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Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography

'Tis the Season To be Snapping

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

Don't tell anyone – I am Santa Claus.

I've been Santa for two years now, and am planning to wear the suit for the third time this Christmas Eve.

Actually I was shanghai'd into the role by our neighbor Caity, whose Christmas Eve dessert party has been a delicious tradition in our neighborhood for as long as I can recall.

Santa is a regular at these parties – ho-ho-ho'ing his way past the pies, cakes, cookies, single-malt Scotch and mulled wine and planting himself on a chair near the huge Christmas tree to greet the neighborhood kids and hand out small presents and candies.

My former next-door neighbor Dave was my predecessor as Santa for a long time, but he had to beg off when his kids grew old enough to tumble to the fact that it was Dad behind all those whiskers. "You know, you'd make a good Santa," Caity said to me one day, casting an appraising and, one assumes, approving, eye in my direction. In fact, I think anyone would have sufficed since the Santa suit, wig and whiskers that Caity provides is a theatrical-grade affair that could stop traffic on Broadway and make a believer even of Mrs. Claus.

So I accepted the assignment and, with a pillow in my red pants and a blizzard of white curls and whiskers encasing my head, I assumed the role of Santa, Father Christmas, St. Nick, Babbo Natale, Papa Noel.

I loved it!

Each time a kid would hop onto my lap Caity would snap a Polaroid. By evening's end my clients included several of the kids' moms, as well as the young women who staff Secondi, Caity's high-end shop for consignment women's wear in downtown DC. [I remember one young lady in particular for her spike heels and fishnet stockings. Times like these, it's good to be Santa Claus.]

I love the holidays, and not just for the Santa duty. It's a wonderful time to make pictures and more important a wonderful time to take stock and be thankful. Judy and I are blessed with three great grandchildren, Max, Eliot and Anna, all of whom live nearby, and you can bet they'll be heavily photographed by us on Christmas morning.

In fact, as the two pro shooters in a family that features multiple sets of parents and step-parents, Judy and I have hit on the perfect holiday gift for all our relatives: family portraits.

The tradition began years ago but really took off once the babies arrived. Judy, who had a thriving business in children's photography before we turned to other commercial work, decided she had to have at least one formal portrait session each year with her sons Bill and Dan once they and their wives started families. This, of course was in addition to all the snaps we made during the rest of the year: vacations in Maine, birthday parties, etc., etc.

Judy likes to schedule the portrait session for the late fall, most times outdoors, on a sunny day that's crisp but not too cold. This year the portrait session was more formal and indoors, but only because we were able to coattail the family pix onto a portrait session we actually were being paid for. Since we had the seamless paper and studio strobes in place, we simply called the kids and got them to come over the day after we had made a series of family portraits for our clients.

It worked like a charm. In fact, as I write this column, our lab is printing multiple copies of the two portraits we selected from the contact sheets. And there's no doubt: the gift-wrapped 5x7's we hand out at the holidays are treasured by the relatives who receive them – and who now look forward to them. If you enjoy taking pictures (a fair assumption since you're reading this) there's no better way not to go crazy at the holidays as you are desperately thinking up gift ideas.

Another pleasure of this time is enjoying and photographing Christmas lights and other holiday displays. Shooting holiday lights: Christmas trees, lighted menorahs, etc., is a lot like photographing fireworks, and the creative possibilities are just as plentiful.

The principle behind each is to photograph with a long exposure at night to bring out the brightness of the lights while letting the background go dramatically dark. [Look at the difference between photos #1 and #2 at the right, made within a half hour of one another. No contest, right? Note too how the absence of daylight in the second shot lets the tungsten-balanced tree lights contribute to a golden glow over everything.]

As with fireworks shots, holiday lighting pix most often are made with the camera on a tripod – though not always, as you will see. To make a time-exposure of a Christmas tree, for example, all you really need do is zoom your lens into the middle of the lighted tree (to keep your exposure meter from reading extraneous areas) and make an automatic exposure reading. You might set your camera on Aperture Priority, stopped down to a comparatively small lens opening for maximum sharpness. This also will give you a fairly long exposure – at least 1/2-second or longer. This, in turn, will let the lights really glow dramatically in your picture. Regardless of medium–slide film, negative film or digital capture – bracket your exposures to insure you get what you want, or better, something you didn't expect.

And don't be anchored to your tripod, either. Holiday lights can look even more dramatic when they are moving, or appear to be moving.

Think again about fireworks. These shots are spectacular because your stationary, open-shutter camera is recording moving bursts of glowing incendiaries. A stationary Christmas tree, like the one in photo #3 can be made to look a heck of a lot more dramatic with the camera stopped down to a smaller aperture and moved during the resultant longer exposure. (Picture #4) Note, too, how I've tilted the frame for a more active image. Hard to believe it's the same tree.

Important note: both the tree pix were made with flash, but only to open up the shadows. In the moving shot, however, the flash offers the added benefit of freezing some aspects to the scene to make a more coherent picture while the light trails are recorded in all their glory – much the way fireworks are.

But let's say you've spent what seems like a year and a day stringing lights on your house and you would love to document your efforts as the lights glow at night. Go back to your tripod – a must of you want to record the scene accurately and with maximum detail. Once again, if you are not working with a separate exposure meter, just make a shot on any automatic setting: Program, Aperture- or Shutter-Priority.

The important thing here, though, is to remember to record that baseline exposure data and work from there, bracketing shots liberally, usually erring on the side of over-exposure. For example, if a Program mode shot of your gorgeously decorated house is, say, f. 4 at 1/30th, set your camera on Manual and make fairly wide bracket shots of one full stop each time. Thus, you could make one shot at f. 4 at 1/60th, then two or three more at 1/15th of a second, 1/8th – even 1/4th. Remember: all shots would be made at the same lens opening. The longer the exposure the brighter your lights will glow, while the black nighttime background will have virtually no effect on the exposure, even at a longer shutter speed. And as long as you are doing this, you might try making some of the same exposures while popping a hand-held flash. This could open up some shadows and, again, would have negligible effect on your exposure.

Above all, have fun with it.

Hey, it's Christmas, right? Have a merry one.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached through his website www.GVRphoto.com.


–I made this shot of the quadrangle outside of Georgetown University's Dahlgren Chapel just to contrast it with the next one.

–See how waiting only a half hour for the right light makes all the difference.

– A fairly run-of-the-mill shot of a Christmas tree: sharp, well-exposed, and dull, dull, dull.

– Slowing the shutter speed, and jiggling the camera while skewing the image turns the dull pic into something far more interesting – perhaps a candidate for next year's card.

Wishing You Peace – and Warmth – at the Holidays
–Frank Van Riper


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Talking PhotographyAlready acclaimed as the photographer's bedside companion, Talking Photography (Allworth Press, $19.95) is award-winning Post photography columnist Frank Van Riper's ten-year collection of his favorite photography columns and essays. This lavishly illustrated paperback already has garnered rave reviews from all walks of photography for its breezy, informative style and unbounded enthusiasm for making pictures.

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