Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Recycled Paperboard Plant Photography

It all starts with that McDonalds or Burger King bag of used napkins, empty hamburger boxes, and soda cups you are about to throw in the trash. Recycled paperboard starts as trash, and becomes packaging, frozen food boxes, cardboard tubes, tickets to the ballgame, or a box of chocolates. Last month I did a two day photo shoot of 3 Los Angeles area recycled paperboard manufacturing plants. It was kind of like going on a school field trip to learn how things are made, and getting paid for it. Cool!

At the back of the first plant were large piles of paper and cardboard trash. These piles of trash are scooped up with a front end loader, and placed on a conveyor belt that carries the trash to the tanks. In large tanks, water and chemicals are added to the recycled paper scraps, where it is stirred, ground, mixed and turned into paper pulp. This grey, goopy, oatmeal-with-no-raisins-looking stuff is the raw material used to make the products that come out at the other end of the line.

The largest machine at the first plant has been in use for over 60 years. The image shows
a machine hundreds of feet long, with massive cylinders that roll over, flatten and remove moisture from the paperboard. Nine separate layers of the goopy oatmeal mixture are rolled onto the paper base layer, smoothed out, flattened, and dried before the next layer is applied. Heating units 10 feet wide cook the paperboard as it rolls on to its next traumatic experience of squashing, rolling, heating, steaming, dying and who knows what else.

Huge rolls of paperboard taller than a man come off the other end of the machine. Various dyes have been added to make some of the paperboard black, red, orange, yellow, or blue. This paperboard can now be printed on, dye cut or shaped into packaging. The rolls of paper are moved around the plant with forklifts.

The second plant we visited does some of the cuts to turn the paperboard into packaging. They cut the paperboard into poster sized sheets, and then stack and shrink wrap them. Other sheets of paper they score and cut part of it to create boxes.

The final plant was located in Ontario, CA and they create paperboard tubes ranging from paper towel tubes to cardboard tubes 15 feet tall and 5 feet across. There are metal racks in the plant that support 3 inch wide strips of paper. This paper is on rolls that are chest high, and the paper strips are threaded over the top of the 20 foot high metal rack, and then threaded onto a rotating tube of cardboard. Glue is applied to the paper strips as the tube rotates, and layer upon layer is built up until the cardboard tube is thick and sturdy.

Other machines cut the cardboard tubes at the specified lengths, and the tubes are shrink wrapped and loaded into trucks to be delivered to clients. Tubes of various colors, diameters and lengths are being removed from machines and crated for delivery.

In the first plant what began as 10 minute walk through turned into a two hour photo shoot, with all my lighting gear left behind in the trunk of my car. Available light photography technique relied upon a tripod and long exposures to capture detail in the dark manufacturing plant. Exposures were often in the two second range. At the second plant I added a hand held flash, but at the third plant I had an assistant carry a 1,500 watt second Speedotron Explorer battery pack, and one flash head with a soft box. I plugged it in when power was nearby, and used it in battery mode when there was no power. Although I had the flash, it was only for lighting what was in the foreground, as the background was usually the size of a gymnasium and require the long exposure to bring the light up to the level of the foreground. As you look at the pictures, see if you can tell which were made with available light only, versus the ones with flash added.

My camera is the Canon 5D Mark II, a 21 megapixel full frame camera that produces a 60 mega byte file. I have had clients complain that images created at 1600 ISO are too grainy to enlarge for trade show signs, so I try to keep my ISO to 100 – 400 and use the long exposures to collect the light I need.

Paper mills and paperboard plants can cover several city blocks.

"This is Los Angeles Industrial Photography, on location and in the grime, walking through streams of paper pulp runoff, and getting dye on your boots."

 I am sticking my camera lens in steam, splashing water, heating ovens and under moving objects. Good thing my insurance is paid up!

If you are willing to go after this kind of dirty work, you should know that the wear and tear on your gear is high. Things break on location, where power lines and lights on stands are tripped over and knocked down with regularity. Therefore, you want to get the most rugged gear you can, and maintain it well. You will need a sense of adventure and curiosity, sticking your nose anywhere that looks interesting. Finally, never forget that you are delivering a product, marketing tools to help sell the company’s product or service. You photos are the face of the company, and they need to show what is often a dirty, cluttered environment as a world class, impressive facility.


Dennis Davis Photography
A single flash was used on all images in this row below the red line, but were also made with a long exposure to allow the background available light to fill in.

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