On the Streets of the City – with Coffee
I am a full-time professor at a university, teaching film theory, digital and visual culture and literature, and now moving into photography on a critical-theoretical level as well. The reasons behind my choices for academic topics are interestingly coming from my hobbies – and so it happened with photography recently. As a child, I was always excited when my father assembled the equipment in our tiny kitchen at night and transformed it into a dark room to develop the films he had shot.
We had a not too complicated, but excellent film camera – my entry into snapping photos during the summer holidays. Forward to the present: unsatisfied with whatever my phone cameras could do, having a couple of tiny digital compact cameras broken in the drawer, I decided I needed something better. But it was not until I took on an experimental journey with Instagram that the game turned out to be a new course in my life. I have become a homo photographicus, taking my camera virtually wherever I go.
Ever since I first tasted it, I have been a coffeeholic, seeking out various types and varieties of the beverage wherever I go. It was the autumn of 2015 that we started an Instagram experiment with a then student, now colleague (an Olympus convert, too) in which we created a ghost brand (#BREW) and targeted the then blossoming specialty coffee segment with an aesthetics specifically designed for this particular niche.
It was soon evident that no matter how sophisticated the camera and software the phone had, the images just did not pop and work the way I wanted them to. I started looking into the workflow of others and soon realized that I could have two birds with a stone: upgrading to a digital camera can satisfy my desire for great images, and yield better results on the gram as well.
I took the plunge in early 2016, when I came across a lonely Olympus E-PL6 with a kit zoom in black for a reduced sale price at a local shop. The learning curve did not seem too steep: I could soon leave behind the full auto mode and then the program mode, as well, thanks to the intuitive help from the camera itself.
For about a year I have not gotten out of aperture priority mode as that seemed to be the most important factor in taking my pictures. I wanted to control the aperture and have as much bokeh out of the images as I could. Since I had to keep the #BREW (@hashtagbrew) account updated with images, I delved into coffee and a bit of food photography – all with natural light. Our kitchen window is huge and since it does not get direct light, it diffuses the available incoming light nicely all throughout the day, which has proved to be a perfect solution to develop my style.
Depending on the time of the day, I can thus experiment where I want to have my subject positioned so that the incoming light usually illuminates the subject from behind (to create interesting see-through effects with liquid substances – like coffee), or diagonally (to help create depth and texture), but never using direct, frontal light. This way of composing food and coffee on the table creates a smooth, natural effect that pleases the eye.
Often, I focus on smaller details or compose some parts of the plate out of frame to create negative space – or simply to fill up the freed space with interesting (but never distracting) objects and props. I only use reflector and diffusor on certain occasions, when I want to have more light facing the lens, and I have just bought a simple manual flash to learn and control my scenes in terms of light.
With getting more and more into food and coffee photography, the next step on the journey was to move in the direction of prime lenses. Coming from the old film tradition with a fixed focal length lens camera in the household, I just did not feel comfortable enough working with a zoom lens. I realized I was using two specific focal ranges on the kit lens: around 25mm and the utmost length, 44mm. To match this, one does not have to look hard: Olympus offers two primes for a reasonable price with absolute stunning quality, the 25mm f/1.8 and the 45mm f/1.8.
And while I still have a longish love affair with the third lens from this line-up, the 75mm f/1.8, I am absolutely content with using these two little gems. The reason for this is quite simple: these small lenses yield top notch quality, sharpness from the center to the edges, ethereally beautiful bokeh wide open, and to me they represent what the m4/3 system is really about – portability without quality compromises.
This is where street and urban style photography becomes interesting. I travel a lot (okay, most of it is commuting really), so I like to explore something new (an angle, a light source, a pattern of light or structure, or the change of season) even in known places, so I keep my camera within close reach.
With the prime lenses, I basically pre-compose my images as the two focal lengths “live” in my head even before getting the camera up to my eyes. I am so used to the compositions they can give me that when I am simply walking about a city, I can already see the images I can get when I push the button.
You might call it a kind of mindful photographic experience, since you tune in on the visions the camera might see and it helps you focus and catch the flow. Moving into the prime lens world also helped me practice more and more in the often-feared Manual mode. While I always thought that M on the mode dial is a symbol for an exclusive club of professionals, I soon realized that it is much more about understanding light and matching composition to what you want to see than about technology or professionalism per se.
I am far from being a pro, and yet, get perfectly exposed images in M, since it forced me to really experiment with the magic triangle of ISO, aperture and shutter speed. It is only rarely that I switch back to A, and it only happens when on the street and there are sudden light changes. Otherwise, I keep my settings on the manual side.
Interestingly, M mode has helped accelerate my post-processing workflow, as well. I shoot in RAW and jpeg – the former for more thoughtful, overall edits or client work, the latter for mobile editing on the go, and for social media, if I want to post something on the spot.
Getting the image right in-camera, with the thought pre-invested and with the full control the M mode offers, I spend less time in front of the computer correcting mistakes and enhancing dull images. Also, the jpegs need less enhancement and retouch on the mobile – what Snapseed and Lightroom can offer is way more than needed.
However, I also realized, that while my E-PL6 performs quite well in the kitchen, where nothing is moving, everything is composed, it gives me a hard time sometimes out on the street (or when I had to catch the drop of a delicious home brew specialty coffee drop on its way from the V60 cone to the server).
With the limitation on shutter speed (1/4000), no silent shutter, a bit uncomfortable switch between controls for shutter and ISO, only 3-axis image stabilization (may not hold up when in twilight, or during night scenes), I think I reached the point when I had to face the hideous task of an upgrade. Don’t get me wrong, I still think it is a great camera, you can get high quality and intriguing photos out of it – I just had grown my own preferences by that time.
I was sure that my new camera would be an Olympus, and of course, the upgrade means a move towards the OM-D line: since I am not a pro, the wonderful E-M1 MII was out of question (okay, it wasn’t really a pro-vs-amateur issue, but strictly the budget…), and I did not feel the E-M10 MII was a huge step forward, so the only suspect was the E-M5 MII. And it turned out to be the best choice indeed: subtle and not too bulky on the outside, bringing everything I needed inside-out.
No more fiddling around with switching the mode dial – now I have loads of options and can customize everything to my liking. I just love the physical controls this camera offers, it is very intuitive and makes it fast and efficient on the street. The image stabilization gives me the advantage I had been dreaming about: if you’ve ever shot in low-lit cafés, you learn to appreciate the couple of stops it can lend you – truly a game-changer.
My camera is always with me: café-crawling the streets of the city, I need something versatile and feasible that can adjust itself to any task that comes around the corner. This is exactly why m4/3 systems excel – they provide the flexibility I need: whether it’s a café or coffee shot for the #BREW project or my own profile, or some clients nowadays, or just a stroll around downtown looking for interesting structures, light patterns or faces, the small lenses, the compact size, the pro-grade features and quality is everything I wish for.
This article was published on the Olympus Passion Photography Magazine #14
“I am a full-time professor at a university, teaching film theory, digital and visual culture and literature, and now moving into photography on a critical-theoretical level as well. The reasons behind my choices for academic topics are interestingly coming from my hobbies – and so it happened with photography recently. Forward to the present: unsatisfied with whatever my phone cameras could do, having a couple of tiny digital compact cameras broken in the drawer, I decided I needed something better. I have become a homo photographicus, taking my camera virtually wherever I go.”