Earlier this month, we hosted our first photography retreat in San Luis Obispo, California. Before getting into the truly wondrous details of our retreat destination, we must note that unexpected turns of events tend to yield exceedingly joyful outcomes. We originally planned for the retreat to be set in Carmel and Big Sur on the beautiful central coast of California, but due to the very unfortunate Soberanes fires, we had to quickly find another location.
Flying Caballos Ranch, tucked unexpectedly off the road and just far enough away from town, could not have been a more ideal setting for the weekend’s magic. The farmhouse stood proud in 100-year-old glory, flaunting its history in creamy yellow paint, creaky wooden floorboards, and white trim. Golden fields surrounded, and a pleasantly dated water tower graced the view from the back steps of the house. On the first night, as the group of us slowly began to trickle in for rest and a Darling dinner, the house effortlessly became a home.
Upon arrival, women were greeted with a glass of delicious Winc wine. Each nutritious, vibrant meal was held outside at a long table alongside the farmhouse, and the first dinner shared under the flickering lights sputtered with getting-to-know-you conversation. Kara Elise set the table with crisp fish and a tangy cilantro sauce, a crunchy kale slaw salad, the most gorgeous golden watermelon and walnut mix, and a quinoa medley.
During the meal, guests shared their individual intentions for the retreat and it quickly became evident that each woman was wildly different from the next. Even in that, though, there was a deep, shared understanding of everyone’s eagerness to learn and to stretch themselves both creatively and relationally. We had all stepped out of our busy lives and into this weekend of learning, resting, and growing, from different walks and varying photography skill levels. It was as though that vivacious human desire to capture beauty and to share it sat down around a table and finally allowed itself to be seen. The night ended with an introductory session in the cozy living room, where Darling Editor-in-Chief and Creative Director, Sarah Dubbeldam, and Photography Editor, Rebekah Shannon, shared their wisdom on how to conceptualize a photoshoot in preparation for the following day.
It was as though that vivacious human desire to capture beauty and to share it sat down around a table and finally allowed itself to be seen.
In the morning mist, Natalie Winsell led us in a peaceful and constructive yoga class on the lawn, while others took the morning to gain some rest from their journey the day before. Inside the farmhouse, the smell of bacon and golden toast wafted up to the rafters. This breakfast was a beauty: sweet individualized yogurt parfaits with honey and toasted coconut flakes, avocado toast, fresh fruit, and thick crackly bacon.
We were then whisked to a morning session in the living room, in which Rebekah imparted direction about how to build a production team, arguably the most complex aspect of of production altogether. From here, we were off to Montana de Oro State Park’s jutting rocks and crashing waves for a beach lesson on the basics of shooting models. Our graceful, patient, and near-unbelievably beautiful model for the weekend, Eromomen, angled her body in the afternoon light, letting us snap thousands of shots of her.
Rebekah, along with accomplished and intuitive photographer Kat Borchart, guided us throughout the day. There was so much beauty and so much support surrounding. We took our time on the scenic drive back to the house, along the coast and through weepy trees. Dinner was nothing short of excellent, with the most luscious fruit-encrusted savory tarts, sumptuous pulled pork, and a fresh salad. Sarah and Rebekah ended the night by demonstrating their process of reviewing images for Darling Magazine (and revealing some images to be released in the fall issue, this September). On the beach, during the car rides, across the dinner table, and as Sarah and Rebekah led us with lightheartedness and laughter, friendships spun this first day together with ease and simple joy.
The second day began similarly to the first, but with a renewed vitality. Nicole led yoga on the lawn, and the mighty smell of Sunday breakfast awoke the later-risers. Breakfast brought us all together in the kitchen and then wooed us outside, where the sun revealed itself so unabashedly. Soon after, photographer Chuck Willis led a workshop on how to shoot product and food. Our gift bags went to great use here, as we tried our hand at capturing them in different lights and moods, and shooting food was an obvious joy. We scurried around the house and grassy property, seeking out desired backdrops and doing our best to utilize Chuck’s advice on color choice and angle. Just as shooting food became too tempting, Kara set a tasty table of tacos for lunch, and we gathered around outside in the sun.
Our last dinner of homemade meatballs and roasted vegetables was pleasingly drawn out by Sarah inquiring about each woman’s experience on the retreat. We went around the table, reviewing our weekend growth spurts and miraculous friendships, marveling at the power of togetherness to bring about beauty — in art, in heart.
We then sauntered into the living room, where Sarah and Rebekah meticulously reviewed 20 of each woman’s chosen model and product shots, ultimately picking 3 “hero shots” from the entire weekend. “Oohs” and “ahhs” ensued throughout, and each person’s shots were truly, drastically different from the next. At the end of the session, Rebekah hilariously and jokingly said, “I thought I was going to have to pretend that these were good, but you all did such an incredible job. I could even see us using these for the magazine!” No one left the room without a newly-bolstered confidence in her unique photography style.
The night ended with s’mores around the campfire. All of us cozied under blankets, s’mores sticks in hand, watching the stars and the growing fire. What stands most unforgettable is the drone of our voices that rose above the ambience. Everyone was intently engrossed in conversation, and the closeness in friendship was an undeniable truth for us all. An excerpt from the book Death by Living by N.D. Wilson was shared around the fire,
“We are all that overwhelmed kid, not even noticing our heartbeats, not even noticing our breathing, not even noticing that our fingertips can feel and pick things up, that pie smells like pie and that our hangnails heal and that honeycrisp apples are real and that dogs wag their tails and that awe perpetually awaits us in the sky. The real yearning, the solomonic state of mind, is caused by too much gift, by too many things to love in too short a time.”
How true Wilson’s words had become for us on this retreat.
The last morning began with a celebratory donuts and eggs brunch, was filled out with useful branding tips by Kat, and then was sadly ended with our farewells…for now. We have so much to carry home with us, so much to share, and so much to be grateful for; the weekend at the farmhouse with wise teachers, who create beauty and embody love, taught us that.
A special thanks to all who made this weekend possible:
Workshops: Sarah Dubbeldam and Rebekah Shannon
Photographers: Kat Borchart and Chuck Willis
Model: Eromomen Esoimeme
Gear Sponsor: B&H Photo represented by Paige Denkin
Yoga Instructor: Natalie Winsell