Shooting heat without getting sweaty

November 28, 2011

By Kai Pfaffenbach

The use of photographs showing global climate change, industries’ increasing emissions and its effect on our environment is growing rapidly.

Looking for different images Eastern Europe Chief Photographer Pawel Kopczynski came across thermal imaging technology and bought one of these cameras that shows different temperature levels. The camera was sent to my Frankfurt office with a short and easy job description: “Kai, play around with the camera and make good use of it”. After getting familiar with the technology (the first time ever in my career I had to read a 200 page manual) and taking a few silly shots of houses in the neighborhood I made up my mind to start a tour through southern Germany, shooting the nuclear and coal power plants of the region.

The thermal imaging camera is not comparable to a “normal” camera we use day to day. It looks a lot more like the radar guns that police use to catch speeding car drivers. To make it look even more strange you can use a laser pointer for better targeting. No wonder power plant security was after me within a minute as I stood on a street about 500 yards away from the nuclear power plant in Phillipsburg near Karlsruhe to get my first shots. After a few minutes of negotiations they realized I was not coming up with some rocket launching laser system. After crosschecking my passport and press-pass details they took me off their personal list of “terrorist suspects”.

I expected a huge visible difference between temperature inside one of the domes covering the nuclear heart of the power plant, and the outside. Surprisingly, that wasn’t the case and it looks like the massive concrete walls are doing their job.

The most interesting job using the camera came last week. The last transport of the so-called “Castor” (Cask for Storage and Transport of Radioactive material) containers was scheduled from a reprocessing center in France to the waste storage facility of Gorleben in the northeastern part of Germany. Tens of thousands of protesters in France and Germany tried to block the transport which is mainly done by train. I usually cover the unrest along the track but this time I had a completely different challenge.

As the train parked just after crossing the French/German border near Saarbruecken I got to the scene with the thermal imaging camera to get a few scenery shots of the train carrying eleven “Castor”- containers. The temperature difference this time was clearly visible: those containers are sealed at the highest level to prevent any radiation from getting into the environment but the nuclear material is still producing an enormous amount of heat. You can see this on the thermal images very clearly. Despite the pictures not showing dangerous levels of radiation you can still imagine that the Castor containers with its radioactive waste glowing.

Usually I am quite open in sharing tips and tricks about photography with my colleagues even from competitive agencies. But this time I didn’t allow them to shoot over my shoulder as they tried to get screenshots from my “radar gun”, realizing that these thermal images impressively illustrated the ride of this “radiating train”.

The only short fall of the camera is its very small image resolution. Less than one mega pixel is not what we are used to these days. On the other hand we are not talking about “normal” jpeg photography. The thermal image is written in a special profile which is then needed to be converted into a bitmap file before we can use it as a jpeg to deliver it to our clients, who made very good use of the pictures.


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Posted by Noisenerd | Report as abusive

Very unique, very interesting.

Posted by Lamarque | Report as abusive