When done well, a coffee shop can be a truly magical place. Bear with me here. I'm not talking about a Starbucks or some sloppy hometown shop. To be done well, a coffee shop must combine really great coffee roasted by passionate artists and brewed by dedicated craftspeople with a physical space that fosters human interaction through thoughtful architecture, decor, music, and seating. When all of these factors line up correctly, you get magic. If you've never been to one of these shops and experienced this magic you will consider this notion crazy, but let me assure you that once to sit down in a well-made chair in a clean and welcoming space as you sip in liquid that eclipses wine in its flavor complexity and delivers a dose of invigorating caffeine you will know it.
When I was in San Francisco for my recent photo workshop, my friend Jeff Carlson and I spent a couple of days exploring the city and sampling its coffee. Jeff is a long-time coffee freak like me, but he hails from Seattle. As representatives from the nation's two top coffee meccas, we came to San Francisco with very high standards and well-curated palates. Within hours of landing, we found ourselves in Sightless Coffee in search of affagato. During our research prior to the trip, Jeff discovered news of Sightglass' collaboration with Portland-based Salt & Straw ice cream. As good fortune would dictate, we were in San Francisco on the inaugural day of this coffee and ice cream collaboration, known as affagato. Portlanders know how amazing Salt & Straw's ice cream is. We also know that one must stand in line to get it. At Sightglass, we found a long line that snaked up a staircase to the huge shop's loft where free affagato was in the offing. Free affagato! We stood in line and waited, and when we finally reached the bar we had the choice of straight affagato, which traditionally features a single scoop of ice cream or gelato doused in a shot of espresso. I opted for a different option: the float, with a scoop of S&S salted carmel ice cream and Sightglass vanilla cold brew and a splash of soda water. In a life filled with pleasures, this was one to remember. The vanilla cold brew mingled softly with the rich carmel cream and the slight fizz of the soda set it all spinning. It was a small little cup, so I nursed it like it might be my last. If we weren't visiting with some friends of Jeff, I would have licked the inside of the cup.
The next morning found us wandering the Marina District in search of our first cup of the day. Our only decent option turned out to be Peet's, which is the Bay Area's version of Starbucks. Like Starbucks, the coffee was decidedly corporate: good enough, but not inspired. The caffeine worked, so we moved on. Eventually we found a great shop set up as a communal workspace. Not so cleverly called "Workspace" this shop was pulling Stumptown coffee, so we perked up at the promise of some exceptional cups. They were wonderful, and the cafe also produced a great lunch salad for me and a delicious-looking sandwich for Jeff. With solid Wi-Fi and a high-quality source for more coffee, Jeff dug in and worked on a few articles and I moved on to explore Chinatown.
On the last day of scouting we once again walked the streets sniffing for the scent of wonderful coffee. We found it at one of Jeff's favorite's, Blue Bottle Coffee. Jeff lured me there with a story about "the best cup of coffee of my life". The little shop sits nuzzled into the canyons of skyscrapers downtown and as soon as we walked in I knew it had the magic. The space had absurdly high ceilings which made room for massive windows that filled the room with glorious daylight. A glass-encased coffee siphon occupied a space at the end of the L-shaped bar, and we took our seats in front of it like two pilgrims. While we waited for our drinks, I pulled out my camera and ultra-wide zoom lens. Inspired by the ethos of the place, I made a couple of environmental portraits of two of the baristas.
With my new lens, I knew I would have to be careful not to frame my subjects in such a way as to distort their features. For the guy, I placed him in the lower right Rule of Thirds intersection, and with his back to the big windows I let the light wrap around him. As it turns out he's a photography student and we had a nice chat about cameras and computers. His glasses, hat and decidedly San Francisco nose piercing worked well I think.
The second subject was an adorable girl who shyly agreed to let me get into her face with the big, bulbous 11-24mm lens. I made several shots of her dead center in the frame, and I scored with the pair of workers behind her as they framed the scene nicely. The wide zoom is incredibly sharp and so mind-blowingly wide that I was able to make these environmental portraits in a tight space without crowding my subjects. With the great natural light coming in through the towering windows, I was able to shoot hand held with no issues. In the time it took for them to craft my latte, I had two decent portraits. Not bad for a guy who doesn't do enough street photography.