Photo Case Study: Industrial Photography

If I think of industrial photography what often comes to mind is the pictures of spectacular engineering projects like the Channel Tunnel, the particle accelerator at Cern, Oil platforms and large-span bridges. Vast-scale projects photographed beautifully by people with immense experience and the knowledge to make huge, impersonal industrial scenes look impressive, beautiful and moving.

But industrial photography can also be on a much smaller scale. Because of the nature of the work I do, my industrial images tend to fall more into the editorial style of photography. I’m helping smaller-scale industrialists communicate the human scale of what they do. Single human beings working hard to produce smaller pieces which, when finished, will have their own kind of beauty.

When a welder makes a beautiful weld by hand, their work is visible in the finished article, as unique as an artist’s brush stroke, though much less noticeable to the casual viewer and often hidden completely from view as the component is incorporated into a much bigger civil or industrial project.

I enjoy finding the right angle, lighting and composition to make an interesting, engaging image from what to anyone else might seem like a pedestrian, chaotic or grimy industrial scene.

Man spot-welding a steel pipe.

Industrial details showcase your company’s skills

This shot of a welder at work at City Engineering in Bristol is a case in point. The bench was busy and workman-like, and wasn’t going to do the photo any favours, but by exposing only for the light reflected off the gloved hands and mask, and using depth of field to guide the viewer’s attention, I was able to make a simple but engaging shot showing the care and craftsmanship which, had I stepped back and shot wider, would have been lost in the scene.

While I’m not a fan of photographers saying “this shot is really great because it was so hard to get,” it’s worth pointing out that taking pictures of welding can be tricky. You have to wear a mask to protect your eyes from the intense light, but the mask is so dark you can’t see what you’re shooting  – even when the welder sparks up, your view is necessarily dim.

I used a few tricks to get the shot that was needed and none of them involved Photoshop but, obstacles aside, this is the kind of industrial photography I really enjoy. Simple, editorial, illustrative. A small tale in the much larger story of a great industrial project that I might be invited to shoot once it’s finished.

Sense and Licensibility?

First of all, let me apologise for the tardy arrival of this article. A busy week and writer’s block almost had me not writing anything at all, but I couldn’t let you get off that easily!

What finally shifted my block was a discussion on a Linked In photographers’ group forum about how professional photographers can work to reduce the negative effect of un-trained, low-skilled photographers on the industry, and the thread quickly moved onto whether or not photographers should be licensed to practice. It also descended into something of a flame-fest between some professionals and amateurs (neither side coming off looking pretty), but maybe that’s another blog article.

My personal feeling is that no, there shouldn’t be a licensing system and this article will set out why I believe that. However I do believe there should be minimum standards that clients should seek out before engaging the services of a photographer.

I probably don’t need to re-tread the well-trodden arguments about how the rise in standards of photography amongst amateurs has made the industry tougher than perhaps it ever has been in the last 40 years, though amateurs were being complained about in a book I have which dates from 1944 so it’s not a new argument.

Much of the anguish of professionals centres around what I call “epiphany” photographers. You know the ones who have quite decent jobs, but buy a digital camera at Jessops and decided what they’d really like to be is a photographer. So they either keep their day jobs and moonlight at rates to undercut professionals (and devalue their images in the process), or they leave their day jobs, commercial reality hits them hard and they undercut everyone else just to get work, with no eye on their long-term business prospects.

In these scenarios, some kind of licensing system might seem like a brilliant plan, but I just don’t see it working. What kind of regulator could tell the good photographer from the bad? When I started out I know I took some pretty bad photos, but I worked hard and trained and developed. Should a regulator have ended my career then? The picture editor I was working for at the time could have, but he obviously thought I was worth persevering with.

