ILLUMAGEAR in the Communication Arts Photo Annual 2014
"… MAY RESULT IN SERIOUS INJURY OR DEATH. Sign here."
I’ve read this phrase many times on release forms. Never really thought about it though. On this night, at around midnight, I was looking at those words on a waiver form and instantly felt a chill as it was ME they were talking to this time. I was about to head out to the top of Snoqualmie Pass on Washington State’s I-90 freeway. About an hour’s drive from Seattle, my assistant Nate and I had already chugged one Red Bull each, preparing for a long third shift. I was nervous but not for the usual reasons. Did I bring the right gear? Will I be warm enough? Did I layer okay? Was there going to be any ambient light to work with at all? Has a person ever been killed by a loose lug nut flying off an 18-wheeler traveling at 80 mph? Yeah, tonight would be different.
This was also my first shoot with the Seattle start-up ILLUMAGEAR. Max Baker, founder, CEO and former construction worker, realized that most construction crew were buying retail camping headlamps for work. If you’ve ever used a headlamp while camping you know they are bright, convenient, compact and completely insufficient for construction work. Maybe that’s why they’re called “camping lights.” Max conceived and built the prototype for a revolutionary new headlight called The Halo Light. After winning an angel investor competition, and picking up former X-Box partner Andrew Royal, they raised more seed money to make his dream a reality.
The Halo Light is a flood lamp compared to a standard camping headlamp. It’s pretty amazing. Not only does it shine a 360º circle of bright light from an LED strip attached to a ring that fits on any standard hard hat, it also makes the person wearing it several times more visible from even farther away. Road crews like the re-pavers we’d be photographing on this chilly, moonless night are especially suited to this new gadget. Sadly, my assistant and I wouldn’t be wearing Halos this night. There were only two prototypes and those went to talent. I assure you they were the two safest people on site. (And I was immediately reminded of all the bold face type on that waiver I signed.)
As a photographer, I knew what the challenge would be—ironically, lighting. With that night’s new moon, it would be pitch black out. I also knew, from seeing the prototype Halo Lights, the product itself would be a challenge as a bright object in deep darkness just ends up giving you heavy contrasts from light to shadow. With the documentary style of this photography, compositing would not be an easy or convenient option. I had to get it in-camera if I could. Plus, as an added layer of difficulty, we could not misrepresent the product itself by introducing supplemental lighting to the images that made everything brighter than real life. The Halo Light had to be the hero.
I settled on doing the majority of the photography using ambient light from the Halo Lights, truck headlights and when near the repaving machines, the large diffuse “balloon lights” now common on night sites like this. Additionally, I brought an Elinchrom Quadra Ranger mobile strobe kit to add detail and sharpness to the workers’ themselves as rim or side light. My assistant would carry the pack in a backpack with the strobe head on the end of a telescoping pole for mobility and reach. This was no place for light stands. We would use the Elinchrom radio transmitter system to adjust strobe strength on the fly. Color temperature gels were used to match ambient lighting. Mind you, all of this was in theory. Never had a shoot like this before. Yeah, tonight would be different.
We got to the work site after a safety briefing reminding us all the different ways we could be killed, and as I feared, it was ink soup out there. I immediately tripped on a rock when I left the light of the minivan we rode in. Did I also mention we were in full hi-vis, day-glo reflective green from head-to-toe? aka “The Monkey Suit.” My safety goggles had already steamed up by the time we got to the road crew. I really wanted to fit in. But I imagine I stood out like a huge, sore, day-glo green thumb.
Art Director Stacey Fischer had given me loose direction for the shoot. A tight shot list wasn’t realistic given the dynamic nature of the location and setting. One of her priorities was to get a shot illustrating the real danger these road workers face. Something that showed proximity to traffic. While shooting a flagger moving traffic to one lane, I tried a handheld long exposure.
The result immediately piqued my interest. After stabilizing myself against a jersey barrier attempting more handheld shots, I resigned to using my tripod. The resulting streaks not only showed the danger, but were oddly beautiful. The next logical step was to try a long exposure coupled with a rear-curtain strobe pop.
The first few test shots honed the lighting down to a point that it added to the scene, without over-riding the light from The Halo Light. We snapped with abandon. Every truck that passed by had a different, unique signature of streaks. Some looked like lasers, others like sparklers. Every truck gave us a new palette of colors. We were like suburban kids playing Nerf football on the road and yelling “Truck! Game on!” After a few minutes of this, POP!, there it was. You know it when you see it. The photograph I saw on the back of my camera would not only end up being the marquee image for ILLUMAGEAR’s branding, it would also bring home the gold. Twice.
This assignment really was/is the best of many worlds. Not only is it a product I can get behind completely, as I genuinely believe it is a game-changer, but the team of people behind it are amazing, the images look great and it’s just downright fun. ILLUMAGEAR just landed new funding to continue their meteoric growth. I hope to continue working with them and photograph these brave men and women working in harm’s way all over the globe. There is even talk of migrating the product over to non-construction applications such as military use and recreation. (Think aircraft carrier flight deck crews and cave spelunkers.)
Thankfully, that waiver was completely, wholly unnecessary.