Using Costumes for Fun and Unique Portrait Sessions :: Digital Photo Secrets

Using Costumes for Fun and Unique Portrait Sessions

by David Peterson 0 comments

Halloween is no longer the one and only go-to time for dressing up in cool costumes! Costumes are catching on even with adults. When you think about it, it's really not hard to understand why. There's something exceedingly attractive about becoming someone else, even if it's just for an afternoon. And if that someone is a character you admire - whether it’s Khaleesi from Game of Thrones or Carson from Downton Abbey, it can be both a thrill and a boost to your self-esteem to pull off a great costume. And naturally, if you're going to go to all that trouble, you need photos. So why wait until Halloween or until the next ComicCon? You can get some really fun and memorable photos of the whole family at any time of year, just by combining great costumes with an awesome setting. Here's how.

In more geeky circles (because photographers aren’t geeky or anything), the practice of dressing up in costumes off-stage is called “cosplay”, which is a portmanteau of the words “costume” and “play.” Most cosplayers use television and movie characters, books, cartoons and video games for their source material, but you don’t need to get that specific. It’s enough to just dress your family (or other subjects) up in Wild West costumes, Roman gladiator clothing or whatever it is that inspires you personally. Now, procuring costumes can be an expensive and complicated ordeal, so it’s best to sit down and really think about what show/era/book etc. you want to capture before you start pricing things out, and make sure you have a few alternates. You could probably put something together really inexpensively with a Wild West theme just by visiting a thrift store, but if you’re going for the Downton Abbey look you could find yourself spending a couple hundred dollars for each 1920s era dress or dinner tux. If you’re handy with a sewing machine, many people make their own cosplay costumes—or you could check eBay and etsy for costumes made by entrepreneurs (beware of paying a premium; try adding “used” to your search criteria to get the price down a little). Another option is to look for somewhere to rent costumes—since you’ll only need yours for a few hours and there won’t be any chance of chocolate stains, this might be the more economical option.


But before you make a final decision, you also need to take setting into account. If you don’t have the right location in mind, you could end up spending a lot of money on costumes and end up with photos that just look weird. The costume needs to fit the background, otherwise the costume becomes a distraction and the photo fails. If you live in Arizona, for example, you really aren’t going to be able to pull off a photo shoot of Jon Snow and The Night’s Watch ala Game of Thrones, because those characters are never seen outside of ice and snow and they sure aren’t going to fit in with a bunch of saguaro cacti. Likewise, your Downton Abbey photo shoot will fail if you try to do it in a modern inner city.

Use some of the same techniques for costume photography as you would if you were shooting an environmental portrait. In an environmental portrait, you shoot a person within a meaningful environment, and the environment becomes almost as important as the subject himself. What this means for your costume photography is that you want to make sure that the environment or setting is as much a character as the people in it. To do this, shoot with a larger aperture, but not so large that you blur out all of the detail. You want some separation between subject and background so that the scene doesn't look too busy, but you also want your viewer to be able to tell what's going on in that setting. Feel free to take a few photos with a smaller aperture as well, especially if the background is particularly significant—but keep in mind that you don't want a crystal-clear background to overwhelm your subject. So when you do this try including as little information as possible in the background so that it's not competing with your subject.

So what if you had your heart set on costumes from a favorite era or show and you just can’t find the right setting to go with it? You’re still not completely out of luck, but your shoot is going to take a little extra setting up. Choose a plain backdrop instead—white is almost always a good bet, or you can choose a color that will go well with the era/show/book you’ve chosen: white for Castle Black, gold for Downton Abbey. Remember that you’ll need a backdrop that can accommodate everyone you want to include in your photo, so if it’s a whole family you’ll need a large backdrop. A king sized sheet may do in a pinch, but I also suggest looking into a set of photographer’s backdrops, which are going to be a lot easier to erect and tear down again. And make sure that the background “sweeps,” that is, that it starts far above your subjects’ heads and continues under their shoes and several feet in front of them. That will give your photos a seamless look if you want to shoot full body images, which you really can’t avoid doing if you’ve gone to the trouble of putting everyone in costume.


