Pedantic Engineer to Industrial Photographer!

As you may know, I worked as an aerospace engineer for 13 years, before finally making the leap to full-time photographer. A lot of people are surprised by the switch, it’s like a complete 180-degree flip. And they’re right in many ways. Photography is a completely different industry to aerospace engineering and requires a different set of skills. However, there are also a number of skills which are required for both industries. In this blog post, I’m going to talk through some of my thoughts on the commonalities between aerospace engineering and photography. I’ll also discuss how I’m getting into industrial photography and finding this is my sweet spot.

Engineering Days

After University – Leeds 2000-2004 – and a gap year snowboarding (and doing a bit or work) in the French Alps, I went straight into a job as a stress engineer at Marshall Aerospace in Cambridge. As a newbie graduate, it was a case of learning the ropes and developing skills at this time. After a few years there, I moved down to Bristol to work for Airbus UK. My role here was more niche, working as a Fatigue and Damage Tolerance engineer. Finally, when I got married and moved up to Herefordshire, I worked at Safran Landing Systems (formally Messier-Bugatti-Dowty) for several years.

My desk at my former aerospace engineering job

It was during this time I discovered photography and realised I had a ‘thing’ for it.

Aerospace engineering is probably one of the most demanding in terms of documentation and paper-trails. Everything has to be documented to the nth degree, in case of any problems. It’s also imperative that everything is thoroughly checked and healthy safety margins are built into all calculations. The consequences of failure are a lot worse than in other industries – the driver of a car can simply pull over if it breaks down. But the pilot of a passenger jet doesn’t have that luxury!

Studio Product Photography

I believe this experience in aerospace engineering taught me to be quite thorough – or as some people have said, pedantic! In the photography world, this translates well. With something such as product photography, you need to be pedantic. Each speck of dust or slight angle can have a dramatic effect on the final image. It’s not every photographer who has the patience to work on a single image for several hours to get the lighting and composition just right.

I do believe that working as an aerospace engineer and worrying about the effects of 1/1000’s of a millimetre of metal on the strength of a component have helped with my ability to do this. This image was part of a series of four studio product images which took a full day to complete – plus a few hours of editing time. Each image shows a different metal finishes available.

Studio Product Photography – takes time and patience

Creativity

Looking back now, I realise there was a strong urge to do something creative while I was engineering. On one hand, I strongly believe that engineering is a creative discipline. Creativity is required to solve technical problems. Of course, the skills you use differ from a purely creative discipline. They need to be technically correct and accurate. But you need to use creativity to work out how you can solve the problem using the skills and knowledge you have.

Aerospace engineering tends to be, by necessity, a fairly slow moving industry. It’s very hard to implement radical new solutions when there’s so much at stake from a safety perspective. So the degree to which you can be creative on the design side is limited. However, there are many other areas of engineering where the engineer has to be extremely creative; designing new parts and solutions from scratch.

I also believe that creativity is needed in order to start ANY business, including an engineering business. A company such as Safran Landing Systems was started by an entrepreneur wanting to solve a problem. This is the same as starting any business – creativity, combined with courage to take action leads to a new business.

For me, carrying out fatigue analysis from behind a computer screen every day wasn’t providing enough of a creative outlet. I respect people who can do this each day. It’s an important and highly skilled discipline. But it wasn’t ‘driving’ me enough and ultimately I had to make the change.

A creative angle during an industrial photography shoot

Industrial Photography

Over the last year, I’ve begun to move into industrial photography. I’m finding it’s the perfect sweet spot for me – a combination of a genuine interest in engineering and technology with that of photography.

During the industrial photography assignments I’ve had so far, its been so interesting to see inside the facilities I’ve been lucky enough to photograph. Some of the processes I’ve seen are things I used to see specified on engineering drawings, but had never actually seen in real life!

Having a genuine interest in the technical aspects of what I’m photographing has an impact on the quality of the photographs, I believe. It’s very important to know what you’re photographing, how it works and what’s important about it. Because as you photograph something, you focus in on certain areas and use certain angles. These all have an impact on the final image and what that final image portrays to the viewer.

Another reason I’ve found my technical background to be of use as an industrial photographer is when I’m talking with people on-site. Whether that’s the site director, marketing executive or shop floor technician. Once it becomes clear that I know what I’m talking about and have an interest in what they’re doing, people are far more relaxed and keen to help. This in turn leads to better photos for the client – a large part of a photographer’s job is to put their subjects at ease.

Photographing people during an industrial photography shoot

Technical Aspects of Photography

Another reason I think my technical background lends itself well to photography is because of the technical aspects of photography itself. The process of translating the physical world into a two-dimensional image is a scientific process. It’s all really to do with the management of light.

The camera settings you choose determine how much light enters the camera and hits the sensor. There’s also the understanding of how light works in general. For example, one of the things that confuses a lot of photographers is the inverse power law. That is, as the distance from the light source increases, the amount of light decreases by a factor of 1/distance^2. This is very important when it comes to adjusting studio lights and off-camera flash.

I remember years ago having a photography mentor who was so relieved that I could just understand that straight away!

Moving Forwards

Thank you for taking the time to read this post. If I can help you with your industrial photography shoot, or you’d simply like to find out more, please contact me any time.

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