An Oil and Gas Photography Assignment in Norway’s North Sea in a Storm

Snowing Floro Port Norway

Loading containers onto vessels in Norway in winter

I’m on an oil and gas photography assignment in Norway and there is a storm brewing up. I cling to the side of the supply vessel I’m on, as a huge wave crashes against it.   I’m wrapped up in a huge oilskin coat, which is over a thick down one where a camera nestles around my neck as I had been photographing the pretty Norwegian coastline.

The coast fades away completely and we are out at sea, the North Sea.

We are talking very cold temperatures here, we are in winter and it gets dark by about 3.00ish. As the afternoon progresses it becomes rougher and rougher and by early evening it starts snowing, huge whirling flakes that settle on everything immediately. Kristian calls me on the intercom and tells me to go and stay in my cabin. I have taken 2 sea sickness pills and am grateful.

I stagger to my cabin and lie on the bunk clinging to the side as it feels as though we are on a vicious roller coaster. It is impossible to move. I see the porthole rise high and bang down and feel instantly sick but a trip to the bathroom is not an option. My camera bag is tied to the desk that is anchored to the floor but my suitcase slips and slides all over the floor.

helicopter#rig#night time#

Helicopter leaving the rig in the dark

We are supposed to reach a rig in the middle of the ocean. I am on the boat to take pictures of the activity on the vessel, photograph the rig from the sea and the offloading process before being transferred on to the rig by winch. The captain of the boat calls me up to see how I am faring and to tell me that we will probably have to turn back as although the winds will die down shortly they are forecasting a severe snow storm in the next 8-12 hours.

I groan inwardly as this means I will not be able to accomplish what am here for. When you are on a photographic assignment and you are absolutely unable to take any pictures, even if it isn’t your fault, it is just awful. Half an hour or so later there is a call on the tannoy, telling us that there will be a window in the weather so we are going to attempt to reach the rig after all.


offloading containers onto the rig.

As the pitching and rolling subsided slightly, in the early hours of morning I saw the twinkling lights of the rig in the distance. As the morning progressed to my utter amazement the sea calmed down and I was able to photograph the containers as they were swung up over the side in a clear sky.

Just as I thought that my photography assignment was going quite well, Kristian, who was watching me taking the photos told me that I would not be able to be transferred onto the rig. ‘The wind is coming up again making it potentially dangerous and above all we’ve run out of time and we have to get back to port as quickly as possible as there is very heavy snow storm is on it’s way.’ He said. I learnt that weather patterns could change quite drastically and very quickly. I was quite excited though as I love taking photographs in the snow!

This was not the first photographic assignment I had been on where the carefully orchestrated plans go pear shaped. I had kept the client informed of the changing events by internet and they turned out to be more anxious about my well being than getting the pictures. It was finally decided that I would go to Bergen and wait until I could be transferred by helicopter. Sooner or later it would clear.


Bergen, birds in the snow

On arrival, I was driven to the airport in blinding snow, where I took the last flight out to Bergen. I was lucky as I learnt that the later flight was cancelled. In Bergen I checked in to the airport hotel and watched the swirling snow come down thick and fast. There was an icy wind and it was already settling quickly on the ground. It snowed all night and all the next day. Very few planes landed and took off and the all helicopters were grounded until further notice.

The following morning the heliport was stuffed with people all waiting to go offshore as Bergen is a hub for many different companies and rigs and I was at the back of the list. Having been told it would not be for at least 36 hours, I took a bus downtown and photographed the city, which is very picturesque and absolutely stunning in the snow. I found a hotel overlooking the port and town that allowed up on the roof to take some great shots before taking the cable car right up to the top. People were already on skis and as the sky turned dark blue and the lights came on, it was a beautiful sight.

I spent 2 days photographing everything, the port, the views, and the skiers, the rifts of snow in front of the helicopter terminal and the hundreds of rig workers waiting to leave before I eventually left myself. There was still snow on the rig and it was bitterly cold. I was told that I couldn’t stay longer than a night as beds and weather were particularly problematical, but I managed to fulfil my photography assignment shooting a lot of it in the dark which was quite beautiful and before I left, the sun came out again so I had a pretty good diversity of pictures. Better than any I got off the coast of Scotland which I had always done in summer.

