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Pilgrim Coffee

October 2020

As a Seattle photographer, I always knew coffee was going to find its way in front of my camera someday. After all, like any other proper Seattleite I LOVE coffee, and our city isn't called the "world center of roasting" for nothing. Out here, we push our beloved brew to a new level of beautiful, adoring insanity. We literally have a coffee shop on every single block. We have them inside grocery stores, there's drive-thrus in hotel and church parking lots, and we even have one at the very top of the famous Space Needle. 


Even the Urban Dictionary knows of our obsession and has hilariously teased at it within their definition of "Seattleite." It says, (1) Any person living in, or within ten miles of the city of Seattle, WA. (2) Is easily agitated when a tourist asks to see the original Starbucks, Microsoft or Kurt Cobain's house. (3) Considers Seattle to be the best city on Earth. (4) Is a pretentious coffee snob due to the thousands of delicious coffee houses and roastaries that surround them.

Well, Urban Dictionary isn't wrong, because for us, coffee isn't just a simple drink. It's a fabric of this city's culture, it's a way of life, and it's also a bit of a weird, maniacal experiment as we try to discover every feasible corner that a shop can be squeezed within. Putting in the footwork to visit them all is kind of like a local destination getaway, and if you tour the city long enough you'll find some super creative hidden gems inside. After dozens of my own personal expeditions my favorites so far are the 80's punk-rock themed Bedlam Coffee in Belltown and the hyper-intelligently designed Zeitgeist Coffee in Pioneer Square, but the one that really took my breath away and solidified itself in my elite is Pilgrim Coffee Truck, located in North Aurora. 

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Upon first look, I think everyone can agree Pilgrim Coffee just screams "dapper." The truck itself is a rebuilt 1945 "1 and 1/2 Ton" Ford painted in a timeless ivory and candy apple red, and to make things even more unique, it has a full-service espresso bar hidden under the flatbed. The engine itself actually runs too so the truck gets taken on many adventures, which makes my mind wonder about all the stories it has to tell. Overall it's quite a fetching display that gives you a charmed, nostalgic sensation, and it's also fascinating as a customer to watch the baristas create your coffee right in front of you instead of from behind a tiny window. 

But of course, it takes more than just a fancy storefront to bring customers back, and that's where I think the crew members themselves, Justin, Josh, Ellie, and Hector, really make the company shine. For such a small operation they're incredibly talented and can make some wickedly delicious brew, but it's their upbeat attitude and passionate outlook towards their craft that really got my attention. In their words, "Coffee isn't just a product, it's a social art. It's an opportunity to get to know your community and bring everyone together." 

I later learned that this philosophy of theirs went beyond their day to day operations as well, and that every year they volunteer at multiple events where they can donate their profits to local organizations. These were the kinds of unsung heroes that don't always get recognized in their community, and I couldn't have met them at a more perfect time because I was actually looking to create a new coffee portfolio. This was an awesome opportunity to support a dashing, yet also conscious business, and I could also knock out one of my annual "donation shoots" where I give one free session to a local non-profit or charitable business of my choosing each year. 

Let's Get to Work

Setting up the production with Pilgrim was a breeze, and on the day of the shoot itself I really couldn't have wished for more perfect weather. The sun rose behind a beautiful thick layer of clouds (giving us some impeccably balanced light) and thanks to a previous night of rain the parking lot we chose to shoot in was squeaky clean. I arrived just after first light at about 6AM, and after the crew warmed up their equipment we all took a hit of espresso and jumped right in. 

To kick things off I decided to work on taking portraits of the crew members first, and in my opinion, these were going to be some of the most important photos to nail down. They were the original creators, the chefs, the connoisseurs who put their skill and care into every cup, and because of that, I saw them as the literal creative spirit of the company itself. Just like the coffee they served, I wanted to make their portraits to feel rich, warm, and inviting, and to better support this narrative I chose to go with a very specific lighting technique.


To start with my setup, I began by placing my key light (a strobe with a 4' octabox) to the side and slightly in front of the subject. Then, I placed another strobe (with a glass plate attached) to the same side but moved it much farther back to the point where it would edge light the subject's face while also illuminating the background at the same time.

As you can see from the diagram, this setup really isn't that complicated, but for something so simple it sure packs a satisfying punch. The part that I enjoy most about it is how it casts an edge light onto the subject's face that almost mimics an early morning sunrise. It carves into their facial features, gives them a natural, flattering glow, and it also helps separate them further from the background.


Due to our city's famously rainy weather this lighting style also offered one more serious advantage. It would help Pilgrim Coffee stand out from the typical foggy, faded aesthetic that is all too abundant in Seattle photography. 

