7 Tips To Magical Santa Photos

In Master Photography Roundtable by Jeff Harmon1 Comment

Who Is Joy Howard?

I played around with my first DSLR camera discovering BoKEH with a Christmas present in 2012 of a 50 mm lens.  I think that’s when the real love started. I had a crop sensor Nikon camera so the 50 mm lens gave amazing images. Everything I didn’t know I looked up I watched countless tutorials and this is when I found photo Taco.

I took some friends’ family photos about four years ago and that has grown to a business I now have shooting mainly seniors and older children. I still do some family sessions but those are not my favorite. I love individual portraiture the best. I started with this podcast learning Lightroom,  shooting raw. Then in manual only, knowing my triad well. Then almost 2 years ago I decided that in order to grow I would need to learn off-camera flash. I went in with two local photographers renting in their space. Their third photographer had just moved out of town and since I was looking for a space it worked out perfectly.

Truly, I didn’t even know how to turn on the lights or what a receiver was or what my settings should be, and definitely didn’t know how to position the lights and subject. Like everything else I just jumped in probably too soon but begin researching watching tutorials some on the improve photography site I was a member of and on the next retreat I focused on Conner’s session for learning off-camera flash.

There is so much out there for learning everything you need to know about your photography hobby or business. For me, I am a product in great part to the generosity of other photographers. For instance my two studio mates took me in and helped me get on my feet. I find that many photographers are selfish and definitely don’t want to share how they got the shot or the location it was shot.

I thought I had died and gone to heaven when I met my studio mates. Of course, they may have just been desperate for someoneTo pay 1/3 of the rent but I took it as a really generous sharing of “how to”s Which leads a bit into the Santa pictures. They had done Santa pictures the year before and initially I thought it was we who would all be doing them, but I quickly figured out it was just me because they had other projects they were doing.

Tips for Creating Santa Photos

Tip #1: Finding a Santa

Joy, seems like finding a good Santa is a really critical aspect of creating good Santa photos.  How did you find the Santa you are working with and how could listeners who want to do this do that?  What should photographers look for when choosing a Santa?

I found my wonderful Santa through word-of-mouth. But here are a few ways to be more proactive than that. You can contact IBRBS, which is the international board of real beard Santas. This is a national group, not all states have a chapter, but many do, so contacting them is one way.

Another way is through Gig Salad which is not only for Santa’s but other entertainers as well. I do think it is important to have a Conversation with the Santa. You don’t want a guy who just hasn’t shaved in a while deciding yesterday he would like to work with kids and make a hundred bucks.

My amazing Santa, Santa Ruskie, is very professional. He always reminds me at the beginning of a session to make sure we can see both of his hands. This just takes out the guesswork and protects everyone. Also, you want to see either in person or a photo of Santa dressed up. You don’t want surprises. Again, my Santa even ask which outfit of his I prefer. I am a traditionalist so I like the all- red one. Talking to him on the phone gives you an idea of how you will work together. You are in charge and you don’t want someone else trying to run different plays. If he is a good Santa he will need to be booked possibly six months or more in advance. I paid a deposit for him and he is 100$/hr.  I think this is normal for a good Santa. 

Tip #2: Background

Once you have your Santa, you need a place to have Santa sit or interact with the children.  Needs to be kind of a magical scene to get the full effect of Santa photos, how did you create that for your photos?  If a listener doesn’t have a studio, could they do this in their house?

I have done my Santa mini sessions in studio but you can do this anywhere you can shoot and have enough space for it. You could set up in a garage or rent a space. There are places like dance Studios or even other photographer studios you can rent by the hour. A church fellowship center or community center would also work. You can do this out of your home if you have enough place for traffic and adequate parking. For the background.

You can get a number of gorgeous backdrops that our holiday themed or you can create your own with Christmas trees and decorations. I tend to think less is more but to each his own. Baby dreams backdrops has lovely holiday backdrops that are quite magical. Last year I painted a mantle and got a tree company to cut logs in cross-section slices to stack in the fireplace, and I had extra stumps under the tree to hold presents or as stools to sit on. This year I used a barn door backdrop from Baby Dreams Backdrops, and I put an antique sofa in front of it with two Christmas trees on each side.

I love decorating with traditional wooden toy ornaments and pieces that appear timeless. No Pikachu Pokémon or Smurfs but again to each his own. I found an antique toy collector, so I had an awesome red toy tractor for the kids to hold and a couple of books for Santa to read. I can’t forget Teddy. He is my wonderful teddy bear who has the ability to make any kid happy and make the photos look magical. He hails from Barnes and Noble bookstore where I rescued him on a whim before my first shoot with Santa I absolutely love him, And he’s in almost all my photos with Santa.