And at what point in the starting out process would a photographer apply for a licence? What would the conditions of a licence be? And how could a licensing system cover the diversity of disciplines from weddings to editorial through industrial, commercial, corporate…

Far simpler, I think, is if picture buyers, be they wedding couples, families, publishers or commercial businesses or agencies, make sure they check out who they are looking to book very thoroughly before they put down a deposit or commit to a shoot.

man in suit being photographed in office

Never mind that the photographer is invisible, has he got public liability insurance?

This is my list of essentials, though it can vary from sector to sector and may not be exhaustive:

  • Check out the photographer’s website. Compare it with others at varying price points to get an idea of the level of quality you’re likely to get.
  • Do some digging to make sure the website isn’t just work lifted from other photographers. Not always easy to spot, but one tell-tale sign is when the photographic style and quality varies wildly from one picture to the next.

Talk to the photographer and ask:

  • How long have they been in full-time business?
  • Do they have qualifications or training under another photographer? Either is valid in my book. Self-taught is generally not acceptable.
  • Do they have public liability insurance?
  • Do they have professional indemnity insurance?
  • What are their terms and conditions?
  • What is the licence agreement covering the use of the images?

There could be much to add to this, but perhaps the most important thing is to talk to photographers. See who you’re comfortable with and at the talking stage you should start to get an idea of the level of professional service to expect from any given supplier.

Licensing might sound like a good idea, but it can’t account for creativity, approach, style, or personality. I’m sure there are plenty of views from photographers and buyers of photography, and I’d love to hear what you think.

The Screws Becomes the News


Surprise, surprise! It turns out that phone hacking at the News of the World (aka The Screws) might just have been a tad more widespread than was previously admitted.

Now they’re offering compensation and all sorts, presumably because having already had a Royal correspondent jailed and two more senior staff arrested in connection with phone hacking allegations, senior executives may be getting a little edgy at the thought of the police investigation working higher up the chain of command.

Even executives who are no longer in the roles they were in at the height of the phone-hacking period might be getting nervous over this, because it’s a fair bet that one or two, such as former managing editor Stuart Kuttner, would have been signing off expenses for third-party phone hacking services when the practice was rife.

Of course the likes of Kuttner may not have known what they were signing off. Maybe the receipts were put through as general investigative expenses, but it has to be worth asking whether executives above editor level would have been ignorant of the nature of the expenses they were scrutinizing.

At this stage it’s only fair I point out the rather dull axe I have to grind in all this. Between (circa) 1997-8 and 2001 I was a freelance photographer for The Screws, and dedicated about 18 months of that time working 4 days a week exclusively for them.

However by late 2000 I was getting increasingly worn down by the long hours, the pointless errands and being sent to distant places to do silly jobs with no story worth reporting. That year I missed the birth of my son because I was chasing a story in France. It wasn’t the picture desk’s fault that I missed the arrival of my son. I’d opted to stay on in France to see the job through, and my son had arrived unexpectedly early, but when things turned terminally sour between myself and the paper, I was dismayed when I was told I wasn’t “a team player.” That actual phrase was used, and it stuck with me because I’d done more than miss the birth of my only son for that paper.

I’d pulled double shifts when the desk couldn’t get cover, having to spend nights in my car on more than one occasion, without sleep or comfort break waiting for some Z-list celebrity to show up. All for the princely sum of £128 (£145 for a Saturday shift woohoo!). Often the shift fee was equivalent to about £10 per hour. Ok, I’d opted to work for The Screws, but that lesson is well learned now.

On a few occasions I’d turned some insane reporter’s nonsense story into a useable scoop just by being diligent and intelligent. Clearly this also made me “not a team player.”

What finally finished my time with The Screws was when I’d tried repeatedly, and failed, to get paid the expenses I was owed. Mostly mileage.

The thing was, at the time I was working for The Screws, I was living in Portsmouth but having to drive to Wapping most of the 4 days a week. Starting at 6:30am, I’d get to the picture desk for 10, be sent on that day’s wild goose chase (pun intended) and probably get home again some 12 hours later. The reason for the insane commute was that when I started working for them, most stories I covered were in the Hampshire, Wiltshire, West Sussex region. Then they went all celebrity-led and all the “stories” were suddenly in London.

