Saffron Coffee Shoot

From Mountain to Cup – The Journey of Saffron Coffee from Matt Brandon on Vimeo.

This last week I traveled to Luang Prabang, Laos. There’s a small but very significant social enterprise based there called, Saffron Coffee, that benefits both Laotian and tourist alike. Saffron Coffee is Lao-owned, Western managed and Lao staffed. The team that runs Saffron Coffee is a mix of Lao, American and Australian (I don’t think I left anyone out.)

Flying my borrowed DJI Inspire drone to shoot the footage for the video above.

Flying my borrowed DJI Inspire drone to shoot the footage for the video above.

Saffron Coffee contacted me a couple of months back and asked me to bid on a photo job. The company needed some new photos for an upcoming promotional campaign. I made a passing comment how I think that I might have a drone by the time they wanted to shoot in November. Apparently, the thought of drone footage sealed the deal; I got the job. The only problem was I didn’t have a drone yet. I wanted a small drone that was easy to fly and had a good camera. DJI just announced their new Mavic Pro and compact portable drone just days before. As it’s only the size of a water bottle, it fits perfectly in a backpack! Two weeks before I was to arrive in Laos, I received an email informing me the drone I ordered was back ordered for 6 to 8 weeks! What was I going to do? Penang is not like the U.S.; we don’t have places to rent drones or even camera gear. Luckily, Max, the guy I ordered the drone from was reluctantly (I don’t blame him) willing to rent me his personal DJI Inspire. The Inspire is massive and costly! He requested I not check it in the hold of the aircraft, so I schlepped this beast all the way from Penang to Luang Prabang as an unauthorized second-hand carry.

Here I am shooting video of a long black. I was very pleased with the focus of the 35 mm f/1,4 lens.

Here I am shooting video of a long black. I was very pleased with the focus of the 35 mm f/1,4 lens.

I was also shooting the new Fuji X-T2 as both a still camera and a video camera. Frankly, I was just as scared of using the X-T2 as a video camera as I was this borrowed drone. I knew the X-T2 would perform flawlessly as a still camera. I had just used it in Europe, and it was incredible. In the past, Fuji x-series cameras have never had a good reputation for their video, but everyone was telling me how the X-T2 can now shoot 4K video and was far more intuitive.

Well, they were right. The video function of the Fujifilm X-T2 was very impressive. It handled low light and high ISO like a champ. The manual focusing was easy and swift. Everything about it was close to perfect. I do need to clarify; I am NOT a videographer. So I can not speak to this as a pro, but as a newbie videographer it was easy to use, and I was very pleased with the results.

One of the many hill tribes farmers partnering with Saffron Coffee.

One of the many hill tribes farmers partnering with Saffron Coffee.

The coffee cherry is high in sugars and thus becomes quite sticky and will often cause the picker's hands to become covered in whatever it touches.

The coffee cherry is high in sugars and thus becomes quite sticky and will often cause the picker’s hands to become covered in whatever it touches.

The camera performed unbelievable as a still camera, though I never had any doubts about this. The focusing is faster than the X-T1, and the high ISO is very usable. My only issue was remembering that there is now a “un”-lock on the ISO and shutter speed dials. I would keep forgetting to relock it after changing the ISO or shutter speed, and the dial moves quite easily when not locked. So I found myself shooting at 800 ISO when I needed to be shooting more like 200 or 400. But since the X-T2 handles high ISO so well, it wasn’t really a problem. But I have yet developed that muscle memory to remember to relock the dials after I unlock them.

Som Phet inspecting the freshly pluped coffee beans.

Saffron Coffee employee Som Phet, inspecting the freshly pulped coffee beans.

 

Thongsai, shoveling the cherry husk. This will be dried and sold to make cascara tea.

Thongsai, shoveling the cherry husk. These husks will be dried and sold to make cascara tea.

