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

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.