How I got the shot: Karolina Wiercigroch on capturing Colombia’s thriving coffee scene

Inspired by the emerald landscapes of Colombia’s Zona Cafetera, Karolina captured the production and process behind its thriving coffee industry, and the cafe culture that it’s catalysed in recent years.

Karolina's photo story appeared in the September 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller.

Photograph by Karolina Wiercigroch
By Karolina Wiercigroch
Published 5 Mar 2022, 06:00 GMT

On assignment for National Geographic Traveller, photographer Karolina Wiercigroch shot the photo story, From crop to cup in Colombia's Andean coffee region.

What drew you to this story?

During a trip to South America two years ago, I planned a week of wandering in Colombia before heading to my good friends’ wedding in the picturesque countryside near Bogotá — a memory that really makes me miss pre-pandemic frivolity!

I was looking for something to explore while there and the Zona Cafetera — the Colombian coffee-growing axis, where the majority of the country’s coffee beans are grown — seemed to tick all the boxes.

It was close enough to drive from Bogotá (by this, I mean around 190 miles one way) and had all the elements that make an exciting road trip, as well as a well-rounded photo story: winding roads, verdant landscapes of the Andean hills, quirky colonial towns, some coffee farm action and fascinating characters. That’s all before even mentioning coffee, my favourite drink.

On location, what elements are you seeking out for a successful shoot? 

I always try to bring back a varied set of images that convey a sense of place and can transport the viewer to the destination I’m portraying. To achieve that in Colombia, I focused on capturing strong landscapes and atmospheric shots of farms and towns, as well as evocative details. Portraits are always one of the most important parts of my photography, as every story I tell is centred around people, their experiences and their way of life.

What was the most unexpected thing you discovered while shooting?

I was surprised to learn that not so long ago, coffee culture among Colombians was virtually non-existent. Most Colombian coffee leaves the country as unroasted beans — international coffee companies prefer to roast the beans themselves to obtain the same, repetitive flavour.

Because of this, Colombians rarely got the chance to try their own coffee and if so, they preferred pintadito — a sweet brew with lots of steamed milk. Or, they would drink sweet, weak tinto: black coffee with lots of sugar. In the Zona Cafetera, the growth of tourism sped up the coffee revolution.

Today, it’s much easier to enjoy a cup of good coffee than it was a few years ago, with numerous cafes serving locally grown and roasted coffee opening up across the region’s towns and cities.

Which is your favourite image?

I really like the shot of the man drinking coffee against the deep emerald wall at Cafe El Polo, in Salamina. I came there for my morning caffeine fix before a busy day of shooting and he looked so picturesque that I asked if I could photograph him. He was happy to pose and I was so excited that I forgot to ask for his name! He told me that this cafe was he and his friends’ regular hangout spot.

I shot this portrait using my mirrorless Fujifilm X-T3 and a Fujinon XF 35mm F/1.4. This is definitely my favourite lens and my go-to set for a quick stroll around town, when I can leave the rest of my kit at the hotel. I usually travel with a spare camera body, a Profoto A1 speedlight with some accessories and a couple of lenses — Fujinon XF 16mm F/2.8 and a Fujinon 16-80mm F/4, though I usually end up using the 35mm for almost everything: portraits, food, landscapes. I love how lightweight and inconspicuous the camera is. It allows me to blend in; I prefer not  to intimidate people with a massive lens.

A man enjoys a brew at a cafe that's one of many in Colombia's Zona Cafetera, ...

A man enjoys a brew at a cafe that's one of many in Colombia's Zona Cafetera, each serving locally grown and roasted coffee. 

Photograph by Karolina Wiercigroch

What were the challenges at play?

The cafe was a little dark, so I raised my ISO to 800 and took a quick sequence of around 10 to 15 shots, with the gentleman looking into the camera first, then taking a sip of his coffee. I’m really happy the shot turned out to be so atmospheric, with some light coming in from the open door to the left and all the small details building the mood: the texture of the suede hat, the floral pattern on the porcelain cup, the stripes of the shirt catching the play of light and shade. Hopefully the viewer feels invited to join in for a morning brew.

What advice would you give someone starting out in travel photography?

Start by finding stories that interest you and try to tell them through photos. With today’s image banks full of photos from virtually any place on the planet, what sets you apart is your photography style and the unique way you view the world.

Where’s on your wish list for 2022?

Photographing summer nomads in Kyrgyzstan was one of my all-time travel highlights and I would love to go back to that part of the world this year. So far, I’ve been eyeing Uzbekistan and its food culture. I had the chance to try some Uzbek dishes in Arslanbob, a town in Kyrgyzstan with a large Uzbek community, and would love to explore it a little more.

See the photos from Karolina's shoot in our gallery, below.

Discover more of Karolina’s photography on her website and follow her on Instagram

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