Sonoma County Engagement Photos – The Beautiful Beltane Ranch, Glen Ellen, California and Muir Woods National Monument

In April, I was asked by a close friend to shoot his engagement photos. The friend and his fiancé live in Walnut Creek, near San Fransisco, and offered to foot the bill for me to come up there and give them some beautiful photographs. He told me about a couple spots that he had in mind; Muir Woods National Monument and his family’s ranch in Glen Ellen, Beltane Ranch. I did a little research, and was excited to shoot spots that were totally new to me.

Likewise, I ran into some new problems with my equipment. I chose to shoot all stills with my Sony A7r and shoot raw video using my Canon 5D Mark III. The Sony body is very sharp. Sony advertises it as having no low-pass filter over the sensor, like many CMOS camera sensors these days. The low-pass filter is meant to eliminate the appearance and recording of moire patterns in digital images. This happens when the pattern captured in an image aligns in places with the pixels in the digital sensor. The resulting effect is a ripply looking, and often discolored, pattern on the textured surface. We can’t see it with the naked eye, but it does appear in the digital image later. Coupled with Canon’s ultra-sharp L lenses, you can end up with some really terrible looking moire patterns that can all but ruin your shoot. Read more about Moire Patterns here.

Unfortunately, I did end up with moire patterns in some of my images. The pants my friend chose to wear were gray in color and had a very fine pattern – one that I couldn’t notice from distance. I generally ask clients to wear non-patterned items, or clothing with large patterns to avoid this.

Moire Pattern, Sony A7r
Moire Pattern, Sony A7r

A feature I love on the Sony A7r is the focus peaking. Focus peaking lays a colored mask over areas in the image that the camera determines (through contrast detection, or other means) to be in focus. One of the advantages to having a digital viewfinder it that you can enable focus peaking and nail focus with having to zoom or review and check focus every 10 images (although you probably should!). Similarly, because the autofocus sucks on these Sonys, you have to use something to help. Without focus peaking I would not be able to shoot portraits with this camera body. But it’s not fool proof! Because focus peaking relies on contrast within the image, areas that quickly go from light to dark will be shown as in focus. So, if you are shooting, for example, into the sun and have the ocean as your subject, you may see some of the sparkles from the reflection off the water are lit up even though they are not in focus. When shooting portraits, depending on my distance from my subjects, I tend to use the eyebrows or other feature of the scene that have easy-to-distinguish features. If I can get pupils, even better!

Now that I have sung my praises about the digital display of the camera, let me tell you what I don’t like. Exposure evaluation is unreliable on this camera in some circumstances. In low light, this thing doesn’t do a good job. On multiple occasions, I have found that once the raw image is in the computer, it renders much darker than displayed, not just in the viewfinder, but while reviewing on the LCD. I’ll do a full analysis on this phenomenon in a later post by comparing the histogram shown on the camera, and the histogram in Lightroom. And, yes, my monitors are calibrated. I’m not sure quite yet why this is happening, but it’s frustrating. Some photos I’ve taken in low light are underexposed 3 stops.

Noise is a problem on this camera too. Within the same series of images I shot at 1250 ISO and 3200 ISO with 1/80 shutter speed at f2.0. I bumped up the exposure 2.3 stops on the 1250 ISO shots and 1.3 stops on the 3200 ISO shots. I definitely prefer the 1250 ISO images. See below:

Sony A7r 3200 ISO
1250 1/80th at f/2.0
1250 ISO 1/80th at f/2.0
3200 ISO 1/80th at f/2.0

The difference between the two exposures above is not dramatic. It certainly didn’t seem that dark out there while we were shooting. Nonetheless, this is a good example of knowing the capabilities of your equipment and the degree to which you can manipulate an image in post.

Sony A7r 1250 ISO + 2.3 stops and curve adjustment
100% view of 1250 ISO +2.3 stops with highlight curve adjustment
100% view of 1250 ISO +2.3 stops with highlight curve adjustment
3200 ISO +1.3 stops and other slider adjustments
3200 ISO +1.3 stops and other slider adjustments
100% view of 3200 ISO exposure +1.3 stops and other slider adjustments as in the previous screenshot
100% view of 3200 ISO exposure +1.3 stops and other slider adjustments as in the previous screenshot

Here’s the thing about these two images: Although there is substantial noise in both, the 3200 ISO images are far grainier/chunkier than the 1250 – even after adjusting the exposure up 2.3 stops. I’d much rather shoot at 1250 ISO in this situation, and that disappoints me. It speaks to the power of Lightroom to save asses, but really shows that most photos captured above 800 ISO on this camera is going to be noisy and lacking sharpness.

The second day of our shoot we landed at Beltane Ranch in Sonoma County. What a beautiful place! I had more than enough to work with; one spot after the next, and plenty of daylight to work with as well.

Beltane Ranch has everything from horse stables, to a beautiful yellow barn, vineyard, courtyard, a plantation style house, and an olive orchard. I didn’t see the orchard, but I’m sure it is just as lovely and well-appointed as the rest of the property. There are also 2 enormous bovines on site – Paisley and Bob. I shot a small amount of video of the couple petting them, but I was getting a cross look from Bob, who is enormous. I didn’t have faith that the barbed wire fence could contain him, so we moved on.

Inside the stable, utilizing the light coming through the opening
Inside the stable, utilizing the light coming through the opening
We found a good bit of shade from the old oak trees around the property. I like the mood here, kind of serious but very emotionally open at the same time
We found a good bit of shade from the old oak trees around the property. I like the mood here, kind of serious but very emotionally open at the same time
The sun was well placed on this day. This is shot with a Canon 35mm f/1.4 and the lens elements and clarity of the glass really provided a nice bit of flare
The sun was well placed on this day. This is shot with a Canon 35mm f/1.4 and the lens elements and clarity of the glass really provided a nice bit of flare
The clouds were perfect this evening. This is a panoramic of the couple. Details below.
The clouds were perfect this evening. This is a panoramic of the couple. Details below.

This final image was stitched using Lightroom’s new Photo Merge function. It worked perfectly. I’m really surprised to be honest. I’ve been doing panoramas for about 7 years now, and typically stitch using Photoshop. I usually have to do a significant amount of layer blending once the Photoshop is finished aligning and blending layers. I didn’t have to do anything on this final image.

I’m super pleased with the outcome of this shoot. It’s been a couple of years since I have shot an engagement, so I’m glad I was able to really explore new areas and shoot using techniques I normally wouldn’t.

Now to editing that video…!

 

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