This photographer’s powerful portraits derive from his character-driven approach. Learn how to deliver fascinating photos – no matter who your clients are! (Featuring: JOE ALFANO)
Joe Alfano is a real estate photographer.
His work is clean, crisp, and bright, with neatly-squared lines and impeccable exposures. You want to buy the homes he photographs – or, at the very least, live in them.
So it’s nothing short of startling to visit Joe’s Instagram feed and see a social portfolio full of cosplay photographs.
If you’re not familiar with cosplay, think San Diego’s Comic-Con or (local to us here at ShootProof) Atlanta’s DragonCon, conventions celebrating comic-books, science fiction, movies, games, pop culture, fantasy, and… well, if you can dream it, you can probably find it at a con.
cos·play | ˈkäz-ˌplā
Definition of cosplay
: the activity or practice of dressing up as a character from a work of fiction (such as a comic book, video game, or television show)
The costumes (or “cosplays”) alone make cosplay photographs fun to look at. You won’t see any $19.99 Halloween City specials in these images. In fact, cosplayers are known for handcrafted, custom-styled garments, props, and wigs. This isn’t a casual game of dress-up. These artisans, actors, and models bring life to characters most of us have only seen in our minds or in an illustration.
Joe’s powerful portraits provide proof that these heroes and villains – if only for a day – walked among us.
5 Things You Can Learn From Cosplay Photography
Look beyond the surface, and Joe Alfano’s fascinating photos have something to teach all of us – something more than the difference between steampunk and dieselpunk, or the schizophrenic feminism of a generation of Harley Quinn iterations. (Google “Harley Quinn feminist” for that topic. Geeks are quite passionate.)
We’ll delve into what Joe Alfano’s powerful portraits can teach photographers about:
- Getting your ideal clients
- Building a business you love
- Creating a great client experience
- Developing consistent post-production habits
- Staying creatively inspired (while still making money)
#1: Get Your Ideal Clients
I know the whole “ideal clients” thing is a bit of a skipping record. You’re thinking, “OBVIOUSLY I want more ideal clients. Don’t you think I’ve been TRYING?!?”
Here’s what I don’t think enough people talk about when they discuss ideal clients:
Your ideal clients are passionate – about something. If you know them like you should, you know what that something is. So GO. Put yourself in the way of that something. Join it. Be part of it.
Passionate people are active participants in the things that make their hearts beat faster.
Joe could put any beautiful person in a well-crafted costume and photograph them in an incredible scene. And it wouldn’t be the same. Random Rebecca in a put-on costume would never quite be Joe’s ideal client. Because she wouldn’t really care.
“[Cosplayers] live and breath the characters they love, and it shows in the images.”
– Joe Alfano
What Joe understands is that these fascinating photos aren’t due solely to his brilliance with a camera. Joe’s most powerful portraits are a collaboration between a passionate photographer and an equally passionate subject.
HOMEWORK: Get In the Way
List three ways you can put yourself in the way of your ideal clients. What are they truly passionate about? Where do they go? How can you be there, too?
#2: Build A Business You Love
I choked on my coffee when I read Joe’s comment:
“I don’t really [schedule] shoots; and I don’t charge. I’m there to have fun just like those who show up dressed as a character.”
– Joe Alfano
*cough* Come again? He doesn’t charge?
But I realized two things at this point.
First, that Joe has a thriving full-time career as a real estate photographer. Cosplay photography is a passion project for him. (More on that later.) He’s having a great time, shooting only what he likes, and delivering only what he wants.
Second, that the lesson here isn’t about money or getting paid – though both of those things are important.
The lesson is that money-driven work is burnout work. But passion-driven work is work you can do for a long, long time.
Should you get paid for doing what you love? Abso-freaking-lutely. In fact, I’d love to convince Joe to start collecting some cash for his cosplay photos. (Just on principle, ya know?)
But what I want to see most of all is an industry full of photographers who wholeheartedly love what they do.
Running your own business is like being in a marriage. Sometimes it’s gonna suck. And if there wasn’t any passion there to begin with, well… good luck with that.
#3: Powerful Portraits Require Connection
Cosplay photographers and wedding photographers and family photographers and… basically every kind of photographer who has ever photographed makes the same mistake:
We all want to photograph the prettiest person in the room, but beautiful subjects don’t guarantee phenomenal photos. If you put an incredible-looking human in front of your camera and then fail to tell a story, you may as well have taken a snapshot of a rock. This isn’t your subject’s fault. It’s your fault.
