The Fairmont San Francisco

Photographing the festive season at the Fairmont San Francisco

Perched atop San Francisco’s Nob Hill, the Fairmont San Francisco is an iconic symbol of elegance and luxury in this west-coast city. Founded in 1906, the hotel has seen dramatic changes of fortune, and welcomed countless famous guests throughout its almost 120-year history. Its sumptuous holiday decorations, most notably the renowned life-sized gingerbread house, draw thousands of visitors every year.

This hotel photography commission to shoot the iconic Fairmont San Francisco during the festive season, encompassed holiday teas and private dining inside the famed gingerbread house, and lifestyle, family and food shots, including Moet & Chandon champagne towers. In addition, Michelle photographed the timeless façade dressed up for the holidays, and luxurious Santa Suites with panoramic views to San Francisco and the waterfront, as well as those all-important Hotel Essence details.

It was an absolute pleasure for Michelle Chaplow, who loves both historic hotels and the festive season – a double dose of photographic joy!

“I love historic hotels and the festive season, to photograph this iconic hotel is a double dose of photographic joy!”

Michelle in the Fairmont San Francisco Gold Room

Technical and logistical photographic considerations

The Fairmont lobby is busy during most of the day, and also throughout the night. In order to minimise disturbance to guests transiting through the lobby, the best time to shoot was the quietest period: three to six am – the ‘early hours’ of the morning. The challenge of shooting at this time is complete absence of natural light.

Hotel life is indeed a 24-hour non-stop affair, especially in a cosmopolitan city hotel like San Francisco. Even in the middle of the night ,people were popping in to see the legendary gingerbread house, including police officers, random guests, and an in-residence blogger, who all wanted a shot of the Christmas décor without people. Everyone was taking selfies, and they joked that the delicious aroma of the Fairmont gingerbread house is irresistible and draws them in.

Due to the absence of any natural light in the lobby, Profoto studio lighting was hired to give a beautiful, controlled light for the models, architecture, and food shots, which really enhanced the scenes. The whole shoot was captured on a Nikon Mirrorless Z-range camera, which manages low lighting conditions very effectively.

Michelle was assisted through this shoot by lighting manager and photographic assistant Chris John. The lighting was one of the major challenges of this shoot, and required much preparation, pre-planning, and testing.

The bokeh effect

Some of the photographic details were shot on extremely low f-stops, such as f2.8, creating the pleasing aesthetic of a bokeh effect.

Bokeh comes from the Japanese word boke (ボケ), which means “blur” or “haze” – the out-of-focus backgrounds which draw the eye straight to the subject. Bokeh itself means “haze quality” – essentially, the aesthetic quality of the blur.

“I like to use the bokeh technique for the backgrounds and foregrounds, sometimes both at the same time – it really makes the subject stand out from the rest of the photo. The glittering Christmas decorations almost morph into random shapes with the bokeh effect, and it is perfect for festive decorations and food,” says hospitality photographer Michelle Chaplow. For an example of the bokeh effect, see in the Fairmont Holiday Tea photo with its two Christmas trees.

Lifestyle photography: the models

This is the first time in a three-decade photography career that Michelle Chaplow has worked with a real family. The joy on the children’s faces was authentic as they looked in awe at the spectacular Christmas trees covered in shiny baubles, the massive gingerbread house, and tempting amenities in the Santa suites. Having the children’s parents as models was a major advantage for the lifestyle photoshoot.

Everyone was completely relaxed and natural, which made the shoot easier and quicker – with a “composed “ family”, made up of individual models who don’t know each other, that same familiar dynamic can take time to create.


Timing logistics for Christmas photography

Organising a Christmas photo shoot needs both forward planning, and patience. Hospitality marketing teams have to wait a full 12 months to see the fruits of their festive photo shoot investment: the photos need to be carefully processed to a high standard, which takes several weeks, so they cannot be used in the same festive season as when they are shot. The images from Michelle’s shoot at Christmas 2022 are now looking stunning on the Fairmont San Francisco website.

This is one of the reasons why many hotels simply use easily-obtained generic stock photography to represent their festive season, which may well appear in other hotels’ marketing materials. Those hotels who want to have their own collection of images showing their magical decorations need to plan ahead, shooting one year to use the images the next year.

The superbly organised, forward-thinking team of dedicated marketing and PR superstars at the Fairmont San Francisco wanted to offer the highest quality images of the hotel’s magical Christmas. The team was led by Michelle Heston, Executive Director Public Relations, US West and US East regions, AccorHotels; Kara Terek, Fairmont SF Director of Marketing and Communications; and Courtney Topete, Fairmont SF Marketing Manager.

The Fairmont is now reaping the benefits of their ready-to-go portfolio that accurately portrays festive joy at this landmark luxury historic hotel.

The walk-in gingerbread house

The gingerbread house is situated in the lobby, so as you walk through the revolving doors, you immediately see the twinkling lights and smell the sweet aroma of ginger and cinnamon. The magnificent Fairmont lobby is resplendent with its tall marble columns and a vast Christmas tree glistening with ornaments.

Each year, the talented pastry team at the Fairmont San Francisco undertakes the ambitious task of crafting this huge, walk-in gingerbread house that becomes the centrepiece of the hotel’s festive decorations.

Each year, the talented pastry team at the Fairmont San Francisco undertakes the ambitious task of crafting this huge, walk-in gingerbread house that becomes the centrepiece of the hotel’s festive decorations.

