After shooting around Chico for my first five cards, I went all out for the 2013 Christmas card and ended up with what is probably the most beautiful of the cards that I’ve shot so far.
After years of joking about doing a Sierra Nevada Santa Claus — where jolly Ol’ St. Nick enjoys a local brew similar to the iconic Coca-Cola ads — I finally came up with a workable solution.
I always had a number of reservations about the Sierra Nevada Santa, including the fact that I don’t want to encourage drinking and sleighing. I also didn’t necessarily want to go to the expense and effort of renting a Santa costume, especially because I had doubts that I could pull off a convincing Santa.
After some consideration, I thought that I could build a snowman wearing a Sierra Nevada shirt. I always strive for a PG-rated card and the shirt in of itself is fairly innocuous. I would also need to go to a location where there was snow and my first thought was of Lake Tahoe.
I’d never been to Lake Tahoe before and I was excited to check it out while shooting my card. Although I’ve always maintained that one of my goals was to create Chico-oriented cards, I made an exception because it doesn’t really snow in Chico and that I was remaining in Northern California.
As time passed, I worried about being able to get to the picturesque lake in time. After hearing of snow in foothills and Sierra Nevada, I decided to try a location closer to home up Feather River Canyon on Dec. 8.
It was a total bust. After driving up Highway 70 along the winding Feather River, I made it to Quincy. My hopes were buoyed by the fact that the snow cover increased as I headed further uphill. I sought an open field to build the snowman and picked Feather River College just outside of town.
Attempting to build a snowman in Quincy
It … didn’t go well:
The snow didn’t clump very well and it was impossible to build a firm enough snowball to form the nucleus of the snowman.
After a few minutes of trying, I gave up and retreated down the hill back to Chico frustrated but happy that I had enough time to pursue alternatives.
The alternative came up quickly. I realized I could use my California Rail Pass that I would buy to travel to San Diego for the transportation to South Lake Tahoe. The Rail Pass was a great value — for $159, a passenger can travel to destinations within California on any seven days during a 21-day period (with several conditions). Although Amtrak doesn’t have a train that goes to Lake Tahoe, it has a motorcoach that makes the connection from Sacramento.
Leaving Davis Station in December 2013.
On Dec. 14, I made the trip to South Lake Tahoe via Davis and Sacramento. I was bundled for the cold, but it was a gorgeous sunny day. I primarily slept on the bus as it traveled on Highway 50, which was probably for the best because it is a very windy road up to Tahoe.
When I arrived in South Lake Tahoe, I was a little bummed out that the buildings were a little dowdy. I had pictured either a quaint downtown with classic old buildings or picturesque mountain village. What I saw was neither — much of the construction was simple, modern boxy construction.
Adjusting my expectations appropriately, I consulted with a map at the visitor’s center to look for an open field that would help provide an appropriate view of the mountains that ring the lake. Seeing a place that I could work, I walked a short distance to Rabe Meadow.
The meadow was perfect. There were houses nearby, but the meadow presented an open field with near-pristine snow with either stands of trees or the mountains themselves as possible backgrounds.
The snowman as I was about to leave Rabe Meadow
After picking an ideal spot, I set to build the snowman. It went far easier than before and I was able to quickly build the three spheres that would comprise my model. When it came time to put the Celebration Ale shirt over the snowman, I quickly realized that its torso was too big.
Because I was working with snow, I used my gloved hands to hack away at the snowman’s torso until it was just broad enough for the shirt to fit comfortably. As some of the photos show, the lower part of the snowman is disproportional to the rest of the snowman but I generally refrained from photographing the snowman’s whole body.
After putting on the T-shirt, I wrapped a scarf around the snowman to add further character to the creature. For his face, I used a handful of stones that I’d gathered outside my apartment in Chico. Once he was decorated, I think he resembled an Ewok or perhaps a stuffed teddy bear I had as a child.
A close-up of the Sierra Nevada snowman
Getting everything set up went fairly quickly and I was able to take dozens of photos of the snowman from different angles and distances. It was tricky because I wanted to adequately capture the background in addition to featuring the snowman prominently while showing the Sierra Nevada T-shirt.
It was a positive that I could rotate the snowman to capture different backgrounds. I tried to shoot pictures with the mountains stretching across the horizon and others with a stand of trees extending into the background.
Complicating things was trying to capture the scene without having odd objects in the background intruding on the snowman at weird angles. It was also warmer than I had expected and the snow was melting. That ordinarily wouldn’t be too big of a problem, but the water was starting to soak the T-shirt which showed up on a few shots and the rock eyes began to fall from the snowman’s face. (It turned out that it was best that I shot photos on that day because there was no additional snow that month amid the ongoing drought).
Generally, the photography went well with terrific early winter sunlight. A passerby was nice enough to take a photo of me with my creation.
The Sierra Nevada Snowman and me.
After finishing the shoot, I was able to enjoy walking around South Lake Tahoe. I had booked a room overnight, so I had plenty of time to walk out to the beach and then head back toward town for some food, libations and entertainment before calling it a night. It was definitely a great trip and I felt that I had a great card on my hands.
When I returned to Chico, I had the challenge of finding the right photo and creating the best possible card. I went through the dozens of photos and picked the two or three that I felt best captured the moment. I generally liked a photo where the snowman was in front of the mountains with the blue sky in the background. However, I ultimately preferred a picture with the snowman in front of the stand of trees because I like how the evergreens contrasted with the white snow and red T-shirt.
Once I picked the photos, it was a matter of picking the right card template. I generally didn’t like the Costco templates because I felt they failed to showcase the actual photo prominently enough. This year, I looked at the Apple iPhotos card templates and found a couple of viable options. I also tried different messages including “A Celebration for All Occasions.”
Thumbnails of possible 2013 cards.
I definitely liked the iPhoto designs better than the Costco ones, but it was tricky to adapt a template set for one perspective to Costco’s 6 inches by 7.5 inches. I also wanted to feature as much of the photo as possible and the iPhoto templates generally didn’t do that … except for one.
I ultimately went with a simple green banner across the bottom featuring the message “May Every Occasion Call For Celebration.” It was easiest to adapt for the Costco print sizes and definitely put the picture front and center.
The 2013 Christmas Card — “May Every Occasion Call For Celebration.”
Ultimately, this was one of the most fun Christmas cards to make. It’s probably the best and most beautiful card I’ve created too, although I would definitely try to keep the standard high in the years to come.
By the numbers:
278 — miles traveled for the 2013 card (83 miles to Quincy for the initial failed attempt and 195 miles via bus to South Lake Tahoe).
11 — Days before Christmas when I did principal photography.
127 — Principal photos for the card (out of 211 pictures shot during my two trips).
Photos for the 2013 Christmas Card