The Story Behind the Photograph – Johanna and Schoki Portrait

I was asked many times by my friends, fans, and my students to share the story behind this photograph. Well, the time has come. It took me a while to get my hands on my keyboard and in the end I managed to write it down; word by word, step by step, all setup, the make and technical aspects.

A long time ago, back in August 2012, I visited Gothenburg in Sweden, a great city which I really loved – they said it was called Little London, and I agreed.

On one of the days I was heading towards the Le Petite Cafe, a very beautiful coffee-shop located in the cosiest part of the city. My intention was to go to this lovely coffee-shop and do some post production on my laptop while enjoying some of their best goodies. They offer a large variety of food, cookies, biscuits, and various tasty refreshments. On my way I stopped to buy some cigars – there was a cigar bar which looked really good from outside. When I popped in I saw Johanna, sitting at a table, with her friend Hannah, drinking coffee. Looking at her, instantly a photograph just flickered through my mind, Johanna sitting in Le Petite Cafe coffee-shop, having a tea, a great portrait I said to myself.

I bought some cigars and then I went and approached Johanna. I told her that I have an idea and I asked her to come with me and help me to make a photograph in which she will be the model. The answer was NO, and it was a big NO, a Nordic no. I scratched my head…hhmm, what should I do? I had to make that image, the image was in my mind and I had to make it!

Well, I quickly came up with a plan, I approached her friend, Hanna and I hoped she would be able to help me. After chatting with Hanna for a while, she agreed to try and persuade Johanna to come with me and pose for me. It was a long shot, but in the end, it worked! Hurray!

We left the cigar shop and we headed to Le Petite Cafe. We were getting close when I saw a couple with a dog. I stopped, “hang on a minute” I said. I really liked that dog and I suddenly saw it in my picture with Johanna I went to the couple I said hello and I told them that I needed their dog for a photograph. They looked at me with suspicion, they measured me from the top to my feet and then, I insisted: I need your dog please, I have something in mind. They agreed, I was relieved, and we left the spot towards the coffee-shop. The dog’s name was Schoki (chocolate), I found that later on.

We got to the coffee-shop, I was really happy and keen to start making my photograph, yes “making” – I do not take photographs.

I got in the shop and I headed towards the man at the tilt. I told him my story and that I want take a picture inside. He said: that’s not possible as pets are not allowed in this coffee-shop.
I almost had a hearth attack and I looked at the man and I said: I really have to do it, please understand me. He said no, and he mentioned that is a definitive NO. He mentioned that if he would allow me to bring a pet in the coffee-shop his boss will sack him.

I stepped back, I took a break, I took a deep breath, and I went back to then man and I asked him to call his boss because I want to talk to him. He looked at me and he realised how determined I was.
“Ok” he said, “give me a minute”. I stepped back again and I pretended that I was staring at the cookies, but in my mind was a single thought: my portrait, I must do it!

The man went through the backdoor and after 5 minutes he called the owner of the coffee-shop, he spoke to him for a while, told him my story, and then he stopped and just listened for a while. I was very nervous as his face was taking different, strange shapes. In the end he hung up the phone and he said to me: “OK, the boss said you’re crazy but he allowed me to let you in to take your picture” (he said to do whatever I want, something like that – he must have been very curious, good for me!) but you have to give us a print of the photograph. Hooray, I almost jumped over the till and gave the man a kiss!

It was on! I went out and I brought my models in, and their friends. I was feeling good, very enthusiastic and confident. I ordered coffees, teas, cookies, etc. All done, and then I went back to work.

I started to think: first, the composition, the coffee-shop was really small, there were 3 rows of tables (see image below), and I realised that I needed more space and I have to take the middle table row off and make some space, to be able to step back and compose the image properly (I didn’t want to squeeze this image in an ultra wide angle lens, I usually prefer using longer focal lengths in these situations). Well, there were people seating at the tables, a few. See image below of the interior of the Le Petit Cafe just to have an idea what I am talking about.

le-petit-cafe-sweden-ion-paciu

Inside Le Petit Cafe in Gothenburg, Sweden

I scratched my head and I summoned the courage to speak to them: “Do you please mind if I ask you to have your coffee and cookies outside? I want to take a picture inside and I need some more space, and I intend to move the tables aside? You know, it’s really sunny and warm outside, there is no point to sit inside”. The few people from the table looked at me with a very strange face (well, I understood them, completely) and then they looked at each other, they didn’t say anything. I said again: “I will buy you more coffees and cookies if you do, I promise”. It worked, they grabbed their coffees and plates and they went outside..