 

I love my job. I get to work with amazing people from all around the world. The staff at Saffron Coffee are an amazing work for and with the Lao hill tribe farmers. A few years back the cash crop of Laos was poppies for opium. The Lao government shut down all the poppy farms and the farmers were left without any income. Illegal logging filled the income void for some farmers. The farmers can cut down trees and make some good money. They also grow rice as a cash crop, but that is seasonal. In the southern part of Laos people have been growing robusta and sub-standard Arabica coffee for years. The folks at Saffron Coffee saw all this as both an opportunity to help the farmers.

Som Phet, is a master roaster for Saffron Coffee.

Som Phet, is a master roaster for Saffron Coffee.

They knew that shade grown highland Arabica coffee could provide a constant income for Northern Lao hill tribes. The altitude and climate around Luang Prabang was perfect, and the people needed a new crop. Today Saffron Coffee is partnering with 784 farming families in 18 villages in growing their coffee. They make specialty coffees with the highest quality Arabica beans.

Coffee and it's lovely crema being extracted through a bottomless or naked portafilter.

Coffee and it’s lovely crema being extracted through a bottomless or naked portafilter.

The traditional Lao brew has been an important part of the country’s coffee culture for years – but Saffron Coffee doesn’t see why specialty coffee can’t find a home in Northern Laos as well.

Two New ebooks by Damien Lovegrove

 

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Digital photography is free so make the most of it. I shoot three times a week on average to maintain my edge; any less than that and I slip backwards. It doesn’t matter if you play tennis, play a musical instrument or take photographs, improvements come through continued practice and the application of good skills. It is important to have a camera that begs to be picked up and used. The Fujifilm X system saved my career 5 years ago because of this characteristic alone. -Damien Lovegrove, Portraits.

 

Book One: The Fujifilm X System Guide for Portrait Photographers

 

Damien Lovegrove is one of the most respected photographers I know when it comes to glamor and portraits. He is also one of the friendliest and prolific. To learn about Damien’s pedigree you should listen to the interview, I did with him on my podcast Depth of Field. In short, he worked for years with the BBC becoming an expert at lighting. Later when he started shooting weddings, he discovered he was a natural and people loved his style and images. He is now a Fujifilm U.K. X-Photographer and a Fujifilm U.K. brand ambassador.

 

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Damien shoots thousands of frames a week. And when you do that, you learn the ins and outs of your gear. You find its flaws, and its weaknesses. Of course, you also learn it’s strengths. Damien has taken the knowledge he has accrued over these years and filled two ebooks with it. It is these two ebooks, The Fujifilm X System Guide for Portrait Photographers and Portraits that I want to review for you here today.

The first book The Fujifilm X System Guide for Portrait Photographers is the simplest to describe. At its core, it is a primer on the X-Series cameras. A sort of, “What is the ________ and how does it work?” You fill in the blank with any x series camera and any x series lens that Fuji makes. If you shoot Fujifilm gear, then you would be doing well to read this ebook. This book tells you not only what camera is best for your style of shooting but is also filled with the details about why Damien uses a certain camera and lens over another.

 

“I prefer to work with the X-T cameras (X-T2 and X-T10) because I like having a large centrally placed viewfinder. Having said that, I tend to use the tilting LCD most of the time. I like avoiding having a camera stuck to my face when I’m making portraits as it alienates my subjects. Using the tilting LCD reminds me of shooting with waist level viewfinders on my medium cameras all those years ago.” -Damien Lovegrove, The Fujifilm X System Guide for Portrait Photographers

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But I would be misleading you and doing Damien a disservice if I left you thinking this book was only a catalog of Fujifilm gear. It is so much more than that. The Fujifilm X System Guide for Portrait Photographers is also a very personal look into how Damien Lovegrove uses his cameras. For instance little things like when he is speaking about the X-E2 he writes:

 

“It’s very easy to produce dull images when the camera is given the task of setting exposure so I find it best to work in manual mode with ‘exposure preview in manual mode’ switched on.”-Damien Lovegrove, The Fujifilm X System Guide for Portrait Photographers

 

To discussing things like focusing and recompose with a Fuji x system camera. Did you know that you don’t do this with a Fuji? Damien goes into detail as to why. And the reason why was one of the most forehead-slapping moments for me in this book. It’s what he calls, the flat field lens factor.

