A Santa Shoot Turned Into a Christmas Wonderland for Sick Children [Exclusive Behind The Scenes]

A Santa Shoot Turned Into a Christmas Wonderland for Sick Children [Exclusive Behind The Scenes]

The Christmas Wish Project that has now gone viral and this incredible photography and Photoshop work is being showcased across the world, bringing joy and imagination to her audience. Karen Alsop, the photographer behind the project, was kind enough to exclusively share the behind the scenes of her project.

We caught up with Karen to find out the Photography back story of just how she managed to photograph and composite 30 photographs of children with Santa into 30 scenes in one day.

Alsop came up with the concept a couple of Christmases ago actually, she set up a Christmas photo booth with a green screen and Christmas scenes. Each image was carefully chosen, so that the lighting quality, direction and perspective would match from scene to scene.

I set this Christmas Photo Booth up at a Carols Event of 8000. I gathered a team of helpers, animals, Santa, and an Elf and photographed children during the event. I composited them in on the spot and had prints ready within the hour.

Though this initial project wasn’t a (total) success, it was a great learning experience and it prompted the idea for doing something similar for sick children in hospital. I wanted to give them a way to escape the hospital into a magical Christmas wonderland, at least in a creative sense.

Alsop claims her success in this project was in the preparation. Each scene was created from composing multiple photographs along with stock images; the background scenes were crafted over a few months. To test and prepare the photo setup, she brought in Santa and a young girl, Phoebe, in the Story Art studio and captured them with the same lighting that was planned to be used at the hospital.



Part of the preparation process also included simplifying the Photoshop file, and grouping the layers into foreground and background. In the foreground Alsop added lighting effects, color toning, and some atmospheric subtleties (smoke, dust, etc.) that would bring the whole scene together. She also created a group layer designated for the subjects to be placed into; the subject's group had a clipping masked to it (color toning to match the setting and shading).



After setting up our studio...we needed to run some tests with Santa before the children arrived.

The first scene was the living room scene. In order to make this easier to comp in quickly, I had the fur rug in the scene to match where it was in my background plate. This meant that the feet of the subjects and chair could sink into the rug, and then a simple mask and paint back to blend with the background plate rug was all I needed to do on the base.

Alsop's lighting set up was quite similar between scenes as well as the perspective (the height of the camera). It was a simple process to position the camera on the tripod and shoot tethered to her Wacom Cintiq companion directly. She controlled the camera on the companion using EOS Utility and automatically imported the images into Lightroom. 




Often she would run a quick test in Photoshop, ensuring that the scene would come together when it came to the full edit later that day. She usually shoots this way because it makes a great safety net for her. Knowing that she had the shot meant that we could streamline each child's photo sessions into a few minutes with Santa, and then move to the next. 

Some settings took longer than others. The city scene for example, required shadows underneath their feet, so the composites took around an extra 10 minutes or so.



The whimsical toadstool scene also required shadows so again this one took around 10 minutes to bring together in Photoshop.



The living room Scene was the quickest, due to the "furry rug trick," but there was still the need to Photoshop out IV lines and monitors.



Alsop says the night time scene does looks complex, the background took many hours to finish. All the imagery you see in the night-time scene photo was her photography including: the Super Moon Alsop took one month ago, the foliage brush, and the toadstool that were purchased from a local garden store. The lavender field and foliage made compositing easy because she was able to mask the subjects into the foliage with a "foliage brush" from her collection, making it look like the subjects were in the bush.



Alsop photographed 30 different photos, made the compositions, and delivered the photos in the same day. She shared how any photographer can make this possible:

1. Ensure you have a strong team.

I had a project manager, Adam Cubito, that handled all the logistics and allowed me to concentrate on the creative aspect. He also had an assistant on the day. I had a videographer, a behind the scenes photographer, a point person from the hospital (a nurse that volunteered for the whole day). We partnered with Kayell Australia and they provided and set up all the lighting gear. They printed each finished print. I would conclude an edit, and they would print the next one. The production line of helpers then framed and wrapped, ready for delivery

This is not the sort of project that you can do solo, at least not at this level. But it is a project that people will volunteer for and will stand with you on. Reach out to others to make it happen.


2. Partner With Supporters 

Adobe Australia were our partners on this project, and we couldn’t have done this without their support. There were various costs involved in putting on a project of this magnitude and ensuring that the end product remains completely free for the hospital and the patients. We couldn’t have done this without Adobe Australia’s involvement. You may not have a big company contact, but see if you can partner with businesses that you already have a relationship with. Bring on the support of others to help make it happen.

3. Plan, Plan, Plan!

The success of this project came from careful planning. Without going in with a clear structure, attempting 30 complex composites in one day would have been impossible.

We are now working through some ideas that will empower photographers around the world to do this in their own areas for 2017 and would love to hear from anyone that is interested in being a part of the worldwide 2017 Christmas Wish Project.

Please write to karen@storyart.com.au


Alsop also released a step-by-step tutorial on how make the compostions edits that can be viewed here!


Images used with permission from Karen Alsop


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Brian Reed's picture

LOVE, LOVE, LOVE this article. Thank You for sharing it. :-)

Michael Yearout's picture


Very impressive and what a nice thing to do. I've been volunteering at my local RE/MAX office for the last 5 years to take photos of children with Santa, but nothing so elaborate. But much of what you said I have learned during that time. Plan, plan and plan. Figure out a way to keep track of who is who and get an email address that you can read in order to deliver the images. Even then, something always seems to go awry. But it is all fixable and everyone loves the images.

Karen Alsop's picture

Awesome to hear what you've been doing Michael! Yes it was a huge task! We managed to get the framed prints out to the children the same day, but our day stretched out :) We finished after 10 instead of 6pm. But our team worked tirelessly to make it all happen. Big thanks to everyone that was part of this.

Dick Minchin's picture

What task you took on Karen and pulled it off. Great to see projects like this and you using a lot of your time to create it. And the kids would have loved it as well. Merry Christmas to you and your family. And thanks for make a better Christmas for all the ones in hospital Karen..♥

Karen Alsop's picture

Thank you Dick! It was such a wonderful and impacting experience. My family will be sharing Christmas together in our home, while many of these kids will still be in hospital. I'm thankful that this project, and my art, was able to bring some joy into their world.

Karen Alsop's picture

Thank you F-Stoppers for the interview and for sharing this project! I hope photographers everywhere are inspired to do something like this for 2017. It was an incredibly rewarding experience, and so awesome to bring that little bit of joy to these families.

Bob Bell's picture

Wow, got pretty emotional watching that! Awesome work Karen, inspiring me to use my skills to help others too. All the best

Fritz Grimm's picture

incredible beautiful!