Photographing Technology

November 10, 2011

A technician holds a flask of cell medium at the Bioprocessing, Inc., production lab in Portland, Maine.


The precision of technology and medical science seems almost indistinguishable from magic. Yet this amazing world is often invisible, hidden away in bland offices and industrial parks. Much of what happens is beyond the range of unaided human senses; the manufacturing operations in a semiconductor fab are measured in billionths of a meter. Biotechnology firms work at the level of individual cells in culture mediums, or with fragments of DNA. Certain processes unfold only under specific wavelengths of light. It’s magnificently precise and the concepts must be made visible in the ordinary macro world we inhabit.

My challenge is to charge these wonders with visual imagination. Sometimes that means inhabiting a world of unusual color, and other times gleaming whites and stainless steel. Always, my photographs are a journey into the marvel of these people, their work and their stories.

 Semiconductor Manufacturing

For the uninitiated, the semiconductor fab is a visually disorienting place. The air is filtered and constantlly moving. Everyone is gowned in baggy “bunny suit” coveralls with hoods, face masks, gloves and glasses. The outfits are to protect the machinery from the people and their clothing, whose otherwise benign dust can ruin the manufacturing process. Amazingly, despite everyone appearing like homogenous lumps in these outfits, the people who work in the fab learn to identify each other by subtle differences in appearance inscrutable to the casual observer.


National Semiconductor Wafer Fabrication Plant

The semiconductor Fab is a busy place, with everything taking place under yellow photo-safe lights.


The lights are yellow because blue light, just like in a traditional photo darkroom, will fog the light-sensitive photo resist used in the wafer etching process. All the blue is removed by filters or by use of special phosphors in the fluorescent tubes themselves.

Silicon wafers are etched so finely they act like diffraction gratings, shimmering in vibrant hues as they catch white light.


Semiconductor wafers manufactured on circular silicon blanks.

Semiconductor wafers are so finely etched they shimmer with a rainbow of colors.


You can read more about how semiconductors are made here or watch a YouTube video here.

Group Portrait Of 184 People

One interesting challenge was to photograph a group portrait of all the workers in the National Semiconductor Fab plant in South Portland, Maine, more than 184 people. I scouted the various angles in the Fab and chose an elevated position at the intersection of two main corridors. The group shot was possible only for a brief window of opportunity; for one week manufacturing was suspended because of large-scale equipment upgrades. Since protocol was interrupted and a final cleanup of the whole Fab necessary anyway, for this one photo the workers were allowed to remove their hoods and masks.


National Semiconductor Fab Crew Group Portrait.


There was no way to light the entire group. Strobe lights were too problematic; under normal conditions the blue light of the strobe can ruin tens of thousands of dollars worth of wafer production. Even worse, strobes could set off an optical fire sensor and trigger halon gas and fire containment systems, for damage potentially in the millions. I had to shoot with the existing lighting, which is strong yellow to the human eye and the camera. No amount of blue on-camera filtering can restore a balance that doesn’t exist; on my digital camera, the blue channel was completely black!

The question was how to restore color as we would see it in white light? We couldn’t have all yellow faces. My solution was to rebuild the blue channel in post-production by a series of channel blends; the green and red channels were blended into the blue channel in different modes and in varying amounts. The Fab is filled with stainless steel, so I initially targeted those surfaces to a neutral balance; other Photoshop tools let me fine tune from there. The final result was made into a mural-size print.


Maine Medical Center Emergency Department

Rapid patient care at the Maine Medical Center Emergency Department.


Healthcare subjects involve real-world caregivers in working environments, and there is one overarching value:  patient care comes first. I keep my equipment footprint small and controlled. At any moment, I may have to get out of the way. Patient privacy requires the utmost discretion; shooting stops when people pass through the foreground or background. All schedules are subject to change at the last minute. So when creating an ad featuring Maine Medical Center’s new Emergency Department, these boundaries were especially in mind. Working with Garrand Marketing, we scheduled the shoot for a nominally “quiet” time early in the morning. We chose a room away from the central hub of activity, but still had to move the camera twice for ED activity. My strobes were gelled to match the ambient fluorescent lighting, allowing me to mix blurred motion with a narrow plane of sharpness. Fast, responsive patient-centered attention was the message.

To see more of my tech and healthcare photos you can go to my web site by the link in the header or by clicking here.

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