Coffee is like Photography, I think?

January 8th, 2010 § 4

I had an ephinany this morning.  I poured my first decent bit of Latte Art.  After months of learning and trying hard, this one just popped out without fanfare or conscious effort.  I’m proud as, and its got me thinking…

Rob's first latte art fern

Rob's first latte art fern

Several things have been drawing coffee and photography together for me over the last few days so I’m going to make a caffeine fueled comparison.

It would be fair to say that coffee has become quite important at Nature’s Pic Images.  Over the last year a brand new Vibiemme Super E-61 group head espresso machine has become a shrine to which morning work schedules often bend around.   Before actually owning a coffee machine of any quality, I enjoyed a good coffee at a fav local cafe (Cafe du Parc), but I had no idea of the skill employed by Georga, Terry, and the team when making a consistently good brew.  There is a lot to know and a lot of variables to deal with.  I now tip my hat to a good barista.

So, why the hedonistic comparision between coffee and photography?

Both are, at the same time, technically intensive, and creatively infused.  It’s an interesting blend and one that I love.  To make the perfect photograph is impossible; to make the perfect brew is impossible.  What do you think? 

I was reading an article (for the life of me I can’t find it now) by a life long barista where he claimed to have only poured about 30 ‘God Shots’ in his career. God shots would be an espresso pour to die for I guess? There was no definition….., but then maybe you don’t need one – you just know. 30 God shots ain’t that many!  Looking holistically at all the images I’ve shot (probably 100s of thousands now), the ‘God Shots’ I can claim to have produced probably number in the same ballpark I think…if I’m lucky.

What other connections are there? 

You’ve gotta love and respect your subject.  It’s perhaps impossible to make a good coffee if you don’t love the stuff yourself?  I can always tell a good coffee that’s been made out of love – it’s a dead giveaway. Same with images.  I was at Cradle Mountain in Tasmania a few years back, sitting back enjoying the speccie scenery when two English photogs marched up with giant lenses, giant tripods and giant egos.  They walked past the small group of hikers, climbed over the sign that said “Don’t go past this point, fragile vegetation restoration area’, trampled the plants, and proceeded to talk loudly and fondly of themselves. Someone asked them if they’d read the sign they climbed over.  They said they ‘wouldn’t be long’.  It begged the question: “Can you take good photos of nature without a love and respect for the subject.  I doubt it.  I didn’t see their shots, but I have my suspicions on how good they were. I’d wager that this applies to all areas of photography.

Being PRESENT.  What?  Obviously being present at the birth of a latte is vital to it’s production, but what about being really present?  For me, the coffee production ritual is a form of mediation.  Don’t worry, I’m not going all new age on you here, just follow me.  If I’ve been working for a few hours on photoshop pouring that perfect image it’s vital to stay focused, and a good break is essential from time to time.  I love to head for the kitchen, lay out a clean space on the bench for a brown ACR Italian crockery saucer, find a shiny nice teaspoon, prime the coffee basket with fresh grinds, level, tamp, temp stablise the E-61 group head, and pull a shot.  Then start on the perfect milk frothing, before attempting to pour some latte art, before sitting down to totally focus on the flavours and aroma – not letting anything get in the way.  It may sound a bit ‘anal’ to some, but it’s a few minutes of pushing the world back, and being present to the task at hand. Nice.  It’s also something we don’t do too much in these crazy days it seems. 

And the same exists with photography.  I find my best work is when I’m alone with freedom to create what’s possible.  Only when I’ve dropped other thoughts and distractions does my best work appear. Only when I don’t feel like there is anyone I’m holding up, or deadlines to meet, that I can really do my best work.  This includes immersing yourself in the situation. Getting out and climbing the hill, and experiencing the weather and seasons, gives you a respect and understanding of your environment and hence a deeper respect.  All necessary things to do your best. 

Coffee gear is like camera gear.  It’s expensive, needs to be maintained to get it’s best, and you have to understand it.  Of course we’re talking professional gear here.  The first thing I did when I got the Vibiemme was to pull it apart.  Obviously this ain’t for everybody, but it gave me a great understanding on what it does (and it’s a thing of beauty too) and how to get the best from it.  Similarly, when the Canon 1DsMk3 I last ordered (the 3rd in NZ and the first to Antarctica!), it got the same treatment. Obviously it wasn’t pulled apart physically, but it got put through it’s paces to get to grips with it.  So, just like being able to instinctively snap a shot with my camera like it’s an extension of my arm, I can also instinctively tell what the Vibiemme is up to by the tone of it’s voice.

A thing of copper and brassed beauty

A thing of copper and brassed beauty

So, maybe there’s a book in the future?  ‘Zen and the art of espresso machine maintenance’ should do it?

Thanks for support from Kara MacDonald at Herkimer Coffeein S. Ravenna, Seattle, USA.   For an American, Kara is an energetic supporter of everything coffee and Kiwi.  So much so that  she has even taken a Kiwi boy as her own (he works on Windows at Microsoft – the clear ones ;->), and she’ll drop a Sola Rosa or Black Seeds track on for you if she knows you’re from NZ.  Last time in Seattle she had me behind the counter making my own brew with her kind words of encouragement and advice guiding my learning. She’ll have to be the co-author of a book.  If you’re passing, please pop in and give her my regards, she’s a great sort.

Any thoughts?

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§ 4 Responses to “Coffee is like Photography, I think?”

  • Wendy Cain says:

    Welcome back and you couldnt have chosen a better subject! That machine looks like a work of art in itself as does the coffee, great latte fern decor too! Here’s to many excellent cups of coffee! I echo your thoughts above, very inspiring.

  • Tyrone says:

    I can’t help with the comparison as I’m not a photographer, but, good choice with the VBM! We have one too. I hope you’ve got an equally good grinder. If not, drop me an email, I might be able to hook you up with something good.

  • Janette says:

    Man, its not fair! are you trying to make me miss the morning coffees even more:( The Breville just doesn’t cut the mustard Mr Suisted.

  • Lots of Good information in your post, I favorited your site so I can visit again in the near future, Thanks, Melina Richel

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