Once again I have been very fortunate indeed to have been interviewed for an article on Industrial Photography in this month’s edition of Australian Photography Magazine (March 2016), which features two of my images (more of which can of course be seen on my website www.michaelevansphotographer.com).
Following the publication last year of the article on Architectural Photography, I received several questions regarding my camera equipment, as well as other technical aspects. Consequently I thought it might be of interest to post the whole interview here, from which the published article was collated along with the answers from the other superb photographers featured in the article. I have also included the other images submitted during the interview, which were not chosen for publication.
To begin with to clarify in the readers’ mind what the topic is, what is industrial photography?
Industrial photography is essentially ‘ photography for industry’, which by that definition encompasses a huge range of businesses, products and services, all of which will (hopefully) at some stage require images for promotional purposes. For me personally it simply means documenting the diversity of the world as it works, whether it be a high tech piece of factory machinery, a winemaker agitating his grapes or a miner drilling half a kilometre underground…
In comparison to other genres, specifically what are you trying to capture or encapsulate in your images?
After discussing the brief thoroughly with the client, I believe my job is then to capture the industrial process, whether it is a mining operation or complex piece of machinery in such a manner that clearly and simply illustrates exactly what is happening to the viewer. As such, whenever I arrive on location I always ask lots of questions about the process or machinery so that I have a good working knowledge of what I need to capture.
I then always try to add a sense of drama to my images, whether it be by composition, camera angle, lens selection or lighting; also where practical I strive to incorporate people in my shoots, not only for a sense of scale, but to add that most important human factor to the story.
What distinguishes the compositional aspects of industrial photography: large objects and sites are difficult to frame. Is this the only problem?
With the arsenal of lens and post-production techniques such as panoramic stitching available to photographers today, I don’t believe that including large industrial scale buildings or machinery in the frame is all that difficult; the real key is in creating an interesting composition out of what may at first appear to be a mundane subject.
Some subjects have their own inherent difficulties, such as an industrial laser cutter that I was recently tasked with photographing while in action. My client wanted to see the machinery in action, with the impressive resultant sparks, however the laser was situated in a dark room to which there was no access during the actual operation for safety reasons, mainly that it would cause blindness! The laser head and arm also moved continually and rapidly throughout the process, as did the product that was being drilled, however by using a remote camera trigger combined with several off camera flash units and a variety of exposures, I was able to work around the issues.
Industrial photography seems to have to do with big size and big views. Does small as in detail of industrial machinery for instance, play a part in this genre?
Absolutely, and as such I always carry a macro lens with me on location to capture the fine detail. In fact it is this diversity that particularly appeals to me as a photographer; one moment may be spent photographing a vast laboratory or industrial complex, the next a close up of a something as elusive as a fish’s tail…
What are the main compositional problems that you face? How do you overcome them?
The main compositional problem is invariably gaining access to the perfect vantage point. Many times on arriving at a particular location you can immediately see where you would like to shoot the ‘hero’ image from, only to find it is off limits for health and safety reasons, or simply totally inaccessible. I find that by working closely with my site guide, I am usually able to find an alternative location, and then it really is just a case of making it work.
Usually people think of ‘industrial’ as related to dirty, smelly and dangerous places and machinery. Is an aspect of industrial photography to change that perception? Are you ever asked to make the industrial look ‘not industrial’, that is, take only the clean and pretty side of things?
Certainly there is that general perception of industrial photography, but it is somewhat misguided. Very often I will photograph in incredibly sterile laboratory environments, which naturally require a slightly different approach to working in a mine for example. Photographing for Rob Dolan Winery the brief was to combine the two approaches, in that the client wanted a very ‘industrial’ feel to the warehouse and processing areas, combined with the clean high key images of the laboratory and tasting area.
What do you enjoy about this type of photography? How did you get into it? Are commissions the main generators of this type of photography for you – do you do any for your own private work?
I really love the diverse nature of industrial photography, and the fact that it is always very technically challenging. When photographing at a mine or power station for example, the day to day operation must still proceed unimpeded as quite naturally, time is money for these businesses. I certainly am not able to shut down whole areas of operations just to make a few images. This does mean that you become quite adept at working quickly, and I always ensure I have a secondary image set-up in mind, ready to go as soon as the first plan falls apart.
I am not working with models, so I have to arrive on site and very quickly ascertain where I am shooting, and with whom. Being able to create an instant rapport with people, who in general just want to go about their working day, is absolutely vital, and I never forget that I am a guest in their world for the day.
I found my way into this type of work primarily from photographing architecture. Originally I photographed the finished building, and then started being asked to document the construction process. Along the way I have specialised somewhat in the mining and energy fields, which I really particularly enjoy. All of this type of work comes from commissions, as it is understandably very difficult to gain the necessary site access just to build a portfolio.
Turning to technical aspects, what are the main technical challenges? We assume you have challenges with: enough light, motion, exposures, different types of light, sparks? How do you overcome them?
I think the diversity of the subject matter that you may be called upon to photograph in one day is what creates the technical challenges. For example, I know of several incredible wedding photographers who achieve their images using available light and fast lenses only; generally speaking in industrial photography that approach will only get you so far. As such I carry several small lighting kits with me from simple Canon Speedlites through to the excellent Elinchrom Ranger Quadra system. Many of the images in my portfolio are a combination of available light, light painting and multiple flash units.
