bio hazards and other chalenges

Every assignment has its own particular set of challenges but every now and then a job comes up that tests every drop of skill, strength and professionalism a photographer has.

We recently received an assignment shooting in a pharmaceutical manufacturing facility. Simple one might think.  Go in, shoot some cool, dramatically lit shots of people at their work stations and thats it?  Yeah, right!

I have shot 100's of feet underground in the dark and mud and deep inside nuclear reactors but this assignment would test every trick I had in my creative toolbox.  This environment was full of potentially harmful ingredients that would require careful scouting and planning to make sure we got the shots we wanted and did not cross contaminate any of the production rooms.  Each pressurised air tight production room housed sensitive equipment that produced capsules or tablets. Medicines that had to be produced to strictly monitored and controlled specifications.  We would need to be low profile and low impact.

First challenge: Restricted equipment.
In this sort of environment is the risk of cross contaminating one production area with medicinal components from another area.  We therefore have to be extremely careful of what we touch, where we go and what gear we take in.  All equipment has to be kept contaminant free as we move about, so as you can imagine the manufacturing staff would really prefer that you go in with just a camera and nothing else.  Well yeah ... me too but great images in dimly lit manufacturing plants don't happen because I have a more expensive camera than the next guy.  Great images have to be created with the proper tools.  

To minimize our impact I decided to keep things simple and light with two heads powered by a Profoto battery pack and use as much available light as I could and when necessary, use available light supplemented by small on camera strobe, all colour balanced to the ambient light.

Second challenge: Restricted access
Only the photographer could go into the production room in order to keep contamination down to a minimum .  This made lighting and set up, as well as art direction, really tedious as my assistant and client had to stand outside the rooms while I set up each shot and used sign language through the air tight glass doors to communicate changes and adjustments.  We kept the laptop outside the room with the firewire cable fed through the doors to the camera.  This was  vital in making sure that the shots were going in a direction that satisfied the art director.  If I started drifting too far creatively my assistant would bang on the glass to bring my attention to the laptop which I could view through the glass doors of the production room.

Third challenge. Restricted movement
Proper personal protective gear dictated that I wear a full protective suit and and hood and at times a respirator.  Try peering through a 1 inch viewfinder past a plexi screen 3 inches from your eyes to compose and then feel for focus and controls wearing rubber gloves.  This combined with severe heat and resultant fogging of the plexi visor was an ongoing challenge.  The respirator was very hard to pull air through and kept getting in the way of the camera eyepiece so that I had to tilt my head to get my eye into the eyepiece in order to see the composition. At times this was still easier than looking through the visor that did not allow me to get my eye up to the eyepiece. The ongoing heat and restricted movement was a severe test of patience and mental focus.  In 20 years of shooting however I have learned that allowing myself to be irritated by any challenge on assignment will take me nowhere really fast.  Best approach is to get a good grip on your attitude, smile, breathe, crack a joke and go get the shot. 

Shooting in adverse conditions tests not only your skills as a photographer but it stresses your professional persona.  No matter how much strain you are under it is essential that you keep your cool and control.  Lose that and you lose your passion, your vision and your creativity.  Not a good place to be and doesn't make for a pleasant day on the job.

Despite the fact that it was an exhausting long, hot, noisy day, we came away with awesome images which made every one of those challenge well worth the struggle.


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