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Making Great Photos with Santa Claus

by Jim Beckel and Nate Billings Modified: April 18, 2013 at 12:26 pm •  Published: December 23, 2008
Santa Claus touches Sienna Smithson's  cheek, trying to make the 2-year-old smile while having their picture made  at Penn Square Mall Friday afternoon, Dec. 12, 2008. Smithson is from Yukon. BY JIM BECKEL, THE OKLAHOMAN
Santa Claus touches Sienna Smithson's cheek, trying to make the 2-year-old smile while having their picture made at Penn Square Mall Friday afternoon, Dec. 12, 2008. Smithson is from Yukon. BY JIM BECKEL, THE OKLAHOMAN

Santa Claus talks with Sienna Smithson, 2, at Penn Square Mall Friday afternoon, Dec. 12, 2008. Smithson is from Yukon, Okla. BY JIM BECKEL, THE OKLAHOMAN

Just in time for Christmas, staff photographer Jim Beckel shares with us the story of how he took an uncanny amount of good photos of children with Santa Claus recently.  To see all the photos, click here.

Sometimes you just get lucky. Any photographer who’s  the least bit honest will admit that luck can come into play when a “good” photo is taken. This was certainly the case when I visited Penn Square Mall recently to see what photos I could come up with of the mall Santa Claus and the children who come to see this jolly man every December. I began working on the assignment a week prior to shooting it.

First, I scouted several of the larger malls in the metro looking for a Santa who was good with children and who had the appearance of  a traditional Santa. The third mall I checked offered just what I was hoping for, a Santa wearing a red suit and stocking cap trimmed in white fur with shiny black boots on his feet. He sat in a chair that resembled a throne, with a high back. He wore glasses that rested on the bridge of his nose. And he had a perfect white beard, that extended about 6 inches below his chin. He was jolly, too, often flashing a grin or sometimes a bigger smile. The next three days I made phone calls to mall representatives, seeking authorization to take pictures inside the mall.

Santa ( he identified himself only as "Santa") waves to children waiting in line to see him at Penn Square Mall Friday afternoon, Dec. 12, 2008. BY JIM BECKEL, THE OKLAHOMAN
Santa ( he identified himself only as "Santa") waves to children waiting in line to see him at Penn Square Mall Friday afternoon, Dec. 12, 2008. BY JIM BECKEL, THE OKLAHOMAN

Santa Claus waves to children waiting in line to see him at Penn Square Mall Friday afternoon, Dec. 12, 2008.  BY JIM BECKEL, THE OKLAHOMAN

Most people probably don’t realize malls are considered private property and for newspaper photographers to take pictures in them, we must get permission. Mall reps were very helpful and told me there was no problem, but that I would also have to make arrangements with the agency that books the Santa. The agency is in New York!  They, too, confirmed my request, but added that  I would need to check in with guest relations at the mall and a security officer would escort me to Santa’s station in the shopping center.

When I arrived, there were about a dozen children with at least one parent waiting in line for the chance to see Santa Claus. They were very well behaved. I brought two camera bodies and three lenses, a 100mm, a 70-200 zoom and a 300 f2.8 on a monopod. Lighting was decent so I chose to shoot available light, setting my ISO at 800. The area was crowded and was set up for the Santa agency to snap pictures of kids and Santa to sell to the parents. Even though I was probably in their space, the workers were extremely nice to me and certainly more than accommodating to my needs.

Santa ( he identified himself only as "Santa") holds 3-month-old Luke Pidek at Penn Square Mall Friday afternoon, Dec. 12, 2008.  His parents, Eric and Mindy Pidek, Oklahoma City, brought their newborn son to see Santa for the first time. BY JIM BECKEL, THE OKLAHOMAN
Santa ( he identified himself only as "Santa") holds 3-month-old Luke Pidek at Penn Square Mall Friday afternoon, Dec. 12, 2008. His parents, Eric and Mindy Pidek, Oklahoma City, brought their newborn son to see Santa for the first time. BY JIM BECKEL, THE OKLAHOMAN

Santa Claus holds 3-month-old Luke Pidek at Penn Square Mall Friday afternoon, Dec. 12, 2008.  His parents, Eric and Mindy Pidek, Oklahoma City, brought their newborn son to see Santa for the first time. BY JIM BECKEL, THE OKLAHOMAN

I was still getting my equipment ready when I looked up and saw a pint-sized Santa snuggling up to the real Santa.  Almost in a panic,  I pulled a camera with the zoom lens to my face, made a quick light reading and pushed the shutter.  My exposure was close, so I continued to shoot as Santa held the baby for his portrait. The baby started to drool so Santa handed it back to the parent. Before the next child came forward, I made adjustments to my exposure and while balance on both camera bodies. Now I was ready, bring on the kiddos!

