As much as we all love travelling and photographing landscapes, there are great pictures to be had in some unlikely places. Shooting industrial landscapes will take you to some strange and out-of-the-way locations. It can also be extremely challenging. However, I love the opportunity it throws up to shoot strong yet simple images with bold silhouettes, shapes and patterns.
So how do you go about photographing industrial landscapes?
Well, as with other branches of photography it’s all about planning, research and local knowledge. Plus, of course, having an idea of the type of image you are after before setting out.
In this security-conscious age it also pays to let the relevant security office know what you are doing. This is especially the case if you are planning to shoot a sensitive subject like an oil refinery.
I was once waiting to shoot a petrochemical plant at sunset from a public road when a security guard approached me. Half an hour later two police officers pulled up, took my details and searched my car. After that another more senior police officer turned up and gave me a bit of a lecture. The moral of this story is to let people know what you are doing as it may save you time and grief, and make the security’s job a bit easier too.
Subject matter for industrial landscapes
Subject matter for photographing industrial landscapes can be wide and varied. It’s certainly not just about shooting the nearest power station.
Look for wind farms, petrochemical plants, docks, ship yards, harbours, railways, motorways, cement works, quarries, strings of pylons, building sites, housing developments and major civil engineering projects such as bridges.
How do you find out about these things? By reading the national press, watching the news, and also by looking at business journals and annual reports. They are all great sources of information.
I shot Birmingham’s Bullring complex while it was still under construction from a multi-storey car park nearby, having found out about it in a national newspaper article.
On another occasion I just happened to drive past a great-looking building site. I stopped and offered the site foreman a bottle of malt in return for 30 minutes’ shooting time. He agreed and I shot some great material that now sells as stock.
One major problem with shooting industrial landscapes is that you can sometimes end up in one of life’s not-so-nice places. You need to be aware of your surroundings and personal safety. I once parked my car on a country lane and went off to shoot a steel mill; on my return an hour or so later I realised that nearly every other car parked nearby was a burnt-out wreck!
Photographing Industrial Landscapes – Find A Vantage Point
Once you have an idea or subject in mind you should then refer to the relevant Ordnance Survey Map for details of public rights of way.
Most of my industrial images are shot for stock agencies and I do not have direct access to the site I’m shooting. However, if you are on a public right of way you should be okay.
Likewise, if you are on private land, for example a local farm, and have the landowner’s permission, then you should be able to take pictures unhindered. Walk the footpaths and bridleways to get an idea of where the best viewpoints are.
Location finding is a very important part of photography and much underrated. Many people will stop at the first view and be happy – don’t! Go for a long walk and seek out three or four alternatives to maximise your shooting time.
When checking out location possibilities don’t just try to get as close as you can to the subject. Sometimes the best views are found from a distance (some of the Trent’s power stations look fantastic from miles away when the conditions are right). Perhaps look for a hill-top or meadow a mile or so away, which will give you a totally different perspective on the shot.
Photographing Industrial Landscapes – Composition
Once you’ve picked a spot it’s time to think about your composition.
You don’t have to frame the whole factory or refinery in a single image. Look for close-ups or details that will make interesting shots.
Refineries tend to look long and thin, so why not attach a longer lens and crop into the image to emphasise a particular aspect such as the pipe work? Or try to apply the ‘rule of thirds’ with smokestacks or cooling towers in the appropriate place.
Look for people in shots, particularly on construction sites, as they give a great sense of scale. And if you can shoot them as silhouettes, even better because they will be unrecognisable. (If you can recognise people then you need to either get a model release signed which will be virtually impossible, or add a bit of blur to their faces in Photoshop.)
Photographing Industrial Landscapes – Industrial Light & Magic
Light is everything in photography. The quality of the light, its direction, colour and strength all help to make a shot. This is true of industrial pictures just as much as landscape, travel or fashion images.
Timing is vital for the right effect and usually requires an early start. This is especially true if you are after mist swirling around a cooling tower or a chimney poking up through a bank of fog to catch the first rays of sunlight.
Many industrial images benefit from being shot in the winter because the sun is much lower in the sky, making it more manageable. For example, you can hide it behind structures or even people to get brilliant silhouettes.
Photographing Industrial Landscapes – Adding atmosphere
Mist and fog are much more prevalent in winter, helping to add atmosphere to a shot. Think about shooting into the light at dawn or using side lighting to bring out textures and depth in buildings.
However, try to avoid taking pictures with the midday sun directly overhead. This can be too harsh and very contrasty. Likewise, having the light directly behind you can flatten the look of an image.
Understanding light and how it works may sound complicated, but it’s not. It’s all about observing, anticipating and reacting to the arc of the sun and the weather conditions – is it frosty, overcast, stormy, or raining? They all have a bearing on the quality of light and your final image.
Photographing Industrial Landscapes – Metering
Metering for the light is not a major issue with modern digital cameras as they can be extremely accurate, and of course you can check the image on your LCD monitor, along with the histogram. Know your camera and the capabilities of your lenses.
Photographing Industrial Landscapes – Use a tripod
Photographing industrial landscapes without actually being on site will invariably mean using medium tele-zooms (70-200mm) to much longer telephotos (300mm to 500mm), so using a good, sturdy tripod is essential.
No ‘cheating’ with higher ISO speeds – do it properly; the higher the ISO the greater the noise which will detract from the image.