I shot a different kind of picture the other day.

Some friends, Mark and Tracy, were at an art gallery over the summer where they saw a still life watercolor depicting a wine and cheese platter with a vineyard background.

They liked is so much they wanted one, but commissioned so it would be created in a way that was personal to them. They thought it would be nice to have an image that depicted a special moment they enjoy together… watching the sunset on the red rocks of Sedona while drinking a glass of their favorite wine at their home there. 

I am a photographer and not a watercolor artist.  My girlfriend, Lee Ann,  happened to be vacationing with them that day and thought that I should photograph the scene for them. The idea appealed to me. For years I have made documentary films for which we built small sets that re-created slices of life, places in time, memories and tributes to people’s lives and accomplishments. The props included photographs, trophies, medals, jewelry, trinkets and other cherished memorabilia. The footage we shot created drama and brought the people and their stories to life. Here are some of those clips from a biographical documentary I directed entitled, "Mr. K"

Mark and Tracy agreed to the idea. We started by asking them what their favorite wine was, what they liked to eat with it, their favorite things about the house and what items they would like to include that would personalize the image. They also have a saying they live by, “Life is beautiful” and so we wanted to factor that in as well. Lee Ann and I spent last Thanksgiving with them at their Sedona home so we decided to do in once again… only this time we would do more than eat turkey and drink wine. We would shoot their picture for them.

Before we left our house in Southern California, we purchased the wine and some props including an olive wood cheeseboard, corkscrew and all the food that would look good and pairs well with the wine (for any aficionados who might see the final piece). We gathered more options than we needed as my theory is always to “have and not need rather than to need and not have”.  Plus this shoot had an added benefit…we would be able to drink the wine and eat the food after so nothing would go to waste. Lee Ann also went the extra mile and ordered something extra special… wine glasses with “life is beautiful” etched into them.

We loaded all my camera and lighting equipment along with our props and suitcases into our SUV and off we went.

We arrived around sunset so I was able to “scout” the location (aka their back yard). I noted where and when the sun went down and determined I’ll have about an hour or so to shoot on the following day, weather permitting.

That night, I was mulling over how I might light the shot but wasn’t sure exactly how I was going to approach it. I really wanted the reflections in the glasses and bottle to add a subtle visual layer that included the environment surrounding the composition. I also wanted the image to look completely natural so I didn’t want and lights and/or bounce cards reflecting in the glass. I knew that the weather and light in Sedona would also play a role in the final image as it is always beautiful but changes quickly. All that being the case, the one thing I knew for sure is that I would want options. I decided to go into the day with the plan that I was going to composite an HDR photo in which I lock down the camera on a tripod and shoot multiple exposures over the window of time when the light is at its best. As for the lights, I decided to cross that bridge when I got to it.

The next day, after a hearty breakfast, the first thing to do was to set the shot. The morning was cold and I started around 9. Mark and Tracy’s “must haves” for the image included the flagstone that much of the house is made of and their backyard view of the forest and the rocks (duh…their house looks over Coconino National Forest).

My first task was to “find the shot”. I wanted the viewer to have the perspective of being a participant in the scene so I mounted my 50mm prime lens and walked around the yard “fishing” with my handheld camera. I found the shot on the flagstone wall that separates their patio from the forest.

Next, I placed the primary foreground elements, the bottle of wine and the two glasses, on the top of the wall.  I broke out my tripod, and played with camera placement until I liked the basic composition.

Tracy also requested I include one of her mother’s handmade patchwork runners that they have at the house so I draped that over the flagstone wall that was my “tabletop”. I needed some elevation adjustments to improve the composition so I added the olive wood cheese board on top of the runner and placed the wine glasses on top of that. I snapped a few frames to check the composition. The shot was coming together nicely with these key props in place.

The basic composition.

At this point I thought I should consider my camera settings. There were a number of factors. I usually like my images to have very shallow depth of field but I wanted this image to be similar to the “hyper-reality” of the watercolors Mark and Tracy liked so much. That being the case, this composition required sharp focus for the foreground, mid-ground and if possible, the rocks and clouds in the distant background. The final image would be blown up to as much as 30 x 40 so I also needed to shoot at as low of an ISO as possible to avoid grain. I tethered my camera to my laptop so I could accurately check focus and exposure. Ultimately the desired result required an aperture setting of F25. At that setting the distant rocks were slightly soft but that was actually a good thing as it helped add depth to the image and focus the viewer’s attention on the tabletop set. There was a slight breeze blowing and I hadn’t set the greenery in the frame yet but that was going to be the only consideration for motion blur created from what would be a longer exposure given the high F-stop. A little motion blur would add a sense of the breeze to the otherwise still image. 

I was about 4 hours into the process at this point so I took a quick lunch break with my friends who spent the morning preparing Thanksgiving dinner and working on a 1000 piece puzzle.

During lunch, the sun moved across the sky as it always does, and created a beautiful 6 point star highlight on the glasses. The shadows were pretty dark but when I flew in a bounce card to fill the shadows in, the bounce card reflection on the glasses was so obviously out of place that I realized I didn’t need or want to utilize a light or bounce card. My lighting question was answered. I would instead, bracket the exposures so I could expose for both highlights and shadows and merge the shots using photoshop.

Next came placement of the supporting (and in some cases, perishable) elements; wine in the glasses, cheese, fruit, nuts and a couple of small items Mark and Tracy wanted to see in the picture. Lee Ann told me a story about how Tracy’s maiden name and the middle name of their daughter is Rose. Lee Ann thought it would be a nice touch to include a white rose in the scene to represent their one and only daughter, Ellie. Tracy had a habit of looking for heart shaped rocks on their hikes through the Sedona wilderness so we included her favorite one as well as a “life is beautiful” guitar pick that she and Ellie gave Mark recently.