Tip #3: Getting Clients

Now that you have a Santa and you have a background or scene for the Santa, how do you get clients?  How did you market your service the first year when you didn’t have a lot of portfolio work to show? Any websites you used to do the scheduling? When did you start advertising for the shoot?  How long do you schedule the shoot for? How do you manage the timing so that you don’t run too far over and get way behind? Do you have the client sign a contract?

Like Erica said on your holiday photos show a few weeks ago start with friends and family for your client base for Santa. If you have clients from Headshots or otherwise let them know of your upcoming sessions. My other job is in a hospital where many coworkers are young and have little ones, so I already have a lot of clients from that environment. 

Then you can post on Facebook and marketplace trading sites. They will want to see what it will look like as soon as possible. That’s when even though you don’t have your Santa on the set, you can do test shots with a toy or teddy bear where Santa will be sitting. Send this out with your invitations or advertisement.

This year my advertising was a collage of last year’s favorite images. I only advertised on my FB page first and then my photography FB page and then publicly on FB marketplace and I didn’t have a whole lot of trouble filling up. I had probably 1/2 returning clients and 1/2 new. I will say a satisfied customer is your biggest advertising.

I had two sessions two weeks apart. Many of my clients for the second session were as a result of the first. I use sign-up genius for booking,  but I think I’m going to start using what Erica talked about square up because I have had a lot of problems with sign-up genius problems like editing the content and getting feedback even when I upgraded to a paid account. With square up I like that clients can pay there instead of paying later on PayPal or Venmo.

I booked my Santa more than six months out, but my sign-up for booking clients was sent out probably two months out or less. Last year I scheduled only for two two hour sessions two weeks apart, but this year I scheduled two shoots two weeks apart four hours each with built-in breaks in the schedule. These breaks aren’t for us to have coffee and sit and talk about how it’s going but to catch up. Each slot is only five minutes long.

I would do four 5 minute sessions and then a 15 minute break and repeat with a 30 minute break in the middle to change batteries in the cameras and pocket wizard flash receivers. I use 2 assistants. one is my greeter and time keeper. He actually sets the timer and I can hear it go off but I have a terrible habit of going over so the built-in breaks really help.

If you are thinking five minutes is too short well it just might be. I move super fast. But for comparison, I know one photographer who does three minute slot. My clients have the option to buy a 10 minute slot, but I can truly say I usually get what I need pretty fast, and anything longer than 10 minutes is too long unless you were going to offer drinking milk and eating cookies with Santa or another activity with Santa.

I personally don’t want to enter food into the equation at all. I even discourage any food treats or candy to bribe a smile out of a child. I don’t want to be doing a Difficult time consuming edit later trying to rid a sweet face of chocolate or gummy bears. I haven’t had Client sign a contract or model release but I will in the future right now I just contact each person before posting any pictures.

Tip #4: Posing

How do you pose these kids with Santa?  Do you have a few different options? Are there poses to avoid?  How do you handle a child who is afraid of Santa?

This part is tricky because there are two things going on here number one is the child is seeing Santa possibly for the first time and it’s magical and so exciting. But the real deal of what’s happening is this getting the shots that I want! I’m pretty focused when it comes to posing and positioning.

Kids are definitely unpredictable, but I keep moving them around so that their back isn’t to me. Before the shoot I have in mind several shots I definitely want according to the age of the child. I get my ideas a number of places and definitely Pinterest is one of them. Have those images in your mind as your mental art board.

My two favorite shots to get are these:  one is the shot of the older child (older than say 2) standing beside Santa who is also standing with the child looking up at Santa who in the composition of the picture you can only see his legs. Not showing his face to me as a magical quality to him. Kind-of an otherness quality and shows off the wonder in the child’s eyes.

For babies the shot is Santa sitting holding them between his knees them standing on the floor or just sitting on the floor playing with the toy. Also composing this one and camera without showing the rest of Santa. I love when the baby is trying to look at him and see who is holding them or the sheer delight they have at being bounced up and down. We have Christmas music blaring and everyone is trying to make them smile so it is very exciting if not a bit Circus-like.

