Santa is a-changing (along with the times).

In addition to being an awesome wedding, portrait and event photographer I bet many of you don’t know that I moonlight in December as Santa’s official photographer. (And queue the elf jokes in 3,2,1....)


Santa Photos are a big part of what I do.  At Martinez Santa House, I diversify my business and serve my community. I didn’t start out as a photographer thinking that I was going to run a Santa photo operation; it just happened naturally. When the Director of Main Street Martinez approached me, tired of the grind of working in Santa House along with her 40-hour plus full-time job I was a fairly new photographer. I didn’t quite know what I was getting myself into so I wholeheartedly jumped into the world of candy canes, Christmas wish lists, ear-whispering and jolly old elves. With an exceptional team in place that I’ve built and strengthened (we now employ 7 people) we have increased the number of visitors to see us year after year. 


The world has changed a lot since 2011. Gone are the days where I could easily pick up a child and help them onto Santa’s lap without a second thought. Gone are the days where a chair will suffice (we have moved to using a love seat to create a natural buffer).  Kids  sometimes need physical space and options to create it that are as unique as they are.  As a photographer and business owner who regularly works with “the big guy” and little people I recognize that in order to help Martinez Santa House flourish my team and I need to be sensitive to the times and our visitors’ needs, perceptions and limits. Children also are developmentally averse to strangers and each of them differ in how quickly they warm up to them. Add the specter of “celebrity” status on top of that (who doesn’t freeze up when they meet a legend?) and you have a whole soup of emotions and reactions.  Now, add in the #metoo movement and teaching our children about consent. The way Santa and his team work must change with the climate. If we want fun visits with Santa to continue it’s important to address this. 

I’m not going to judge or really talk about the small children (ages 2 and under) crying with Santa photos; the kids who are too little to really remember and understand what is happening when they are deposited on Santa’s lap. They're plopped down for no more than 20 seconds and that's their reaction to leaving their parent's arms. No way do we extend the fear.  We won’t allow a child who is fully aware, cognizant, utterly terrified, verbally able to communicate that terror and likely to be traumatized to sit on our Santa’s lap. This age of consent that is upon us is nothing new to our team. Our Santa is a grandfather, a kind, sensitive and empathetic family man. It hurts him to inflict any trauma on a child and he will refuse to do so. It’s important to teach anyone who works with children about consent and respecting physical boundaries.


And while putting a fully-aware child on Santa's lap is a boundary that is easy to set emotional boundaries also should be established. Our Santa will be careful to ask if a child's behavior has been "good enough" vs the old "naughty or nice" question. Santa Bruce says the "age for letting a child think they'll get NO gifts because they're bad is long gone. If you have to use Santa as a behavior lever, you're too late. Children can be naughty, certainly, but sometimes that "naughtiness" is simply an age-appropriate response to being tired, or being stressed. To let a small child think that Santa will cut them out because they didn't do a chore or "talked back" is like hunting mosquitoes with a bazooka. I have it on good authority that Santa has yet to meet a bad child." (Santa Bruce is as eloquent as he is kind, isn't he?). 


 We work in a world where we must ask a child if they want to sit next to Santa instead of on his lap or even stand next to him. We need to respect children's’ boundaries and be prepared to give them options. We need to support their emotional needs.  Any child-centered business MUST adapt or they risk atrophy. We love kids, Santa and Christmas. We don’t want these traditions to die and become vilified because someone isn’t respecting children as actual people. That backlash may even be on its way as more people chose to skip the visit with Santa based on today's social climate. Yes, you can vilify Santa by saying he is a stranger who gives children candy (sounds a little creepy, right?)  but if he is the right Santa, his lap (or the spot next to him) is soft place to land; he’s a grownup who will listen and children, they need to be heard too. 

An Open Letter to


Dear Minted:

I’ve been photographing families for seven years. Let me tell you; it’s been a long slog. I’ve learned so many things through the years that makes my work consistent and creates happy clients, I’ve also learned that I work in a community of other independent photographers and we have also come to help, rely on and yes, compete with one another and still be friends at the end of the day. Minted; I’m not so sure we can be friends. Friends work to understand one another’s backgrounds and the difficulties we face and we tend to value one another, not use one another or pull our friends into schemes that don’t work to their advantage based on false promises. We also like our friends to earn living wages. 