Now management knew where I lived, and it wasn’t as if the mileage rate they paid was generous, even when petrol was somewhat cheaper than it is now. But every month I would submit my invoice, including mileage, and every month a cheque would arrive for the invoice amount, less 8%.

Eventually I gave up asking nicely for what I was owed and threatened legal action. The amount outstanding was in the thousands, and I could no longer afford to work for them. The effect of the letter I sent was instant, and my time at The Screws was over. I was scared and relieved.

And who was it that was taking a scalpel to my invoices? None other than Stuart Kuttner. He must have assumed I was on the fiddle to the tune of precisely 8% every single month, but I never did receive an explanation. I did get my money in the end, but never an explanation.

While I worked at the News of the World, I had the honour and privilege of working with some of the best photographers and reporters in the industry. Unfortunately there were also reporters who clearly had substance and honesty issues. There’s no point me naming the bad apples because this was all a decade ago now, and I can’t even recall their names and nor do I care what happened to them, though I do sympathise with any of the talented people who might still be there.

Addendum: Senior reporter James Weatherup was added to the list of arrested journalists today. As yet, those three most recently arrested have not been charged.

Addendum II, This time it’s personal: Former Managing Editor, Stuart Kuttner, has been arrested, questioned and released on bail regarding allegations of making payments to police for information and on charges of phone hacking.

Without pictures, who can see your business?

Many’s the time I’ve “expressed an opinion” (ok, I moaned a bit) that too many businesses hide behind stock imagery. It’s on their website, their brochures, in fact everything their clients and prospective clients see.

Of course they don’t mean to hide, per se, they just don’t seem to twig that if their entire visual façade is made of anonymous pictures of anonymous people, then no one can truly “see” their business. Perhaps worse are the pictures of anonymous trees, fields, waterfalls and all the other business clichés. Businesses are made of people working for that business, not models working for a studio.

However, and this is a rare treat so make the most of it, I’m not going to bang on yet again about the perils of stock imagery. If you haven’t worked out what the associated problems are by now, perhaps business isn’t your forte and you should be looking to get a desk job somewhere that keeps you in coffee and donuts and doesn’t tax your brain too severely.

corporate business portrait of female tax adviser

Real person in real office SHOCK!

What I do want to reinforce today though is that if you are running a business, or thinking of setting one up, your business plan will have to include a certain marketing budget, otherwise no one will know your business exists. And if you’ve managed to set aside a marketing budget, you should include a certain budget for imagery within that. Don’t panic though. As I’ve said in previous posts, the joy of images is that if you commission them and set yourself up with a sensible deal, you can use the same images for web, print, e-newsletter and all the rest without having to pay a separate fee each time. Of course you need to make sure you know what you want to use the pictures for before you start, and agree it with the photographer, but there’s no reason for this to be a complicated or scary process. If it’s looking that way, maybe you should contact me and I’ll explain how my simple pricing structure works (see how I slipped that little sales plug in so subtly?)

It does seem quite common though for businesses to say they haven’t a budget for photography, but if they’re marketing themselves then they need images of one sort or another.

For the vast majority of businesses, imagery isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity. But unlike most business necessities, it shouldn’t (if done properly) be a cost to the business. Just last week I was in conversation with a client who told me how impressed his prospective clients were that the people they saw in the sales presentations photos (taken by Yours Truly) were the same people they met on the office tour. This client believes its people are a major part of what sets them apart from their competitors, and by showing them off they win huge contracts.

So when looking at your budget for photography, perhaps it would be easier to calculate a budget for failure for not setting aside a sensible budget for corporate imagery. How much can your company afford to lose by skimping on the one thing everyone sees before they even decide to buy from you?

Time to look at your business plan again…