Santa on the Street

Posted by John Keatley / Filed under Personal Work

* If you are using a blog reader, you may need to visit my actual blog to see the slide show above.

I got a call last October from my friend, Tyler, asking me if I would photograph a Christmas party for street youth in Seattle’s U-District.  It’s an annual party, and they usually have a volunteer take candid snapshots that they can give to the youth who attend.  After talking for a little while, we both decided that it would be fun to set up a studio in a corner where anyone who was interested could get their portrait taken.

After I finished setting up, Tyler made an announcement about the studio letting people know that it was available.  Everyone in the room turned to look at me.  I smiled and waved, and then everyone turned back around and continued talking and opening presents.  I waited for about 10 minutes, and still nobody came over.  There were a lot of glances toward the studio, but that was it.  I started walking around the room, and asking if people wanted to have their picture taken.
“No way man.  I don’t want my picture taken.”

I knew it would just take one person to get things rolling, and moments later, that person arrived.  Actually, he was a rabbit…  Although I was excited about photographing a giant rabbit, I could tell that Santa was feeling uneasy and territorial.  He took his white gloves off, one finger at a time, and threw them on the ground.  ”This is my holiday, Rabbit!” He screamed across the room.

That’s a story for another day, though.

I was able to convince the rabbit to let me photograph him, and shortly after, people began lining up to join in.  I took quite a bit of time with the lighting setup for this, and set the lights in a way that would allow for some movement and flexibility with each subject.  I made an x on the ground, and asked each person to stand there. But beyond that, I didn’t control their movements.  I wanted to let each person be themselves, and capture their personalities.  I know that I am not the first person to photograph street youth.  But often I feel that a subject like this is an easy way to create a dramatic story without any creativity.  Street youth encounter struggles that many of us will never experience, some of them dress a little different, but that alone doesn’t make a great picture. What I loved about how these pictures turned out, was the laughter and humor that came through.  I don’t think the pictures would have the same feel if I had taken as much control as I would have with a different subject.  I might have asked Santa to look serious, though…Couldn’t resist that one!

What do you think about the slide show?  Comments please.  I have been posting pictures individually, but it seemed like there were too many for that this time.  I’d love to hear what you think.


I loved the slide show. Setting up a studio for a party sounds like a great idea.

posted by Jimmy on 04.07.09 at 4:21 pm

Love the slideshow. Would be cool to see an overall shot of the whole set-up. thanks for sharing.

posted by Frank T on 04.07.09 at 4:28 pm

there are some great portraits in that set. i love the expressions and feeling you captured with some of these. my favorites are probably #1, 5, 6, 8, 10. nicely done

curious as to why you chose such a warm hair light?

posted by Simon on 04.07.09 at 4:36 pm

Great work! I love the slide show presentation. I think it’s a better way to show a group of photos than having to scroll through them.

The main light feels a bit cool in these? You’ve shifted the kickers (hair lights? separation light?) a bit warmer, but the main light looks a little blue…. on this screen anyways.

posted by Paul D'Andrea on 04.07.09 at 4:54 pm

Great series, inspires me to try something of the sort. I would like to know a little more about the lighting setup if you don’t mind. It’s just an umbrella above camera and two yello backlights?

Thanks for the inspiration :)

posted by serialk on 04.07.09 at 6:16 pm

Great idea and great portraits. Agree with the other comments above that the main light seems to be a tad cool.

posted by Andrew on 04.07.09 at 10:59 pm

The key light looks cool because I put a blue gel on it. No need to adjust your monitors.

posted by John Keatley on 04.08.09 at 6:40 am

Love the slide show. The photos are awesome, Santa looks a bit grumpy!

posted by Jeff A on 04.08.09 at 9:31 am

These are awesome. I actually love the blue gel on the key light, it really adds a lot. Was it a beauty dish?

posted by Vince Penman on 04.08.09 at 12:28 pm

Everything from the lighting to the backdrop is great. It is like there is a hyper sense of reality in these portraits. I guess I would call it a 3 dimensional quality. Would make an incredible series.

posted by Ben Whitesell on 04.09.09 at 5:00 am

Awesome work john! keep it up!

posted by Charles knox on 04.09.09 at 6:18 pm

John, while I loved the photos, I didn’t like the yellow lights coming in from the sides. I guess it’s difficult to colour-balance that stuff. But, the personalities of each of these people shine through, and that’s what’s important here; in this, you have succeeded.

PS: Did you have Santa posing at gunpoint???? LOL!

posted by Miserere on 04.13.09 at 12:24 pm

Ha. It’s not a color balance issue, or a color profile issue. I used gels on my lights for these portraits. The warm rim lights and the cool key light were intentional, and I really like the outcome. It’s totally a matter of personal preference though.

posted by John Keatley on 04.13.09 at 3:23 pm

[...] it very interested. Last week we used gels and tried to recreate the photos on this blog… http://www.keatleyphoto.com/blog/santa-on-the-street/ There’s a video slide show that goes through a bunch of pictures with that setup. We ended up [...]

Hey John,

These shots are just fantastic! I am a huge fan of the PB set up and do it quite often when I shoot weddings. I feel your work is terrific and wish you many years of success. When’s a book coming out?

posted by Joseph Tichenor on 04.16.09 at 10:32 am

I really love these images. They are so clean…and modern.

posted by Isla on 04.21.09 at 4:09 pm

Love your style- looking forward to your book!

posted by Saskia Delores on 05.30.09 at 1:19 am

I think you took a risk with the gels and it totally pays off! Great images that keep your clean-sophisticated-style. It looks like these guys are set up under a street light at the break of dawn, perfect for the subject.

posted by Mariana Quevedo on 07.23.09 at 12:43 pm

Leave a comment