Photography was born of the Industrial Revolution, and it was an essential tool in documenting the Industrial age — steam engines, steel factories, textile mills, and mining operations. In the medium’s early days, a photograph was an art form, or it represented reality, but not both. Eventually, the camera blurred lines between art and utility creating an Industrial photography specialty that is both practical and visually appealing.
Wonderful Machine defines Industrial photography as images that “show people building and making things (especially on a large scale), including construction, mining, manufacturing, transportation, and energy.”
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When you think of Industrial photography, you may picture images of automated assembly lines, steel production, interiors of factories, mining operations, and construction sites with masses of heavy equipment. Still, despite the name, industrial photographs often feature people that help to illustrate a warm environment or provide scale within an industrial setting.
The industrial photographer is a curious risk-taker, flexible problem solver, an adventurer with a detail-driven eye and mind for discovering how things work. It takes a particular type of photographer to pursue a career working in sterile facilities void of natural light or standing atop a 120′ tall port crane to get just the right angle for a photograph. If dirt, noise, and danger are inherent in this specialty, why do photographers desire a career in industrial settings?
Buffalo, NY-based photographer Scott Gable describes himself as being an engineering geek:
I was a telescope-owning, computer-building, sci-fi reading nerd. Once I picked up a camera, I realized that I was pointing it at things like metal recycling companies, industrial facilities, and people doing odd jobs. I knew I had found my niche because I pursued those things like personal projects.
Andreana Scanderbeg and Alexander Sauer of Zurich, Switzerland-based Scanderbeg Sauer Photography were inspired to pursue a career an industrial photographer after seeing Swiss industrial photographer Jakob Tuggener’s book Fabrik:
Our strength is to find beauty – even in the biggest “mess.” There is always a formality to discover and thus fulfill aesthetic requirements without artificially beautified industrial images, whether standing in a scrapyard, facilities marked for clearance, a landing runway, or a base tunnel.
How do you create visual order within manufacturing facility chaos? You may need to bring a ton of lights, crawl on the ground, employ a drone, or find a new angle to make the photographs stand out. Scott Gable explains:
The most difficult part of this work is trying to make it unique. Trying to put my angle on a subject that might have been shot dozens or hundreds of times before.
For Andreana and Alexander, understanding the client’s product is critical because their work needs to illustrate the features and mechanics of machinery and highlight important details that may be overlooked at first glance:
The ability to recognize what makes this company different from its competitors or what really makes this product better. The ability to separate the important from the unimportant.
Many industrial images are made within lighting-challenged environments like factories without windows. Scott likes to scout the location first, then plan what lights to bring:
Those black holes in the facility corners can be a nightmare to fill. My largest lighting kit consists of 10 strobes and 4 speedlights. That’s a lot of lights to move around!
Andreana and Alexander transform their understanding of light into complex photo illustrations making an image look as though it was lit in their studio. They use photography and computer-generated image (CGI) techniques to produce hyper-realistic results:
Light is mostly a luxury for us. We rarely have the opportunity to build large and complex sets. However, we have learned over the years to live with these limitations and to efficiently implement our ideas with a relatively small amount of equipment.
Most photography specialties seem rather safe when compared to their industrial counterparts. A commercial studio photographer may consider power surges from strobe lighting a safety hazard, while an industrial photographer may face other types of dangers like fire, falls, chemical exposure, etc.
They may don a 5-point harness while scaling heights on a construction site or have an array of protective gear in their kit — shoes with protective caps, helmets, gloves, hearing protection, protective goggles, and flame-retardant overalls. Andreana explains:
We shoot in so-called EX zones (i.e. explosive areas) and can now also work in zones with controlled radioactivity, such as those often found in research institutes. The most important thing for us is discipline, smooth and structured work, but also respect towards the employees, the situation and the location.
As Scott puts it,
If you’re shooting industrial photography, it won’t be long until your life literally depends on being aware of your surroundings. But for me, that’s part of the excitement.
You may have to undergo safety training classes for most industrial companies and even need particular certifications. The client should tell you the specific training or licenses you’ll need well before the production begins. More likely than not, you’ll need a negative drug test too.
Austin-based photographer Marc Morrison points out that the number and types of certifications, licenses, and classes required to work for industrial clients frequently change, so you’ll need to confirm what is required prior to the shoot. Marc explains:
The type of industry you are shooting in will dictate the types of certifications you must complete. The training may vary, but everyone is subject to drug testing.
Marc separates safety training into three classifications that require different levels of certification:
Insurance may be one of the industrial photographers’ most essential and expensive operating costs. Always verify your insurance covers you in dangerous shooting situations as the company’s insurance may not apply to you. Do not assume that your liability coverage will cover you in all cases, so check beforehand. Also, many companies may not write a policy if you work in dangerous situations. Marc elaborates:
Considering the enormous liability responsibilities a photographer undertakes when working in most large industrial locations, liability insurance is vital. Having a good relationship with your insurance agent is important because you may have to rely on them to provide an increase in coverage, Certificates of Insurance, and special coverage.
You won’t make the cover of major consumer publications with industrial images but that doesn’t mean industrial images aren’t in high demand. These types of images can be seen in trade publications, company brochures, annual reports, architectural journals, websites, and training manuals. You may even find that Industrial photography is a lucrative career; after all, industries like energy and manufacturing drive economies.
Steve Molenda, Sr. Director MarCom & Marketing Strategies of ESAB, producer of welding and automation equipment, explains that the decision on who to hire for the company’s industrial photographs is based on a combination of things, including experience working in environments where hazards exist.
The photographer has to know how to capture those incredible frames while not putting themselves or others at risk.
Steve looks for photographers who can become one with the environment — someone who can capture the subject (whether man or machine) in an authentic way. ESAB wants its photos to help potential customers put themselves in that environment and imagine themselves using the products.
We need photographers that are flexible problem-solvers. We’re not shooting consumer packaged goods on a white seamless. We’re in constantly changing environments and we need people who know they will need to adapt to those variables and still get what we need in a day’s work.
As with any other specialty in photography, you should have a contract with the client detailing rights and usage. In a recent pricing and negotiating article Wonderful Machine executive producer Craig Oppenheimer estimated a per day rate of $6,000 shooting industrial photos for an energy company. All images captured in perpetuity of employees at work are included in the contract.
Industrial photography is undoubtedly one of the oldest specialties within commercial photography. As long as industries like construction, energy, and manufacturing exist, pictures will need to document and illustrate new developments. The challenge for photographers is to create unique and exciting imagery of things that may at first appear unattractive or mundane. For many in this specialty, the excitement and challenges outweigh the risks and hazards of dangerous shooting conditions.
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