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Capturing Sonoma County: Insight from the Area’s Top Photographers

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Your bags are packed, and (at last!) you’re on your way to Sonoma County. The only way to make this dream trip any better is to share it with loved ones. But how can you possibly convey such idyllic beauty and grand adventure to faraway friends and family? Start by taking stellar photographs.  

While camera technology has advanced exponentially in recent years, the perfectly artful image remains elusive to many aspiring shutterbugs. In order to help you capture the treasured moments of your Northern California adventures, we’ve rounded up tips from a few local pros. We’ve also revealed their favorite local shooting locations, which you’ll surely want to add to your itinerary. 

As you prepare to document your trip, consider your equipment. Whether using a camera phone or a traditional camera, consider investing in a tripod, which can be inexpensive, fits neatly into a suitcase, and can dramatically improve results. As well, additional lenses – including telephoto, macro, fisheye, or anamorphic – can work wonders in achieving the desired effect. Learn more about gear by inquiring at your local electronics store or camera outfitter.  

Timing is Everything: Kate Nagle, Santa Rosa

Photo by Kate Nagle
Photo by Kate Nagle

“Shoot 30 minutes before or after both sunrise or sunset for the best light.” 

Ever come across an image that beams impossibly radiant light? Most likely, the image was taken at the time of day that falls just before sunset or after sunrise, and is known by photography professionals as “golden hour.” 

Kate Nagle regularly harnesses the power of golden hour during her photo shoots, which include both family portrait and wine industry client sessions. With more than two decades of experience, Nagle has honed her craft in both her Santa Rosa studio and amid the vast, varied landscapes of Sonoma County. 

Why is golden hour such a special time? The sun is lower in the sky, offering diffused light that is flattering to most people. As well, it brings dramatic flair, including silhouettes, rim lighting, and backlighting. While golden hour occurs during a brief window of time, photographers who work quickly will likely get their best shots of the day during this time.  

Kate Nagle’s favorite local shooting locations:  

Consider Composition : John Hershey, Bodega Bay

Photo by John Hershey
Photo by John Hershey Photography

“In all photography, compose your shots as if you were a painter sketching a scene. Good composition is key to making a stunning photograph.” 

A former photographer for the United States Navy, John Hershey has spent more than half a century behind the camera. With a background in advertising, he first used his skills in corporate settings before launching a design practice in Northern California. These days, you’ll find him photographing birds, scenery, and community life in remote West Sonoma County.  

In addition to calling attention to image composition, Hershey points to timeless wisdom from fellow California photographer Ansel Adams, who is quoted as saying: “Bad weather makes good photographs.”  

While it sounds counterintuitive, seasoned photographers know that brilliantly sunny days rarely make interesting images.   

“The watercolor skies of overcast days and billowing clouds,” says Hershey, “especially after a storm, add stunning backdrops for landscape photography.” So don’t let a tempestuous day ruin your excursion. Get outside! 

John Hershey’s favorite local shooting locations:  

Orient the Focal Point : Lupen Grainne, Santa Rosa

Looking North by Lupen Grainne
Looking North, Photo by Lupen Grainne Photography

"Look at where the subject or focal point is placed in the frame. Orienting the subject off-center leaves negative space, which gives the viewer's eye some breathing room to be drawn naturally to the subject. This also gives some context to the surrounding scenery." 

With soft, hazy light and grainy texture, the images of Lupen Grainne set an uncommonly dreamy mood. A native of Oregon, the self-taught photographer has traveled the world with a camera flung over her shoulder, and now calls Sonoma County home. With a distinctive style and wide commercial appeal, her photos have been featured in Pottery Barn, IKEA, Anthropologie, Apartment Therapy, Design Sponge, Real Simple, and The Sun Magazine.  

As Grainne’s work beautifully demonstrates, there are a wide range of ways to depict landscapes – some more traditional than others. Experiment with your camera and play with new angles to find a style that’s all your own. 

Lupin Grainne’s favorite local shooting locations:  

Shift Your Perspective : Jak Wonderly, Sebastopol

Peay Vineyards by Jak Wonderly
Peay Vineyards, Photo by Jak Wonderly

“To my eye, the light is better in the winter months. Get up early, get up high, and watch the sun burn off the morning coastal fog over the remarkable landscapes of this region.” 

Awash in color and light, Jak Wonderly’s luminous images seem to glow from within. After a sports injury left him nearly blind in one eye as a teenager, he devoted himself to seeing more clearly, and is now an internationally recognized photographer who travels the world capturing images of wildlife for National Geographic, Smithsonian, and Life. At home in West Sonoma County, Wonderly teaches workshops and offers photography coaching services. 

We can’t all live the lifestyle of a globetrotting travel photographer, but we can move out of our comfort zone and assume an adventurous and inquisitive spirit. Whether on excursions within Sonoma County or in our own backyard, when we dare to shift our perspective, we will see the world in a whole new way.  

Jak Wonderly’s favorite local shooting locations:  

“Wherever the coastal fog ends. The back roads above Bodega, or the backroads outside of Jenner are worth exploring.” 

Written by Amy Bess Cook