On Assignment: back to the hospital

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This hospital has turned into one of my regular clients – I went back for another couple of shoots. Incrementally, we’re working our way through the departments and refreshing their image banks. I’m also hoping to shoot live surgery at some point in the future, but no idea if that’s going to be cleared by their board or not – there are so many things that might be unacceptable both from a hygiene point of view – you can’t autoclave a camera – as well as privacy etc. Still, it’ll be an interesting experience. At least light shouldn’t be a problem, given those fantastically bright operating theatre fixtures. (Side fact: one of the reasons why I didn’t go to med school was because I couldn’t stand the sight of blood. But oddly enough, operating a camera makes me focus on shooting and completely ignore everything else – the resultant being that I’m happy to shoot in places which I’d never even think about visiting ordinarily.)

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But, I digress. With this post, I wanted to talk a bit about lighting on location. Hospital lighting in the wards tends to be uniform, flat and uninteresting: fluorescent tubes, more fluorescent tubes, and yet more…you get the picture. If you’re lucky, they might even be color matched. Fortunately, to keep patients feeling comfortable with the ambience, most of the time they’re at least daylight-balanced tubes (this is important, because it means you don’t have to gel your flashes to balance out ambient).

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A typical scene involves some equipment, a doctor/ technician, and a patient. And the interaction is what we’re trying to capture, along with some sense of context, along with a bit of ‘ooh, look at the fancy machine’. This means that lighting is a bit of a challenge because you’ve got to have a nice diffuse source to make the humans look good, as well as something a bit punchier and more directional to give the machines some depth and dimensionality. On top of all of this, there often isn’t that much room in which to set things up, and ceilings aren’t that high. Oh, and it’s also a working hospital, so time is very much of the essence.

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Composite shot – the glass was far too reflective and dark (it was a sleep lab, after all) so I had to shoot one of the monitoring post, another one of the computer screen, and a third inside the sleep lab itself from approximately the same angle of view of the operator and line of sight.

The setup I go with is a pair of speedlights on stands with umbrellas; either shoot-through (for the primary light on the humans) or bounced reflector (for the machines). Sometimes I’ll add a third speedlight as a catchlight or to brighten up the background a bit. For the most part, Nikon’s CLS/ iTTL system works pretty well, though the background speedlights sometimes don’t trigger due to being out of the line of sight. But a little tweak to position and usually all is well again. I was considering radio triggers, but then I was told that they weren’t allowed in the hospital as they might interfere with critical equipment such as pacemakers and life support machines (!) – probably best not tried, then. MT

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Setup. This room was luxuriously huge.

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This one, not so much.

I don’t quite remember what I shot what with, but a typical loadout for this kind of job goes:
Bodies: Nikon D800E (primary), Nikon D700 (secondary; now D600); Sony RX100 (B-roll)
Lenses: Zeiss ZF.2 2.8/21 Distagon, Nikon AFS 28/1.8 G, Zeiss ZF.2 2/50 Makro-Planar, Nikon AFS 85/1.8 G, Zeiss ZF.2 2/100 Makro-Planar (sometimes).
Lighting: 4x Nikon SB900s and plenty of batteries; shoot-through and reflective umbrellas; stands.
Support: Manfrotto 1052BACs for the lights, and a Gitzo GT5562 GTS Systematic with Manfrotto Hydrostat head for the camera.


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  1. The sleep lab picture has particularly good light, although reading the description it’s quite understandable that a composite was needed. The rest of the pictures are solid and I think the style suits the subject, but what strikes me is the lack of decoration in the hospital. Maybe you should try to get a cut on selling them some decorating services? 🙂

    I’m surprised to see that you’re not using an L-bracket. Any particular reason? I find that handling a large camera tilted without an L-bracket is quite tedious, but handholdability does naturally improve with less brackets.

    • Thanks Oskar. They say the money goes on patient care, though they have a decorating budget for next year and want to buy some prints…

      As for the L bracket – they don’t have one that fits the head I was using then (or am using now).

  2. As a physician, I’ve taken photos in the OR and other than dressing the part (gown, mask) there are no concerns with the camera/flash in terms of sterility (just don’t touch anything). Privacy is the main issue so patient permission (and surgical team) needs to be obtained on top of the hospital giving general permission.
    Good luck with the mission.

    • Thanks Peter. The hospital PR/ commas team is taking care of that, so I’m just there to shoot (and not pass out from the blood). I’m guessing it’ll be extremely bright with the OT lights anyway, so I probably won’t be needing a flash (and the surgeon isn’t going to allow the distraction).

  3. I always enjoy your site and look forward to visits because it is updated so often. It is interesting to note that for all your praise of micro four thirds type cameras and lenses that you still revert to the full frame Nikons when your do the “serious” assignments.

    • Thank you. The reason here is partially client resolution requirements, and partially the unreliability of triggering for the Olympus wireless flash system. I use M43 for my own personal stuff or when I can get away with reduced resolutions and continuous lighting a food, for example. Right tool for the job…

  4. That is very cool to see. Thank You Ming!

  5. Good shots Ming, Congratulations!

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