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Damien goes through his complete camera settings. In particular, his Q (Quick) menu setup in great detail. This alone is almost worth the purchase of his book.

I am going to be straight here and tell you, when I first saw this book I thought, it was nothing more a catalog of Fujifilm gear that Damien loves. I was wrong; it is much more than that. It is a technical look at how this amazing photographer sets up and uses his cameras and lenses. Between this book and the next book in the docket, you get a virtual internship with Lovegrove. Don’t walk away from either of these two ebooks.

Book Two: Portraits

 

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Damien Lovegrove’s next ebook is simply titled, PORTRAITS. It is nothing short of amazing. 384 high-resolution photographs with all the exposure and lighting details used to create them. Over 50,000 words of creative exploration that took Damien over two years to write!

This book is filled with an entirely different style of portrait photography than I do. I mention this because though I am not a glamor photographer or a studio guy, I still appreciate and have learned from this book.

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Speaking of massive, this ebook is unlike most out today. Frankly, it is less of an ebook and more of a PDF of a university textbook. By that, I mean at 356 pages this no mere ebook that some photographer popped out to sell for $5. It took Damien two years to write this book and a lifetime of experience and as a result more like a university textbook than an ebook. Frankly, it belongs in every photographer’s library. If Portraits were an ink and paper book, you’d be paying well over $100. (Have you priced textbooks lately?)

Damien goes into great detail about each photo in the book. Each photo has the EXIF data in the caption with a rather long explanation of how he made it. I like his candor. There are times when he is surprisingly honest and explains how he forgot to change the ISO from a previous shot (I hate it when that happens!) and how the camera handled it.

 

A look at the book’s index gives you an overview of the massive amount of information that is covered in this book. There are eleven sections in the book beginning with Portrait Foundations. In that section, Damien spends 47 pages on the details of how to set up a shoot – from explaining a narrative to how to create a relaxed pose. In the section Light Matters, he spends 53 pages covering the use of strobes, quality of light, one light set ups, multi-light setups, how to simulate sunlight and much more. After that the bulk of the sections in this book are detailed explanations of each type of portrait you might shoot; Urban, Hollywood (the kind of shots you’d see from of Lana Turner or Betty Davis), Boudoir, Nude and lastly the Figure in Landscape. The last four sections of the book are more technical. In these remaining sections, he discusses in great detail his lighting equipment, what makes a good studio, his workflow and more.

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I think the quote below attests to Damien’s sensitivity and professionalism as a photographer and gives the reader an insight into his workflow.

 

It helps me to take things calmly and respectfully, but at the same time shyness can put over a sense of flustered unprofessionalism so I rely on my experience and photographic ability to disguise things like a gracefully gliding swan frantically paddling away under the water. 

I place my prime lenses on a side table in the room I’m shooting in, I have no caps on them and any Pro Mist filters that are needed are already in place with lens hoods attached. It’s a bit like how a surgeon would lay out their tools on a trolly. I can then quickly swap the lens needed for each shot. Having to go in and out of bags for gear just takes too long and ruins the creative flow. -Damien Lovegrove, Portraits.

 

As I said at the beginning, these are more than 35-page ebooks of pretty pictures. These are books; that would be an investment into your photography. At £20 and £40 the old truism is applicable here, “You get what you pay for.” You would be remiss not to have these two books in your photographic library.

Buy one or both books here:lovegrove-ebook-buynow

 

 

What camera should a beginner buy?

Stident on old collage chum George Neal had never picked up a camera till I got him shooting a Fujifilm X-20. Later he ugraded his camera to a X-T1. Here is George on the left with both camera next to Piet Van den Eynde on a recent trip to India.

