Retrospective: Launching Upscale Wine Club

A few years back, my client Chateau Montelena needed to launch a very high end wine club called "Ultramont". The marketing director called me and asked me to be a part of the team that would publish a hand made book to entice clients to join. It was a new concept for the winery and they wanted to draft their most well heeled patrons into a yearly subscription of wine, food pairings and special events. 

I love the Chateau at Montelena, but the light never hits the face of the stone building, so I knew it was going to be tough to make it look spectacular without some sort of lighting. Luckily budget was not an issue, so I convinced them to let me hire a lighting crew from the film industry to illuminate the entire Chateau at sunset.  Tim Bellen is a director of Photography in Hollywood, but lives here in Sonoma County so I called him in to help. The lighting crew arrived with huge truck full of lights and reflectors as well as 2 gaffers and a lighting director. I felt like a movie director with a cast of thousands - even though there were only 4 of us.


You'd be amazed how long it took to get all the lights inside and out to suggest a busy Chateau ready for guests. We lit it up the night before to see how it would look, then came back and re-lit it to be ready to shoot the next evening at sunset. The magic moment usually occurs about 20 minutes after sunset, when the ambient light in the sky turns blue, yet there's still detail on the Chateau and the lights from within are not too overblown. I play with my color balance settings, going from daylight to tungsten and bracketing until the exposure and color look right.

After we finished the front of the Chateau, I wanted to do a shot peeking through the window at a table all prepared for dinner. I was looking for a Beauty and the Beast kind of overblown scene that someone spies on longingly. We set the table for an elegant feast with large bottles of wine and candelabras. It took a while to get the right settings on the lights in the room so that it would look like the candles were the main source of light.
For this we needed a scissor lift to get me up to the second story so that I could look down through the window. The tricky thing about scissor lifts is that they move and for a shot like this you need a long exposure. It took a while to get just the right angle and proper exposure. The old window casings and glass reinforce the sense of history that we were hoping to impart.

We spent the morning working on interiors in the Chateau. The old barrel room faces north and never gets any direct light through the windows. Our crew set up high intensity lights outside the window to stream in like sunlight. Getting the angle just right took a while, because we wanted to illuminate the right wall of stone as well as the tops of the barrels.  We had to add a light in the far right corner to illuminate the faces of the barrels.


Inside the Chateau is a small room with a wrought iron gate that I thought would be perfect for a bottle shot.  Again we were going for that feeling of discovery, as though the person viewing it was longing to be a part of the scene. Selective focus is a great way to pull the viewer in. Chateau Montelena has a cult following because of their history, fine wines, and beautiful surroundings. We chose a blue and yellow palate of lighting to enrich the stone. The cool blue filters on the lights contrast perfectly with the warm yellows of the tungsten spots and automatically set the scene up as rich and cinematic, just the look we wanted. 

Next we moved into the caves. These were newly constructed in the past few years, but they looked old, so we kept to the same theme and color palette - blue & yellow lights accentuating the texture of the stone or in this case stucco. Because the caves made an arc, it was easy to set up lights at the end of the cave to draw the eye to the smoky blue texture at the end. Blue filters were added every 6 or 8 feet in between the barrels to add color and pattern to the arc of the ceiling. 


The final result was a hand sewn monograph designed by Michele LeBlanc of LeBlanc Design. It was mainly the photographs with a bit of copy and spoke to the exclusivity of this club and the desirablity of becoming a member.  
It was a really fun project for me because I had a client that trusted me to bring in the team necessary to create a very high-end product. We created timeless photos to evoke an old world experience of luxury and and sumptuous entertaining. I learned a great deal from the lighting crew and enjoyed being part of a larger team for a while. So often I'm out there on my own working solo. It was exciting to see it all come together.   

All photos Copyright M. J. Wickham  To see more of my location work click here:

Assignment: Keenan Winery

People often ask me what's my favorite subject to shoot. I don't think I have one favorite subject, but I do have a favorite assignment - creating a winery profile for books that are published by Panache Partners.  I get to show up at a winery, wander around looking for angles and ideas, co-ordinate with the owners to set up entertaining, food shots, bottle shots, portraits, vinescapes and anything else that catches my eye. 

So, as well as using my technical photographic skills, I get to art direct and work directly with new acquaintances. It hones my people skills as well as my artistic and technical skills. I usually come away feeling tired but rewarded, because after all this is my passion and I'm thrilled to make a living pursuing my passion.

