the long and winding road

Step by step, day by day.

It's an impulse that I'm sure most cosplay photographers have had once or twice -- hop in a car, enjoy some scenery, hang out with friends and take pictures of them. (Maybe it's just us, living in car-centric and photogenic Southern California.)

But anyway, we did this thing. Just for fun.

step 1: prep

1 suv, packed to the brim. Could not see out of the mirror. Cosplayers have a lot of stuff. And some of it's bulky and hard to store.

Plan ahead. Get your permits. We're going to harp on this point a bunch, because it's something that bit us a couple of times. We were lucky, but we'd hate to make a habit of it.

Mind your (expected) surroundings, as Bruce Wayne might say. Bring the appropriate equipment. And some gaffer's tape. That stuff is worth its weight in gold. (But I'm sure you don't need me to tell you that.)


Get a good meal. Might be your last for some time.

Day 1

(Not the desert.)

Cosplay photography (and all portrait photography) seems like it shouldn't benefit much from a change of location. After all, we're focused on the person. But the reality is that the setting makes the picture complete. Even if it's not the focus, a good setting makes the rest fit together.

It's surprising how mainstream we are nowadays. People in LA pride themselves on being difficult to surprise, of course, but now we get recognized as cosplayers, and often people will identify the character.

For example, we were recognized as cosplayers by a local tour bus driver, who talked about how he usually goes to AX, but didn't make it this year. We went to buy makeup (in costume) and the costume was immediately recognized as Lina Inverse. 'Oh, you need this makeup.'

Day 2: Vasquez rocks and associated desert.

Among LA's many scenes of fabulous natural beauty (in that Martian desert sort of way) are the famous Vasquez Rocks. A desert that you can drive in. Ideal for cosplay road-tripping.


Oceano dunes, near Pismo Beach.

Crucial point: your camera equipment will get sand in it. Keep it in a plastic bag or something. It took me a half day to get the sand out when I ignored this bit of advice. It's especially important when changing lenses, but keeping it in the bag at all times would be best.

Another point is that, especially near LA, authority figures are used to people waving around professional-looking camera equipment. They will not be impressed or intimidated. They're tolerant of hobbyists, and the guidelines are loose, but you'll need to show them what you're doing. This happens during the permit stage -- go to the park's website, find some contact info, and explain that you're a hobbyist.

They're not kidding about sinking into the sand. I sank to my thighs, and would have been rather burned if it'd been midday.


We say this a lot, but it bears repeating -- drink water. It's easy to get dehydrated in the desert. Shade helps too, of course.

More advice: bring the portable changing room. There are no restrooms in many parks, at least not ones you want to spend more time in than necessary.

One final point about visiting these parks. They're by definition undeveloped. Get gas. There's no gas nearby.

We tried to do a third location on day 2, but it was really just impossible. That's another lesson -- two locations a day. More is unfeasible. It always takes longer than you expect.

day 3

Woke up pretty early and headed out to another national park to take photos in more scenes of stunning natural beauty. Slayers, this time.

(Side note: Google maps is surprisingly bad in this kind of area, and when you miss a turn, it takes a very long time to find a place to turn around. Check a good local map.)

Got to Bodie late, changed. That's kind our mantra at this point.

And this is the point where our advice about getting permits becomes clearer: for we arrived at Bodie, a lovely museum-grade ghost town, and found ourselves accosted by polite but firm rangers, who politely insisted that we cease our photos and come back with a permit.

The big cutoff where most localities will start looking askance is artificial lighting. You can have a reflector, but lights make you look too commercial. So don't do it, is our advice.

Thankfully, the ranger in charge was generous enough to hear us out, decide that we were bona fide not-for-profit, and allow us to return tomorrow. (But have I mentioned how nice and convenient it is to get all this stuff handled beforehand? Because it is.)

They have several options for shooting, even, as long as you let them know in advance. You can stay in after closing for a very reasonable price, even.

Instead we drove about 6 miles, found a motel outside of the major tourist bits, got some well-deserved sleep.


day 4

We learned from our experience, and sent word ahead to the Japanese garden in SF.

Once we got permission, everything was fine. People are usually fine if you ask permission, but if you don't, you have no recourse. And in popular areas, they will ask you to stop.

In busy areas, like the Japanese garden, we found it was pretty important to station someone to wave passers-by along while setting up. People will stop, because you've got cameras out and they're polite, even if you're not actually taking pictures at the moment. Having someone smile and wave them through does wonders for everyone's happiness.

notes and lessons

Even when traveling on a budget, I strongly suggest staying at the second cheapest hotel. Not the cheapest. The original Motel 6 -- accept no substitutes. (This is not the motel I'm talking about. This place was pretty charming. Hunting-themed. But there was another place, 5 dollars cheaper than the Motel 6, and that was . . . unwise. The towels were yellow, but I don't think they started out that way.)


Eat well, or at least eat a lot. You'll find that a poor diet catches up with you rather quickly. (Yes, we realize this isn't anyone's idea of eating well. Somehow this is one of the only food-related photos we have.)

It was a long trip, and difficult, and a little bit expensive, but overall I think it was worth doing. Lots of fun, and I like these photos, and I don't think that we could have gotten them any other way. I'm actually hoping that more people take short trips like this. Setting matters. Maybe that's the lesson.

—jeff