Taking pictures on an offshore oil rig is serious business

- - Working

This is fascinating. I’m sure there are lots of photography jobs with very strict requirements like this one. Would be fun to do a column on all the weird photo jobs out there. If anyone has one they want to write about let me know.

For starters, due to the risk of flammable gas coming up the oil well, normal electronics are banned outside the living quarters. Smartphones are strictly forbidden and regular cameras require “hot work permits” be opened prior to use.

The idea behind the permit system is that all potentially-hazardous activities must be centrally coordinated by a responsible/accountable person, to ensure that risks are managed appropriately and ongoing operations do not interfere with each other. The permit must be signed by the rig’s on-board management and posted in a central location. The permit then expires when the approver’s shift ends. Even once the permit is approved, you still need to carry a gas detection device when taking pictures, to provide a warning if flammable gas is present. It’s kind of a pain.

So to avoid that hassle, we use explosion-proof cameras. It sounds cooler than it is.

The first time I ever heard the term “explosion-proof,” it was at a job interview for an environmental toxicity testing facility. We were doing a tour and I saw the words “EXPLOSION-PROOF” in big red lettering on the side of a refrigerator! My mind immediately went to putting bombs inside it for safety, but all it really meant was that the fridge would not act as an ignition source if flammable materials (solvents, etc) were placed inside. Kind of disappointing.

Flash forward about six years, and working with explosion-proof equipment is now a part of my job responsibilities. We use airtight seals, gas purges, current-limiting devices, and all sorts of other methods to ensure nothing ever starts a fire if there is a gas release. This is a highly regulated area of engineering with very strict design requirements. Level sensors inside gasoline tanks, blower fans for grain silos, and coal mine excavators all must be designed according to tight standards such as ATEX.

These standards are intended for heavy industrial equipment, and can result in some absurd designs when applied to consumer electronics like cameras. Here’s a picture of our $5,000 explosion-proof camera:

Big, right? For $5,000 and the size of a brick, you would expect a high quality camera, but no. My flip phone in 2002 took better pictures. You have to hold it rock-steady for 5 seconds to get a decent picture, and the auto-exposure adjustment gives you all-white or all-black pictures about 10% of the time. The rechargeable battery (that metal thing bolted to the front) dies in about 30 minutes. Zoom lens? Hah! Macro shots? Hah! It’s a terrible, god-awful camera — and it’s one of the best available. As a result of using this beast, I have gigs worth of blurry, grainy pictures from the rig. They’re good enough to put in a daily work report, but mostly not fit for publication on the internet.

Read the whole piece here: http://oilgas.quora.com/Taking-Pictures-Seriously

There Are 9 Comments On This Article.

  1. Patrick Downs

    What a POS for $5k! There’s an outfit making a nice waterproof pro housing for the iPhone now … why wouldn’t that work?

  2. I worked on oilrigs in Northern Canada to save $$$ for college. Took lots of photos of crazy, dangerous, fascinating and illegal things. I could write a good story for ya.

  3. I’ve shot on a fair amount of rigs and drilling platforms in the Golf of Mexico and safety is always the highest priority. You always take a safety class as soon as you board the rig and you have to know where the exits are, who your team leader is and in case of an abandons hip call, where your assigned lifeboat is stationed.

    I was never asked to not shoot with my Nikons or Hasselblads or to put them in cases. I was required to shot my strobes to the safety officer and insure that the flash tubes were sealed. (always ended up using the Nikon SB units rather than Hensels or Profotos)

  4. We fully agree to Cameron. As industrial photographers we are often confronted with EX/Atex situations – but rarely experienced massive restrictions regarding the use of our digital media format equipment. We only had one shoot within the last 10 years (on an LNG vessel) where we were asked in advance for a EX/Atex certificate of our equipment. The solution was simple: we used film on a fully manual camera (ALPA) without any battery installed. However, the downside was that we needed to go back to the time consuming process of developing and scanning… But – this experience has shown us, that sometimes the reduction of gear helps to build a greater awareness of the process of taking pictures!

  5. The camera looks like my first 3mp camera, I didn’t spend $5k on it though. I am surprised underwater housings don’t work for situations where you need to eliminate the ignition source. I think it would be fun to shoot in difficult and hazardous environments then again that is my nature and the reason I am still rehabbing from an injury.

  6. Casey Lipok

    You wouldn’t want to be on a rig during a blow out, or if there is high concentrations of H2S. Neither has any health benefits. The last rig I worked on in 1982, way before I picked up a camera full time was the second largest land rig in the world. It had a string weight of 2 million pounds and was 192′ to the crown. We went down 24,991 feet and I have a certificate to prove it. They are a dangerous work environment to say the least. Wish I would have taken more shots when I worked in the patch but, that was the last place you wanted to be on days away.

  7. Casey Lipok

    Had a chance to go off shore to the North Sea back in the fall of 82′. But oil was selling for $10 per barrel and Penrod Drilling went under 6 months later. Plus if there was trouble the North Sea has some of the roughest waters in the Atlantic. There would be little chance of survival. Gotta love the patch. Like construction, it’s boom or bust.

  8. I knew oil rigs were dangerous but I didn’t realize all the regulations that they had. Not being able to bring a camera on site just says how dangerous they are. Also I had no idea that you couldn’t bring a smartphone on site. The things you learn… Thanks for the read!

  9. It’s very demanding……..I shoot a lot of oil stuff in the North Atlantic. Just getting there is a 2 hour helicopter ride. You’re limited in what you can bring, due to weight restrictions. No flash, as it can set off the fire suppression systems. And you’re suited up in safety gear that really gets in the way. And (in the Canadian rigs where I’ve shot) it’s COLD!!!!!…….. On the plus side, the food on the rigs is amazing!!!!