Michael and Jennifer Keenan of Robert Keenan Winery on Spring Mountain Rd. in St. Helena, Napa Valley are great fun to work with.  They understand hospitality and the importance of preparing for a photo shoot. When I arrived in the morning, we talked about all the shots and got to work prepping for the picnic lunch. Jennifer is a natural stylist and had collected everything we needed for the table setting. Summer mornings  in Napa Valley are often foggy, so we had to wait for the sun to come out. In the meantime I checked out the cellars, winery interior and tasting room to keep on schedule and finish up the shoot on time.

A picnic of salmon and chardonnay at Robert Keenan Winery overlooking the Napa Valley floor and mountains on the east side of the valley.

A picnic of salmon and chardonnay at Robert Keenan Winery overlooking the Napa Valley floor and mountains on the east side of the valley.

Close up of the grilled salmon to feature with their Estate Chardonnay. 

Close up of the grilled salmon to feature with their Estate Chardonnay. 

The list is fairly long of shots that I need to get for these profiles and I get to wear many hats. Food photographer, bottle shot photographer, landscape photographer, portrait photograher, etc. We even create
a short video of the winemaker discussing their wine pairing.
Aside from the food and wine pairing, these profiles always include some vineyard shots.

I love it when there are white puffy clouds to break up the sky. Solar panels dot the vineyards at Keenan Winery

I love it when there are white puffy clouds to break up the sky. Solar panels dot the vineyards at Keenan Winery

Wandering around the property, I look for objects of interest. A cool old wooden door that opens to the cellar, the ubiquitous stainless steel tanks of every winery, and rubber boots standing at attention on the stairs to the cellar. I use mostly natural light for these assignments, because there just isn't the time or budget to bring in strobes and my lighting equipment. I work with a tripod, usually at aperture setting on my camera with a cable release. Sometimes I use my Gary Fong Lightsphere.

Every winery profile has to have a portrait of the owners. Jennifer and Michael live part time in the East Bay and part time in the guest house on the property, continuing the proud tradition of Michael's father Robert Keenan, who started the winery and is known for it's chardonnay.  Their Chardonnay is a refreshing treat amongst all the heavy-handed, buttery oak versions in Napa Valley. Clean and vibrant with a dash of minerality, you still get all that beautiful Chardonnay fruit but in a much more elegant fashion.

Jennifer and Michael Keenan

Jennifer and Michael Keenan

The tasting room is cozy and intimate. Guests who come to Keenan Winery know that they are in the midst of a working winery and will have to find a quiet corner to sip the fantastic wines that are produced from the hillside terraces up to 2,000 feet elevation on Spring Mountain.


Last but not least is the short 1 minute video of Michael talking about their hillside terraces. I could tell right away that Michael was comfortable on camera and when I asked he informed me that he did amateur theater in High School. It was my lucky day. 

I shoot these videos with my Canon HD Mark III. I am consistently impressed with the quality of the HD video. I knew I could start shooting video when I saw that Canon came out with these cameras. It feels like a camera, it shoots like a camera and the sensors are so sensitive that I can be in a dark cave and still get great quality video. For these wine paring videos, I film a short interview and then superimpose still images from the shoot in Final Cut Pro X.


If you'd like to see more of these profiles, the book "Napa Valley Iconic Wineries" is available at Panache or through Many of the wineries featured in the book sell copies as well.  

It was a fun project and the culmination of over a year of photography and video. I've just started the next project "Sonoma County, Iconic Wineries" so I'm looking forward to being pretty busy this fall going out on assignment.

Using light to transform

Every now and then I get a job in a warehouse or factory setting that looks pretty industrial and lacks charm, yet the clients would love to promote the business and hope that we will come up with some interesting images to help them. Take this wine storage facility. beforeIt's lit with flourescent lights and consists of narrow aisles with cages of wine closed off with padlocks. Not exactly the stuff of photographer's dreams. But I like a challenge and we figured we could make this place look a bit more interesting with numerous spot lights. It's always an additive process, starting with turning off all the lights, slowly adding spot lights and keeping going until the shot looks right.  Here are two solutions to the problem.


sidealley.lit By spotlighting some areas and taking others  dark we created a mood and took the stark warehouse look out of the building. Having the worker silhouetted added a bit of drama. Since this is a high end wine storage facility it needed to look a bit charming and not so industrial.

boxesOther ways to create appeal are to take details of areas and find objects of interest.  A row of wooden storage boxes lit from the open garage door suggested the quality of goods stored here and the bonus was finding a bottle of French Burgundy wine from 1865. That added class to the shoot.


 So by transforming the warehouse with spot lights and shadow areas, not worrying about showing everything and suggesting the business was more than just a storage facility, we produced some nice images and thrilled the client in the process. Not a bad day's work!

All Images Copyright: M. J. Wickham 2013.