I see you’re offering in-home photoshoots for $100 Wow. What a bargain! 

How are Photographers paid? You are paying your contract photographers $50 per session.  On paper it sounds like $100 per hour for the photographer—which to just about anyone—sounds AWESOME. But it's not.  In any case when you account for travel time/parking, culling the session (selecting the 50 best images) and a buffer for uncooperative clients each session should probably be at least 1.5 hours apart. Let’s do the math:

5 sessions per day with 30 minute lunch break: $250

Parking or Uber: -$50

Tax rate for self-employed (35%) $70

*Total take-home for 8-hour day $130 or $16.25 per hour. Just at living wage for SF and also WITHOUT gear or business or health insurance costs taken into account. Once you add those in you are looking at a wage below the living wage calculator.

Cities are a total bitch to work in. Traditionally people  charge/pay for that. Have you all driven around San Francisco and tried to find a place to park? We're talking about sessions in people's HOMES, not one park where multiple clients can travel back-to-back for minis. It’s an extra 20-30 minutes, to be sure to park at each destination. And allow 30-60 minutes to get from location to location on top of that. It won’t be free. Parking really isn’t free in most areas of SF. Many people opt to Uber instead, but course that costs money too.… Also—there has been a rise in gear theft in San Francisco. It’s risky to carry $10,000+ worth of gear. Many Bay Area photographers are simply opting not to work in San Francisco or charge a premium to reflect the risk and time spent getting around.

Let’s do the math for a minimum kit: 

  • Full frame camera: $2000-$3500 x2 (always carry a backup)
  • 35 1.4 $900-$1650 (for ultra-low light situations)
  • 24-70 2.8ii- $1799 (for versatility)
  • 600rt—$450x2 (when it’s just too danged dark)
  • Professional liability and equipment insurance—Now what happens when your photographer bumps into a family heirloom and it crashes into oblivion or Dallas dumps his juice into your photographer’sKelly Moore bag? Will you be liable for those occurrences? Probably not. No photographer who wants to stay in business and keep their car, house or the shirt on her back is going to work without spending at least $600 a year on liability and equipment insurance. I’m sure with independent contractors it’s all on them.

TOTAL: $8199-$11,949. And continued hard use at sessions contributes to an overall depreciation of equipment value of 25% per annum for cameras and 10% for lenses.


The Shoot: 

Now that I’ve bored you with numbers and statistics let’s talk about logistics. Shooting in a home requires a certain amount of know-how. A pro-photographer is going to want to turn off all of the artificial lights. He/she is going to need to make the right lens choices. They may need to don their rubber gloves and help declutter while mom is wrangling the kid who doesn’t want to wear pants—or any clothes at all.  30 minutes, huh? Sure… make sure you tell the two-year-old who is obsessed with trains that he needs to stop ramming his caboose into the dog’s tail for a posed session with a person he’s never met and doesn’t have time to warm up to (stranger danger is real, y’all). Before I pick up my camera I spend time with the children, playing and getting to know them. I am all up IN the dollhouse. Hand me a Barbie. Any one will do. I’ll be the baby, the mom or Barbie dog. Whatever it takes to make a new little friend!  I also connect with the parents and I make sure that everyone feels comfortable around me—this is outside of the actual time spent on the session itself.


I mean, it’s expensive to hire a pro to get consistent photos in a home. Those dreamy in-home photos like the one in Martha Stewart Living are shot with gear and know-how that lets us go into the unknown. Those shots can take hours to produce (how long did it take for you to make that ad photo?).  Not every home is filled with light, styled minimalistically or is magazine ready.  Most homes are spaghetti-ceilinged low light clutter bombs and require professional-level lenses, cameras and sometimes when there is no natural light, flashes.

