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Back in the Socially Distant Photo Saddle

What was it like to run a meet and greet studio post-lockdown?

There's a reason why you visit a Photo Studio at a convention or a signing event. It's a chance to have a few moments in the company of someone you grew up watching on television, or admire from the movies. Depending on the person, it's a chance for a hug, or a personal smile, or that extra special hello from someone who appreciates you spending the time to come and see them.

Or at least, that's what it's supposed to be like. As with everything, COVID-19 put the breaks on the convention circuit. Even now, most of the larger ones still don't feel they can put on an enjoyable event whilst restrictions are in place.

As most of you reading this will know, I work closely with Fantom Events to run their photo studios at their Doctor Who and Cult TV events. These are mostly small, intimate signing events at a church hall in Chiswick, with some larger weekend events twice a year. As soon as lockdown was announced, all of these were cancelled or postponed.

Over the last few months, I've been talking to Fantom about when, and how, events could be restarted safely. You can read some of my thoughts here. Then, last month, the Government said that small events in church halls could recommence. And so the monthly signing events were back on.

But how do you run a photo studio, which is all about close contact, where you have to have people at least a metre away from each other?

1. Use a Lot of Tape

It became a bit of a running joke that I always used to forget my safety tape. But not this month. Staggered entry times meant only a handful of people were waiting outside at any one time, with tape lines 2m apart. As we thought about the location, more marks went down on the floor. Customers had their marks to hit to guarantee social distancing measures were adhered to. 2m without protection. 1m with.

2. One Way Systems and Big Open Doors!

We had to do a fair bit of thinking about where to put the studio. Normally, it's in a schoolroom at the end of a fairly thin corridor. That wasn't possible this time. Nor was our pre-planned idea to put the studio outside, due to the rain. So the team put in a one way system, so no one had to pass each other. You entered, checked in at reception so the team's track and trace details were up to date, then went in a clockwise direction around the hall, seeing the guests one by one, without the need to queue, and exiting from a separate entrance out the back. Everything was santitised. The guests sanitised their hands, used sanitised pens to hand things to customers with sanitised hands. Instead of 1m+ face protection, guests were 2m+ face protection from customers. And everyone seemed to have a great time.

We placed the studio by the front door - with two large double doors open either side, it was outside as outside could be, with plenty of fresh air. In one door. Out the other.

3. Props. Big Props.

I was worried, to be fair. I've taken photos with guests who prefer to social distance, and its always resulted in slightly awkward photographs. but the team at Fantom were onto this. I'd done some experimenting with a clear screen which I'd planned to photoshop out... but it looked bad. Here's the original...

It's not that tough to paint out the screen, but I couldn't quite get the light right.

Anyway. Fantom were on the case and, with the help of a very talented chap called Thomas Seymour, managed to get hold of a TARDIS.

So. Fresh air on the left hand side floor to ceiling. Fresh air on the right hand side floor to ceiling. Customers standing on the right side of the TARDIS. Guests to the middle left. Socially distanced markers on the floor. Everyone looking at me, not at each other, so no breathing towards each other. No touching of personal props. Maximum of ten to twenty seconds (if that). All that meant we could be as safe as possible without the need for visors in photographs.

Even then, the use of the TARDIS meant that we could take extra precautions where necessary. Here's Christopher Benjamin, for example, inside the box for a few of his photos...

4. Off-Site Processing

Normally, Fantom provide the facilities to print on site, so customers can get their studio photographs signed by guests. Again, that wasn't going to be possible this time. The one-way system was designed for free flowing movement of people, and it wouldn't have been possible to have people waiting around. So, for the first time, customers can order their 10x8s at the same time they download their free jpegs, and get them delivered free of charge.

Overall, it was a fun day, if a little strange. And I learned a lot. If nothing else, I learned that, if you have to wear a mask for five hours, get one which doesn't fog up your glasses.

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