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Marine Photography – Industrial Photography – Technical Photography. Which…?

An East Coast marketing communications firm e-mailed me from a “marine photography” web search.  They were “looking for an experienced photographer to shoot very technical images onboard a container ship.”  The images they needed were “of an engine/scavenge port inspection and of shipboard equipment (engine, generators).”  She wanted to know if I had any experience shooting onboard a ship and if I was interested.

Am I interested?  Absolutely!  Experience?  I’ve done some small-scale tugboat shipboard engine room and container ship bridge equipment work, but frankly, this sort of shipboard marine photography experience has, till now, been minimal.  So, a good dose of salesmanship and some good references (only one from the marine industry) helped to secure the project.

ExxonMobil Marine Lubricants and Man Diesel wanted to conduct a field trial of a cylinder oil lubricant used on the engines of a big Hapag-Lloyd container ship visiting Seattle.  The object was to evaluate the condition of the engine and how well the cylinder oil is performing by inspecting the engine scavenge ports.  My photos would document the process and be used for various marketing communications requirements.  Most significant to me in the photography – the environment accessing the scavenge ports was “dark, humid, hot and dirty”.  And how!!

On the  two days of the work, I met with the client reps and we made the long trek out to, on to and down into the cavernous engine room of this big ship.  Big?   You bet.

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The power plant of the Colombo Express takes up about 10 stories or so. 12 pistons drive the ship.  This photo shows the top of the engine power plant.  Each of 12 green towers is part of the ignition system.  The room is about 300 feet long and maybe 25-30 feet high.  There are about 4 floors below this complex.

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The scavenge ports are large diameter holes giving access to the top area of each of the 12 cylinders, each in turn accessed from a 6’+ diameter access passage one floor down from the top engine room.  This photo shows the access passage, with one of the scavenge ports on the left.

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The interior of the passage and all the scavenge ports are completely covered by a thick, dense coating of engine oil and the temperature is well in excess of 100˚ F.  My challenge was to get into this passage and make photos of the scavenge port inspection.  My private goal — immediately obvious to me, but not something I would voice — was to  avoid in any way touching any surface in the passage with my hands and transferring the thick, oily sludge onto my expensive camera equipment!

The client referred to the photo process as “technical.”  Not in my estimation.  There is nothing particularly technical about making the images; it was basically an on-camera flash lighting situation.  Here are two photos illustrating the scavenge port inspection process.

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These fellows spent hours inside this tunnel looking at all 12 pistons.  I chose to photograph only a couple of ports near the beginning and end of the tunnel to — at all costs — avoid getting oily and endangering my equipment.

The inspectors also looked at the tops of the cylinder walls.  Here are  photos of the cylinder caps in place, engine room crew members removing and, then, examining a cylinder cap.

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With the cylinder caps removed, the inspector could get down onto the top of the cylinder and examine the piston walls.  These photos show the access and the inspection process.  This is, again, lit by a simple on-camera flash.

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In this image, the two pairs of feet on the top and left are a couple of the inspectors; those are my feet at the bottom.

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The remainder my marine photography work during the two 12-hour days aboard the vessel was devoted to other aspects of the engine complex and container loading operations.  This photo looks at the bottom of the pistons connected to the cam driving system. For scale, this cavity is large enough to fit a semi cab/tractor trailer inside the compartment, and there are 12 of them.  Everything here, as well, is totally covered with engine oil.

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The piston/cam system drives the ship’s propeller.  This is a photo of the propeller shaft from within the power plant.

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I was, initially, a bit concerned that engine equipment vibrations inside the power plant would impact some fairly long tripod exposures.  It didn’t prove to be a factor.  One of the hardest aspects of the project involved this old man hiking up and down 10 stories of steep ship’s ladders for two long days.  But the things I enjoy the very most about photography are the challenges and the wealth of experiences that come to me.  Where else am I going to get to work this hard, have this much fun, and actually get paid to be there?

So, back to the central question.  Marine photography?  Most certainly.  Industrial photography?  I’d say this project qualifies.  Technical photography?  Messy, yes; technical, not really.