Santa on the Street

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* 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 4-7-2009

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

POSTED BY Frank T on 4-7-2009

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 4-7-2009

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 4-7-2009

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 4-7-2009

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 4-7-2009

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

POSTED BY John Keatley on 4-8-2009

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

POSTED BY Jeff A on 4-8-2009

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 4-8-2009

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 4-9-2009

Awesome work john! keep it up!

POSTED BY Charles knox on 4-9-2009

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 4-13-2009

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 4-13-2009

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

POSTED BY Playing - PhotoCamel - Your Friendly Photo Forum on 4-14-2009

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 4-16-2009

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

POSTED BY Isla on 4-21-2009

Love your style- looking forward to your book!

POSTED BY Saskia Delores on 5-30-2009

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 7-23-2009

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