Student and old college chum, George Neill, had never picked up a camera till I got him shooting a Fujifilm X-20. Later he added an X-T1 to his kit. Here is George on the left with both cameras next to Piet Van den Eynde on a recent trip to India.

One of the more frequent questions I get asked, is “What is the best camera I should buy if I am a beginner?” Honestly, these days there are so many choices, which can make it confusing and overwhelming. But the reality is it doesn’t have to be. I tell newbies to step back, take a breath and answer a quick question or two. Then I give them usually one, possibly two answers. They are almost always happy if they follow my advice. Continue reading

Depth of Field: Damien Lovegrove

Damien_Lovegrove

Damien Lovegrove

Damien Lovegrove is a treasure trove of both photographic and business knowledge. With years of photographic commercial and wedding work under his belt, this knowledge is all field tested by real life. I feel fortunate that he took an hour out of his busy schedule to share some of this insight with us. To say Damien is easy to talk with would be an understatement. He is flowing with wisdom, ideas, encouragement and more.

Damien is considered by many to be one of the world’s most influential contemporary photographers. These days he is best known for creating portraits that make women look amazing. Damien is known for his lighting style picture composition. If you don’t believe me check out his website, Lovegrove Photography and you will soon be convinced.

He is also a fellow Fujifilm X-Photographer and ambassador. He has shot exclusively with Fuji cameras since May 2012.

Damien shoots around 1,000 frames a week. He says if he doesn’t shoot that much in a week he starts to feel like he is going backwards. Yet, I never got the impression in this conversation that he is driven to the point where he runs over everyone in his way. Generous with his knowledge and experience, he speaks with me about creating what he calls that “big picture equation” that helps a photographer stay afloat financially. We also spoke about developing a style that is uniquely yours and how critical this is to your work. We cover how to take a dream and turn it into a reality and so much, much more.

Check out Damien’s work at:

Facebook: facebook.com/damien.lovegrove.1
Twitter: @damienlovegrove
Instagram: @damienlovegrove
Blog: ProPhotoNut.com
Personal Website: Lovegrove Photography

Podcast: A look at the Fujifilm X-Pro2 and more…

Piet, (foreground) and Rene with the camera and the SMDV Speedbox Professional 70cm and a Cactus RF60 in the alleyway of Varanasi, India.

Piet, (foreground) and Rene (camera to his face) and the SMDV Speedbox Professional 70cm and a Cactus RF60 in the alleyway of Varanasi, India.

Every year after our workshop in India, Piet Van den Eynde and I spend an hour or so talking about this years new Fujifilm gear. Because we do it in the field it sometimes becomes difficult to find a good location to record these discussions. It is India after all, things are noisy. One year we even made a tent out of blankets and recorded the show under it. Not to worry, this years was a breeze. Piet and I only had to deal with noisy bellhops and stray dogs,  all of this served as a background to an amazing hour of looking at the latest gear from Fujifilm.  For this episode we invited camera geek and photographer Rene Debar, host of the Fuji Xtras blog to help us with our yearly overview and to discuss the new Fujifilm X-Pro2. Continue reading

Kacchpuri: Home of the Dhobi

f/11, 1/180 sec, at 14mm, 200 ISO, on a X-T1

Scrubbing clothes on the bank of the Yamuna.

In India, just down the Yamuna river from the Taj Mahal is a small village called Kacchpuri. A village filled with the poorest of the poor trying to squeeze out a daily living in a myriad of ways. Many of the villagers sell used saris. They go around the area buying old worn-out ones. They mend them, wash them and  sell them to people who can’t afford new ones. The whole village seems to be involved in the process. We visited the Dhobi Ghaat where dhobies wash the used saris. A dhobi (male) or dhobin (female) takes the old saris and boils them, scrubs them and then rinses them in, of all places, the Yamuna river.