Listen, Minted. I know this sounds great to you. I know that you are justifying this as a service to Minted customers. But you are doing a disservice to them. With your pretty in-magazine ad you are selling them on a quick, painless, convenient experience;  in your words "easy, beautiful in-home photography for the holidays."  Do you have realistic expectations about how that's achieved? Do you understand that a pro can’t actually afford to work this business model and that you’re setting your customer up for disappointment because a pro is required to meet the expectation of "easy" and "beautiful" given the limitations of in-home photography? Your message to customers regarding a custom in-home session’s worth is that it should only be $100 when a good session is worth so much more.  Inviting a stranger into a customer's home for $100 may sound like a great option but it just may be a waste of their time and money. There is a disconnect between what you're promising and what is possible. And that can create bad will and someone who will complain about Minted far and wide. If the customer is someone who is new to personal photography they may also decide that it's not for them based on this experience. 

In closing: 

Minted. Oh Minted. This is not a healthy relationship. I’m going to set some boundaries here. Do your research. Find out what the market rate is for in-home minis. For example:  I charge $300 for my 30-minute in-home session and I get to keep all of the money (after expenses and Uncle Sam). I also get to keep my copyrights and I leave room for the up-sell. This gives me a living wage, affords me a decent salary and residual income should a client decide they'd like to purchase more images at a later date.

Pay your photographers enough money to cover their costs and earn a comfortable wage. Give them an incentive to sell more and make more. Maybe take that $206,400 you spent on that Martha Stewart Living full page ad and invest in valuing photographers. This program may seem on the surface just a loss-leader for sales of your cards but in reality it's a vampiric program sipping from the lifeblood of small businesses. It hurts our artistic community. It hurts the people who make content for your cards.


Just stick with making freaking adorable cards. I quit doing that once you cornered the market. Do you need to try and swoop up the rest of our livelihoods by changing perceived value?  Do your clients and your business partners a favor; (hint: photographers are your business partners-- and as a friend recently advised "don't $hit where you eat") refer reputable, vetted photographers to clients and we’ll work your affiliate program. For now I'll be sending my clients to Paperless Post (they do make things with paper).



Nicole Digiorgio

UPDATE: I got a nice email from a Minted employee stating that they are accelerating a referral program for "established professional photographers" based on the feedback they've been getting. I'm curious as to how they'll differentiate the categories. 

 Minted also claims that the entry level aspect of their program is a way for photographers to get in front of people who have typically used cell phone shots in their Holiday cards, for newer photographers to "further build their experience" and for established photographers to backfill their schedules.  

Look.  Everyone starts somewhere. There are those photographers who charge $20 for a mini-session that you find all over treasure sites on Facebook. Those photographers may be served by a program such as this because I would assume that there are certain legal requirements these photographers would need to fill that they may have ignored up until that point.  However, it must be noted that Minted recruitment programs have been actively pursuing established, skilled photographers. Whether they change the entry level market or not--and whether their new customers see value in choosing an "referral program" photographer after conversion from iphone photography remains to be seen. I would guess that if those customers are happy with entry level photography they'll continue with it. 

Destination Wedding: Sweet Sonoma Wine Country Wedding

Carrie and John think about everyone around them. It was so obvious that this was true when their families gathered for Thanksgiving weekend at The Garden Pavilion in Sonoma, Ca.  Things like--John gave up his chair for his sister-in-law whose child had to be near Dad when he was giving a speech; when they insisted on a photo with their caterer, Tip Top Tapas (who are masters of all things delicious and Spanish, by the way). When Carrie brushed aside a lock of hair in her sister's face and smiled into her eyes and then proceeded to fasten her flower girl's lockets she had engraved with their initials on them it filled my heart; yes, when you spend the day with Carrie and John it's to witness love in motion and not much more matters.

I met Carrie when I photographed her friend Nadine's wedding and then had the same pleasure at her sister Elly's wedding. These are three special woman who all had intensely beautiful, emotionally connected days. They love art and when you work with women like that you are free to create--in fact their spirits --allowing so much love into their hearts-- are inspirations for the rest of us. 

Catering by Tip Top Tapas

Florals by: Andrea Frankel from Lily & Mint

Videographer: Final Frame Studios, Inc

Cake: Sweet Cakes / Jill Habansky 

DJ:  DJ Jeremy Productions