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

"The other very small secondary reason I did this series was because I was tired of seeing so many photos of sexy girls, shot at 85mm 1.4 that have been retouched and color toned to hell."

I thought I'd never say this... but yeah... I have to agree with ya there. That's why contrary to my snarkiness, I loved Lee's simplified shooting and the resulting pictures.

Good thing this shoot followed date logic.... because coming out of the closet with the above sentence, may have caused you to be dropped from a number of FS contributor's Holiday lists ;) Hope ya got all the toys and joys you were wishing for and everyone has short memories this time next year.

BTW: Here's wishing you, Lee and Team a successful and Happy "Shooters" New Year!

Dan Ostergren's picture

Guns make me a little bit uncomfortable, but despite that the photos are great. Love them as a series.

Matt Barr's picture

Love the concept, well done. There's some $2K+ guns in there, pretty nice xmas gifts. What state was this in?

mark payne's picture

bad timing what with france and every thing else going on not the best christmas shoot really who cares if gun owners are rich or poor young old black or white men women skinny or fat who really cares what sort of people own guns if your mother father son daughter sister brother wife husbond or even family pets where killed by a gun you going to care what they look like or what back ground they have no your world has just been distroyed by some one that either made a mistake or even worse shoot to kill the only things that should be shot around christmas are your cameras dont promote guns and any one who believes guns are cool or AMERICA LAND OF THE FREE MAN cancer is free to do you want that grow up america

John Ruth's picture

I am sorry these images offend you. It's your right to be offended. It's is not your right to imposed those values upon others who may wish to defend themselves. I believe our forefather got this correct, it's is every persons right to defend themselves if they choose to. You need a reality check, when seconds count the police are minutes away. Only Samuel Colt made all men equal, no matter what you have been taught. Evil exist in this world and the only way to stop it is equal or greater force. It is not the gun, but the person using the gun that determines If it is for good our evil. WAKE UP! A women mowed down 30+ people on a Las Vegas sidewalk last week, should we ban cars, or just women drivers?

mark payne's picture

well i dont have a gun dose that make me less equal coz so far i havent needed one none of my family had guns and they have never needed one and they all got to the end of there life with out the need for one cars where made to help humans and progress not distroy and yes we are learning better ways safer ways to make cars when some one gets shot im pretty glad there are abulances to get there to save peoples lives people dont need guns they want guns and thats scary some thing made for no other reason then kill a fellow human being

Pete Mack's picture

When I saw these images, I thought they were part of an anti gun campaign but alas America still can't see truth staring back at them.
I rather see them standing in front of that great flag as people who don't need guns.
Pete from Australia

Print a book. Awesome shoot. I will buy. As a life time NRA member your shoot broke the stereotypes we are angry with guns. No we are Americans exercising our 2nd amendment rights. I love the Man with he bayonet on his shotgun? Not sure shotgun. Your photos awesome and brought smile to my face. Thank you Patrick. Also love duck guy looking up. All well done and respectful. Cheers! Mark Fort Lauderdale. Ps. American newspapers will not show found in English papers online.

Chuck Eggen's picture

Nice job on the news this morning Patrick! I enjoyed the photo series too. I think they are well done. Love the site and I visit it daily.

Martin Francis's picture

An interesting idea for a project. I'd like to see set as a sort of group project handed out to different photographers, as I feel the visual style of the images could vary greatly according to the photographer's personal politics on the matter. As a British person, I'd love the opportunity to shoot it as a Martin Parr-style documentary series; a kind of postcard to home, showing how funny all these American people are with their guns and flags. Of course, as an outsider, I don't think I'd get the same kind of access that you did.

alexis vander linden's picture

giving guns for christmas : ok
see a nipple in art photo : not ok

i'm scared of you ;)

Obama outlines gun control measures.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q5amRtIPEtU

Anonymous's picture

I hoestly like the shots and the fact that you did an original project. On that note, thank you for reminding me of why I (after 4 years of military service overseas for the haters) decided not to live in America anymore ;-)