Monday, December 7, 2009

Getting started in industrial photography
Finding clients in industrial photography is not difficult. Machine shops, manufacturing firms, scrap yards, shipping - there are lots of places where you can get your hands , and lighting gear, dirty. In companies under 50 you usually hear from the owner of the business. In companies over 50 it is usually someone in Marketing.
Business list companies, small business data bases, business directories and manufacturing company data bases are a starting point. Agency Access and Adbase both have small lists of large companies with industrial photography work. You will need to have samples of industrial photography on your website or in your portfolio to get work. Ask some of your friends or family if you can shoot at their workplace, and get their boss' contact info. Offer to give them free advertising images in exchange for using their location.

All industrial firms need a capabilities brochure or web presentation. They need pictures of their machines, employees, space, and finished products. You will have to make dirty, ugly, greasy machines look beautiful. You will need to make ragged, dirty, unwashed employees look like the noble workman. Making average, boring employees look like heroes is not easy, but you are a creative professional, right?
A typical one-day industrial shoot for a small company in Los Angeles would pay in the $1,200 to $2,400 a day range before the economy dropped, and should be similar by next summer. A large international firm with offices in various counties might pay as much as $5,000 - $10,000 a day or more to use the images internationally. Companies that are traded on the stock market are required to create an annual report, and some companies will pay over $100,000 on industrial photography in various countries to go in their annual report.

Lighting techniques:

Shooting a large space
I have done architectural photo shoots in high school gymnasiums, but I have shot in industrial spaces that would make six gyms. I did a shoot for an flooring company installing the super hard floors in an airline hanger. How can you light something like that? You focus on workers that are standing in beautiful available light coming in through doors.

When I shoot a large space, I first do test shots with just available light. I look at the image and see where the dark areas are that need light, and where the interesting places are that need to be featured, and add light there as well. I might use from 7 to 15 lights to light a gym size space. Normally I want one or two lights splashing against the back wall, as this shows the size of the room. I might bounce 2 lights with standard reflectors off the wall behind me, as this will turn the entire wall into one huge softbox. Don't try this if the wall is not white or a neutral color. In addition to the two lights bouncing off the walls behind me, I want to lights with softboxes facing forward on either side of the camera, lighting the foreground. Then I will hide lights in hallways, behind machines, low on the floor, etc. and create pools of light throughout the room.
I use the existing light - sunlight, florescent, incandescent, mercury vapor, as fill. Yes, I know the color temperature may be different from my strobes, however I am going to color correct the RAW file in PhotoShop, and normally it looks pretty good. If you have a client willing to pay for your time to put color matching gels over your strobe heads, so much the better. Small clients usually will not pay for this, larger ones might. So I might pop the strobe, then leave the shutter open for an additional 1/4 second to 8 seconds, depending on the light levels and if there are moving people or machines or not. Eight seconds is plenty of time to create some cool blur effects, but only hip companies want that. Most want very conservative shots.
I prefer to use mono light strobes for industrial photography, slaved together with a pocket wizard wireless control on each. Often the lights will be separated across a space of several hundred feet, and a power pack system or even two or three just is not as practical. I use ProFoto compact mono lights, both 600 and 1200 watt second.

Some industrial settings do not have electric outlets. Many construction sites, drilling, mining, etc. have no power. In these cases I use a battery powered strobe system. My battery system is 1,500 watt seconds, with two heads. It is fine for an outdoor portrait or small environment, but I would rent more packs if it were a larger space with no power.

Replacing dirty with pretty
A classic technique of industrial photographers is to add color where there is none, to make the shots more interesting. I often add blue and red gelled lights coming from opposite directions, and apply the lights to silver or grey machines. Magenta and blue work well, or magenta and purple. They look beautiful! Interesting, high tech, state-of-the-art instead of ugly, greasy and dirty.
A second method of making the ugly look good is asking the floor manager to have the employees clean a machine and floor around it to make it look good, then light the machine like a large product. There are often empty cardboard boxes on the floor, rags, metal shavings, grease, food wrappers, etc. You cannot make this trash look good by blasting flat white light at it. If the floor manager will not clean up an area, then you have to do a low key shot with lots of shadows, with a beautifully lit machine in the foreground, and lots of dark in the background.

The worker is the movie star hero
There are several methods of making the worker look wonderful, even if they are ugly, missing teeth, haven't taken a bath in 3 months, and wearing the same t-shirt that their daddy wore when he had this job.
1. Put the worker in silhouette. You can't see his missing teeth if you can only see his outline. I often shoot with the sun in the picture for outdoor industrial shots. I show the worker and the machine he is on in silhouette, with a sunburst behind them both. Indoors, I will put a standard reflector on a light stand, sometimes with a gel, and backlight the machine and worker.

2. Make what the worker is doing look very dangerous. Use time exposures to get lots of sparks flying from grinders, show huge flames from torches, show light and smoke from wielding, etc. Pop the flash at the beginning or end of the exposure to freeze the worker, but use the time exposure to build up the drama. When editing these pictures, increase saturation by 12 to 20 percent to make the colors look more exciting.

3. Spotlight the worker. Put softboxes on the lights that light the machine and to fill the light for the worker, but make your key light a 7" reflector with a grid. Try it with and without a diffusion gel over the light - you can use less fill if you add the diffusion, but the effect is less dramatic. Try to find someone attractive for a shot like this. In many industrial environments, every worker knows several jobs, so one can be exchanged for another when someone is out sick or on vacation. So pick your model, have them borrow someone else's hat, shirt or goggles if it makes them look better. You are responsible for making the picture look good, so take control. It is to the company's benefit if the pictures look good.

4. Make the worker a mighty ruler. Shoot up at from the level of the worker's feet, using a wide angle lens to capture his environment. The worker becomes awe inspiring, powerful, the king of the machine shop.
Often for a small company, I am the only photographer that will visit that year. So a photo shoot that is mostly industrial photography might also include an architectural shot of the front of the building, a few headshots or executive portraits of the management, or a group shot of all of the employees. These will be the images that appear on their brochures and websites for the next year or two.

Don't be afraid to ask for a machine or area to be cleaned up, but use the chain of command. Always ask the floor manager or your client to have one of the employees to do it, don't ask the employee directly. Take lots of extension cables, one for each of your lights. Your lights may be spread all across the building. Plan on cleaning all of your cables after a shoot, as you will drag them through grease, dirt and guck. Dress in casual clothes that will allow you to get on the floor, behind machines, up on ladders or in other dirty, odd places to get a good camera angle.


  1. This is great information. Thank you for posting it. I will be doing my first industrial shoot in a few weeks and was looking for tips.

  2. Coming from an industrial background as a toolmaker for the previous 25 years, I hope to use my background and this wonderful information to give me an edge in industrial photography. Thanks for the tips.
    Eric West