Photographs of Americans and Their Christmas Guns

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.

Behind the scenes of the simple lighting setup.

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.

The Concept

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 test shoot in the studio allowed me to work on the concept.

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. 

The Execution

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.

The Photographs

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.  

 

 

 

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135 Comments

I like the generator-free smoke machine set-up. How long does the battery last in that set-up?

Patrick Hall's picture

I tested it one night it was cold and it ran for 3 hours with about 30 bursts of smoke. I recharged the battery and it still registered 12v so I think it can run a while. The fog machine was def the most difficult element of the shoot

Leigh Smith's picture

When outside sometimes its just easier to grab a bunch of 4th-of-July smoke bombs. They even come in colors!
You could always try the "smoke in a can" as well.

Patrick Hall's picture

I actually had the aerosol in a can guys stop by the office. Unfortunately it was too windy outside and the fog from the cans isn't as dramatic as what I needed.

Andres Herren's picture

or i can recommend the peasoup battery powered smoke machine. they are perfect

Terry Hernlund's picture

Nice project. I like it.

ALEX ~'s picture

Nicely done, Patric, very 'mmmerican, man! I like the concept, a lot.

And while I want to focus on the photography aspect of this article but it's hard to ignore the subject(s) at hand - yes, the site of halfwits with firearms who have no business holding them annoys me, a lot. Guilty!

...come to think of it, I have no plans for the coming weekend and the range is just a few miles down, hmm :)

Dan Savinelli's picture

Don't mean start a debate. Unless you met these people, to call them halfwits is passing a pretty strong judgement. How do you know, some of them may have masters degrees.

ALEX ~'s picture

Controversial subjects are bound to evoke strong responses, or am I not PC enough? C'mon, masters degrees..? What does that have to do with anything. I hold an MBA - does that give me some sort of extra bonus points, lol?

And while I'm sure many of these folks are LEOs and vets, didn't you get the irony of the project? These are average joe folks who bejewel their anti-tank canons after unwrapping them from under the Xmas tree... as toys.

So yeah, strong judgement on my end. I stand by it.

Dan Savinelli's picture

its not that Alex, but thats like people looking at all our profile pictures on this blog and saying we must be dumb because we are photographers. sounds kind of unfair, does it not? when in actuallity you have a masters and are probably a pretty smart guy.

ALEX ~'s picture

Touche.

Jason Vinson's picture

Some of those "halfwits" are probably off duty cops and military personnel so you may want to save your judgements for something you actually know about.

ALEX ~'s picture

Sorry mate, but I'll judge all I want. That's the beauty of... you guessed it - MMMERICA!

"Halfwits" just might've been a bit harsh as a blanket label, but have you been to a gun range before? I frequent it, because of a bit of a nostalgia and simply get a kick out of it. And I see my share of the the said "halfwits" more often than not. For instance: brining your 4 year old daughters to a place where stuff's flying all over (no point in debating the "safety" precautions... it's a flipping gun range with combat grade firearms and ammunition) is nothing short of... halfwitted, in my book. Peace.

Tyler Newcomb's picture

I don't want to get onto an argument, but just want to let you know that competition shooting has fewer injuries than any common team sport. Gun ranges are relatively safe.

David Vaughn's picture

A counter-argument since we're relying on anecdotal experience: my ranch often serves as a family gun range, and there have never been any accidents. I was also taught to shoot when I was, I don't know...7 years old? And even then I was so terrified of the power of firearms that I obsessed over every part of safety procedure for fear that something might go wrong.

ALEX ~'s picture

1 - Because I can, and because being MMMERICAN is precisely the reason I can do that without fear of government persecution or some other nonsense. I don't have to agree with anything you say and vice versa and we can get offended all we want and guess what - that's OK.
2 - Because it's called sarcasm and refers to....forget it, if you don't get it, well... you won't get it even if I elaborate.
3 - What does actually being an American have to do with voicing an opinion? You assumed wrong as I happened to be one, yes, but that's besides the point. Are you saying you must to be of certain nationality to make sarcastic comments about that nation's stereotypes?

See the problem here?

ALEX ~'s picture

Wow, dude, way too melodramatic.

Tell you what... you're getting way too worked up over this, while making all kinds of wild assumptions and accusations and still not seeing the sarcasm (thought I was laying it on pretty thick).

That's OK, because one of benefits (and also responsibilities) of being a TRUE CITIZEN is... "Tolerance for differences." Look it up. And so while I'm perfectly tolerant of people doing what they want with their guns and otherwise, which is the actual topic of the debate, you, sir, clearly can't tolerate other citizens' differences of opinion. That, actually, is as UN-American as it gets.

And please, spare yourself any further embarrassment of defining what it means to be an American with your clear prejudice against peoples of other nations who have opinions different than yours.

I'm bowing out, peace.

Victor Gonzales's picture

Is there a specific type of person that is supposed to carry firearms? Judging by the photos, there are many different people, not just one set type. Can you tell us which ones are the half-wits and which aren't?
As far as the photos, all of them are holding them properly in the sense that they are not pointing them towards anyone, and none of them have their finger on the trigger, so they don't seem that dumb to me.

ALEX ~'s picture

Carry? Yeah, very specific.. those who passed CCW requirements, for one. And check your facts, buddy: at least two are trigger happy in the images above.

Patrick Hall's picture

I'm currently in Texas and I heard tonight that on Jan 1st an open carry policy goes into affect. Other states already have this but basically it means that legally you can carry a firearm out in the open without a CCW permit. I know for South Carolina you also do not need a CCW permit to carry a firearm.

ALEX ~'s picture

Yup, saw that too - pretty wild, though not surprising for a place like TX. I'm in CA and hold a concealed permit myself, but I can't image such open carry freedom here happening anytime soon. Frankly I don't see a point, but that's a whole other controversial debate in it's own ;)

By means of contrast, in states like NY (have immediate family in NYPD) open carry would be a complete nightmare... Imagine taking the D train to Fordham Rd. or J train to Bushwick and everyone's strapped. That'd be fun.

p.s. didn't mean to cause ruckus with my, clearly unpopular, onions on this post, btw. Happy New Year!

Patrick Hall's picture

Nah, I like the debate. It's good to hear all sides of the conversation

Small correction, Patrick. The new law that went into affect January 1st allows only people with carry permits to openly carry handguns. As you said, there are other states that allow unlicensed open carry of handguns, such as Virginia, Alaska, Vermont, etc, but Texas isn't one of them. You still need to have a carry permit to openly carry a handgun in Texas.

Beautiful photographs by the way.

Patrick Hall's picture

Yes you are right. They made a big to do about it while I was in Dallas last week but you do still need the carry permit.

Roman Kazmierczak's picture

Halfwits because their hobby is shooting?

ALEX ~'s picture

Read man, actually read before posting.

Imagine that, the instrument of manslaughter; a symbol more important and revered than even the cross. Such a weird age we live in.

Dan Savinelli's picture

Its actually a very enjoyable sport, like golf. like getting a whole in one on paper. I know may loving and peaceful people who enjoy it. people that would not hurt a fly. Thats like saying cameras are evil because terrorist groups use them to record sick things to put fear in us. BTW, I greatly revere the cross more than any other thing in my life. But enjoy the sport of the latter as well.

ALEX ~'s picture

Funny, I was just thinking - when will the Almighty enter this discussion. Never fails!

Dan Savinelli's picture

Aaamen.