Building the Moon Kingdom
Over the past decade that I've been doing photography, I've had the opportunity to meet and work with Alain Camporiva countless times. Although his portfolio is almost exclusively fashion and glamour portraits, I assure you he is still an absolute nerd at heart just like the rest of us!
One of the earliest and yet most powerful lessons ever taught to me in photography came from Alain when I was still just first starting out. He simply told me to "work backwards" and went on to explain what that meant to him. Essentially the idea is to conceptualize and visualize a finalized image in your head, and then build it piece by piece. Take that concept, and figure out what you want the overall visual style and theme to look like. From that concept, find a location that matches the idea, and then find a subject to put into that location. The idea is to start with the final product first, and then source each piece of the puzzle and put it together one by one.
When I talk about "dream photo shoots", this is entirely the process that I already have in mind. I've gone through the process of creating the concept in my head. For each of these dream shoots, I've already selected a location and have an idea of lighting and overall look for the particular photo that I want to create with it, they're just missing a subject to shove into each particular environment.
The Dress Dreams Are Made Of
In one single moment, every photographer in the world had their jaw drop. Claire Danes showed up to the 2016 Met Gala wearing this absolutely stunning light up dress by Zac Posen.
All night long, I and other photographers were buzzing around twitter trying to find every photo and video we possibly could of this magnificent beauty. All of us dreamed of working with some an amazing concept. It was even more maddening that any images we could find online only showed the dress in absolutely dark rooms where all you could see was the dress and who was wearing it.
Where Dreams Start To Become Reality
Near the end of 2016, Ashe posted her in-progress photo of her absolutely breathtaking Princess Serenity dress from Sailor Moon. Her dress uses the exact same Lumigram fabric as the dress Claire Danes wore earlier in the year.
Lucky me, too! At this point, I already had plans to fly into the Los Angeles metro area for Animé Los Angeles (ALA) at the beginning of 2017, only about two months away.
And thus, the endless hours of planning began!
It was time to build the next epic dream photo shoot. Previous dream shoots started with a location first and then finding a subject to put in them. This time we had the reverse, the perfect subject, but needing a location to work in.
Picking the perfect location for this photo shoot became the most time consuming complex part of the entire shoot, next to making the dress itself and the post production work on the photos.
As much as I love the ALA convention itself, their current venue leaves for minimal desirability for detailed photo shoots. I travel to the Los Angeles area several times a year, so I've made countless contacts in the local area. For nearly a month I was contacting several of them to pull suggestions for a decent photo shoot location. I had some even drive around various areas trying to scout out a spot that may work for this shoot.
One night, Ashe and I were talking about this online. We were sharing location ideas we each had, trying to find something that would work out. We were pricing out photography permits, hours of operation (since this had to be shot in the dark), and finding out other policies regarding equipment and photography teams coming on site.
During the conversation with Ashe, we continued to push ideas of locations further and further away from the ALA convention center on Ontario. She mentioned willingness to drive out away from the con to one of the cities about an hour west. From there, I started to search for different locations out that way as well. And then finally... magic happened!
Building the Dream, Building the Team
Finding Pasadena City Hall was simply a discovery that was beyond words. Comparing it side-by-side with the official artwork for The Moon Kingdom was simply too good to be true.
At this point, we now have a photographer, a cosplayer, an absolutely beautiful dress in the making, and a location. But that simply isn't enough for a dream shoot. We needed an entire team to pull of this magnificent production.
Knowing one's limitations are one of the greatest qualities they can possibly posses. Seeing this location, I knew that the end result I wanted to create was simply beyond my skill capabilities. So what do I do? Recruit those with the skills that I lack to fill in the gaps!
Ashe - The moon princess herself! Designing, making, and wearing her own Princess Serenity dress. She also directed the look and feel of a few specific photos during the shoot, more on this below.
GS Props (Turi) - Ashe's right-hand man through all of this. For this particular shoot, he assisted with lighting. Beyond this shoot though, his cosplay prop work is beyond amazing, and I highly recommend you check out his work!
GameRevX (Chris) - I met him at my second convention ever doing photos, and ever since he has assisted me behind the scenes on more photo shoots than anyone else ever. Since he's a California native, he drove to the convention instead of flying in like I did. Having a car on site to transport a team an hour away to a location is invaluable!
TushyFace (Chelsea) - One of the sweetest persons I've ever met. She's become my other most active assistant within the past couple of years, as well as producer of much con noms.
ArdentAbsol (Kasey) - She's become one of my main stylists behind the scenes for photo shoots over the past two years, and even helped direct the final photo from this shoot.
Weneals Photography (Torre) - One of the absolute best photographers and editors I know in the entire cosplay community. This lucky man has also had the great opportunity to study under Alain more frequently than I over the past couple years, and it is really showing in his work. I brought him onboard specifically to edit the one main photo concept I had floating around in my head for this shoot.
Lumonic Photo (Jerry) - Saved my butt! A piece of critical equipment for the shoot wasn't working during my tests the week before the convention. He over night mailed me some gear on loan to help ensure the shoot would go smoothly. More on this below.
Vince - Oh yeah, I guess I was there too and involved, wasn't I?
Breaking All the Rules
One of the most important rules of professional photography: NEVER take brand new and untested equipment to a critical photo shoot! However, being Vince, of course I ignored this rule! Two week before the shoot, I purchased a brand new Canon EOS M5 mirrorless camera, and I did so primarily for its better low-light capabilities. This purchase was both a curse and a blessing for our Sailor Moon photo shoot.
