Photographing Comic Con
San Diego Comic Con from an Aussie Photographer’s Perspective by Simone aka @redteekal
San Diego Comic Con International is the biggest Con in the world and an exciting challenge for those of us who like to photographically memorialise the moments, the panels, the Cosplay and the people. Each year I come back I find the more experience I have, the better the experience of the Con is for me. However it also obviously has a lastingly positive impression on even the newest of noobs given how many repeat attendees are present.
I found there are three key areas I focus on when it comes to photographing at SDCC.
Bringing the right gear and knowing when to carry what gear.
This year I had a few options. I brought both a DSLR and a point and shoot, albeit a very high quality point and shoot. I had my set lens on my DSLR Nikon 3200 that comes standard with the body the 18 – 70 lens with lowest f-stop of 5.8. This lens takes good clarity shots in fairly substantial range of lighting, I use it on the main Exhibit floor for any shots of Cosplay I want to take and for outside the Con centre. It’s not a small piece of gear but it is fairly light. I also have a fairly big Nikkor lens that runs from 70 to 200 with an fstop down to 2.8. This lens was initially purchased to photograph dogs in action, at high speeds on agility courses. It works perfectly for the often very mobile Supernatural cast during panels. This is the best lens we own for low light and the photos can have surprising clarity even at a substantial distance away. I tend to only take it when I really want to make sure I can get facial expressions in low light.
- Nikon D3200 DSLR
- Nikkor lens 70 – 200 2.8
- 2 Backup Nikon Batteries
- Sony Powershot RX100 M3
- 1 Sony Backup Battery
- 1 x 128GB SD Card (for the point and shoot)
- 2 x Speed10 32GB SD Cards (for the Nikon)
- Chargers for both and cables
- EXTERNAL HARD DRIVE (especially if you shoot in RAW – you will need space & backups I carry a 2TB)
- Small backpack (the smaller you can get away with the better)
The first day on the floor (Wednesday evening Preview night) I only took the Sony point and shoot. You tend to check out the main Exhibit floor in stages I’ve found. Preview night is the night I use to suss out where things are and the best way to get to them. It’s just too massive an area with too many people to spend 8 hours at once there. I break it up usually over three visits of 2 to 3 hours each. The point and shoot has a great auto focus that is fairly speedy so great when you spot something you want to snap but you’re moving with the flow of the crowd. You’d think you can stop and ensure everything is framed perfectly the way you want but this is not always the case. There are some floor areas where you can do this for sure, display cases etc but for the large impressive, eye catching displays you are often either moving in the flow of people or struggling to get the shot without someone moving in to have their photo taken next to it! Photographing on the floor definitely requires some trial and error, as there is such a vast variety in the type of lighting you will see. Do be aware that some booths and displays, especially artists’ work in particular will have signs up asking you NOT to photograph so always check for those and if you’re not sure just ask. As challenging as it is I always like finding those displays that are quite different, new and unique and seeing if I can do them justice with the camera.
One thing I did learn about taking photos of the ‘talent’ on the floor is that you should check when the signings on the exhibition floor are, orientate yourself as to where they’ll be and take the DSLR. If you can, practice on others signing that you may not be as interested in. This year I only managed one brief session with the new show Lucifer at the WB booth. SDCC staff will allow a VERY short stop for you to take your shots so you do the best you can and then you just do a little loop so you can come back by them and do the same if you’re not happy with your first shots. These signings are something I should pay more attention to as they are definitely opportunities to take shots of the cast/writers/creators of the shows I’m interested in. I will be looking into fitting these into my schedule more in the future. So it’s the DSLR (small lens) and Sony point and shoot for the Exhibit Floor.
