Winter Light

I’ve just returned from the kind of super intense two day assignment that’s fairly typical of my working life.  Although sometimes a quiet life sounds like a great idea, I can’t think there are many occupations where, even after more than 30 years, I’d still get the same kind of buzz that photography gives me.

Bristow 37 Charlie

A great day for photography  -  Bristow 37 Charlie

 This trip was a library / company report shoot on three offshore installations - one floating platform and two oil rigs.  It was planned to start with one day’ s photography on board the main platform, but by the time the delayed helicopter flight arrived and I’d finished safety inductions and been issued a permit to start work, it was dark, so I did my best to shoot lots of creative night shots, before returning to my cabin to clean and check the kit for the next day. I’d arranged to meet my guide at 07.00 for about 2 more hours of on board photography - still mostly in the dark - before a short helicopter trip to the first rig. The plan there was to shoot some quick pictures of the VIP’s I was accompanying, plus some creative (I hope) shots of the rig crew at work, before getting back on a helicopter again to move to the second rig. The plan worked pretty well - which doesn’t happen very often. After dropping off the VIP’s,  it was time for the main event of the trip - aerial photography of all three installations - so as the helicopter refuelled, I struggled into the safety harness, before, with me fixed into it’s open door 37 Charlie set off again.  Behind me in the back, strapped to the floor was a drill bit in a large wooden box. This urgent spare part was bound for our last destination of the day, so we were to land and unload it as we refuelled at the end of the photography. As  we made our way north to the next rig,  the pilots informed me that as we were carrying cargo and I was on the same manifest as the drill bit, technically I must be cargo too. Nice to feel appreciated - at least it would be. At this time of the year you don’t expect the weather to be good - we’ve had less snow than usual this year, but more storms - so when we set off, by North Sea in February standards, it was quite a nice day - the wind was about 30 kts and it wasn’t raining or foggy. There were even occasional glimpses of sunshine, and the wind meant there were plenty of white crests on the waves. So this was a good day for photography.  Flat calm seas, especially on sunny days are a real killer to interesting seascapes, so although even the large rigs were beginning to move about quite a bit as the high winds whipped up the sea, visually it was great news.  Winter light can be brilliant light.

As we made our way back around the North Sea the winds continued to pick up reaching almost 50 knots over one rig, which was terrific with huge waves now striking the legs of the rigs. However the winds were getting close to the limit for landing and taking off, which is 60 kts over the helideck - not because the helicopters couldn’t land, but because passengers might disappear over the side as they got out. On the plus side it looked spectacular, so I was exhilirated but relieved when we completed the photography, and finally delivered the drill bit just as it got dark. As the rig’s deck crew struggled to unload it , the other piece of cargo was offered a cup of coffee and some low calorie cream cake.

Sitting in the dark in the back of a helicopter while a gale whistles all around,  and eating cake is the kind of surreal moment that makes me love my work.   Fortunately the VIP’s didn’t seem to mind that we were now running late, and nobody was surprised by the flight crew’s announcement that due to the strong headwinds our flight back to Aberdeen would take almost twice as long as normal.  Strangely enough, when we did land, it  was calm, with hardly a breath of wind, so any comments about the terrible weather we’d all been through were met with a blank look.  Sometimes offshore really does seem like another world.

After arriving back home and copying the memory cards to my PC, it was time to settle down and go through the pictures, selecting a few of them to send to the customer, to be there when he logged in to his email he next day.  Knowing the pictures are OK, some are on their way to the customer and they’re all backed up to at least two other drives helps me to relax and sleep better. Over the years I’ve only ever had two cameras and one lens pack up on me, but I can’t relax fully until I’ve had a quick look at some of the frames. Imagine working in an environment where there’s so much noise you can’t hear if the camera sounds OK, and there’s no time to check every frame on the screen. Even when you do I’ve yet to meet a camera LCD that can really tell you if an image is absolutely sharp. Peace of mind with this kind of job only comes after I’ve checked enough files to know everything was working fine - thank you Canon.  By about 2.30 AM I’d seen enough and sent some emails - time for bed.   What a day.

Technical Info:  I shot 23.5 GB of RAW files mostly on my Canon EOS 5D and 24-105 L IS.  The image stabiliser in this lens does seem to help even with helicopter levels of vibration. I also shot most of the main subjects on a backup Canon EOS 20D with a 28-70 - my insurance policy.  Yes, you can check images on the screen, but there isn’t time to check them all, and in bright light you can’t see it anyway. By the time we finished I was down / up ? to 1600 ISO and underexposing by about 1.5 stops so we just made it.   Dusk is a great time to take pictures - but timing is critical - 10 minutes too late and you’re  .............ed

Other Info :   My thanks to the crew of 37 Charlie and all my “volunteer” models - Especially my American guide Ash who was superb, and didn’t even complain when I asked him to pose on the windswept wet side of the rig’s moonpool just above the sea, getting soaked while I stood on the nice dry side being creative. No it really isn’t some strange ritual we put all visiting Americans through, and yes, I probably should buy a Mac..

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