Going on a photography assignment in the North Sea off the coast of Norway in winter can be a rewarding experience providing you have a bit of guts, very warm clothes and of course some patience!






An Offshore Aerial Photography and Video Shoot in West Africa

aerial of tanker FPSO

aerial of tanker FPSO and vessel

“The chopper is scheduled at 11.00 today” Mick tells me. I’m on an offshore oilrig in the Gulf of Guinea and I need to take some aerial photography and video of the rig and surrounding supply vessels for a prominent oil company. I groan inwardly as 11.00 will probably mean 12.00 which is the middle of the day and the sun will be directly overhead. At least today there is some, as the last few days have been so hazy that any aerial photography would have been dull and colorless.

landing helicopter offshore

Helicopter about to land offshore

Scheduling a flight for a photography or video flyover is always a little complicated. If the rigs are far out from the shore, most oil companies will try to fit it in between the crew changes, those arriving and leaving. This is the case today.  I am informed that the door will be open, that I will have just under an hour and that one of the helicopter personnel will be up there with me and yes, I will have two way radio with the pilot which is essential

Last winter I had to do an aerial shoot with the door closed and 6 passengers in the cabin, which was a challenge. Did I get any decent pictures? Well I did, but they were boring compared to ones with the door open and no passengers. Firstly, shooting through glass is really not ideal but much harder was trying to get a funkier angle, as the corners of the window would appear. I had two way radio contact with the pilots who were great but I understand that with 6 passengers they couldn’t duck and dive like I sometimes ask them.

aerial of oil rig

aerial oil rig

I take the stills first then switch to video. The light is right overhead and very bright. As for various reasons I do not have a 3 axis gimbal stabilizer to shoot video I use my Sony 4K camcorder that has a built in stabilizer which although inadequate for such a shoot, will be way smoother than any footage shot with a DSLR. I set it up on a pillow to help cushion the jolts. I’m not madly happy with it but it can be rectified in post-production.

aerial of tanker loading oil

aerial of tanker loading oil

Here are some tips for aerial photography and video from a helicopter:

The priority for stills is the shutter speed. Make sure that the camera is set at least at 1/1000th second. I like the aperture to be at least F8 making the ISO the last priority. You do not want blurred pictures.

For really smooth video you need a 3 axis gimbal stabilizer and a decent one. Shoot at either 24fps –1/50th or 30fps at 1/60th. Use a neutral density filter especially in bright light. I do not recommend using a DSLR, it’s really hard to balance the camera and focus.

Drones will probably take over completely for aerial video and photography for offshore oil rigs. They are already being used for various offshore operations.

I find the video footage from drones hard to beat. For stills it remains debatable, as does the cost compared to using a helicopter.

offshore oil rig in Gulf of Guinea

aerial offshore oil rig in Gulf of Guinea

Industrial, Corporate and Landscape photography in Turkana Country, Kenya

Turkana tribes people with animals Kenya

Turkana tribes people Kenya

It’s 5.30 am in Nairobi and time to go. It’s still dark outside, but in a short while the car will come and pick me up and take me to Wilson Airport for the first flight out to Kapese in the Turkana region of Northern Kenya. I’m excited. I am on a great assignment, a corporate and industrial shoot for an oil company that is also going to allow me to discover the region and get up close to the local communities. As well as photographing the oil rigs, I will be shooting portraits, landscapes and local people. Aerials are also needed so a flyover has to be arranged.

helicopter take off in Turkana

helicopter taking off from Kapese airport, Turkana

On arrival at Wilson airport there is a hub of activity. Dawn is beginning to break and I take out a camera and start taking pictures of all the rig workers checking in. The plane eventually takes off and as we fly over the Rift Valley I try to imagine what it must have been like all those millions of years ago when man took his first steps. On the approach to Kapese, looking out of the window, I see that the terrain is semi arid desert scrub.