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








Channeling my clients

I went to a really great marketing roundtable discussion sponsored by Women for WineSense about promoting brands. Dave Schuemann of CF Napa, a wine & beverage branding business, came with case studies and a powerful slide presentation on branding.  First step: build your story in a two sentence statement. That got me to thinking, "What's my story and my brand statement".

Funnily enough, I had just spoken with a potential client about my services and as we were talking I said: "I'm here to channel your vision through my artistic eye."  So maybe that's my story.  I'm a medium who channels her clients with the help of my camera. I like working with clients and I really like it when I can interpret their needs with my camera using my knowledge of composition and light and shadow.


I know a few photographers who hate to work with clients and simply want to be left alone to create their own visions. I'm actually more comfortable with the limitations created by a clients' needs. Getting to know the client, the product, the audience, the marketplace are all interesting parameters to factor into the shoot. It can be a little scary at first, when a whole crew of people show up at your studio or on location and you have to make art together, but in the process of making art, you get to know a person and anticipate what he or she will like. And there's no greater feeling for me than when the client says "I love it".

silveroak gasconWorking with clients can really hone your photographic skills because when you have someone breathing down your neck, you have to come up with solutions pretty fast.

I like the process of watching a shot develop from initial set-up to final version. Thanks to digital imagery and my laptop for client previews, the process is easy for my clients. I certainly don't miss the old days of polaroids and transparencies.

I especially love shoots where there are fisha lot of props and stylists to create a tableau. Once everything is set up, I'm free to roam the set and find the perfect angle, adjust the lighting, come in close or pull back.  fc.bottlesTime is always short when there is fresh food, so the sense of urgency keeps everyone focused and engaged in the process.

So here's my branding sentence:

"Using a camera, setting, lighting and composition to channel your visual needs through my artistic eye."




Mustard is blooming

One of the things I like most about living here in Northern California is that we have colorful seasons all year long and if you shoot outdoors, that's a bonus. February is the month when mustard blooms and if the sun is out it's an extremely vibrant yellow. The vineyards are laced with mustard creating a vivid counterpoint to the dormant vines. When I shoot landscapes, I often try to frame a variety of shots by using selective focus.

Dormant GrapevinesDormant Grapevines

In the shot on the left I focused on the background. For an alternate view I shifted the focus to the foreground and pulled in tighter for the image on the right. I never know until I'm editing on my desktop which version I'll prefer.


I'm passionate about horses, especially my own. "Armani" Amani.Mustard.webis a beautiful 17 hand Oldenburg gelding that my daughter and I share riding. When I saw the farmer next door's field covered in mustard, I had to take him out there for a portrait. Again I used selective focus to frame him with the blurry mustard in the foreground. He's a natural ham and stood perfectly for a few minutes while I clicked away. I photo-shopped the lead rope out for a cleaner look. Remember when you are outdoors shooting, use a polarizing lens to saturate your colors and deepen the blue in the sky. You'll get the best effect by having the sun slightly in front of you to one side.


wilsons A field of mustard also makes a great background for environmental portraits. I'm big on back lighting people, which means I have the sun somewhere in front of the camera. You have to be careful of lens flare, so a higher perspective was needed. I often use a piece of black ciné foil suspended above my lens to cut the light. Usually I add one or two third's stop to the exposure and dodge the faces a bit in Adobe Bridge. I knew I only had a short time to get these vintners, so we drove down the road in Dry Creek Valley and found a neighboring vineyard to get the shot. I like a casual friendly look for these outdoor portraits.

To see more of my work go to:

It all started when...

product shot of handmade candlesticks I first picked up the camera in college at the University of Vermont. It was love at first sight. I never thought of myself as an artistic person because I studied Philosophy. But that first camera that I borrowed from my Dad, a Canon FT-QL, which I still own, was my entrée into the arts and making my living as a photographer.

This photo of candlesticks was my first job shooting products. I was so excited and spent hours playing with the light and shadows, souped the film and made the prints. I don't remember the candlestick maker's name but I do remember how much he loved the shots. I was hooked. Not only did I love playing with light and shadow and my camera, I loved that he came away with an image beyond his expectations, appreciated me for it and paid me $$. So often as a commercial photographer you are attempting to channel your client's vision and it just feels great when you succeed.

So, recently when I was looking through my portfolio for a bottle shot to send out in an eblast, I came across this shot and it reminded me of that candlestick shot.

Family bottle shot of Kim Crawford wines

And I realized that after all these years, I have maintained a style and look. I once took a workshop with Master photographer Mary Ellen Mark and she left me with this pledge: Take a point of view in your photography. Don't be afraid to develop a style that separates you from the rest of the world.

This is my first blog and I thought it would be fun to start with something old and something new - representing 30 years of pleasing clients and myself with my camera.

To see more of my work go to: