If there was such a photographic workshop that included a visit to an offshore oil rig I think there would be a number of contenders, but as it will never happen, I’ll tell you about it! It is exciting and dramatic and hugely photogenic. Arriving by helicopter, surrounded by ocean, the oil-rig appears suddenly like a tiny dot in the distance but as you approach, it is suddenly huge, a massive construction of metal in bright colours, with walkways, stairs, machinery, loading bays and cranes, like a giant meccano set. A photographer’s paradise to be discovered. I love this kind of work so much I published a book called Islands of Steel.
There is a great deal to learn from photographing an oil rig and not just shutter speeds, apertures and angles but patience and the art of being as invisible as possible. Professional photographers such as myself who have done a lot of industrial photography are used to having to comply to rules and safety regulations but oil rigs are potentially dangerous, particularly in the middle of a hostile sea. A photography permit often has to be issued and permission to stand in particular places has to be sought. It can be very frustrating seeing the perfect picture but not being able to get close enough.
The photos can be stunning. Portraits of people working, or in groups, from dozens of different angles, the cranes moving heavy cargo overhead and over the side of the rig to the waiting supply ships below. I love to go up the derrick and see the whole rig from the top. The modern ones mostly have lifts but some still have to be climbed, attached to a safety harness with huge clips that you move yourself as you hoist yourself up. The reward is a birds eye view of the activity on the rig floor and a totally different vision from below.
I always arrive with a long list of required shots and never have, it seems long enough to do them in, although I did stay 10 days once in order to cover a really big operation. It is quite unusual to use any kind of lights that flash as it can set off alarms and worse. I always prefer natural light anyway but the contrasts can be harsh, particularly in the tropics. I work a lot in Africa and Asia where photographing very dark skinned people, against a bright background is particularly tricky without lights. It is often best to try and get the whole shot in the shade or have the person back lit. Lower the contrast on the camera and use lightroom or similar to lighten and darken as appropriate. I favour shallow depths of field for portraits so that the person stands out but you can still make out the often busy background
Dawn and dusk can offer spectacular shots, particularly from a supply vessel. Regulations (and there are many) require that you board the vessel the night before as no transfers are allowed outside daylight hours.
The highlight of visiting an oil rig for me is taking aerial shots. A special flight is put on. The door is opened and fastened back and depending on the helicopter the photographer sits either in the seat behind the pilot or on the floor, and isattached by a special chain offering more manoeuvrability than a regular seat belt so that you can lean out. Two-way headphones allow you to communicate with the pilot. I usually shoot at around 1000th of a second to make sure that the picture is sharp. The idea is to get a large variety of shots from different distances and heights and then some really dramatic ones from up close with different lenses. I use two cameras, one with a telephoto and one with a wide angle zoom. I always have a couple of other lenses in my camera bag and change if time permits.
This kind of photography is a far cry from street photography in a city, discovering some ethnic tribe or walking around ancient sites, BUT you are still photographing people, taking portraits, shooting landscapes or seascapes, using light and training your eye to see things differently just like anywhere. This is pure ‘reportage’ in all it’s glory.