I started to move the tables to make more space, then I looked at the wall, I had to think the composition, fast, I couldn’t keep the coffe-shop blocked for too long. It took me a couple of minutes, and then I knew what I wanted: one part of the shelf, just a little of it, it was looking good and it was part of the story, then the dog and fruits paintings, perfect. I moved the existing table (I didn’t like it) and I chose another table (the one in the image) and I folded one side as it was two wide.

It was almost done, but something was missing, I wasn’t happy. I realised the right corner was too flat and dull. I pushed one table there exactly in the right place so that I will only get the leg and the corner of the table, which was supposed to fill in the empty space. I was happy and I already saw the composition taking shape quite well. In the meantime; the couple with the dog went outside as Schoki was becoming slightly nervous – probably because of the delicious smell from the food. I offered to buy something for the dog but the owners refused, special diet I was told. I gave up.

After the setup was done I began setting the scene, the model, pillows, , the tee coup and then the candle. All done and in place. I brought the model in and looked at the lighting: natural light was not good enough, but I knew that since I entered the coffee-shop so I quickly took a speedlite from my bag and a trigger / receiver and I mounted it on one of the adjacent tables (I always carry at least 2 speedlites in my bag, triggers, receivers and plenty of batteries).

Then finally I grabbed my camera, it was time. I mounted the appropriate lens (at that time I was using the Canon 24-105mm f/4 IS USM quite a lot) and for the first time I looked through the lens: it just looked perfect, as I initially envisaged. Then I saw the image, roughly a great black and white photograph with the dog seating near Johanna, calm, relaxed and thoughtful. Well that was the next challenge, how do I get the dog in exactly that position?

I took position, and I fired the speedlite once, based on my settings in the camera (f/4, 1/80th and 100 ISO) I had to increase the sppeedlite’s power, the model and the dog were too dark. I pushed the speedlite’s power one step up and the exposure in the next image was just perfect. Job done.

I put the camera down and I brought Schoki and his owners inside and I explained them what I want. The lady looked at me and she said: I will try! She placed the dog in the right place, the dog seemed to be quite obedient, at least for a while, I instructed the model and she took position and then I looked at the dog, just about right but not yet what I wanted.

The challenge here was to look at both Schoki and Johanna and make sure their expression was the desired one, the exact one I had in mind.

I looked at both through the viewfinder, my finger was half pressing the shutter and I was just waiting for the right moment. I was speaking to the dog’s owner and instructing her; and at the same time I had to keep an eye on the model. I pressed the shutter of the camera once, the speedlite fired and then I pressed the shutter half way down again, I didn’t look at the image as I knew it wasn’t yet the final one.

After a few minutes and about 10 exposures I took my eye from the camera and I looked at the last image: I said, “Yes, that’s it!”

Everyone looked at me, suspiciously but I reassured them that the image was finished so we can restore the coffee-shop back to its initial state. Everyone’s face changed, in a positive way this time and they all exhaled relaxed and Schoki went out with his owners.

I managed to put the coffee-shop furniture back very quickly so that the people can return at their seats. The man behind the tilt seemed to relax instantly seeing the furniture back in place.

Then we all sat and drank coffees, exchanged contact details, and looked at the images on the camera’s screen, we all agreed and we spotted the photograph, the one which was obviously the last exposure.

We finished, and after the girls, Schoki, and his owners left I went to the man at the tilt to pay for the coffees and cookies, he said to me: “this is from the house, nothing to pay, you deserve it!”

The next move was to pull the laptop off the backpack and make a backup of the images from the memory card, on the computer, then put the card in a safe place and insert a new clean memory card in the camera; this is always my next move after I finished a job, ALWAYS, no exceptions!

I hope you enjoyed my story and don’t forget one thing: “art always asks for sacrifices”

If you wish to learn how to take great portraits you can join my portrait photography workshop in central London, you can find more info here: www.photoion.co.uk/workshops/portrait-photography-workshop-london/