skills to be put to work.
Cosplay Photographers: Your photo slogan is “look at how sharp the eyes are.” Why is that important to you and how did the slogan start?
Eleventh Photograph: Even before I started photography, I already had an eye on the basics as I took comm tech in high school. To me, the subject – the eyes at the very least – are what’s important when looking at an image. So you better make sure they’re in focus.
Having watched some Jared Polin videos on Youtube, he would also stress on making sure the eyes be in focus when reviewing images, this I agreed with strongly. Then came along my D800, which with its crazy 36MP sensor, allowed you to zoom in on photos like crazy. When coupled with a fast 1.4 lens you really need to make sure you don’t miss your focus when taking a shot, so I’d always be double-checking, “chimping”, to make sure I had what I needed. After a few shots I’d zoom straight in on a single eye and show the model “Look how sharp the eyes are!” My GF even made me a sweater with the quote embroidered on it. The sweater is half-white, half-black which compliments my half-white beard : )
I think most Cosplayers I shoot with know me for taking a good 4-5 shots in the same position, its best to make sure I have at least 1 completely sharp photo in the bunch otherwise I may end up not using any at all.
Eleventh Photograph: I’d say don’t be scared to review your images on the spot. Some photographers may criticize you for “chimping” too much, but I like to be safe than sorry. Of course if you’re shooting with a kit lens like an 18-55 you won’t have too much to worry about in terms of focus, but still get into a habit of reviewing your images on the spot to see if you can take a more interesting shot on the spot. If you are using a 1.8 lens, be sure to use spot-focus and aim the focus-point on the eye!
Cosplay Photographers: Marketing is something that is very important to photographers but many artists struggle with it. How do you get your name out to cosplayers both in and outside of Canada?
Eleventh Photograph: I don’t really market myself too much, it’s more word-of-mouth thing than anything else. A good amount of new clients usually say “My friend recommended you!” or “I saw your photos of my friend and want a shoot with you.” I suppose if you’re starting out and what to get your name out there, do lots of shoots, and make each one your best!I know a couple great photographers who let their work speak for itself. If the image is really great, then it’ll get around on the internet and go viral without the artist pushing it from behind. I always took that sort of approach when I started off, and while I was content with that process for a while, I decided to take a slightly more engaged way of connecting with people and my work on the internet.
Cosplay Photographers: Are you on social media?
Eleventh Photograph: I’m actually rather quiet online! It’s only in the past few months where I’ve opened a Twitter account @eleventhphoto to stay more in tune with what’s happening, to easier share my work, and simply be more connected with people. I also have a deviantArt and cosplay.com account both about a decade old by now! Cosplay photography really isn’t a business to me. I make a few bucks to make ends meet, but I don’t have the necessity to be constantly marketing myself to get more cosplay photo shoots every con.
Cosplay Photographers: If you could pick one place to shoot cosplay in Canada, where would it be?
Eleventh Photograph: One place to shoot in Canada… After doing a quick Google search I’ve decided that Peyto Lake in Alberta looks like a pretty cool place to do some nice landscape+cosplay photography! : D
Cosplay Photographers: Who are your favorite photography inspirations?
Eleventh Photograph: It’s usually the people who either inspire me with the work they have created, or who have a great ability to motivate photographers with words of wisdom. It may be typical, but I really value what Joe McNally offers in terms of experience and just his sincere way of critiquing people’s images that offers lots of insight. Chase Jarvis has great energy & enthusiasm while doing his shoots and the confidence he demonstrates makes his photo shoots seem simpler than they actually are!
In terms of cosplay photographers, since the beginning I’ve been a fan of Brucer007’s work, love the way he captures his action shots! Solartempest is the first photographer I’ve worked with when I was a cosplayer and gave me some good insight on how shoots operate, he’s got solid skills on lighting his subjects so a lot of great work from him. BaronKarza is another awesome (in the shadows) photographer who doesn’t normally do photo shoots, but ends up releasing one-hit-wonders from around the con scene. I’m also a huge fan of Pugoffka-sama’s work, she produces some incredible images that blow my mind. She really knows how to set the mood in her images and they’re so well framed! Likewise I enjoy MartinWong’s vibrantly-colored photos! There are a lot of talented photographers out there, I try and learn something from each one.
Cosplay Photographers: Any final tips or advice for our audience?
Eleventh Photograph: *Flicks over a quarter* As for advice, I guess the only thing I can say is be positive and support your community.
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