For the majority of people, the day after Christmas is usually filled with farewells to extended family members, house cleaning, writing thank you cards, and crashing on the couch to watch the final games of the football season. But for many Americans, the day after Christmas offers a unique opportunity: a chance to head out to the firing range and test the new guns and accessories they received from loved ones. This year, I decided to take my camera out to a local rifle range and document the people and guns who showed up the day after Christmas.
The concept for this shoot manifested itself a few weeks ago while I was celebrating a friend's birthday party. A few acquaintances started talking about guns and a friend of mine said, "Well, you definitely don't want to go out to the firing range the day after Christmas because it is filled with tons of rednecks shooting guns they gave each other." I had a little laugh when she told us her personal experience from the year before, and it made me start to think that maybe there was a really unique opportunity to document one of America's favorite pastimes.
In the south we casually throw the word "reckneck" around, and with the diversity surrounding Charleston, S.C. I knew that there would be all sorts of people showing up at the range. What I wasn't sure about was just how many people would make shooting guns a priority immediately following the holiday. This curiosity set up what would become one of the most interesting photoshoots of my career.
Great photography is so common these days that in order to make something stand out you really need to conceptualize your own vision before committing to a shoot. For these portraits, I wanted to capture people exactly as they showed up to the range. I also knew that in order to make a compelling photograph, I couldn't just take a photo against some trees or in the parking lot. My initial thought was to just set up a white roll of paper out in the field but that seemed a little boring. As I was exploring different background options, a friend of mine suggested I use an American flag he had in his garage. When I saw the huge flag in the studio I knew it would not only make for a great backdrop but it would also gain a lot of attention at the range.
Since Halloween, I have been trying to figure out a simple way to bring portable smoke to a few of my shoots. Recently we bought this cheap fog machine on clearance and we figured out how to run it off a deep cell marine battery with a cheap 400 watt power converter we got off Amazon. The typical solution for running a smoke machine on location is to use a generator but sometimes you need to use smoke in situations where a loud generator isn't possible. Since I was eager to test out my battery setup on a full day shoot, I decided to bring it along to the firing range. The smoke helped recreate the atmosphere you find at a rifle range when a dozen or so guns are going off in rapid succession. Plus it just looked cool.
The week before Christmas, I invited a few friends over to the studio so I could design the overall lighting and aesthetic of the portraits. The lighting setup was pretty straightforward, with a single Profoto beauty dish as the key light, positioned as close to the subject as possible without being in the frame. I used a second Profoto B1 head firing back through the flag to give some backlighting to my subject. Since the shoot was happening outside, where the ambient light was bright, I went ahead and conducted the test shoots with the Profoto B1s at near full power. We added a little smoke from behind and fired away. The resulting images were pretty awesome, as you can see above. One little challenge I had to overcome was the backlight on the flag lighting the blue field with stars unevenly. I decided to block the light passing through the stars by gaffing up the entire backside of the flag so only the red and white stripes would glow.
Once the test shots were completed and I knew the photos were to my liking, it was time to prepare for the actual day of shooting. Since I had been warned of how hectic the range would be, I got up early and drove out to the range in time to pick my spot. It was important to be close to the action, but far enough away that it I could still communicate with everyone as dozens of guns fired in the distance. My friend, Nick Milak, helped me set up the Avenger Stands, get the flag up, position all the lights, and test out the smoke machine. Everything went exactly as planned in the studio, except I did not anticipate the wind blowing the smoke off to the side of the frame. The simple solution to this problem was to wave the smoke machine in both directions to fill as much of the frame with fog as possible. It didn't always work perfectly, but it was also easy to blend a few exposures in post if I needed extra fog in the final image.
As I said in the video, I wasn't exactly sure who would show up or how people would react to this portrait session. During my five-hour stay at the range, I probably saw over 150 people come and go, with only about 20 percent of them agreeing to take part in the photoshoot. Those that did take part were extremely enthusiastic. It was important to me that the people in these photos weren't overly posed or acting like they were in combat, although a few people did gravitate towards that direction. Most everyone cooperated with me and simply displayed their rifles and handguns in a respectable manner. The majority of people out at the range that day had a few guns, and some had even received ammunition for Christmas, so I made sure to include that in the portraits. The craziest gun from the whole day was "Christine," who had the custom-made, pink 50-Caliber anti-tank rifle. It was also bedazzled in jewels.
Overall, this portrait session was pretty easy because I had prepared well in advance. Everyone who had their photo taken was super excited about the images, and each portrait had its own character with the smoke and the variety of weaponry displayed. Obviously, the politics concerning gun ownership and how the U.S. Second Amendment fits into today's society is a highly debated topic. My goal with these portraits wasn't to take any particular side in that argument, but instead, I just wanted to capture the diverse group of gun owners from every walk of life, as they enjoyed their hobby following Christmas. I think what makes any photo series interesting is seeing how individual people with different cultures, beliefs, and ideologies interpret and critique a collection of photographs. For me, these are some of the most interesting photographs I have ever taken, and this is a series I could see myself revisiting down the road.
Enough talk about preparation, technical photography talk, and the entire experience. Below are a few of my favorite images from the entire day. I have to be honest and say I'm not an expert in gun nomenclature, so if you know the names of any of the guns included in this series, feel free to discuss them in the comments below.
A bunch of news outlets have featured this photo series since I published it. Fox New's Fox and Friends recently featured me on their show to talk about how the photo series came about and my thoughts on the series as a whole.