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Katsucon 2019

Katsucon 2019 was held February 15th -- 17th, at the Gaylord National Harbor, Oxen Hill, Maryland

The Convention

Katsucon was my first all-weekend convention way back in 1998. The convention has seen a lot of change since then but found a good home at the Gaylord National Harbor for the last several years and the foreseeable future. I've covered Katsucon at the Gaylord in 2018 and 2017 and cover much of the area, hotel, dining options, and such there. Katsucon is co-located and a month apart from MAGFest, a gaming convention that draws a similar crowd but with much less emphasis on cosplay. Katsucon has, since its move to the Gaylord, become a cosplay-focused convention thanks to the indoor atrium inside the hotel (warm and bright no matter the weather outside) and the surrounding park and river which offer great shoot locations when the weather cooperates as it did this weekend.

A notable change this year was a policy for attendees. Strict entrance control was provided by the hotel and only guests of the hotel with a room key or badged attendees could enter. A separate entrance was set up for attendees, though for many hotel guests whose rooms weren't ready Friday morning it was a bit of a hassle. Without a room you couldn't get a key, and without a key you couldn't enter the hotel to register. I think security just asked everybody where they were going at the front; that's what happened to me. The change in policy changed the makeup of the attendees, too, I think.

Though generally not a common practice, sometimes people "ghost" a convention. Would-be attendees sometimes book the hotel (and travel) but wait until later to get a badge. Sometimes this is done out of necessity, funds lacking ahead of time or avoiding long registration lines. Sometimes they wait through Saturday after which point they lose interest in getting a badge. This happens with cosplayers more frequently who are typically caught up with too many photoshoots to have time to enter the convention itself. Sometimes this is the expected outcome of attending the convention.

This year Katsucon was noticeably less crowded than in the past. Friday was a rather warm day and a lot of the attendees, and cosplayers especially, spilled out onto the gardens between the Gaylord and the Anacostia river. The indoor gardens area was less crowded, though the atrium level proper, where most of the cosplayers and photographers congregate, had been partially sectioned off for officially scheduled shoots. Less space meant more crowding.

This really became evident Friday night as people came back in and Saturday when the weather turned a bit too cool for comfort unless you were directly in the sun -- a suboptimal situation for anybody wanting to get photos. Even with more people indoors and the atrium level partially cordoned off, it still didn't feel as crowded as in the past years. The rest of the convention, with a lot of panels completely filled up and the vendors' hall congested, still seemed just as packed if not more so than previous years. Official numbers aren't available at the time of writing, and haven't been since 2016, though I suspect Katsucon is holding steady with around 18,000 individual attendees.

Photography

Katsucon warrants a section on photography and cosplay, if only because that's the main draw for me for this convention. And having started doing cosplay photography since essentially 1999, 20 years ago, I've seen some things change and some things stay the same. To recap some of the things already said: The atrium level and the gazebo area in particular are great photography areas during the day thanks to the natural lighting. The rest of the hotel sports a lot of great locations, too. Check out the Instagram Feed if you want to see for yourself. When the weather allows, the area around the hotel -- with lots of open areas and great backdrops -- is fantastic. But I'm thinking of more general trends, not just Katsucon.

Probably the most memorable shots I took weren't of somebody with an incredibly constructed costume, but with some random cosplayers in the hall. There's a lot of technical detail and emotional investment in cosplay and I hope to bring that out in my photos. What I really enjoy, though, is getting pictures of the cosplayers enjoying their hobby. It's the people more than the costume that I enjoy shooting. And these two cosplayers, probably high school students, were really just enjoying themselves and being in their costumes. I think it was either their first time cosplaying or perhaps first time attending a convention, and they were just thrilled somebody wanted their picture! Cosplay has always and should always be about fun first, and they really embodied that. I've seen this at conventions for decades now and I hope I always will.

One thing that's certainly changed is how people take pictures. For a long time, when conventions were less crowded, there was a kind of cosplay etiquette left unspoken in person but occasionally debated online. All the cosplayers wanted their photos taken, and all the photographers wanted to get shots. It was more of a team effort, or at least people tried to be courteous and sharing. There was less of a concept of working only with a certain person or "owning" a spot for photos. That's changed.

To get right to it, money came in to it all. Cosplayers can make decent money though sites like Patreon. Consumer electronics have brought the price of even professional photo gear down to where one needs only a little disposable income to afford it. And social media has blown up, with everybody chasing approval and exposure online. This doesn't mean it changed things for the worse. These days you'll see many more cosplayers from many more different series around, and a lot more amazing costumes that clearly took untold hours of dedication and funding to pull off.

But there's been a loss of the kind of teamwork mentioned above. Shoots are now often paid and both parties expect to fulfill their end of the bargain. They're often on schedules, too, and certainly working in a less controlled and more unpredictable environment. Woe be to him who asks to get a shot of a cosplayer working with somebody else at the time. You can expect a verbal, "sorry, not now" reply, though the tone varies from genuine to obstinate. Forgotten are those cosplayers who just like dressing up for fun and hanging out with their friends.

And the biggest change has been the growth of videographers, now that every DSLR can take high quality HD video. They'll work with somebody for ten or twenty minutes to get just-the-right shot, taking up a lot of space or losing a shot while somebody unwittingly walks though the large open space they've created. These videos often turn out great. They lead to tons of online likes and really capture costumes, cosplayers, and the convention in a way that still photography can't. But it can be pretty disruptive at the same time to film. When strobes came down enough in price to carry them around, photographers often set them up on the convention floor. The obstruction they caused led to the practice being prohibited at most conventions. This kind of videography might face similar restrictions in the future.

It would be hyperbolic to say this has "ruined" cosplay photography. It's a hobby that's evolved with the cosplay community and grown into new and exciting efforts. It certainly makes my personal niche style harder. I still focus on just walking around and shooting the convention as I explore though it. If I do photoshoots, it's still just done impromptu and on the spot. But I also capture a lot of the cosplayers and attendees who also don't care much for paid and arranged shoots, who just like to have fun in costume. Other people might get more likes or views, but I'm happy to have a long and lasting history instead.

And after all, I'm just old enough to remember the last time cosplay photography changed. The rise of digital cameras was going to "ruin photography" because it provided instant feedback and there was little to no cost to shoot with abandon. The art of developing film was going to be lost -- and it was, but replaced by photographers learning how to post-process the new digital format. For cosplay, it made pictures available much sooner, and for many cosplayers who would never have seen themselves in costume unless they looked in a mirror. Times have changed, and so has the cosplay community. But they're evolving together, as they should.

Events

Katsucon remains a fan-focused event with most programming focused on niche interests and guest panels and Q&A sessions. It has a well-rounded set of events, though, with panels ranging across all topics and several concerts. A few of the panels I wanted to go to were filled to capacity just by those waiting in line outside the doorss, whereas others I walked by were hardly attended. With so many cosplayers still out and about during the masquerade (1400 -- 1800, right when the lighting is best outdoors) I opted out of the official event to get more photos of attendees in the atrium and on the waterfront.

Conclusion

Katsucon will return on Februray 13th -- 16th, 2020, to the Gaylord National Harbor, Oxen Hill, Maryland