Ask the Alchemist #167


Level: Novice

Read time: 5 minutes

When I peruse through your selection of cocoa beans for sale, the stark contrast in colors between the different origins always catches my eye.  It's pretty interesting to look at for me.  But then that's always made me wonder, have you standardized how you take the photo of each bean origin?  As in, do you put the same mass of beans in the same container every time?  Do you then use a tripod at a set distance away from the beans to take your shot?  Is the lighting always consistent?  Blah blah blah. The reason I ask is partly because of the motley colors I see, but also some of the origins simply look more attractive to me than others.  I see some origins that are a beautiful consistent deep brown like the Madagascar.  Then I see some origins that are really gray like the Honduras.  The gray origins make me wonder if there's surface mold on those beans. Then I think if there's surface mold, what are those beans like on the inside?  Other origins look multi-colored in the picture like the Mexican Chiapas.  That makes me wonder if there's uneven fermentation in those beans or are those beans of mixed age or ??? I understand that you personally vet each origin you bring in and vouch for them.  And I know you're not supposed to judge a book by it's cover, but for me some of the pictures may not be doing some of your origins much justice. Can you clue me in?  Is there a similar story among gray-colored origins versus the multi-colored origins, etc?

 

Let’s put this on the table.  I am a terrible photographer.  So terrible that I should not even be allowed to use that term.   I take pictures.

But to answer your question, I actually do my very best to standardize how I photograph the beans.  They are all in the barrel I pack from, with a fill level near the top.  The lighting is mostly the same, as is the distance.  But I don’t use a tripod.  For years I have known I should set up a white space so there are not shadows (I do know to keep my shadow out of the light source) but as of yet, I have not done it.  Clearly.

At this point it is pretty much an ingrained rule for me to take photos of the beans as they come in.  Nothing annoys me more than seeing the same repeated image when I am shopping for similar items.  And I do my best never to do that.  I also do my very best to capture the differences in the beans.  Which it seems I am doing as per your comments.  Again, there is little I find more annoying than misrepresentation of what is being sold.  Some many years ago this slightly bit me when I reused an image of a previous crop year and although the image was of what I was selling, the new crop looked a bit different and some people objected to a small degree.  Which I sympathized with.  Which is why I now photograph each new bean.

Which brings me to how representative the beans are.  Your comments actually reinforce my original statement that I am not a photographer.  I think a photographer (a good photographer) does not so much take good photos, but captures what they see AND presents what they see.  This is where I fall down.  You mention the deep brown of Madagascar.  This makes me cringe as to my eye it is a very solid red/brown.  Auburn if that can be applied to non-hair colors.  That is what I see.  That is what I would like display.  Likewise, when people visit, I show them the Honduras as the poster child of even and consistently colored beans without even the hint of mold.  It’s almost crushing to hear some may think they are moldy.  And then we have some beans like Rizek from the Dominica Republic.  They look all over the board in the photo, but in person only show some pretty minor variation.

And I simply must address mold.  I won’t sell moldy beans.  What many people think of as mold is dried mucilage from the fermentation.  Some is just crappy photography.

Recently I had two bags of beans arrive.  One bag of great.  The other was CLEARLY moldy (and not for sale).  Not grey.  Moldy!  Have a look a what mold looks like.

belize2014

On the other hand, here are two photos of Honduras.  What is on the site (left) and how I personally think they look.  Not moldy at all to me.  The right photo is from my perspective more how they look.

honduras 2015           honduras 2015 - color

 

Likewise, here is Madagascar.  On the left is what I photographed.  On the right is what (I think) is in my mind’s eye of what Madagascar looks like.

Madagascar - as is             Madagascar - color

 

And the same goes for consistency.  Sometimes lighting just magnifies subtle differences that when viewed in person are just not as stark.  Let's do the Chiapas you mention.  Left, again, as is, right what I think I see.

Chiapas2              Chiapas2 - color

 

Is one more honest or representative than the other?  Sure there is more variation than other beans, but when I look in the barrel I don't see the photo on the left.

It’s frustrating.  And has been for years.  I used try and adjust the color balance to what I saw….but I’m a ham fisted ogre there too and I made matters worse.  And does it really matter that you think Madagascar is brown when I think it has a hue of red?  I don’t think it does.  Do you?

So now I shoot for basic consistency.   And accept, for now, that you are right.  Maybe I am not doing some of the beans justice.  I point out time and again one should not judge a book by its cover (I’m glad you point that out too), try to write up really detailed tasting notes and paint a picture of senses, not just visually.

And at the end of the day, it mostly works.  I’d rather be known for being straight shooting and earnest in my presentation of beans than being a photoshop wizard.

What are you thoughts on the matter?

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