Working underground always means that I will lose about the first 30 minutes due to the equipment and lenses being fogged up because of the warm humid environment. There is no real way around this, but this is the time I spend arranging my flash heads and working out my compositions, as well as getting as comfortable as possible working in full protective equipment. Once underground, there is no quickly nipping to the surface if something breaks, so I also always ensure that I have back up equipment with me.
One aspect that is sometimes overlooked is that as would be obvious I carry a fair amount of equipment with me on each assignment. I rarely work with an assistant simply because in most instances the budget will not allow it, and so I find that I absolutely have to follow a solid weight training and cardio program just to be able to do my job efficiently!
Which are the big issues with exposure settings?
The main issue is that very often you will be working in dark areas, lit with a variety of different coloured light sources. When working down a mine, I am essentially working with a blank canvas, since there are absolutely no light sources other than the vehicle headlights and your head and hand torch. The key here is to work out the exposure based on the combination of flash and ambient torch light, and then combine it with some light painting using another flash or torch.
Which lenses do you use, and why?
Using Canon equipment, for each assignment I will always take the 17mm TS-E f4 for any building shots, which of course helps me correct perspective. Working underground I need some vestige of autofocus and so use the 16-35mm f4 (I still have the f2.8 version, but it is simply too soft in the corners to be usable) for wide-angle work. My general purpose walk around lens is the excellent 24-70 f2.8 II, supplemented with the 70-200 f2.8 L II IS USM, which gives me that nice extra reach, as well as being a good portrait lens. If I wish to really isolate a particular piece of machinery using a shallow depth of field, then I will use either the 50mm f1.2 L or the 85 f1.2 L. For macro work I still use the very old 50mm f2.5, which despite its noisy and slow autofocus performance, still produces very sharp images.
Readers enjoy reading about kit. Can you list in detail your typical kit for an assignment and perhaps explain something about the importance of the equipment?
My typical kit always includes at least two camera bodies; currently I use the Canon 5D Mk III with the 1Ds Mk III as my back up. Aside from the lenses described above I always carry between 4 to 6 Speedlite flashguns (Canon 600 EX, 580 EX) and a ST-RT-E3 slave trigger. I mount these on lighting tripods, and without fail carry 5 or 6 PocketWizard II flash triggers as insurance in case the Canon ST-RT-E3 fails. I also use a variety of snoots, gels and scrims, which I mount on the front of the Speedlites to control the intensity, direction and colour of the light I apply to a scene.
I have 4 Elinchrom Ranger heads (2 x kits) which see fairly regular usage on location. Their compact size, light weight and relatively powerful output, combined with the great range of softboxes make these flashguns invaluable in the field when you just need a little more punch than a Speedlite can provide.
I use a Really Right Stuff tripod, combined with one of their excellent ball heads. Although expensive, I prefer the stability and light weight of the RRS gear, and do not use a central column as I find them to be too unstable, impacting image sharpness.
I carry everything in a combination of LowePro and Think Tank bags, which are certainly up to the level of abuse that I put them through.
How much preparation do you do? Visit the site for recognisance? Do you think thoroughly through the project or leave some things up to serendipity?
Very rarely am I allowed to visit the site before the actual shoot, consequently I always establish a very in depth brief for each project. Who and what specifically are the images for, what time can I gain access, where is the best light to found, at what time, what look, feel and result are you wanting from these images? Etc
If something fortunate happens on site that contributes to the final images, then of course I will gratefully shoot it! However it would be a very foolhardy photographer indeed who did not have a solid plan in place beforehand. For example, I recently was tasked with photographing the installation of the maintenance cradles on the cooling tower at Loy Yang Power Station in Traralgon. Now I have worked down here before, but a thorough plan was still necessary since I would be working partly from a helicopter, and because closing down a cooling tower takes 5 days at a cost of $2.5 million, and happens only once every 6-7 years. Consequently there would be no opportunity to re-shoot if something went wrong!
Health and safety: do you go through H&S induction on sites? How important is H&S awareness? Why?
I don’t think I have ever visited a site without going through an induction, it really is part of the job, and I am very partial to returning home each evening! When working on a site, I simply work very closely with my guide for the day and clearly define what I can and cannot do, and where I can and cannot go.
For the reader who wants to try their hand at this type of work, what would you suggest as the main tips for 1) composition, 2) equipment, and 3) exposure?
If looking to build a portfolio of industrial images, I would begin with a solid wide-angle lens, combined with a standard zoom. Probably the best piece of advice I could give would be to really thoroughly proficient with your equipment, since it is often a very fluid working environment with many time constraints. Be prepared to work quickly and effectively with your equipment in the rain and in the dark, so really learn what you and your camera can do in those environments, learn what you can achieve with a variety of exposures – above all, experiment (before you go on assignment!)
Wolfgang Sievers’ work is accepted as art. Do you think industrial photography lends itself to art photography?
I may be a little biased, but yes definitely. Surely any style of good photography is the combination of art and technical accomplishment – the argument becomes ‘what is good photography..?’ and that is one I am not game enough to enter into!