Once that was all set, I invited Mark and Tracy to come out and take a look. There was still something missing. Mark and I decided it was a mid-ground element, which we decided would be some tree branches set back from the tabletop that would help frame up the composition. Mark grabbed his tree trimmer and set out into the forest to find some choice branches for use in his picture. Everyone in the house laughed at me as I broke out my C-stands, clamped in the branches and placed them into the upper right and left corners of the frame. Clearly they had never been involved in creating a setup like this. Pictures always look so natural but little do people know that there is almost always something that needs to be manipulated. That solved the missing element issue by adding yet another plane and subsequent depth to the composition.

The shot is set.

So at this the composition was pretty much set. It was time to consider lighting. The sun continued it’s trek across the almost cloudless sky and my set was completely in the bright sun. I considered the direction of the sun when I set the shot so I was liking the angle but I needed something to break up the sunlight that was washing over the entire setup. Mark set out once again and cut down a few more branches than I needed for my lighting gag. I grabbed 3 of them and clamped them to some lightstands that I brought with me. I placed them off camera between the sun and the set and viola, I had beautiful dappled light across my entire setup.

At this point I was almost ready to shoot. I had about 2 hours left in the day and the light was not as good as it would eventually get but I thought I’d start shooting and tweaking whatever wasn’t perfect. I played around a bit with adjusting the color temperature setting on the camera both warming up the image and then cooling it down. I ultimately decided on balancing for 6000K which gave me a fairly neutral white balance. From there I’d let nature do the work and warm up the image as I knew it would as we approached “magic hour”.

For the next two hours I shot and tweaked, bracketing every minor set and lighting adjustment. The shadows and highlights throughout the frame were in a perpetual state of change as the sun moved toward the horizon and while I kept adjusting my light stand “trees” that created the dappled light, it was impossible to get the light on every item perfect in any single shot. That being the case, I adjusted the light exactly how I wanted it on the rose, the grapes, bread, cheese, bottle, glasses, etc. and shot them all.

I shot until the sun dipped below the hill and the last of the direct light kissed my set. I left the camera setup for a while afterwards and continued to shoot as clouds magically appeared and the last of the day’s sunlight danced across the forest and rocks. When all was said and done, I had shot over 200 images.

We wrapped up with Mark, Tracy, Lee Ann and myself enjoying a celebratory toast of the Quintessa and enjoying on the food that made up the set (the aged cheddar was particularly good).

The only thing left for the day was to eat Thanksgiving dinner.

At this point the job was only half done. When we got back home I went through the images and selected about 30 that had interesting lighting on one or more elements in the composition. Some images were overexposed but the reflections were perfect while others were dark but the highlights were just right and some were exposed for mid-tones and had just the right sunlight or shadow.

I chose image #314 as my “base” image. It was perfectly exposed and had several key elements in the image already. I then spent the next twelve hours in photoshop grabbing pieces of the other thirty or so images and massaging them into place over the base image. Slowly but surely, layer by layer, as I added and subtracted from the base image, the image took on a whole new life.

During the shoot I had the idea of adding Mark and Tracy somewhere in the image. I dubbed it my “Where’s Waldo” gag. So before we left Sedona I captured a few images of the two of them together backlit by the sun. I deliberately underexposed it so I would pretty much only see their figures as a rim lit silhouette. Now that I was in front of my computer, I copied that image and pasted it into the reflection in the bottle. Now I know this sounds like it could be like a like a cheesy wedding photo so I was careful to make it so subtle that you pretty much had to know it was there or you wouldn’t even see it. It worked.

Now that I had it just right, I made a safety copy of the file and then collapsed all the layers into a single layer and made some final tweaks, removing the houses and dead trees in the forest. Lastly, I selected and applied a VSCO film treatment to the picture to take the edge off the digital image which gave it a “filmlook”. I was done.

A day later I presented the image to Mark and Tracy. I invited them over so they could see it for the first time in all it’s glory on my 27” monitor. They couldn’t believe it. The image took on the “hyper-reality” quality of the watercolors. The focus and colors were crisp. I asked them to find themselves in the picture and after some hunting, they did. All that remained was to select a location, size, frame and paper stock to print in on.

We went to their house for a small celebration of our accomplishment and the unveiling. Everyone is thrilled with the outcome. The piece captures a moment in time that they will be reminded of every time they enter the room.

If you have a special moment that you would like captured please contact me. If not for yourself, then maybe for a family member, friend or colleague. If you don't like wine and cheese here are a few other suggestions to get your ideas flowing:

Breakfast on the Lanai

Cocktails at the Club.

Romantic Fantasy Date for Two

Family & Friends Dinner (Themed cuisine…Italian, Pizza, elegant)


Desert / Night Cap

Happy Hour / Tea Time 

Home Sweet Home / Grandma’s House

Childhood Memories (sports memorabilia & trophies, the arts, diplomas and other accomplishments)

Family Tribute (estate and/or personal items)

Professional/Military Career Tribute (Historical Items, media/press clippings, written testimonials, awards, medals, plaques)

Birth / Infancy (clothing, toys, stuffed animals, blankets, décor)

Travel & Events (memorabilia, tickets, collectables, trinkets

Hobbies / Collectables (sports, music, cars, special collections, photos)

That's it for now. Happy Holidaze :)