Cosplay photographers have a bit of an advantage, because they photograph people who (in most cases) want to do a bit of acting to create a great photo. When Katie is Catwoman, she no longer worries about how she looks in her photo. Dressed as the Batman, Bradley forgets to be concerned about whether his “good side” is facing the camera.
But you – the photographer – can do so much to help your client fully embrace their “character” – even when Katie is dressed as Katie and Bradley is dressed as Bradley.
Connection builds confidence; confidence builds character; and character is the foundation of an incredible image.
“I know there are many photographers who go to cons just to take photos of scantily clad gals. I’m interested in the character – not a butt shot.”
– Joe Alfano
Some of your clients will struggle with the same tendencies; many of Joe’s subjects certainly do! He frequently photographs cosplayers who default to poses they’ve seen on magazine covers, or expressions they think will read as seductive.
When you encounter this, take professional control.
- Engage your client in meaningful conversation, and allow them to reconnect with their character – real or imaginary.
- Be intentional with your camera angle. Remember: a subject who looms over you looks powerful, while one who cowers below you looks vulnerable.
- Pay attention to eye contact. Where are their eyes? Is their gaze strong or shy?
It’s your job to evoke an expression that is true to their character – whether that character is Catwoman or Katie, Batman or Bradley.
HOMEWORK: Give Yourself An Honest Critique
Look at your last three photography jobs. Be honest: how many “butt shots” did you take? And by that I mean: how many photos did you take solely because they look appealing, sexy, pretty, or like something you saw someone else do?
Now: how many photographs from those sessions say something true about the individual you photographed? How many offered a peek into who they are? Does Katie look like Katie? Does Bradley look like Bradley?
If Joe Alfano can convince us that the Catwoman came in for a portrait, then the rest of us should be able to create convincing portraits of folks wearing their own clothes.
#4: Character-Driven Post-Production
Cosplay photographers are known for their wildly intense post-production. Filters, special effects, composites: all in the name of bringing a character to life in a way that isn’t too life-like. After all: the heroes and villains of our imagination are always a bit smoother, shinier, brighter, and more extreme than any flesh-and-bone human.
“My [post-production] is a bit on the lighter side. I’m more interested in color blending and focusing on the character than a ton of fire and spectral effects. I have used these effects, but I find them distracting.”
– Joe Alfano
Joe’s clients love his post-production and the way it so brilliantly suits the characters he photographs.
Post-production trends come and go. Our own tastes evolve, and our editing styles certainly morph as we gain new skills and introduce new tools to our repertoire.
What matters most, when it comes to post-production, is that your final edits compliment the characters you’ve photographed, and enhance the stories you’ve told. This doesn’t mean you should change your post-production style for every client. Just know that you’ll naturally establish a consistent, identifiable post-production style as you:
- fine-tune your storytelling approach
- identify and begin working regularly with your ideal clients
- find yourself running a business you love
#5: Leave Time For Passion Projects
Cosplay photography pays many photographers’ bills (some of them, anyway; it’s not the most lucrative industry!) For Joe Alfano, however, it’s something more: a hiatus from his “real” work as a real estate photographer.
– Joe Alfano
Inspiration lurks all around us, but there’s a special sort of motivation generated by engaging in a 100% passion-guided version of your everyday work. It’s like feeling burnt out as a restaurant cook, then reenergizing by baking amazing cakes for your friends’ birthdays. Same-same, but different.
Real estate photography keeps food on Joe’s table. Cosplay photography keeps the creative spark in Joe’s soul.
HOMEWORK: Identify Your Creative Spark
List three types of photographs you’d really like to make. Not for money or networking or publication; just for your own creative fulfillment. Which one can you make this month? What about this season? Then this year? Don’t ignore your need to creatively refuel. Remember: with no input, you can’t output.
Stay On Your Toes
No matter where you are on your photography journey, it’s always possible to find yourself in a slump, experiencing burnout and desperately seeking a jolt of inspiration.
Don’t give up! Imagine the entire ShootProof squad brandishing a gigantic poster of a kitten clinging to a clothesline under the platitude, “Hang In There!”
You’re not alone in being overwhelmed, or burnt out, or uncertain; and you’re certainly not alone in feeling alone. (Ironic, isn’t it?) Just stick to the course, stay on your toes, and take a few lessons from this really cool cosplay photographer we found on Instagram.
“I’ll be out there looking for those special cosplayers who really know and love their character.”
– Joe Alfano
Written by: ANNE SIMONE | Featuring: JOE ALFANO | Special thanks to: the incredible COSPLAYERS and ARTISANS represented in this post