Landscape of turkana huts and local women

Huts and women in Turkana Kenya

There are mountains in the distance and on closer inspection there are groups of circular huts dotted around. Many Turkana are nomadic herdsmen who move from place to place.

The days go by quickly. There is so much to photograph.

Oil rig in Turkana Kenya

Oil rig in Turkana, Kenya

The camps, the rigs, the workers, people from the local communities who work with and for the oil companies. There are the Corporate Social Responsibility programmes that help the local communities. It is boiling hot and the alight in the middle of the day ferocious. I’m shooting a local company preparing the terrain for a new rig, sweat pouring off their faces. The earth is red, they are in blue and it’s a terrific shot. We visit the schools and the numerous water wells that the company has set up to help the nomadic tribes living in these harsh conditions.

Whilst driving around on bumpy unmade roads, herdsmen with their goats and camels cross our path. Amidst the scrub are extraordinary formations of anthills. We come across groups of women carrying plastic water containers.   I’m constantly shouting ‘stop!’, as I see so many photo opportunities. The people are beautiful.

Turkana girl with oil rig behind

Turkana girl with oil rig behind

They shave their heads apart from the centre, which is often plaited, and wear wonderful colourful beads around their necks. As we stop the children rush out to meet us. Some of the adults are happy to be photographed and others not at all. I talk to them, show them my camera, the pictures I’ve taken and explain why I’m here and doing this. Most of the drivers are Turkana, and are happy to help with translating and eventual persuasion if needed!

Time is almost up, I’ve taken thousands of photos, downloaded them on various hard drives at least twice to make sure that the pictures are safe. I’ve made several friends and feel I would like to stay longer and get more pictures. Back home the work isn’t finished, a hefty job of post-production begins which plunges me back into those dazzling desert days, a world away from the bustling city I live in.


Industrial Photographer? Photographers Rights are Shot!

oil rig, aerial oil rig, landscape, lake turkana.

Oil Rig lost in the landscape near Lake Turkana

As a professional corporate photographer the most effective way of obtaining new clients is to constantly update my portfolio with stunning new images and video clips. These can then be sent out to my agent and potential clients by email for her to promote. This is easier said than done, for a number of reasons that many aspiring photographers may not realise.

aerial, clearing land, road through the desert,

Preparing a future camp in Mozambique

There is the job of choosing which new pictures you think will make someone want to hire you as oppose to someone else. It might not necessarily be the shot that took 4 hours to take against all odds, or the one that your client raves about.  I do a lot of industrial and oil and gas photography but never know what to show, so I usually end up narrowing it down and asking a couple of other visually minded pro’s their opinion.

For most industrial, landscape and lifestyle  I especially ask Melody, my agent whose judgement I trust.   However I digress, as this is not my point.

The main issue is copyright and the right to publish your own work. I work mostly for large international corporations and my contracts with them are often 30 pages long. Written into every single one of them are paragraphs about copyright, sometimes very artfully worded but inevitably denying the photographer the right to publish any pictures appertaining to the brief of the photo shoot.

oil and gas worker, worker on rig, safety harness on rig,

Man in safety harness high on a rig in Africa.

As far as the client is concerned, I am working for them, they pay me and all my expenses, so therefore the work is theirs. As a photographer I will argue that I made that picture the way it is, therefore, although they have all rights to use it as per the contract, the actual image belongs to me! I have had many long discussions over copyright with agents, other photographers and lawyers on both sides. It is a sticky issue that is becoming rapidly in favour of the client.

oil rigs, oil pipes, oil and gas photography,

Oil pipes

I understand their reasons, particularly in oil and gas photography, which is a controversial topic anyway. There is a big market in stock photography and some of it comes from assignments paid for by companies for their self-promotion and they do not want to see it misrepresented elsewhere. Publishing images of people without model releases is a dangerous way to go anyway. All main agencies such as Getty ask for all images to be rights free.

