Photographing an International Superstar for Christmas

It’s not everyday that I get to photograph an international superstar. This was a year in the making and it was a blast working with the whole cast. They were professional and had some great ideas. They were very photogenic so the hair and makeup budget was easy. So who are the infamous stars? The Peanuts Gang!

OK, they might not carry quite the weight as a LIVING famous person, but I can relate to these folks. I grew up watching all of the Peanuts movies on TV and read the comics. I do collect some of their stuff, but I don’t go to overboard. I have full size lawn ornaments of the gang that are still new in the box that will never see the yard, I have all kinds of figurines around the house of different characters and since it’s coming to that time of year, I pulled out or special tree. Yes, we have a full size Charlie Brown Christmas tree that we use for our tree. Complete with the red glass bulb and Linus’ blue blanket that acts as a tree skirt. Did I mention that I’m not an avid collector? Just because I have the theme song on my iPhone for a ring tone doesn’t make me obsessed, does it?

A year ago my wife was in a CVS drug store and found a replica of the main cast that was in the Charlie Brown Christmas movie. I’m not so crazy that I will spend an unlimited amount of money on Chinese plastic but $19.95 seemed fair. We put this up as our “manger” scene next to our Charlie Brown Christmas tree and this completed our Christmas decorating.  (Don’t tell my wife, but I have had thoughts of getting into the computerized tree lights!) I made the comment to her that I wanted to photograph these figures before we put them up for the year.

A year went by and they stayed on the dresser. Earlier this week, I had to do a product photography shoot and since I had everything all set up, this was my chance to photograph these guys. This won’t be a long and involved post. It’s getting close to the holidays and I’ll give your brains a week off. Of course, I’ll tell you how there were done as we go.

 spencer pullen photography snoopy and woodstock posing for a cookie photographSnoopy and Woodstock Making Cookies – Spencer Pullen © 2012 – All Rights Reserved

I was in a cookie mood myself. Like I said before, I can relate to these little guys. Snoopy even has an apron that says, “Happiness is a warm cookie”! When I make cookies, I make…ahem, a few. I have a software program on my Mac where I can input the recipe and have it scale it up or down to any quantity. I usually have to scale my cookie recipes up by triple, as I like to use an ice cream scoop for my cookie size. Some of you might be saying, “Ugh, isn’t that a rather big cookie?” Yes, indeed it is. Anyone can make little teaspoon size cookies; I want a cookie that will hit your 2,000 caloric limit in one shot!

Back to the photo, since I had platter of cookies lying around the house (this is also great if your father happens to be diabetic) so I had some props to use. I knew I wanted ole’ Snoop Dog with a cookie background. I fiddled with some cookies and got one of my masterpieces to stand up. I put Snoopy in from of it, but it was missing something since he was sitting on the white glass platter. I made him a platform to stand on and this looked much better.

As for the camera set up, this is what I use a lot for magazine shoots and anything else that has to be done well and fast. The camera was fitted on a sturdy tripod with an electronic release attached. I mounted my 50mm f/1.4 lens to the front. Off to camera left was a Nikon SB-800 speedlight on a light stand with a shoot through umbrella attached in front of the umbrella. So far this is standard operating procedure for me. I set the camera to ISO 100, f/2.8 at 1/250. I took a test shot. The lighting was OK, but my depth of field was a little too shallow. I was loosing Woodstock to a blur. Being the rebel that I am, I cranked my aperture up to a whopping f/5.6. This made Snoopy and Woodstock in focus and the cookie behind them is a bit soft, visually and also inside the cookie. It only gets worse from here folks. On the lighting, the side on camera right had too much of a shadow. I played around with this to see if it would add, “dimension” as the pros say. Well, after futsing with this thing for a while, I made the executive decision to add a fill card to open up the shadows. I used a really expensive $1 piece of white foam board to bounce light back into the shadow side of Snoopy. Now that the lighting equation was figured out, photographing the rest of these guys was going to be a snap.

 spencer pullen photography peanuts characters nativity scence linus lucy woodstock snoopy charlie brown sallyNativity Scene…Peanuts Style – Spencer Pullen © 2012 – All Rights Reserved

After I ate cleaned up the cookies, I moved the piece in place that I have been meaning to photograph a year now. As you can see the Chinese constructed a high quality stage out of some card stock that you bend and tongue and groove together. This was a real Martha Stewart project for me, now I see why she gets all the big bucks. This was lit the exact same way as Snoopy was. The biggest problem that I had here was Sally. She wanted no part of this photo shoot. She cried and kept falling over. I guess her angel wings were too big for her and hurting her shoulders. So I did what any great photographer would do, I gave her a cookie and told her to SHUT UP until I was finished…and a piece of scotch tape affixed her feet to the stage. She was a happy girl after that. Once I got her all set, apparently Linus got into the holiday wine as he was waiting. As you can see from the photo above, he is stoned and checking out all the colors on his staff. I don’t know how directors keep all their hair when working with the talent. A couple of shots and we were done!

 spencer pullen photography charlie brown christmas tree with linusFinding The Charlie Brown Christmas Tree – Spencer Pullen © 2012 – All Rights Reserved

Charlie and Linus went into their dressing rooms for a wardrobe change. I’m also the set designer for this production since we are working on a limited budget. I moved in the new background for the set and it was then I realized that we had a major problem. They boys were supposed to be out in a field of snow finding a Christmas tree. When we did the test shot, they were standing on a wooden kitchen table. This wasn’t going to fly. As I made a trip into the bathroom prop room, I found some high grade cotton balls. They were 10,000 balls for ¢.99. Since I’m the set designer and the talent is waiting on me to get this figured out so they can go to the coffee store and get their lattes, I started pulling apart cotton ball after cotton ball. After 15 minutes of arranging and sorting, I learned something about myself…I never want to be a set designer! Charlie and Linus moved in and I told them to look at the tree with some excitement and we snapped a couple and they were off to the coffee bar.

There you have it, a different spin on Christmas and decorations. Working with international talent can cause some tension between photographer and subject, but if you have enough cookies and scotch tape on hand, nothing is impossible.

Until next time…

Keep Your Glass Clean


  1. HO! HO! HO! What a riot! Merry Christmas.

  2. Happy Holidays Spencer,
    I loved your Snoopy and Gang Christmas!

  3. AHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!! Great Stuff! Love the Snoopy characters. Thanks for sharing. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you and your Family.

  4. Hi Spencer

    Peanuts is my favorite cartoon. I have a stuffed snoopy. I am looking to find more. I want a Charlie Brown.

    You Have a very Merry Christmas
    Dave Kern

  5. Awesome. Enjoyed reading this story.

  6. Spencer

    Thanks for all the great comments everyone! This was a fun shoot and how can you go wrong with the Peanuts? I have my work cut out for me next year. I already have more plans for 2013!


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