Illuminating the Dark

Shooting in wine country means you will be in dark places some of the time. Many wineries have a cave, barrel room, special wine library or tasting room tucked way back under the earth. Hopefully they have hired a designer to light it, but often it's my job to make it come alive visually. I like the challenge of showing up at a location and figuring out what I can use in the way of ambient light and what I have to drag out of my lighting kit to accentuate the space. 19

One of my favorite shots was taken in Amador County at Montevina Winery. Their barrel room was designed to look like a  cathedral twice daily when the sun's rays shoot through the clerestory windows. To keep the heat down in the barrel room the windows were designed to allow light for only 20 minutes a day. We had to arrive at the winery the day before and observe the phenomenon, and then figure out our lighting scheme to fill in the shadows on the barrel fronts. The next evening, we waited patiently for the sun rays to spread their beams through the mist created by the water cooling system and create a barrel room cathedral.


montelenacaveTim Bellen, Director of Photography  for many Hollywood productions, helped me on a shoot for Chateau Montelena and taught me a thing or two about lighting for the movies. One scheme that is really pleasing to the eye is contrasting blue and yellow light and these two shots demonstrate it. The cave shot from Chateau Montelena  was lit with blue gels alternating with normal spotlights, drawing the eye to the blue light at the back of the cave.

In the keyhole cave shot, ambient light from outside has a different color temperature than the interior of the wine library which is lit by tungsten lighting, creating a vibrant contrast between the two spaces. By setting the camera to Tungsten white balance, the outdoor light hitting the entrance was forced to a dark blue, accentuating the keyhole shape and drawing the eye into the interior.



Sometimes you get lucky and the space comes perfectly lit and it's just about capturing what is there. At Hall Rutherford, their special tasting lounge off their caves is lit with a hall.chandelierchandelier of over 1000 Swarovski crystals. I always shoot these interiors with a tripod at ISO 100 and usually on the aperture priority setting to start.  Then I switch to manual and bracket like crazy. In this case I had my Gary Fong adapter on my Canon Speedlite to add a touch of fill to the backs of the black chairs.  This image was shot at f.9 for 1.6 seconds. I play around with white balance for most of these shots. If there's a mixture of daylight and tungsten, I often set it to AWB, but sometimes I go into the custom settings and dial down the Kelvin # to see what looks best on the LED screen.

This final image is of a table set for wine tasting, something all wineries do on a daily basis.  For this shot in Trinchero Napa Valley's Terroir Tasting Room,  I had to add some spotlights to showcase the wines on the table and the chalk board at the rear of thetrinchero shot. All of the lights were on dimmers, so we were able to raise and lower areas as we needed. Rather than adding strobes to this shot, I used the modeling lamps on my strobes for fill. It's a simple way to throw a few more spots where the art director wanted some more illumination. Since the modeling lamps are also tungsten I didn't have to worry about any color shifts in the scene.

Most importantly, remember your tripod, experiment with different white balances and bracket.  Stick around f 11 for the best overall focus. And when you start to add lights, do them one at a time and assess before you add any more. It's fun to build up the image slowly, adding a  bit of light here and there. Clients really love it when you bring your laptop to view the images as they are being shot. I always start with an exposure with the room as is, then make a plan to enhance and enliven the room with my own lights and experience.

For more of M. J.'s location images click here.

All images Copyright M. J. Wickham