For the next photo below, featuring one of the baristas named Hector, the 2-point lighting technique was once again the MVP. The shot was originally made in the parking lot with the key light coming in from the driver's side window and the edge light being fired through the windshield. Once again the edge light helped cast a more realistic sunlit effect onto the subject's face, which I was later able to use to my advantage when I composited a mountain scene into the background that had the exact same lighting direction (going from left to right). 

The last, and final tactic that I used during the portrait sessions was to relocate around the truck for every photo. This made the one-truck shop appear much larger and more dynamic, and it also allowed me to highlight different tasks that the crew members carried out throughout the day (i.e. driving, making coffee, etc.).  

The "B-Roll"

After wrapping up the portrait sessions I moved on to capturing little kick-knacks and events happening around the truck. These shots are what I like to call the "B-Roll", because although they aren't as critical as other photos, they still fill in the gaps and draw out extra bits of character. Shooting these is like going on a scavenger hunt, because no matter how small the scene may look, you're always bound to find some visual treasures. 

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For most of these "B-Roll" shots I kept things simple with a one strobe setup where I would just throw the light in from a general direction, but for my two favorite finds, the wheat straws and the espresso scoop, I made a small necessary adjustment. For very low to the ground items like these, I also like to lower the strobe down to their same elevation. It's a basic trick that can often get overlooked (especially when you're shooting quickly) and I highly recommend doing it because it casts a far more compelling dimension onto the subject. 

Visualizing the Flavor

The third, and final part of the production was to snag some photos of Pilgrim's products, and in order to get the best results for these I decided to break them up into two different sessions. For the first session I shot some of the products, like coffee bags and branded hats, at the truck itself. The lighting approach was exactly the same as "B-Roll" shots and if necessary I would toss in a second light to fill in the background. 

For the second session though, I wanted to pull out all the stops and ran some baked goods and beverages back to the studio. In this setting I would be able to reach into my personal arsenal of props and would also have far better control over my lighting. 

Like in any other food photo session, I had two very familiar words itching in my brain as I shot: color and texture. The "color" part is probably self explanatory enough. We all love food with color - It makes it look alive, it gives it a vivid pop, and it gets our stomachs rumbling just imagining which ingredients brought such juicy tones to our eyes. I hate to waste color because it's such an emotional language, so in these photos I added extra food props that augmented the dominant flavor (the red donut filling with strawberries is a good example).

The "texture" part that came next was about what you likely already guessed - The actual consistency of the food. Was it fluffy? Was it crumbly? Was it moist or dry? Since a viewer's taste buds wouldn't be able to do the work, I adjusted my lighting to make those qualities more obvious and enticing. Just like in the "B-Roll" shots again, I brought my light down onto the same plane to bring out additional dimension. Then, I used white cards to fill the shadows and add extra reflections into the gelatins and fruits. 

I also used one more technique that I secretly love, and that was adding a diffusion panel (or a diffusion disk if you don't have one) in between the light and the product. The diffusion panel further softened the light, dispersed it more evenly on the food, and made it appear more natural. Just a fun note on this by the way: You can control the intensity of this softness by changing the distance between the panel and the strobe. The closer the panel is to the subject and farther it is from the strobe, the more softened the light will become. 

Diffusion panels are also a tremendous help when photographing beverages, like in the lemonade photo above. In almost all professional beverage photos, you'll see an edge light fired from the side and behind the glass that will help accentuate its shape, and if you throw a diffusion panel in again then it will soften (a.k.a. "frost") the light hitting the glass. 

Conclusion

If there's one lesson to take away from my shoot with Pilgrim Coffee, it's that whenever we photographers feel the desire to shoot for a new industry we have to get out there and make that opportunity ourselves. No one, and I repeat, no one is going to just walk up and open that door. If you need help creating a new industry-focused portfolio, then start by spending some time exploring what professions, products, etc. excite you. Then, approach a group that shares that excitement and presents it in an unique and inspiring way.


I personally recommend collaborating with a local non-profit or a small business because most of these groups desperately need photos and it's a great way to give back to your community. It's also better to not approach a larger company because their needs will be far more demanding and you'd potentially be burning an opportunity to approach them in the future for work with pay. 

Even the most seasoned photographers can benefit from this practice too because it offers a refreshing break from our usual niches and keeps our skills sharp. I've now been shooting professionally for over 6 years and I still do at least one of these annually just to challenge myself and expand my creative horizons. The trick is to not become complacent and never stop looking for new ways to grow, and from one artist to another, it's the photographers who are the most versatile that are the happiest and have the most chances for success. 


  • Thanks, Derek! I'm happy to hear you enjoyed the blog. I actually got introduced to a lot of Profoto gear back in photo school and decided to stick with the brand afterwards. I got the B1 in particular because I liked the light quality, the battery life is long, and I wanted a powerful monolight for outdoors. So far the 500 watts has really paid off.

  • Derek Michaels

    2 weeks ago

    This was a great read. Lots of good info! What made you choose the B1?