Kardashian Christmas Card: the making of the world’s most viewed holiday portrait

Kardashian Christmas Card: the making of the world's most viewed holiday portrait

Famous portrait photographer Nick Saglimbeni has been shooting the Kardashian Christmas card photo since 2010. Below he tells Jon Severs his approach to taking group photos, from posing tips to mastering skin tones, getting the right portrait lighting set up and how to get your shot in just 10 minutes!

Kardashian Christmas Card: the making of the world's most viewed holiday portrait

Nick's 2012 Kardashian Christmas card portrait

The Kardashian family have, in the past five years, become somewhat of a royal family of the US, attracting massive press attention and leading trends and styles throughout America and beyond. Each year, they release the Kardashian Christmas card, a photograph that prompts huge media coverage globally – last year, it was estimated to have been seen by 400m people.

The photographer that was behind that picture and the other recent Kardashian Christmas cards is award-winning LA portrait and 3D photographer Nick Saglimbeni. Below, Nick gives a behind the scenes insight to the making of this year’s card.

Kardashian Christmas Card: how photographer Nick Saglimbeni made the world's most viewed Christmas photo

I was first asked me to shoot the Kardashian Christmas card in 2010. The theme of the card largely depends on what’s going on in the family each year. There’s always a story, even if viewers don’t get it. If there are new children, if it’s been a prosperous year, if they want to make a statement – there’s always a piece of that in there.

The most challenging detail logistically is that you are dealing with multiple scheduling conflicts from high-profile celebrities. Family members are flying in and out of town just to shoot this card. So, typically, I’ll have less than 10 minutes with everyone in the same room before someone has to leave and catch a flight.

On the rare occasion where someone can’t make the shoot, we block them in anyway in our setup. My team records the positioning of the lights, camera and people, and then we can recreate the exact setup in my studio or at another location at a later date.

This year, we shot the card at a beautiful location in Miami called Temple House. It was fashioned after a Buddhist temple, with wide open spaces—very airy and bright. While the family was in hair and make-up, we shot several background plates with different exposures for the room, just in case the sun moved before they arrived on set—which of course it did!

Positing the family for the Kardashian Christmas card shoot

From a technical perspective, the two biggest issues this year were keeping the shutter slow enough to capture the environmental ambient light, and shooting with a high enough f-stop to hold a six-foot depth of field (front to back row).

I like to shoot at 100 ISO or less, so that always makes things harder. The camera was far enough away that I was able to get away with an f/11. I normally like the look of a 5.6/8 split, but I could live with an f/11 as long as it carried everybody in focus from front to back. I threw a light on the back wall to boost the environment exposure.

When you are lighting 12 people, with many of them stacked on top of each other, you can’t afford to have anyone fall into the shadows. So I have my lighting set pretty wide and then I cross-light so that no one goes dark. The most important thing for me is that their skin glows. This year, it was particularly challenging because they were all wearing white.

Normally, I would underexpose a stop or two, but I hate the way artificially brightened skin looks. You lose so many contours and so much detail, even in RAW. So I just let some of the whites clip, which actually made the card look super clean and ethereal. It’s very Miami (Click here to see a lighting diagram of the shoot).

This year there was quite a bit of compositing, not just with people but also with elements of the set. Practically speaking, you never get one shot where everybody looks their best at the same time, so you have to find split points where you can blend the shots.

I like to retain as much control within the elements as possible, so we use a lot of adjustment layers, masks and clipping paths. The PSD file has 162 layers—and every one of them is turned on, so there is no flattening along the way.

The 2012 Kardashian Christmas card is very happy and festive. You can feel that the family is in a really good place right now. The two cards before this one were criticised for being overly dramatic, but that was exactly our goal, so I take it as a huge compliment!

It’s very important to me that these portraits look nothing like the paparazzi shots you are used to seeing of the Kardashian family. Personally, I like all the Kardashian Christmas cards I’ve shot because they each represent a moment in time, not just for the family, but also creatively for me as an artist.

Kardashian Christmas Card: setting up the shot

For this shoot, Nick used two ProFoto Pro7A packs with three heads, with large umbrellas on the two keys and and a bare bulb with 216 diffusion into the background. He shot tethered to his MacBook Pro, “which has been beaten to crap from all my shooting in the desert”.

For more behind the scenes images and to keep up to date with Nick’s photographic and Photoshop tutorial work, you can find Nick on Facebook, Twitter and on his own blog.


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