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Last weekend I had the pleasure of attending the 25th annual Dragon*Con, a huge sci-fi/fantasy/pop culture get-together/convention that invaded downtown Atlanta, Georgia September 2-5, 2011! I've attended quite a few big video game and cosplay shows now, but Dragon*Con is a bit different. It seems to be driven much more by fan interests than commercial interests, and there really isn't a show floor itself, there are smaller meeting rooms and vendor areas scattered across several of the big hotels in downtown Atlanta, and it took us a few hours to get our bearings in this more distributed format compared to what I'm used to. After wandering outside for a bit and then into a couple of the hotels, we staked out a spot at the Marriott Marquis, which seems to be the place to see great costumes, it gradually got more and more packed as the day went on, finally reaching the point of so many costumes (and so many photographers!) that we couldn't possibly photograph every one!
Saturday morning starts with the famous Dragon*Con parade down Peachtree Avenue through downtown Atlanta. A huge procession of costumed characters march past a massive crowd, giving people what might be their only look at certain costumes, since it's really hard to find any specific person back once you've lost track of them, so it's best to blast away with the camera to try to get what you can here.
One thing we noticed about Dragon*Con is that it is a late-to-rise, late-to-bed show. Other conventions start at 9AM sharp, but Dragon*Con seems to get going somewhere around lunchtime and then (I'm told) the parties run literally all night long with pagan drum beating, sexy costume contests, and possibly a drink or two. My traveling companion (who is also my lovely and talented lighting assistant Melissa Case (Mellie rules! Woo!)), suggested that next year we sleep in, take a late afternoon nap, then try to catch some of the grownup events later at night. I was expecting to see a lot more really sexy costumes, we suspect that during the day this is discouraged, but at night it's more anything goes? We will see next year if someone will just show us where the parties are! (We were a bit clueless.)
Anyway, once things got going we were able to photograph many, many great costumes as they walked and posed throughout the three lower levels of the Marriott Hotel. The cosplayers were very nice about photo requests, patiently allowing photographers to try to get their best shots in the huge throngs of people. Out of many hundreds of photo requests, we were refused three times, and although this is an all-time record for photo refusals for us at one show, we understand how stressful it can be to be pestered nonstop for pictures, so we were very happy with how we were treated, and I would like to personally thank the Dragon*Con costumers for taking the time and effort to put on a great show!
We stayed at the Ellis Hotel, which is on Peachtree but kind of on the edge of the Dragon*Con takeover area of downtown, but even so it was really convenient, and only a short two block walk to the main hotels. My only concern (other than finding out the hotel building itself was the site of America's deadliest hotel fire about sixty years ago) was that there are many dead spots in the hotel for Wi-Fi, including our room, so to get reliable Internet I had to stand in the hallway by the elevators in my shorts (you're welcome, ladies!) or risk dropping the connection every thirty seconds! Oh well, first world problems, as they say.
Photo equipment-wise, I used one camera primarily, a Nikon D7000 with the 17-55 f/2.8 DX lens, which is my staple lens for crowded people photography where there isn't much space to maneuver. It can get wide enough for a full-body shot, plus it has a little telephoto zoom to do head-and-shoulder or even facial closeups in-tight, I really like it. We also brought a Canon 7D with the 70-200 f/4 lens for outside and parade shots, which worked pretty well. I was really surprised at how many photographers asked about our gear, not so much about cameras and lenses but about our lighting and our live iPad display system. For lighting, we were using an Aurora Beauty Box, which is kind of a shallow Octobox/umbrella type thing that we use because it is light and portable while still being large enough to project a softish light. The Aurora was held by Melissa at enough of an angle off the lens axis to cast the "loop" lighting pattern on people's faces, which is when the nose shadow does not quite connect to the cheek shadow, it's a classic beauty look that's easy to repro. In addition to that, on my camera I have an Orbis ring light adapter wrapped around my lens set at 1 2/3 stops below the Aurora, the ring light simply fills in the Aurora's shadows a bit so they are light gray instead of blackish. If you look closely at the pictures, you should be able to see the two lights as catchlights in people's eyes, the large Aurora in the upper side part of the pupil, and then my ring light as a small dot of light exactly in the center of the eye. If you look really closely, you may even notice at the very end of day three I forgot to turn on my ring light after changing batteries, and the shadows become much darker and harsher! Oh well.
The other thing we were trying out was using the Apple iPad 2 as a real-time display device for pictures coming from my camera. This works because the Nikon D7000 has two SD-card memory slots, one of these cards is used to store the high-res RAW photos, the other one is an Eye-Fi card which can create its own Wi-Fi network to send pictures wirelessly to the iPad as pictures are taken. When it works, it's great, but unfortunately it is subject to Wi-Fi interference and overload, so sometimes it takes a long time for a photo to show up on the iPad, too long in fact to really use it to show people their photo as it is taken. It is good for checking focus and lighting after the fact though, and it was a real attention getter with people looking at the pictures on the iPad slung around Melissa's back. One thing we need to find is a way to turn off the touch response of the iPad, because wearing it around your shoulder it's impossible to not brush against it, causing it to go off into some other mode and stop displaying pictures. Note to self: Find clear iPad 2 cover that is transparent but blocks touch!
Anyway, we saw so much at DragonCon that it's difficult to try to show it all. We were able to spot quite a few high-profile costumers, including the lovely and gracious Yaya Han as Lady Sif, Annisse Damefatale as Spike from Back to the Future 2, Kearstin Nicholson as White Phoenix of the Crown, Alisa Farrington as Red Sonja, "Furin Cosplay" with her Portal Wheatley model, "Volpin Props" as Daft Punk, and many more whose names we don't know. On our flight from San Francisco we met a couple who turned out to be makeup and costume experts, and we were able to see one of their characters at the show, I could barely recognize them in costume!
I'm impressed at how popular the BioWare game "Mass Effect" has become for cosplay, they definitely had one of the biggest groups with many fantastic Shepards, male and female, a Garrus or two, and a few of the more rare races. Star Wars is of course hugely popular, World of Warcraft was also very well represented. GI Joe, Disney classics, X-Men, and DC Comics characters, including Batman of course, were very big as well.
So my first Dragon*Con was a fun learning experience and I think we got some great photos. Atlanta has a very nice downtown, with a fantastically convenient and inexpensive train system called Marta that gets you right to your hotel for $2.50 from the airport, so I would definitely use Marta again. Next year I think we'll attempt to attend a few more of the events, especially the photo shoots and the late-night sexy costume shows to get more of a unique-to-DragonCon look for our shots. But it was great fun, will try to return next year (we are San Francisco-based), and as William Shatner would say (who was there, by the way), "This convention's ahead, warp factor nine!"
See you next year! Coming up: BLIZZCON, BABY!
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