On locations

On locations

 

 

If we think of cosplay photography as a mix of fashion and environmental portraiture, it is inevitable that the question of location must come up. To do proper justice to the characters depicted, an appropriate location is critical. And given the shooting style I have adopted, the location also contributes various factors to how the picture is composed, and lighting.

One constant complaint we face is that there is a perceived shortage of locations with a certain vibe, or that some locations are over-used.

The issue is not to do with the number of locations, but rather the discoverability of locations. Having some proper systems in place, and an adequate sense of curiosity, will go a long way toward helping you find and retain good locations.

Location as a commodity

Let’s not deny that location is a commodity — because of the perceived shortage, newly discovered, or previously unused locations are seen as an asset. But I like to think of locations like shell currency — they were valued by various cultures, but were for the most part just laying around ready to be picked up.

And because we put such a value on location, many photographers (myself included) like to keep some of those places fairly low-key, if not exactly secret.

There are two main reasons for this.

  1. To prevent over-saturation of a particular location: the uniqueness and mystery of a location adds to the appeal of a photo. Looking at a cosplay photo and thinking “ooh I know where that place is” or “another shoot at that location huh” reduces, to a degree, the allure of the piece. For this reason, places like the Chinese Gardens, Convention Centre, Hyde Park and USYD, while eminently suitable and highly accessible for shoots, are not exactly my favourite areas.
  2. To prevent abuse and security problems: the greater the traffic to a given site, and the more discoverable the location is (this applies to people writing about it online, on Facebook, etc), the greater the chance that miscreants will also stumble upon it, leading to property damage and increased security (which can sometimes get ramped up to ridiculous levels, making the area inaccessible). Keep to the urbex philosophy: take pictures, leave only footprints. By reducing traffic and having a respectful attitude at the location, any security who you come across during a shoot is likely to be more lenient and understanding.

Being curious

Given photographers tend to keep those location cards close to their chests, the onus is on newer photographers and cosplayers to find their own locations via various methods. In a way, this process is always ongoing and if you are like me and you enjoy discovering new things, a lot of fun.

For years, even before starting seriously as a photographer, I have played the tourist in Sydney, finding new places to explore, areas off the beaten path. This effort has crystallised over the years into a private database of 142 known locations.

New locations come to me via various vectors. Cosplayers or other photographers might, for example, suggest shooting somewhere which I have never heard of before. That’s easy.

Or I might see something interesting in the scenery while in a car, on a bus or train. I will note down the nearby road names and area and then do research on Google Maps when I get home.

The Internet is a big source too. Some locations get mentioned on forums, on Flickr, by wedding photographers, or on Google Knol. More unusual sources are websites and forums for history buffs or ghost hunters. Actually, locations can come at you from anywhere: random links from friends on Facebook relating to something totally unrelated, those free magazines you find around the city, warehouse rave parties, etc.

Sometimes, you might just have a picture to go with. But you might be lucky, and with the application of some investigative skills (using EXIF data, zooming in on any identifiable words in the picture, matching available information like dates to events, etc), it becomes possible to find out where the place is.

The important thing is to note that stuff down in an organised way, note your sources of information so you can always go back for reference.

Deep research

Once you have an idea of the name and identity of the location, looking it up becomes very easy. Sometimes there is no name: in those cases, you Google the street address.

You can access news archives and council records to find out various characteristics of the site, like whether it is in fact still standing, what the security is like, whether it is privately owned or is currently being developed, etc. Some of the best locations are those which are in quiet limbo, caught in years of bureaucratic red tape and neglected.

As mentioned, and quite obviously, Google Maps’ satellite functionality combined with StreetView makes scoping out a location fairly easy. Keep in mind that the satellite imagery and photos are only updated once in a while, so physical scouting is always important.

Scouting

When scouting a location, I like to travel light. I am not a landscape photographer, so pictures I make on these trips are usually for my own reference. I therefore bring a small camera, or an older DSLR (not my main rig, and never my full gear). Sturdy shoes, etc, of course.

I am not a big fan of breaking things or climbing fences. I do not bring a bolt cutter or crowbar. If a place is tightly fenced off, I chalk it off in my records as inaccessible. It’s pretty unrealistic if you are asking a bunch of cosplayers to lug their bags and climb over a 2m fence. If you can just walk right in fairly easily, that’s a good location.

Do your scout like how fashion photographers do it. What’s the quality and direction of light at various spots during different times of the day, and how does the shade shift as the sun moves across the sky? That will affect your shoot timing, or the equipment you bring with you.

What are some good and interesting angles you could use? What special features stand out for you about the location, and how can they be used? Take photos, imagine where the cosplayer would stand. Do your exploration during the scout, and during the proper shoot, you will know exactly where to go.

Other things you could look out for are things like rest rooms, or at least areas which could be considered easy to secure — very important for cosplayers to be able to change in relative privacy.

As a note, when professional fashion photographers do scouting, they also determine the shots they intend to do, right down to timing, where the camera, lights and subject will be placed, and compositional angles of shots. All they need to do during the proper shoot is to focus on interacting with the model, getting the right poses and expressions.

I’m not a pro, so I prefer letting the fluidity of the situation guide my shots. That said, some prior knowledge is invaluable.

Permissions and security

It’s always nice to be able to do shoots and have permissions and stuff all taken care of.

But it’s not always viable, especially if you are not rolling in money. Use common sense when it comes to asking for permissions.

  • Commercial-type areas usually just respond to permission requests with the same bland PDF form stipulating shoot rules, public liability insurance to the tune of $10 million, and ridiculous fees. They are highly inflexible.
  • Smaller private places might be much more understanding if you explain this is just a hobby, it’s gonna be a small scope thing, and is totally non-commercial. They might also be open to a trade deal if you offer them shots for their advertising materials in exchange (though realistically this has never happened to me).
  • Public parks and such are the easiest: you don’t have to, but you can call the council and ask them about it. It’s almost 100 percent permission granted. The benefits are they will be able to tell you if there is another function going on during that day (helping you plan your shoot), and if some over-zealous person comes up to you, you can tell them you have “council permission” to do the shoot.

If you encounter security during the shoot, don’t run away or act guilty (though you are, you filthy trespasser). Explain what you are doing, be nice. Sometimes they will tell you it’s ok to stay (or “15 more minutes”). Sometimes they will tell you to move on. That’s just the way things are. Most of the time, I find they are sympathetic. Don’t make this an unpleasant experience. If you start arguing/screaming at them, you can be assured of your quick removal, and the quick removal of any other photographers and cosplayers that guard might encounter in the future.

In general, if the location is what you might consider “high risk”, bring a small group of cosplayers (like one or two only, three maximum) who you can rely on being quiet. I have been on shoots where the cosplayers were making so much noise, I wasn’t surprised when security got on the case and kicked us out shortly after arrival.

Always have a backup

This is important. I always have backup locations in mind when planning shoots. You could be chased out of your primary location, recent rains could have flooded the place, or there could be something happening there, etc. Having a backup (or sometimes, two backups) will make things much less stressful.

The backup location will ideally be fairly easy to get to from your primary. Having someone with a car so you can easily go to the backup is also nice.

Backup locations can also be used as secondary. For example, if you wrap at the primary location but you feel like you want more shots, you can always go to the backup site for more.

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