For the panels in the big rooms I used either the Sony point and shoot or the DSLR with the Nikkor lens. I mostly just took the Sony except for Saturday and Sunday. Photography quality and savvy queuing skills are very intrinsically related to each other unfortunately. But by the same token knowing what you want to get out of a panel can help you make decisions about your approach. Photography in panels very much is determined by the room you are in and what you are after as a photographer. Obviously Hall H, holding over 7 thousand people, is very different to a room that barely has 50 seats in it. Having photographed in all three types of rooms – Hall H, Ballroom 20, Rooms 6A,B,C,D etc and then rooms that are off to the side of the bigger rooms – what you use is determined by what you as a photographer are looking for. I tend to only do the big panels if I’m wanting to try and take photos so seat position is important. Unless you get front row in these big panels I would suggest investing in a lens that can handle low light and still capture movement with clarity. In any of the other smaller rooms you should be fine either with a good point and shoot or your set standard DSLR and lens.
To Queue or Not To Queue
My time spent in queues has gradually got less and less over the last four years that I have attended, and there are some golden rules with regards to queuing.
Golden Rule Number 1. Do not spend more time queuing than you actually spend in panels or doing CC stuff. Trust me. That’s how you get very grumpy Con attendees.
Golden Rule Number 2. If you are queuing OVERNIGHT or longer for the big rooms – Hall H or Ballroom 20 – make sure you are in the first 50 people in the line in order to guarantee you a seat in the first panel because either A: that is one of your MAIN reasons for attending SDCC at all or B: as a photographer you want a seat in the front 2 rows IN THE FIRST PANEL. Also overnight queuers do better in groups of 4 minimum. That way you can switch out with team mates. If you are not in teams of 4 or are by yourself – get in the NDL (Next Day Line) at the end when they start handing out wristbands (the wristbands are handed out at different times for each day – the scheduled gets published on the SDCC website). Get yourself a wristband (this may be a quick process or it can drag for a couple hours) and then get on with whatever you want – you can get back in the line the next morning at the end of all the other wristband holders but ahead of those who have rocked up earlier or later that morning without a wristband.
Golden Rule Number 3. If you don’t care about the first panel in a big room just get into the very back at some point (check the schedule and try and guess what panels will have people leave after, that’s when they’ll let people in) and then play frogger with the seats as people get up and leave after the panel they came to see. I was sitting next to someone in the Hannibal panel who had lined up OVERNIGHT for the Hannibal Panel (5pm) on Saturday in Ballroom 20 and we were BOTH in the third row. I joined the back of the Ballroom 20 line about 9.30 that morning (after ascertaining on a very long walk down the NDL around midday Friday that Hall H Saturday morning was NOT a good idea) and was entertained pretty much by EVERY panel leading up to Hannibal. After each panel I shifted forward a bunch of rows till I hit third row. This happened in Hall H as well – because the most popular panel in this room is generally in the first half of the day, once it finishes lots of people leave.
I have been the die hard who has slept overnight for Hall H. Done it the last three years, didn’t do it this year. A couple reasons: 1 – I had spent all day Saturday in the fabulous Ballroom 20 taking shots of the Hannibal, Grimm, Outlander, Simpsons – with Guillermo Del Toro and Seth Macfarlane Animation panels. I had had no chance to get in the NDL for Hall H which had started queuing at MIDDAY Saturday. And 2 – I knew that getting in the NDL at 7pm was pointless for what I wanted out of Hall H (good photos of SPN panel) I would just have to go down early and get into line. It would guarantee me a seat in Hall H Sunday, not close but there was no question about photography at that point any more, I would be too far back whether I camped overnight or just lined up early Sunday morning. These two reasons plus the draw of the Nerdist 10.30pm Podcast with Tom Hiddleston, Guillermo Del Toro and Maisie Williams were enough to convince me not to line up. Then to learn later on that day that my friend Michelle had procured a seating reserved press pass, it was a foregone conclusion by then. 2014 Hall H Panel – about 20 rows back. 2015 – Hall H Panel – about 10 rows back.
