There’s been an explosion of interest in costume photography over the last few years. From movie cosplays to historically-inspired portraits, there’s no end to the kind of costumes that need photographing – and these images can inject plenty of variety into any up-and-coming portrait shooter’s portfolio.
Additionally, capturing someone who is playing a role will add a whole new dimension to your images; when people are pretending to be someone else, they often lose their discomfort about being in front of the camera, which can result in surprisingly genuine photos.
But how can you ensure stunning results? In this article, I share my top five tips to create amazing shots. By the time you’ve finished reading, you’ll be ready to capture – and process – beautiful costume photos!
1. Be inspired by history
Since the early days of photography, artists have created portraits based on historical clothing and characters. Julia Margaret Cameron was a 19th-century British photographer who used to shoot people dressed up as characters from Shakespeare, while her contemporary, David Wilkie Wynfield, photographed his friends wearing fancy dress in the style of the great 16th-century Venetian artist, Titian.
So take a look at the work of other photographers and see what you can learn. You might even be inspired by certain costumes, lighting styles, and moods, all of which you can try to incorporate into your own photos.
And don’t just look at photography, either; there are thousands of years of painted portraits to take inspiration from, too. For this next portrait, I was inspired by a da Vinci painting called La Belle Ferronnière:
I’ve also been inspired by other painters; if you’re not sure where to start, try viewing Rembrandt’s portraiture and see if you can recreate the Rembrandt lighting pattern, which tends to look amazing.
By the way, never be afraid to try self-portraiture when you’re experimenting with different lighting techniques and looks. It can take a bit of practice to get a good result, and you can be your own most patient model. The shot above was the result of an hour spent in my studio experimenting with light!
On a related note, most artists of the past used available light, and if you’re generally a flash shooter, costume photography can be a great time to step out of your comfort zone and try something different.
2. Check the costume’s faithfulness
I’m not suggesting that you should obsess over historical or film accuracy in your costume portraits, but it does pay to think through all of the elements that your subject is wearing before capturing the final shot. (You should also check the subject’s surroundings and background; a modern car will certainly look out of place in a Renaissance-type scene!)
In a costume portrait – even more than with a regular portrait – every aspect of the clothing and makeup, as well as any props you add, should contribute to the story being told by the final image. Ideally, nothing should appear in the final image that wasn’t put there intentionally to enhance the narrative.
So if you’re shooting a portrait inspired by a period of history or by a film or comic book, just take a little time to research your inspiration before scheduling a shoot. Check that the costume, accessories, props, and surroundings aren’t going to work against the story you’re trying to tell.
If you’re new to styling portraits, this is where it might be worthwhile to consult a costume designer. Their advice could save you an awful lot of time and heartache in the long run! Of course, there are always opportunities to rent costumes from theatres, too (which can be a surprisingly cost-effective option).
3. Set the scene
Think about the scene that you want your character to inhabit. Do you aim to photograph them as royalty sitting atop a beautiful throne? Or do you want to capture a post-apocalyptic warrior tracking danger in the forest? Scouting out a location and sourcing props to fit the scene can be half of the fun when it comes to staging a costume portrait!
If you’re struggling to identify a good location for your portrait, take a breath. You can often find great opportunities in the most surprising places. I’ve shot in front of huge roller shutter doors on industrial estates, in scrubby bits of forest that came out looking like a dreamy estate, and against an old stone wall in my backyard. With the right lighting, portrait lens selection, framing choices, and post-processing, the most mundane locations can give you precisely the results you’re after.
Of course, you don’t always need to seek out locations; there’s always the option to head into the studio instead. In fact, if you take a subject into the studio and place them against a plain backdrop, the resulting images will often highlight the story you’re trying to tell through their costume and appearance (by putting the focus squarely on the subject).
That said, this style of studio shooting can be a double-edged sword. Given the increased focus on the subject, there is less room for mistakes in controlled studio portraits – but the payoff can be more than worth it!
4. Give your subject a character
When people usually sit for portraits, they play themselves. So when you have someone sit for a costume portrait, it can be helpful to have them play a role. In my experience, this approach can help them get into the right state of mind much more quickly and easily.
So before you do a shoot – while you’re determining the right styling and location – think about the character that you’re looking to capture and write down a few thoughts.
Is your subject a brooding young Victorian poet who lost their love? Or are they an underground rebel trying to uncover a government conspiracy four decades in the future? These details might seem unnecessary, but the character and their motivations are the driving force behind the entire shoot. Do your best to really bring the character to life by fleshing out the relevant backstory, then communicate the narrative to your model.
Once your subject is dressed up, equipped with props, properly briefed, and in your location of choice, all these elements should come together to help them portray the character. It’s their ability to inhabit the role that will shine through, tell the story, and truly make the images portfolio-worthy.
5. Don’t forget about post-processing
You’ve styled an amazing shoot in a fantastically atmospheric location with a great team, and you’ve collaboratively told a compelling story. So what is next? Should you share your images with the world?
Not so fast. Before anyone else sees your photos, you should spend plenty of time post-processing the files. You see, the choices you make on the computer or in the darkroom will really help emphasize the story. In my experience, good post-processing can elevate a portrait to something extraordinary.
But don’t necessarily follow a standard portrait post-processing workflow. You can make stylistic choices that you may wish to avoid when shooting regular headshots or family portraits. For instance, when I capture images with an apocalyptic theme, I tend to add lots of layers over the top to create a grungy look to the piece. And if I’m shooting a character inspired by a sci-fi movie, then I often push the colors to resemble the film grading used by cinematographers. Finally, if I shoot something designed to look medieval, I usually dull all the colors down and make the finished shots look dusty and worn.
With practice, you’ll develop your own style for post-processing costume photography. Just remember: Everything about costume portraits is completely different from how most people approach portrait photography. So view the post-processing stage as a chance to experiment!
Costume photography tips: final words
Now that you’re armed with my top tips for shooting costume portraits, it’s time to take some photos. So start thinking about some images you’d like to create!
Remember to flesh out a backstory, set the scene, and carefully consider every element that you place in the image. That way, you can tell a compelling and consistent story that shines through in the final shot.
Now over to you:
What costume portraits do you plan to capture? Share your thoughts (and images) in the comments below!