On Assignment photoessay: Automated building

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Some time back, I was given a rather interesting commission by a large local industrial conglomerate: to photograph their automated building facility. The factory uses an automated system to lay up wall, floor and ceiling units for modular buildings according to plan; these precast slabs are then simply installed on site, with reinforcement, connections, conduits for piping and electricals etc. all laid up and ready to go. The surfaces are finished during the production process, and unlike cast in place or brick-types, do not require additional plaster or skimming for a very consistent and precise finish. Interestingly, I was told that below a certain scale this is a more expensive process for building than traditional manual labor, but the overall quality is much higher (and it begins to make sense for large developments). From a photographic standpoint, the completed slab stockyard was very enjoyable – no end of shadows/ geometries/ strong colors/ details and all of the things that make for interesting vignettes and artistic experimentation; the factory was much more challenging due to the lighting.

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The interior spaces had some natural light from side windows along the walls, but being a giant warehouse whose purpose was to produce consistent output no matter the shift or time of day – had understandably consistent and uniform lighting. Good for quality control and checking planarity of surfaces, but not so good for photography – firstly because light levels were a bit lower than I’d like to be able to freeze fast-moving machinery in action, and secondly, isolation proving difficult because of busy backgrounds and lack of strong shadows. I chose to augment the existing light with highlights provided by a strategic flash or two; elaborate lighting setups were simply not possible given the scale of operations and the impossibility of stopping the line just for the shoot. I had an assistant move lights around quickly (and aim them at moving machinery) to add highlights to important processes and hardware. At the ranges we had to stand back from hazardous heavy equipment, diffusers would have been useless – so bare flashes were used, triggered with a pocket wizard. The majority of the shoot was done handheld on the Hasselblad H6D-100c with balanced flash and exposure half a stop under ambient, adjusting shutter speeds to control motion. MT

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Finished product show unit


Ultraprints from this series are available on request here


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  1. This is a great-looking set, and large-format in feel. I’m not sure if that’s due more to the tonality or that many photos have the camera leveled. Probably both! It reminds a lot of Christopher Payne’s work: he also likes to photograph industrial processes but with large format film.

    • Thanks – I think it’s a bit of both, but also the whole lower-distortion effect of shooting wide lenses on a larger sensor (those lenses tend to have less projection warping than ultra wides on smaller sensors.)

  2. The picture showing a glimpse of the output through the doorway is very striking. And the last-but-one picture reminds me of Linka building sets where you had to cast your own blocks, often a frustrating process as the cement chipped off or cracked. Most people presumably went back to Lego, but if you ever feel that Lego has become too easy…

    I was rather unaware of this new wave of prefabrication until I sat next to a guy on a plane who was driving the units around (and had lots of other interesting stories). He noted that the buyers of units in new buildings get to customise the interiors and that they are delivered finished, which I guess the bathroom module in one of the pictures illustrates. Maybe they even put the sofa in the living room module, too, so that the crane can do all the heavy lifting.

    • I can’t imagine a concrete sofa would be berry comfortable, but links does actually sound quite interesting… then again I think I have proven repeatedly I am something of a masochist.

  3. richard lavender says:

    Wonderful pictures and red is an excellent colour to provide contrast

    • Couldn’t have repainted it, but certainly not complaining – they probably choose it for visibility of moving heavy machinery for health and safety reasons…

  4. jean pierre (pete) guaron says:


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