You can do costumes without the props, but for a more interesting series of photographs they really do add some important elements. A ranger is nothing without his sword, and a footman is nothing without his carefully balanced silver plate and champagne glass. And besides adding an air of authenticity to your scene, props also help your subjects lighten up and enjoy one another. If your Night’s Watchmen seem bored or tense, give them a couple of wooden swords and have them fight to the (feigned) death. I guarantee that by the time they’re done you’ll not only have some great photos of the fight but a pair of subjects that are relaxed and in character.

Likewise, choose a setting that contains objects your characters could interact with. If your subjects are all characters from The Walking Dead, set up your photo shoot in a cemetery (please be respectful). You could have your subjects appear to be emerging from crypts or from behind tombstones. Be creative and don’t think that you’re stuck with just one location—unless there’s a time limit on how long you get to keep the costumes, feel free to hop from location to location and get a series of photos instead of just one limited group shot in a single place.

To pose or not to pose

There’s definitely something to be said for posing your costumed subjects. Posing sort of goes along with the entertainment world—you see it on movie posters, Blu-ray cases and merchandising, so there’s nothing wrong with trying to emulate it in your costume photos. It can be really fun and over-the-top, too, so don’t try to micromanage. If your subjects are dressed up like The Incredibles, ask them to strike their best superhero poses. Chances are you’ll get something wild and a little bit goofy, but there’s nothing wrong with that. And once your subjects start to have fun you’ll see it on their faces. This is a great time to introduce those props, too—like I said, props help your subjects get into character, so don’t underestimate their value.

Yes I know that winter is coming and in the long night, children will be born and die in the darkness. But that doesn't mean that it's okay for you to neglect the light. Good light is essential, even in the north. Without light you run the risk of getting everybody all dressed up and made up, and then ending up with disappointing photos. I very strongly recommend shooting outdoors, and choosing a time of day when the light is soft and even. Overcast days are perfect for this, because the clouds filter out the harsh rays of the sun and make it easier for you to capture the detail that you're definitely going to want to capture if you spent all of that money on a 1920s flapper dress. Open shade has the same benefit—but remember that in both of these lighting scenarios your image may end up looking a little bit on the flat side. So I recommend shooting in raw, and don't be afraid to make levels adjustments in post-processing if you need to bring out some of those highlights and shadows.

You can also shoot during the golden hour, but the reason why I hesitate to suggest this as your first option is because this sort of photography requires quite a bit of time. You may want to make last minute tweaks to costumes, you may want to spend some time setting up the various scenes, and you may want to move from one location to another. If you try to do this all in that one hour after sunrise or before sunset, you're probably going to get a limited batch of photos. That's OK if you're willing to dress up again and come back for a second round, but believe me when I say that getting everyone in costume, in character, and looking exactly right is no small task. It's far better to get as many photos as you can the first time around then to plan on doing a reshoot.

Remember to use a lens that creates as little distortion in your subject’s faces as possible a good portrait lens is generally considered to be somewhere between 50 and 100mm focal length. You can go wider than that if you have a large group that you're taking a picture of—but remember that the closer you get with that wide-angle lens, the more distortion you're going to get in your subject’s features. So you would typically want to use your wide-angle lens just for those group shots and for including the environment.

Don't forget that this isn't just a photograph of a group of people, is also a chance to photograph individuals. Try to get some shots of your characters interacting with one another, as well as portraits of each character on their own. Again, you want to be keeping in mind the temporary nature of this photo shoot. It's going to be very difficult to go back again and do this over, so make sure that you get as many different types of individual photos as you can. And remember the rules of perspective as well. If your Jon Snow is a five-year-old, make sure you crouch down and shoot him from the perspective of another five-year-old Night’s Watchman. And remember that the angle you choose to shoot from can change the mood of the photograph. To make the character imposing and kind of scary, shoot from slightly below. To make him look diminutive and less scary, shoot from slightly above.


I'm willing to bet that if you remain patient, you keep your mind open and you shoot a lot of pictures, you're going to have some of the most fun you've ever had behind the camera. And if you want to get in on the action, get a costume of your own. There's always the self-timer function and a tripod if you don't want to be left out of the photos. And besides, it's always entertaining for passersby to see a group of Night’s Watchmen being photographed by a Kahleesi.

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