The idea in my head all along was to have Ashe standing directly center of the frame in front of the Pasadena City Hall building. The shot would be taken on the 22mm lens, something nice and wide that can capture the majority of the environment with ease. Lighting would consist of two high powered speedlights on their widest beam setting to illuminate the entire building. After that, two more speedlights would be applied with very wide modifiers (pass-through umbrellas in our case) on a very low setting to help illuminate non-dress parts of Ashe (head and arms).
In the days leading up to the convention, I did this very lighting setup locally to test it out with the new camera. And to my shock and surprise, the wireless lighting kit that I have didn't function at all with the Canon EOS M5 body! I've used countless cameras over the years, and none have ever failed to function with it. After posting this online, Jerry asked for my mailing address, and sent me an official Canon branded optical transmitter. Luckily mail from Portland, OR to Seattle, WA is literally overnight! With some minor hacks, I was able to get Jerry's transmitter to work in tests at home.
Now, I'm no fool. Rules are rules for a reason. Never go to a shoot with unproven gear. Now I have an unproven wireless transmitter along with an unproven camera. Because of my paranoia of failure at any moment for this shoot, our team collectively brought along four different camera bodies plus more lenses for them than I can remember at this time.
The main shot, the most complicated one I wanted to take, the one with all four lights, this is what we started with. I wanted the big complexity out of the way first so we could focus on more fun shots and close up detailed shots afterwards. Attempting to do the lighting setup at the venue, however, absolutely failed. The optical trigger wasn't nearly powerful enough to trigger all four strobes at their distance away from the camera. Luckily for my paranoia, we switched back to the original EOS M with my working wireless radio triggers for the shot. The main issue with this, however, is the higher noise profile the image resulted in from using an older camera body.
A Blessing in Disguise
We invented a brand new way to do photo shoots when we moved on to do our second photo. Due to the nature of the low light photography we were working with, I had the camera on a tripod for all of the shots. After the first complex photo, the rest used either very simplistic lighting setups or only environmental lighting. Because of this, the rest of the shoot was possible with the Canon EOS M5.
Rather than running back and forth with the camera to show Ashe her photos, and to help collaborate how to adjust her poses in relation to the camera, I decided to show her a photo from the camera on my phone using the built in Wi-Fi connectivity. After doing this a couple of times, I remembered that it is possible to simply show a live view from the camera's perspective on my phone through the same app. With this in mind, I was able to hold up the phone for Ashe to visually see exactly how she appeared from the camera's perspective as she adjusted her posing.
Adventuring Around City Hall
After our first two locations, Ashe suggested adventuring around to see what other looks we could come up with, which lead to the discovery of some really cool looking stair cases as well as the top side of the bridge behind the building. Using the same formula from before, we continued on using the Wi-Fi connectivity for collaboration, sharing posing ideas.
This worked out very well for one photo in particular. Ashe wanted a photo of herself on the bridge, but with the main spire of the building in the background. With the camera set on the tripod, I was able to stand right next to her, albeit slightly out of frame, to capture the image. This technique essentially gives me as the photography a second set of eyes during shooting.
On Our Way Out
After the bridge, we were on our way back to our respective cars. Heading down the stairs at the back of City Hall, Kasey came up with an idea for a photo utilizing the stair case. This has since become my favorite photo from the entire setup, because it is pure simplicity. There were no lights added, all objects in the environment were removed in Photoshop, and all that remains is Ashe in her dress on the landing between stairs.
Post Production Editing
I cannot speak for how Torre edited the initial photo. We didn't do our Google+ session together for that one. Instead, he simply sent me the final results one evening while I was playing some games. As soon as I saw it, I promptly crapped my pants! However, I can speak for some of my editing techniques used.
First, ALWAYS shoot RAW files instead of JPG. This is especially true for low light photography such as this. The technical reasons why will be covered in a dedicated rant later on.
I'm pretty light on what all I do in Lightroom to start off with. The most important things I cover are white-balance and exposure/contrast. If it is a symmetrical image, I'll also use the advanced lens correction tools. With these, however, a little does indeed go a long way! And then it is off to Photoshop-land.
In Photoshop, my first concern is always the background, not the subject. I want to remove any potentially distracting objects. This may be something such as a patch within the trees where a bright light is shining through, or garbage on the ground, or larger imperfections in the texture of the building.
After all of that is done, next comes plugins! I start off with varying degrees of Imagenomic Portraiture. This plugin is designed for skin retouching, but I also cheat with it quite a bit. This plugin can also do wonders with armor or cleaning up noise in images if applied correctly. After that comes Nic Software Sharpener Pro to help emphasize details within the image.
Then comes the long and grueling task of small and file details. Yes, that is known as Dodge and Burn! This isn't just used on skin, either. This technique is also used to emphasize or deemphasize certain areas of the image to help draw the view's eye to a specific section.
Lastly, the image runs through Nic Software Color Efex to give it a final stylizing. This is where that magical Moonie glow comes from!
There is considerably more I could cover revolving around the planning and execution of this shoot! It could seriously become an entire "how-to" guide on how to set up detailed photo shoots. However, for the sake of the blog, I'm keeping this relatively short.
The entire planning process for this took around two months of research from the time I saw the initial progress photo of the dress to the point of the actual photo shoot. And then there has been about another month of time that has passed since the shoot happened and this blog being published. In that time frame, countless conversations have happened, equipment tests, and general derping out times and having fun!
There were a few key specific conversations about this shoot that I had considered writing about and covering in this article, but now that I'm here doing this, I think it is best to save those memories for in-person story time. If you'd like to know more, always feel free to come chat me up at any event we both may be at! I'm always happy to have a live ranting session.
And with that, I'll share the last couple of photos that didn't have specific mentions.
Oh, and always, Happy #MoonieMonday!