Mall Santa

“Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus! ” – Francis P. Church

Mall Santa: A sober, kindly, older gentleman who imitates Santa Claus for children. His purpose is to bring happiness to the kids. Meanwhile, the mall association is counting on him to get boots in the mall. The wages are self-generated. In return the Santa studio will get prime floor space in a retail environment. Must enjoy kids!

We got a lead the local mall had a Santa that was looking for a photographer. This particular Santa had been working that job for a few years. We had no illusions that we would get rich from this job because the mall was and is still in transition from being an inside shopping experience to a string of box stores each one with 35,000 square feet.  So we bit and took the gig while there was still a mall. This is an accounting of our 7 year association and a little peek into what it takes to be a successful santa or, in our case, elf.

If you are thinking about doing this yourself, no matter how good a photographer you may be, no matter how elaborate your setup is, you’re only as good as your Santa. Number 1 first and foremost – Your Santa must have good breath! Keep your Santa watered, but no coffee, garlic, onions, booze. If your Santa smells bad the first child who sits on his knee will alert him loudly to that fact. Kids don’t hold back. Whoever you get should be able to get into the role. He has to BE the Santa. He must offer a reasonable Ho-Ho-Ho as he must be heard over mall babble and mall music. A chubby Santa is better than a stuffed Santa. A sense of humour definitely works. Make sure your Santa will offer a child a yak or water buffalo once in a while. He must be silly. Remember, this man will be creating photo ops for you. So grinches need not apply. He must show up on time too. It’s best if he has some social sense. Saying the right thing at the wrong time can be bad when working with a politically correct general public. There are two Santa suits; The red Santa invented by Coca Cola and the European Father Christmas. He should have both suits. (one could get dirty). Your Santa doesn’t need to grow his own beard. In fact a store-bought beard works great as long as you don’t scrimp. Remember your Santa will be the most photographed man in your community. Think: Presentation, presentation, presentation! Oh! It doesn’t help if your Santa can converse intelligently as there will quiet times.

Let’s roll the clock back to when we walked into this job. It was still a vibrant place to be. Parksville is a retirement community. The ‘over 65’s’ comprise of half the population. With few places to go, the hotdog kiosk was filled with the older set who scratched their lottery tickets they bought at the newstand, drank coffee and chatted. Families bought their clothes and kids pressed their noses up against toy shop windows. The place smelled like new shoes, leather and every corner of the mall was filled with muzac. With the civic arena as an anchor, sporadic stampedes of junior hockey players would lead parents on a chase through the traffic. Flocks of teenagers would graze on junk food while burying their noses in smart phones where they’d text their friend beside them. Only a couple of window-papered vacancies dotted the scene. I guess it was a sign of things to come.

While capturing candid shots in many situations, you sit and wait, you anticipate and wait and wait some more. While covering a visit with a good Santa Claus, the photo ops are just good, great and better! It’s really a photographer’s paradise. Kids are unpredictable creatures. They’ll do anything, anytime and don’t really pay heed to social conventions. Completely charming.

Warning: Photo geek info – For tools we brought a 36″ softbox, a 700 watt/second strobe, two pocket weasel triggers because working tethered is a trip hazard, a 24-70mm lens, extension cords, gaffer tape, business cards, 2 silly puppets and a camera. We used a Canon 5D workhorse. We suggest if you have several bodies in your arsenal to choose from go for lower resolution instead of higher. At the end of the day these the files have to be dumped into a computer for processing. The larger the file, the longer it takes to process and we want to go to bed. Huge files are great for a single portrait, but 12 megapixel is more than enough for 5 X 7’s which is what we are printing for output.

Our clients would have to come back to the mall the next day to pick up their portrait with Santa. It was our policy to confirm parents received the correct images by opening the envelope and pulling out the images. A byproduct of this is being there to see the parent’s faces melt when they see how we’ve portrayed their child. Somehow it made all those long hours on our feet worth it. After thousands of families over the years we never gave the wrong images to a somebody. (And we’ve seen a lot of melted faces!)

You may have guessed, we at Angel Studio love the innocence and presentation of Norman Rockwell. We wanted to add that element to our production. It seemed to appropriate. Yes, it would mean much more work, but our traffic flow worked in our favour here. It wasn’t so much ‘meatball photography’ as most mall Santa productions. Due to the lower traffic volume, we could take our time and open a child up a bit. (Some arrive a bit nervous) We’d pick the best out of maybe 6 – 10 frames. We couldn’t do that in film days! Every new client was a new chance for that ‘golden shot’ every photographer wants. We’d do anything to create a ‘keeper’ picture for the parents.

Instead of thinking about standing on our feet all day on a concrete mall floor, we found ourselves looking for the next ‘believer’ to visit Santa just for the chance to grab a few more sweet frames. Most of the time, our job as a photographer was to stand on the sidelines and observe. Santa and the fresh-faced supplicant would discuss the newest toys.

Most Santa operations will sell you the ‘standard two-faces-looking-at-the-lens’ pose, which no doubt, is adorable. We just prefer the story that is attached to the interaction images which is some littler squeaker earnestly explaining the virtues of a certain toy or electronic thingie. Take a look at the next few images and see what you think. Directly below: If lost for words, a good squish from Santa will make them smile.

For many of our visitors, a visit with Santa is a planned event. Because of our unique presentation and one really super Santa, we were drawing families from all over the island. Once they tried us, they had to come back next year t0 keep the collection up through the years. It was terrific to see the same faces again! The kids – one year older. Remarkable! When our clients were dressed for the shoot,  it would make us smile because we knew the images produced would be stellar. After all, you only get what you put into your efforts. We like to think that these are the images they may share with their own grandchildren someday, a long way down the road.

