On Assignment: Time factors and big magnets

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MRI machines are a lot thicker than they look on TV. Nikon D800E, Zeiss ZF.2 2.8/21 Distagon

I’ve shot for hospitals before, though not under these conditions. The day – well, night – before the shoot, I didn’t know I was going to be shooting the next day. Turns out that the hospital ordered a new MRI machine, at a cost of just RM13,000,000 – making it by far the most expensive object I’ve ever photographed. Here’s a bit of background on MRI machines: they’re so heavy that the room has to be purpose built to accommodate it, and the machine settled in then the rest of the place completed around the outside. (The control booth wasn’t operational or in place when I went there.) Apparently the magnet has to be cycled when it’s new to run in; during breaks in the cycling when the magnetic field strength dropped to zero was the only time we could go in to shoot it – they never fully turn the thing off. The upshot of all of this was that I had about half an hour to complete the shoot before they had to gas the MRI machine up with helium and start the cycling process again.

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Inside the donut. Nikon D800E, Zeiss ZF.2 2.8/21 Distagon. Single SB900 with an umbrella outside to illuminate the patient and room. I don’t know why, but I kept thinking of Star Wars whilst I was inside here shooting.

There were about ten shots to complete inside the room – several of the room and machine itself, a few with a patient in it, and a couple with doctor-patient interaction. Needless to say, everything required lights to be brought in; not because ambient wasn’t bright enough, but because even, flat light is great for soothing patients but utterly crappy for providing definition on white objects. I used two SB900 speedlights for this shoot, triggered by the built in on my Nikon D800E. One was the main key light on a stand using an umbrella, and the other was placed to provide background fill. Whilst they work fine with line of sight, I do find myself wanting to hide them in ever more creative places; the inside of the MRI’s donut hole being one. I think I must be one of the few people to ever stick a flash inside an MRI machine. Perhaps I’ll pick up a set of Pocket Wizards at some point.

Half an hour and one haematoma on my finger later (I clipped it between the leg joins of my Gitzo while rushing to pack up) – good thing I was at a hospital – we were done. Possibly the most rushed shoot I’ve ever done, but also rather fun.

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The Mammomat. Has a rather neat carbon fiber um…rack tray, too. Nikon D800E, Zeiss ZF.2 2/50 Makro-Planar. SB900 with umbrella from top right. The bluish color is actually a big glass panel that’s part of the machine; it changes color which supposedly helps keep patients calm.

The session actually started off here, in Mammography – it’s challenging to make a room that’s designed to have some separation between the x-ray source and the operator booth look cosy and inviting. And even more challenging was to show the process with a model patient in a way that didn’t reveal any skin.

The trick with lighting here was to balance the mid-warm ambient fluorescent with flash to provide definition and shadows; I shot manual for all of the exposures at about 0.5-1.5 stops under ambient. A SB900 with umbrella behind and above the subject provided face definition, with a second naked one on the floor provided room fill.

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Showing everything while showing nothing. Nikon D800E, Zeiss ZF.2 2/50 Makro-Planar


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  1. Smiling and mammograms don’t go together. Nice shot though. Hope you are having a nice holiday!

  2. William Jusuf says:

    As a MRI Radiologist, I would say : Perfect Pictures

  3. Great write-up and images, Ming! Did you use the umbrella in shoot-through or reflected orientation?

  4. Very good article with your usual super high quality images. I guess most people have some experience with MRI machines, although as a patient I don’t remember really having a very good look at it.

  5. Very interesting shots, and very good picture quality.
    May I ask you how did you approach this client? I am interested in this kind of assigments..

  6. Good article and nice to see more insight on how you use your lighting 🙂

    Question from me – was there a particular reason why you decided to use an umbrella over a softbox?

    • Yes, aside from not owning one big enough – I needed a bit of harshness to the light to throw slightly hard shadows to give the highlights definition. Also didn’t have a lot of time, so I needed something quick to set up and move around the hospital.

  7. MRI machines are also very noisy – as loud as a jet engine in some cases. I had an MRI last year, and they make you wear these special earplugs that they play soothing music through. Still pretty loud and disconcerting experience.

    Great description of the shoot. Must be pretty high-pressure having to deliver under those circumstances.


  1. […] room. Some of you might recognize this from a previous on assignment post. Nikon […]

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