Jason Carncross's Commercial & Editorial Photography Blog

People often ask me how I created some of my most recognizable commercial advertising photography. This blog is my answer to many of the technical questions that I receive. I don't often have time to add articles to this blog, but do manage to update it occasionally.

Getting the Coffee Shot

I am writing this particular post in response to the most common question that I get about the image above. How did you do that?

This image was a fun one to shoot. It helps to have the owner of the best coffee roaster in the front range, Cody Osborn of Proper Grounds in Lafayette CO, helping me out on this one. 

The Concept

The idea was rather simple. Create an image that represented the coffee process from bean to cup, and represent it in a way that illustrated Cody's love for coffee and artisanal approach. We threw some ideas around and settled on the idea of the coffee beans transitioning from Cody's hands, into coffee grounds as they fell, and finally into coffee splashing into a cup.

The Approach

Having many comped images over the years, it was no mystery to me how we were going to pull off the shoot, although it ended up being a 'wait and see' moment for Cody.

The idea was a fairly simple, three-stage approach:

  1. Capture a few photos of Cody pouring coffee beans from his hands in to the cup.
  2. Capture a few more photos of Cody pouring coffee grounds from his hands.
  3. Capture a few images of the coffee being poured out of a container into the cup.

I knew that we wanted to capture the splashing of the coffee when it hit the cup, so I had to either use the speedlights at a very low power setting, or take advantage of the high-speed sync that the Pocket Wizard system was capable of. I knew that I wanted to control the light in the room completely, which meant that I had to go with the second option of high-speed sync.

Once I knew how I was going to stop the action of the coffee splashing out of the cup I proceeded to set up the props and lights. It was important to determine how the coffee was going to be captured so that I could utilize the same settings for the beans and grounds. Normally  I wouldn't necessarily shoot the other substances at such a high speed, but I knew that if I wanted the images to blend seamlessly when I was assembling them in Photoshop, I had to establish the common denominator for the lights.

The beans and the grounds were easy. I had Cody pour different amounts of each out of his hands until I got the volume and flow that I was looking for.

The liquid was a bit more tricky because we had to experiment with the container that Cody was pouring the coffee out of in order to get the desired volume and spread of the coffee stream. Once we had settled on the container that gave us the best results, I had Cody pour the coffee. And pour the coffee. And pour the coffee. There was a bit of trial and error with hitting the cup as well as my timing the shot. The biggest challenge was cleaning up between pours so that we didn't have a lake on the counter under the cup.

Post Production

Comping the images together was relatively straight forward. I selected the images that contained the components that I was looking for. I used several of the bean pouring, two of the grounds pouring, and a few of the coffee pouring/splashing. Each image was selected for a specific section that I wanted to incorporate. 

Once I had selected the images I brought them into Photoshop as layers and edited them together using layer masks. If you are interested in learning how to actually composite images in Photoshop, there are many decent tutorials online for learning these techniques. 

Once I had the image looking good, I added a slight vignette to draw attention to the middle of the image and away from the edges.

I hope you were able to get something out of this posting. I have included some additional information about the lights that I use as well as a brief explanation of why speedlights are such an important part of my process. 

Thanks for your interest - Jason

The Lighting Gear

Over the last few years I have been shooting exclusively with Nikon speedlights. I have two SB-910s and two SB-700s that I use in conjunction with speedlight mounts that have Bowens modifier mounts on them. The mounts allow me to take advantage of any light modifier that uses the Bowens mount system, which is quite extensive.

I have been using the Pocket Wizard MiniTT1 transmitter with the AC3 zone controller, in conjunction with FlexTT5 receivers to trigger the lights. Not only does the AC3 allow me to adjust the lights right from the camera, it also allows me to turn on each zone independently in order to see what affect the light is having on the scene. This ability is critical to visualizing the shots that I create because speedlights don't have modeling lamps in them.

I suppose that one benefit of using speedlights for so long, is that I have learned what to expect from the lights and modifiers. Although I do not have a live preview of how the lights are casting on my subjects, I do have a pretty good idea of what I am going to get before I take the shot. I also feel compelled to mention that I rarely get things set up perfectly. It usually takes a few shots and adjustments to dial everything in.

Background on Speedlights

Speedlights have an extremely short flash duration when they are set on their lowest power setting. The flash duration is so fast that it will actually freeze water splashing even if the shutter speed of the camera is longer (i.e. 160th of a second). The quick burst of light actually acts as the shutter, effectively stopping the action. This is one of the common methods used in liquid photography. High-speed sync allows the camera's shutter to control the speed of the exposure. By telling the speedlight to remain on for the entire duration of the shutter's set speed, high-speed sync ensures that the light is on and available for the entire exposure. The real benefit of high-speed sync is that I can use the speedlights at their highest setting if the shot requires it.