Scrubbing old saris clean.

Scrubbing old saris clean.

 

A child draws in the sand of the Yamuna as the dhobis work rinsing the old saris in the background.

A child draws in the sand of the Yamuna as the dhobies rinse the old saris in the background.

 

A camel in the background hauls off sand for concrete, while dhobies wash in the foreground.

A camel in the background hauls off sand for concrete, while dhobies wash in the foreground.

f/9, 1/180 sec, at 14mm, 200 ISO, on a X-T1

Of course, as the villagers live on the river, the children play in and around the river as well. From flying kites to drawing in the sand, the Yamuna is home to these people.

Children play on the banks of the Yamuna flying kites.

Children play on the banks of the Yamuna flying kites.

 

f/10, 1/180 sec, at 14mm, 200 ISO, on a X-T1

Kite flying can be a competition. Where glass string is used to cut the other team’s kite string.

Another part of the village makes bullwhips. They string scraps of leather together to make a whip and then sell them wholesale to a middleman who sell them to shopkeepers who in turn sell them to tourists.

 

Weaving bullwhips to sell to tourists.

Weaving bullwhips to sell to tourists.

 

cleaning fenugreek for the meal later.

Cleaning fenugreek for the meal later.

 

Like so many places in India, these people are poor, they have almost nothing, yet when you look at their faces you see smiles and joy. I am reminded of a quote from one of my favorite preachers, “It is not how much we have, but how much we enjoy, that makes happiness.” – Charles Spurgeon

Nucis Leather Strap with Peak Design Links

When you lead photographic workshops around the world you meet some really interesting people both as subjects and as participants. A few years back I had a very talented photographer from Portugal join our workshop in India, Fernando Carvalho da Silva. After that workshop Fernando went home to Lisbon and found some craftsmen that would hand make cases and straps for his cameras. He passed a couple of those straps to a few of us to try out and use. A company grew out of this called NUCIS leather. A little less than a year ago Fernando wanted me to try out one of his NUCIS leather straps. I had to be honest and tell him I doubted I would use them as I was pretty committed to the Peak Design system of anchors and links. You’ve seen them on my camera. I know this because every time I review a lens and photograph it on my camera I get asked the same question, “What is the little red and black tab hanging from your camera?” It is the Peak Design anchor. These small tabs allow the Peak Design straps to anchor or connect to the camera. It is an easy snap on and off solution. Brilliant! Well, because of this I doubted I would use his straps as nice as they were. I told him if he could come up with a classy leather strap that used those anchors, well then…

Continue reading

Review: Angelbird 512 GB SSD2go drive

Angelbird 512 GB SSD2go drive

Angelbird 512 GB SSD2go drive

 

Recently, I was sent an Angelbird 512 GB SSD2go drive. This little guy, and little is the operative word here, is built like a tank. It is perfect for people like me who travel. The great thing about SSD drives is because they are solid state they can be pretty much abused and still function perfectly. Seriously, you could drop this off a building and it would most likely survive… and no, I am not going to try that. I like it’s shiny T.A.R.D.I.S. 1 blue case and I don’t want it scratched. By the way, the case – it is honed out of a single piece of aluminum.  This adds to the solid feel of the device. Now I was a little worried when I saw the USB 3.0. cable. I had never seen a drive use a type A to type A cable. But it works like a charm. The cable fits really tight into the unit and into the computer. You can get the back engraved for free. Most people put their website or a contact number. I have never had any contact info on a drive before and frankly, I have never felt the need. I guess because I have never lost a drive before so it didn’t really occur to use it that way. So I had a bit of inspiration added to the the back. Since it is T.A.R.D.I.S. blue in color I added a quote from Dr. Who that fits my ethos. “We’re all stories in the end. Just make it a good one, eh?” Honestly if I was to do it again, I might put my email address because this drive is so small I actually might be able to loose it. Continue reading

  1. A reference to the blue police box in Dr. Who