Andrew Sharp, 2, of Moore and Santa Claus enjoy a face to face chat  at Penn Square Mall Friday afternoon, Dec. 12, 2008. BY JIM BECKEL, THE OKLAHOMAN
Andrew Sharp, 2, of Moore and Santa Claus enjoy a face to face chat at Penn Square Mall Friday afternoon, Dec. 12, 2008. BY JIM BECKEL, THE OKLAHOMAN

Andrew Sharp, 2, of Moore, Okla., and Santa Claus enjoy a face to face chat  at Penn Square Mall Friday afternoon, Dec. 12, 2008.  BY JIM BECKEL, THE OKLAHOMAN

Over the span of my two decade career as a news photographer, this was not the first time I drew the assignment for Santa at the mall. I knew the determining factor as to how long I would be on this job would be what kind of children would jump up on his lap. It’s all about the child’s reaction to Santa. I’m not really looking for pictures of Santa, although that’s what my assignment suggests. What I’m keeping my eyes open for is a cute or unusual response when they are put on or beside the man in the red suit. And this day, the gods were smiling down on me. I could have left after the first three kids–I knew I had a good enough picture. But I still had some time and when I looked down the row of little ones waiting in line, I saw several that drew my interest.  A couple of girls were dressed in beautiful red and green dresses trimmed in black velvet. Someone, probably their mother, had invested quite a bit of time and effort curling their long hair. They wore cute smiles. I photographed one child after another, each just a little different than the previous.  Another infant was delivered to Santa. He, too, was dressed in a Santa suit. Wow!, I thought to myself. What are the odds of two babies wearing Santa suits coming to see Santa while was here? Very unlikely. But there it was. I couldn’t believe my luck.

Lanae McWethy, 4 months, of Moore, at Penn Square Mall Friday afternoon, Dec. 12, 2008.  This Santa Claus has been playing the "jolly man" for more than 20 years, he said. BY JIM BECKEL, THE OKLAHOMAN
Lanae McWethy, 4 months, of Moore, at Penn Square Mall Friday afternoon, Dec. 12, 2008. This Santa Claus has been playing the "jolly man" for more than 20 years, he said. BY JIM BECKEL, THE OKLAHOMAN

Lanae McWethy, 4 months, of Moore, with Santa Claus at Penn Square Mall Friday afternoon, Dec. 12, 2008.  This Santa Claus has been playing the “jolly man” for more than 20 years, he said. BY JIM BECKEL, THE OKLAHOMAN

When I was finished, I had photographed nine or so children. I had a good variety. I even had shots of a little boy who was traumatized at the thought of sitting on his lap and he broke into sobbing complete with tears. I felt sorry for him. Most kids enjoyed their time with the bearded benefactor.  A few were perplexed as what to do once they were on his lap.  And there was plenty of coaching and coaxing, both from adoring parents and from the woman behind the camera who patiently worked to get the most flattering picture of Santa and child. I finally called it quits. I felt confident that I had some good pics. Hopefully, my photos capture a wide range of emotions that will trigger a variety of memories when the reader sees them in the newspaper. All in all, it was a good shoot.  I got lucky.  Once again.

Danny Nichols, 2 1/2, Oklahoma City, shows his tears at Penn Square Mall Friday afternoon, Dec. 12, 2008. BY JIM BECKEL, THE OKLAHOMAN
Danny Nichols, 2 1/2, Oklahoma City, shows his tears at Penn Square Mall Friday afternoon, Dec. 12, 2008. BY JIM BECKEL, THE OKLAHOMAN

Danny Nichols, of Oklahoma City, cries during a visit to Santa Claus at Penn Square Mall Friday afternoon, Dec. 12, 2008. BY JIM BECKEL, THE OKLAHOMAN

Be sure to check out the rest of Jim’s photos at this address:

http://www.newsok.com/multimedia/photos/gallery/500280

-Nate Billings

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by Jim Beckel
Photographer
Jim Beckel been a member of The Oklahoman's photo staff for 25 years. During that time, he and his cameras have covered virtually every type of news and feature story imaginable, traveling to all regions of Oklahoma to document events and provide...
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by Nate Billings
Photographer
Nate Billings never planned to become a photojournalist. He took pictures as a hobby growing up and worked as an assistant for his father, a commercial still and video photographer, but chose to study English Literature in college. Billings did...
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