For very little ones they may be possibly terrified by the big man in red,  so we do what we call sneaky Santa. We put the baby on the couch and take a couple of him or her happy while Santa sneaks behind and gets in the picture unbeknownst to the baby. When Santa comes around in view of the baby half of the time all hell breaks loose and it takes a minute to convince them it is OK. Some of them never get over it. And there are tears and screaming the rest of the session which, depending upon how the parents view this can be some great photo opportunities. Yup I can’t believe I’m saying it but sometimes screaming babies are funny.

I tell the family to come dressed to get in the pictures because many times the child won’t get near Santa without the mom or dad. In five minutes I’m usually getting these shots:  

  • The child or children by themselves
  • Santa behind them
  • Santa sitting with them
  • The magical shots of standing next to Santa or at his feet.

Inevitably, there are some sessions that get very few if any non-screaming baby shots, it is never dull! I have remembered Brian McGuckin talking about your perspective shooting kids. Get low! Almost every session at some point I am on the floor to get the best perspective. My favorite Santa photographer is in Atlanta and that is half of what makes his photos epic is his perspective.

Tip #5: Camera Settings

Now let’s talk camera settings.  What are the settings you start with for shutter, aperture, and ISO or do you use a semi-automatic mode like aperture or shutter priority?  Do you do anything to dial things in based on ambient lighting conditions, like would you change one of those settings first? Do you use auto white balance?  Any other camera settings you have learned are really important?

Now for the fun stuff. First of all, I have two cameras going the whole time. I rent my back up camera from borrow lenses.com. I am a Nikon D750 shooter which I love  for many reasons. One being the 2 SD card slots. So if one card messed up I have another that has the shots on it.

I shoot in RAW, and it is so important that I have both cameras set to the same settings. One camera is on a tripod and captures what I call the “set shot”. I have it zoomed for the composition that will get the whole background best. Last year I used an 85mm lens on that camera and that is my favorite portraiture Lens but this year I used my 24 to 70. The 85 was just a bit tight for our space.

My assistant used a trigger sometimes to get the shots, and since she knows her way well around the camera I showed her back button focus just like you showed me 2 1/2 years ago and she used that. I used my 70 to 200 on the other camera to get all the other shots. This allowed for some awesome close-ups.

The settings on both cameras were set in order to pick up the lights on the Christmas trees and behind Santa on the backdrop and for clarity. the settings I used are ISO 800, shutter speed 125 and aperture 7.1. I played with those settings last year and the test shots the night before the shoot this year proved they were the best for what I wanted.

I would love for the lights on the tree to be a little more blurrier or dreamier but I didn’t want my shutter speed less than 125 or  aperture less because I was afraid of losing sharpness. I shoot all manual so no aperture priority or shutter priority. Not that you can’t do that I just like to control each item myself.

For white balance I use an ExpoDisc ($50). I’m sure I would get great results from a light meter, but this is just easy and I love it. Not everyone uses a second camera, but if you do, just make sure you go through and choose the exactSettings you are using with your main camera. Like making sure to choose raw files and not JPEG. But you can definitely do this with just one camera running, I’m a little over the top obsessive that way.

Tip #6: Lighting

As with all portraits, lighting has to be a massive part of creating good Santa photos.  What is the lighting setup you are using right now? For listeners on a budget, are there DIY or relatively inexpensive lighting equipment options that would work?  How do you balance the light? Is there something with the lighting you have found you have to get just right to make sure you achieve the magical mood that you have in your photos?

It has been almost 2 years since I have been working out of a studio and it was so intimidating at first. I would tell anyone starting out to just jump in and ask someone to teach you. My studio mate was all “oh it’s not that hard,  it’s easy”. Truly, I didn’t know how to turn on the lights. So, I paid one of my studio mates for a two hour hands-on session. And my other mate just volunteered to come have a learning session where we just played with the lights for an hour or so.

They say you start to really learn something about the third time you hear it. Between that and Connor Hibbs amazing hands-on workshop in Charleston and watching Felix Kung “the lighting series”  and numerous other tutorials I am much less intimidated now.

Jeff, I remember you saying you don’t need the best gear in the world to shoot great photos. Use what you have. We use in our studio old white lightnings strobes and alien B strobes. I think these are about ⅓ of the price of the Elinchrom lights. You can get a used AlienBee for a couple hundred. Recently, someone pointed out to me that the AlienBEE gives too much of a magenta hue – I agree – so I adjust that in light room.

I use a 6 foot octobox. I can’t even remember the brand. I think it is a Westcott. That on a white lightning strobe turned all the way down is camera right and 90° to the subject, so feathered light is the key. Opposite of the strobe and reflecting the light is a white V flat I made cheaply from foil faced insulation boards from Lowe’s at $14 each and taped two together with gaffers tape I actually bought at the Create Photography Retreat in Charleston. I bought a bunch of it there and I love it.