The attention to detail is nothing short of extraordinary, as the pastry chefs meticulously construct a life-sized gingerbread house. Work begins in July on baking the gingerbread bricks, and they bake right through to November.

The life-sized gingerbread house is not just a decoration – it is a symbol of the holiday spirit. You can even dine inside this festive masterpiece: there is a room specially for holiday teas and private dining. This holiday tradition has become synonymous with the Fairmont’s commitment to creating magical moments for its guests.


“The Fairmont San Francisco Gingerbread House is the largest west of the Mississippi River. The hotel’s dedicated team has been building, improving, and growing the famed structure for more than 10 years. I have had the honour and privilege of being involved in this project since its inception.”

Fairmont PR Director, Michelle Heston

Facts and figures about the gingerbread house

According to the Fairmont PR Director, Michelle Heston, the hotel’s gingerbread house is the largest in California.

The festive house measures 22 feet tall, 23 feet wide, and10 feet deep (6.7 meters tall, 7 meters wide, and 3 meters deep).

Its ingredients include 7,750 gingerbread “bricks” and 1,500 pounds (680 kilos) of royal icing. The house is decorated with hundreds of pounds of colourful See’s Candies, which is a Californian brand, including Sour Stars Holiday Bordeaux, peppermint candy canes, peppermint twists, assorted lollypops, red liquorice medallions, milk chocolate Santas, and a variety of See’s ornaments.

The culinary team, spends around 375 hours creating the gingerbread house, while the engineering department labours for 520 hours to construct its framework.

Each year, as the festive season arrives, there is a strong sense of pride and accomplishment in completing the gingerbread house. The hotel’s Executive Chef told Michelle that the first year he was involved in this annual baking challenge, he hardly slept thinking about the grand unveiling.

According to Michelle Heston, “We claim that the Fairmont San Francisco Gingerbread House is the largest west of the Mississippi River. The hotel’s dedicated team has been building, improving, and growing the famed structure for more than 10 years. I have had the honour and privilege of being involved in this project since its inception.”

The hotel’s renowned British-born concierge, Tom Wolfe – who was the US’s first -ever concierge, starting in 1974 – told Michelle, “This gingerbread house brings untold joy”.

To maintain the hotel’s commitment to sustainability, each year the framework is recycled, and the edible ingredients are composted.


The history of the Fairmont San Francisco

Founded in 1903 by the visionary sisters Theresa Fair Oelrichs and Virginia Fair Vanderbilt (hence the name – Fair + Mont), the Fairmont San Francisco Hotel is a magnificent testament to their ambition. It was the sisters’ wish to create a landmark hotel in the heart of Nob Hill as a tribute to their father, Irish-born silver trader and Senator James Graham Fair. Unfortunately, fate had other plans. On the very same day as the hotel’s grand debut, in April 1906,a devastating earthquake hit the region. The Fairmont Hotel survived relatively unscathed, but was subsequently gutted by a fire that swept through most of the city, including many other grand buildings on Nob Hill. After this formidable setback in such early days, the hotel rose again and eventually become an enduring symbol of elegance and resilience in San Francisco’s rich history.

Julia Morgan, the first woman to be admitted to the architecture programme at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and the first woman to be licensed to practice architecture in California, played a pivotal role in designing the Fairmont after the 1906 earthquake. With an advanced understanding of architecture and engineering, Morgan rebuilt the structure using reinforced concrete; she was a pioneer in its aesthetic use. The hotel reopened a year later in 1907. Surviving further earthquakes and several changes in ownership, the hotel has maintained its status as a historic landmark and a testament to timeless grandeur.

Later, the famous American interior designer Dorothy Draper added her maximalist, palatial style to the Fairmont.

This is a hotel that has hosted royals, presidents, heads of state, artists and celebrities, including the Rolling Stones, Prince Charles (now King Charles), and JFK, who allegedly enjoyed secret trysts with Marilyn Monroe before his wife Jackie arrived. More recently, fellow Presidents Bill Clinton, George W Bush and Barack Obama all stayed at the hotel.

The Fairmont’s connection to global affairs was indelibly marked by its hosting of the United Nations Conference in 1945, a significant moment in shaping the post-World War II world. The United Nations Charter was drafted in the hotel’s Garden Room, under President Truman. Today the flags above the hotel’s portico still represent the countries that attended this meeting.

In the realms of entertainment, the Fairmont San Francisco has welcomed numerous legendary performers. Tony Bennett famously debuted his signature song, I Left My Heart in San Francisco, at the Fairmont’s Venetian Room in 1961. The hotel’s stage has also seen James Brown, BB King, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, Tina Turner and Elton John, to name a few. Big names such as Harrison Ford, Russell Crowe, and the Kardashians, have stayed here.

In 2002 the Fairmont San Francisco was added to the National Register of Historic Places. It is a member of Historic Hotels of America, the official programme of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.


Visiting San Francisco during the holidays? Don’t miss the Fairmont Lobby – it is so beautiful, it was named by Architectural Digest as one of The 20 Best Hotel Lobbies in the World. The Christmas tree and the huge gingerbread house are the crowning glory that must be experienced, or better still, treat yourself to an overnight stay.

The Fairmont offers a new year package, the Trees of Hope charitable initiative, whereby they donate $10 for each night of your stay to the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Plus, you save 10% and receive a $25 hotel credit per stay. Book by 5 January 2024 for stays to 29 February 2024.