In previous years I have got into the first section of seats but that seat section is huge. And unless you have some ginormous telescopic lens and the equipment to sit it on it is no good. This year I was fortunate enough to get a reserved seating pass for Supernatural. It put me approximately ten rows from the stage plus another 3 or so meters away on top of that. These are the best photos I have managed to take of the SDCC Supernatural panel in the last four years and whilst I do like them I still couldn’t say I was entirely happy with them. There is still just too much noise because of the distance and lighting. So unless you can guarantee front row seats in the middle I would never count on being able to take the shots you’re going to want to make. That said you can see what you get 10 rows back as well, they look quite okay so long as you don’t want to zoom in on them too much! One good thing about being 10 rows back is that I didn’t have to swap my lens out to get 6 panel members in the one frame together! So decide how much you want to take crystal clear, super sharp photos and let that be your deciding factor on whether to queue over night and up to 24 hours before hand. Supernatural tends to always be scheduled second on Sunday (they do their signings at the WB booth before hand) and that is a good thing although sadly for Vampire Diaries this year pretty much 95% of the front Hall H was filled with the Supernatural fans. Which meant not many seats were vacated after Vampire Diaries. However if you are just there to watch the panel with no desire to see the stage close up (they do set that stage back a fair way so that at about 15 – 20 rows deep I noticed people watch the massive screens much more than the actual stage) then Sunday Hall H can either be a just get in the line early Sunday morning thing or grab a wristband the night before thing.
A Brief Word on the Wristbands
Really though the only way getting a wristband the night before is advantageous for the Sunday Hall H is if someone decides to stay and keep your place in line. Doesn’t matter if you’re one of the first 50 people to get a Section A wristband – if you don’t have someone holding your spot for you to get back to by 7.30am on Sunday, then you have to go to the back of ALL the wristband sections when you get there in the morning. So A wristband holders can easily end up behind the C and D wristband holders. Wristbands mostly count when you have a massive panel in Hall H on Fridays and Saturdays (for example Marvel, Star Wars, Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead). This year people were lining up Thursday lunchtime for Saturday morning panels in Hall H. It’s crazy but it’s Comic Con.
Make Friends and Influence People
One of the best things about Comic Con (and this applies to anyone attending not just the photography geeks) is the incredibly diverse and surprisingly friendly number of new people you will meet and make friends with. Even for the primarily introverted and anti-social people. I have always been a “the more people I meet the more I like my dogs” kind of person, but there is just something about being at an event with so many people all with similar kinds of objectives that somehow leads the most reticent amongst us to testing out those tentative olive branches of friendliness. I knew this happened at Cons (I’ve done a few Supernatural ones) but even those pale compared to the fascinating arrays of Con going nerdiness and geekdom you see here. I met a CCI Line Manager whose name was Alex. He tells me about this wicked cosplay for True Detective he saw and did I see that show? He introduced me to DJ his line management partner and next thing I know they’re looking out for me so I can get into Ballroom 20!
Four years ago a tweet from my friend Marc led to a 4 year friendship and subsequent access to NerdHQ panels in return for some photos and writing. I met an Ingrid who kindly lent her badge to a friend of mine who didn’t have a pass for one day. Just a passing response to a question of “Anyone know where the end of this line is?” can blossom into a deep and genuine discussion about a shared TV show character’s possible demise. Sharing accommodation with friends of friends and they become your friends. The team work strategy of having various people in your group doing their own thing but staying in touch with their group so you can get status updates that help you decide which panel you want to try and get photographs of. Sitting around waiting for the next panel – stranger next to you no longer is one because she introduces herself to you and asks if you’d mind watching her stuff whilst she ducks out to the bathroom. A move that is totally reciprocated later on and then you both delve into a discussion of why you’re actually in the room – what panel are you waiting for the most? You get a brief (sometimes lengthy) synopsis of a show you haven’t seen and why you should start watching it and a bit of background about what the actors are like in panels. It constantly astounds me the conversations that can be started with just the briefest and simplest questions. Sometimes I pass my contact details on because people will see the photos I’m taking in my viewfinder and ask if they can see them anywhere. I ask for their contacts in return because you never know when one of you may be able to help each other out.
These photos are from the Nerd HQ – usually this venue has tiered seating, very small space, around 200 odd seats. This year it was standing room only for the Press which was handy as the seating was no longer tiered! Back row at same height as front row. Recommending they change that one for next year! So being able to stand definitely worked out for photographic purposes and actually being seated in the first three rows would have worked against the big lens. Also the background choice NerdHQ made this year was infinitely better than last year!