These boards are 8‘ x 4‘ and work beautifully because the white side is a bit shiny and really reflects well, And the foil silver side is ideal for using as a reflector with Headshots when you want more pop. I did buy the V flats from V Flat World, which are great because they are portable, but the downside is they are so expensive at 400$ a pop. They are also only 6 feet tall.

Again feathering the light has worked beautifully for me to help me create more painterly portraits. I was told I would need to flat light the subjects meaning the modifier is pointing straight at them, but I just don’t like that type of light. Feathering the light and reflecting it with white V flats gives a painterly affect and you can even get a bit of Rembrandt triangle at times on subjects faces which I go nuts over.

Last year I also put a white poly board on the floor several feet in front of the set for more reflection of light, but I like it better without it so that I can get more of the pleasing shadows I want. I am definitely more drawn to darker moodier images, and while these Santa pictures are brighter than some of my other stuff they are definitely not crazy bright. I like depth, but most importantly, too bright with strobes or flash usually for me, means hotspots. I always under expose and bring up exposure in light room. 

Tip #7: Post-Processing

How do you post process these photos?  Any specific things in Lightroom you are doing to enhance the magical feel of the photos?

I use Lightroom. I take my contrast up around 58 my highlights down to 61, shadows decreased to 45, whites pretty much midline with a moderate decrease of blacks. For noise reduction my luminance is around 25 which I think I remember Nick Paige giving this advice years ago (I think he said 20). I keep my whites midline or raised for Santas white on his outfit. I don’t want his outfit to be dingy looking.

Not all of the pictures, but for some I like to use Alien Skin (now called Exposure Software X5 $150) software,  and put a small amount of filter on them in a faded gold around 30%. It makes the red and his outfit look magical. If I knew how to make that happen in light room alone I would, and I’m sure the Lightroom Queen could tell us.

There was a question in the FB group on how to  keep straight who the clients are for delivery of images purposes. I use 3 x 5 cards with the child’s name on it for the time keeper to hand me and then I hand to Santa. One way is to take an iPhone picture of the card that has their name on it before the session. It is challenging if they get out of order, and I have been known to find someone on Facebook, and friend them so I can check their children’s faces to identify my pictures. It is not ideal, but with 60 different clients in a Short timeframe it can happen.

For delivery of the images I use my website. I use Zenfolio. I love the headache it gave me setting it up. It does great for delivering these Santa images. Though I am getting away from being a shoot – and -burn- Photographer. Zenfolio is good for delivering digital images because it is connected with the MPix store.

I am sure you talk about this all the time, but even if you do a standup job on your part of taking great images and edit them beautifully , if your client prints them at a drugstore or Walmart it is ruining the picture as well as their experience of shooting with you. The more I learn the more I want to deliver quality from beginning to end.  Producing and delivering quality products.

One part of that is having a computer screen that is calibrated correctly. I heard you talk about calibrating your screen a few years ago, but I didn’t think it was important until I walked in a clients house where my work was on the wall, and I was like, oh wow why are those prints so dark? It wasn’t what I had seen on my computer screen. So, now with my screen calibrated (I use the Spyder elite pro) , and I also have my own printer now, I know I can deliver quality from start to finish.

However, I don’t do my own prints with Santa images just yet. There is so much to accomplish by myself in a short amount of time. I guarantee 3 to 5 pictures and usually deliver 7 to 10 images. It works best to give them digital files through the website.


Jeff: HyperDrive USB C Hub for MacBook Pro 2016-2019 ($90)

Joy: I really love the Holster 200 SpriderPro Single Camera System v2 ($150) for the single camera. I mainly do portraiture, and I am forever setting my camera somewhere and not being able to find it while I position the subject. With the spider pro holster my camera is right there on my hip. Besides, it makes me feel like I am John Wayne or something with my holster. It is $150 and has been worth every penny. I also love the expo disk for white balance. I’m sure people who know Much more than I do would say it isn’t  perfect. However, it is easy and cheap and I love it. At $50 it doesn’t break the bank. I also love my V flat hack From Lowe’s: The foil faced insulation for reflection. One set I bought I painted the opposite side black for flagging the light. And when they get torn up I can buy more pretty cheap. 



  1. As professional Santa looking to work with private photographer ( have ten years mall experience)’this information is very helpful.

    Thank you and look for a little something extra in your Christmas Stocking this year.

    Santa Tom Balchak
    Fort Collins, Colorado

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