In view of the above, the best I have negotiated is to be allowed to use my images to promote myself. This means publishing them on my website, in blogs and sending out some recent images to prospective clients as copyrighted images. I hear you say, ‘that is not so bad’, except that I have to ask them first and I have had a lot of  ‘we would rather you didn’t show that!’

Personally, I have always protected my clients and never irresponsibly sold my images. A couple of years ago I was contacted by someone who saw one of my oil and gas images in my portfolio and asked me if her company could buy it for use in an external marketing campaign. Although it was tempting I had to refuse. I told her why and she congratulated me on my integrity. ‘You are exactly the sort of person we would like working for us’, she said. I’m still waiting!


What you need to know about becoming an Oil and Gas Photographer

Offshore oil rig

offshore oil rig

Photographing both offshore and onshore oil rigs and gas installations is exciting, dramatic and hugely photogenic. People often ask me how I got into it. For me it began for me almost 15 years ago when my then photography agency Blackstar, found me an assignment for a small exploratory oil company called Triton that had discovered oil in Equatorial Guinea.

From that first helicopter ride as the rig appeared I was hooked. The speck in the ocean became this massive metal construction, full of cranes and pipes with the derrick towering up, looking like a giant Meccano set, full of bright colours. I immediately knew that there were going to be some terrific pictures to take and this was not going to be a one off photo shoot of this kind.  I have to admit that although I was already an established photographer with several industrial corporations to my name it had never occurred to me to specialise in oil and gas photography. Most oil and gas photographers work in other fields too, and like me, are already working in industrial, corporate, advertising and landscape photography first.

oil and gas photography

Miud on the drill floor

It is a major decision to decide to do this type of work as anyone working offshore is required to hold a number of special certificates such a BOSIET with HUET training. This is not for everybody. It involves being strapped into a makeshift helicopter, dumped into the water upside down and having to escape by unstrapping yourself and knocking out the window beside you. You have to learn to save others and use inflatable lifeboats and there is more too, such as fire fighting and general first aid. The course is expensive and the first one lasts 3 days with renewals every 4 years that can be done in one day.

oil and gas photography

Washing down the drill floor

For that first oil photography assignment I didn’t have a BOSIET and one wasn’t asked of me, it was later when I was contacted by another large company that this certificate reared its ugly head but since there was no other way, I complied, and now keep it up to date.  A special medical certificate for offshore work is also required as well as a medical and liability insurance, so becoming an oil and gas photographer requires a special consideration.

Safety is a major issue for oil companies. Everybody visiting a rig for the first time has to watch a safety video and some companies make you complete a test questionnaire to ensure that you have understood the main safety issues. Permits to work are also required, as are hot permits and these can take some time as several people from different departments have to sign them. A gas detection device has to be carried and no flash or strobe lighting of any kind can by used. Any additional lighting needed must be continuous, LED being probably the best for various reasons.

To take great pictures you do need access but due to safety issues you may not be able to stand exactly where you think you would get the best shot, particularly on the drill floor, so you have to look around.  It is a good idea to read up about oil exploration and familiarize yourself with the terminology and vocabulary that you’ll hear. This is all available online.  Once I get onboard I always ask what work is going on and when.

I always arrive with a long list of required shots and however long you stay time onboard is rarely long enough.

oil and gas photography

Offloading Tanker showing the hoses

On one of the rigs I was on at the end of last year, it took a whole day to obtain all the permits needed to shoot video and stills. Admittedly a drone was used for a part of the assignment so this was a consideration. Many of the most dramatic shots are taken from the air, especially when the door is open and you are sitting on the floor. Although there is two way radio contact with the pilot, some are more compliable than others and I have been blown away by some of the angles I have been able to achieve thanks to a good pilot saying, ‘OK, lets give it a try but be quick!’

To sum it all up, oil and gas photography ticks all the boxes with me. Stunning landscapes ands seascapes, dramatic, graphic industrial images, interesting and diverse portraits and people working, with a multi-national workforce with faces from all over the globe. An assignment overseas will often also include photographing some corporate responsibility projects in rural towns and villages, enabling making photographs of local populations and discovering another aspect of both the corporation who sent you and the country you are in.