These two young ladies wore matching dresses for this shot. Doesn’t it lend itself to being a Christmas card? There are many reasons this image works. We love it when you can find pattern in an image. Ergo, two of the same is twice as good. Yes, these ladies both got private time with Santa. We probably sold images of that too.

We realize that a Santa visit is a spontaneous thing for most. For many though, it is an event. We don’t mind what our clients wear. We can do more for you when you do take the time to dress for the occasion. Here again we played with patterns. We feel lucky to have been there to capture it all.

We also brought our desire to use all our portrait experience into play. As we said, we didn’t direct in posing, but using the rules means knowing exactly when to hit the shutter release. Micro-expressions that last a fleeting moment was the goal. Those are what defines us as individuals. They also can be inherited and that is a major reason a child may remind you of particular parent. Terrific practice for any photographer! We treated every image as if it was a one-off, image in our ‘remote studio’. Camera lived on a strap on the neck, not restricted to a tripod with a cable release. We found different subjects demanded different angles to maximize the image. Smaller people will need a zoom. The image is about a visit with Santa, but we know it’s mostly about the child.

While developing images in the office at night, we’d note the client only paid for 1 print, but the harvest was so productive we’d wind up printing the ones too good NOT to print. We’d present them the next day to the parents. More times than not, they took them as well. A important business lesson was starting to form in our heads; If you don’t have the traffic, maximize what you do have. We offered half-price for reprints which was a bit of a give-away. We knew many distant grandparents would be charmed when they received their card in the mail.

Pretty soon multiple orders were filling up our sheet. All items were prepaid in cash. Now our biggest problem was keeping enough ink on hand. Running out meant a run to the next town over where everyone else seemed to shop because we couldn’t fulfill our need locally. Who had time for that?! Our two week run up to Christmas meant time for eating food, a bit of sleep, but mostly standing in a mall capturing or producing in the office late at night.

The years rolled by. What was a one-time gig had turned into an almost spiritual event for us, witnessing magic in children’s eyes everyday. But we were surrounded by ghosts. The stores all around us were vacant now. They even stopped papering the windows at this point. There were still seasonal craft tables from locals who rented floor space down the middle of the mall, but even these were diminishing. With it went a certain sense of community. The muzac had also stopped playing. Good in a way because Christmas carols on a loop tape can drive you over the edge, but sad in another way. Picture it: Our remote studio set up in an almost empty mall. It felt as though the lights were on, but only begrudgingly. The irony of us being there to bring in shoppers wasn’t lost to us.  Word was getting around the community that folks don’t have to travel for their Santa visit. Other communities were discovering us too. Our business grew from year to year as the mall emptied.  We had become a fixture to many families on the island.

Of course, we realize that up until now we’ve been painting a pretty picture. It wasn’t always like that. Sometimes both puppets fail and the big guy is too red and scary. Even this though makes a terrific portrait of the child at that point in her life. There’s definitely drama! The next year we couldn’t get her off of Santa’s lap.

We would have to say, happily though, it’s a 90/10%  split towards Santa lovers and those who are completely freaked out by the old guy. Laughing is infectious. We all know that. You may not know that sweet smiles can wear you down too! How can you NOT like coming to your job when you get this over and over all day?! We can’t begin to explain how much fun this particular gig was.

It wasn’t always bouncing, excited kids for Santa. No way! There are believers of all ages and more power to them! More interesting things happened in our quiet mall than you’d imagine. What makes an interesting image for one person might not for another. Our Santa had an equal opportunity lap! While we aim for the ‘cute quotient’ for kids we must interpret all our clients needs. Something about Santa and Christmas brings out the wanna-be bad girls. A most interesting phenomenon! Our Santa has even been asked to spank some of our adult female clients. We love a sense of humour. It seems Santa doesn’t mind. No, really….he doesn’t mind…

Santa knows if you’ve been naughty of nice. He also wants you to know he can keep a secret! We say “lucky Santa…he gets all the breaks”…

For some of our clients a visit with Santa doesn’t mean dressing up – it means coming prepared! The back story could be the night before, this angel spent half an hour writing down her favourite desires for this moment. Even if you aren’t inspired by that, we all know it is of paramount importance to have a little chat with Santa once in a while.

A minute of silence as Santa reads over the list. The older girl wonders if she asked for too much. The younger girl says nothing for she just wants Santa to deeply absorb her wishes. We love the back story! To us, this is what hopefully, will get our image into a frame and not lost in that drawer in the kitchen.

We are parents ourselves. We know how fleeting these years are. This little darling is too little to write a list so she drew a picture to be explained later in Santa’s lap. We aim to give you a little piece of immortality. If you think that’s melodramatic, consider this young lady may be a grandmother perhaps someday in the far off future. When she sees her Santa image, just a little part of her will be 3 again.

So many of these images are not posed because the event has enough photo opportunities. We usually didn’t interfere with the visit and harvested frames. Once in a while we feel we just needed a bit more to make the image a keeper. So we stuck our big, fat, suggestions in!

Some people’s children have fur. We could go on here, but we think this get the idea across. Parksville, B.C. is a dog-friendly place. In the summer merchants put out bowls of water for their customers 4 legged co-shoppers. It’s only natural a few wind up in Santa’s lap. Santa reports they all ask for bacon and love.

Currently, we are not shooting Santa. The mall has finally made the the break with an inside area. Where kids used to be photographed is not strewn with cables, dust and construction residue. Nothing is left of the old place, but memories. We’ve got all our memories backed up safely, but we needed to trot them out and share. Would be do it again? It made a crazy chaos of a Christmas season for us. Absolutely, if we could assemble the right team and right location. Who could pass on that magic?

This blog is dedicated to the memory of our dear friend and consumate actor, Ron Morrison who, while here, made a lot of people smile. Thanks bud, your opinions made the quiet moments interesting.