The Barista Collection, behind the scenes

In the beginning...

I have long wanted to have a photo exhibition at my favorite Uppsala café Hugos, but my normal bright, happy landscapes wouldn't really fit in with the muted, retro atmosphere there. So I tried to make some artsy still lifes of coffee beans, but they weren't interesting enough for public viewing.

At the same time, I was experimenting with high-speed photography in order to make a logo for my new domain 'frozentime.se'. This was supposed to be very deep, capturing a moment in time during the Swedish winter, with a blue icicle against a yellow background, and a single drop of melt water making a splash in the puddle below.

Alas, global warming put a hold on that project since we got no icicles this year, but during the ensuing dull grey weekends I realised that I could combine the projects into something more interesting, and hence The Barista Collection, what the art-section reviewers might call a radical cross-over fusion concept, encompasing past and future techniques, with 19th-century crockery and sepia toning alongside 21st-century lasers and microsecond electronics. Or what I would call pretty pictures.

The techniques

The tea and milk pictures were taken quite simply - I put the camera on a tripod in front of the tea cup, poured the milk and fired the shutter by hand at what I thought was the appropriate time. The room lighting was dim, and the subject lit by flash, which is of short enough duration to freeze the action (in this case probably around 1/10000 s). Around 100 shots later I had 3 that appealed to me.

The sugar cubes splashing into coffee were rather more complex to shoot, since the timing was much more critical. Triggering the camera by hand gave less than the 3% success rate of the milk shots, and more cleaning up was required between shots. So for these I build a Sugar Delivery System, involving a metal chute down which the cubes slid, and just before the end of which was a laser trigger system that detected the cube going by, sent a signal to a variable delay device, and then on to the flashguns. This meant I could fine tune the drop height and trigger delay using an empty cup, and then get a more predictable outcome when the cup was filled with coffee. Still there were an awful lot of attempts and subsequent cleaning up. The finally hit rate was probably around a few percent again. Another problem was that by the time the splash had developed well, the sugar cube had sunk so deep into the coffee that it was hardly visible. Too late for these pictures I realised that by gluing two sugar cubes together I could make them long enough to still be well visible even when the splash had developed.
Here are pictures of The Sugar Delivery System and The complete setup, and here are details of the laser trigger.

The single drop splash pictures were made with a modified version of the sugar setup, with a syringe full of milk mounted above the cup, and the laser trigger a few inches above the surface. The delay was adjusted to catch the backwash just as it reached maximum height and started to break up into drops again.

Then I relaxed with the steaming coffee shots, which were made simply by dropping dry ice into the coffee. The interesting thing about the steaming glass of coffee is that the dry ice seemed to cause the foam to freeze, forming a plug in the top of the glass, which when it burst from the building pressure, produced the rather nice plume in that picture.

The 'waterfall' over the coffee beans was made by burying a dish of dry ice under a pile of beans, and then then squirting hot water on to the dry ice through a thin tube, thus causing a burst of steam to emerge and roll down the slope.

All the pictures were taken with a Nikon D300, mostly with a standard 50mm f1.8 lens, but the demands on the camera are not high, and any camera that allows long exposure times could have been used. The flashguns were Nikon SB800s, but any flash adjustable in manual mode would have worked fine.

Photoshop was used to alter the colours of picture, adding the sepia tint, and mopping up the odd stain, but the content of the images were not altered, all the events being portrayed as they happened.

The whole project, from building the equipment, through hundreds of failed shots, to processing and mounting the final pictures probably took the equivalent of about 2 working weeks.

And while the nerdy side of me was getting the upperhand in my photography with this project, I happened across a wonderful Victorian stereoscope in a junk shop, and that led me to making some stereoscopic versions of these pictures. To do this I mounted a second camera alongside the first, and then carefully lined up the two images that resulted. These look great in the 100-year-old stereoscope, but can also be viewed here, either by crossing your eyes while viewing this cross-eyed stereo image, going wall-eyed while looking at this parallel stereo image, or using coloured glasses on this red-green stereo image.

Well, I hope you enjoyed the pictures, and maybe got inspired to go and play in your basement.
Thanks to Magnus Persson for inspirational help, and Wallace&Gromit for engineering principles.

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© Mark Harris 2008