“There is nothing better than having the chance to do a job you enjoy.” So says Alan O’Neill, who has braved the elements, nature, and logistical challenges of capturing the ever-changing offshore industry for four decades.
When he started, Twitter was something birds did and streaming happened to your eyes in chilly weather, and now the digital world has transformed his working life.
Whether it is braving tough weather to get shots of a gas platform, or sitting on the edge of a helicopter in snowy conditions to capture an overhead shot of an oilrig, Alan and his team at CHPV have done whatever it takes to get that all-important image.
It is all a far cry from his initial move to Lowestoft after leaving the Army. Alan spotted an advertisement in the British Journal of Photography for a wedding photographer, complete with accommodation which was perfect for a demobbed soldier looking for a role on Civvy Street.
He started working for builder Charles Hodge, who had created a clever niche market to shoot images offshore as one of the few people in the area able to process colour film, plus he had his own plane, so became the go-to person to take pictures and turn them around fast.
Within Alan’s first week, Charles asked him to do an offshore shoot. “I didn’t know anything about the energy sector, but got on board a helicopter and went out to take some pictures,” he recalled. From there, his career began in earnest.
Back in those early days, things were very different in terms of the kit and equipment you need. “You would go out for 10 full days, come back with a carry bag containing 200 rolls of film and still not know exactly what you had got until it was processed.
“I also remember the scale of what you were photographing. You would see structures the size of a hotel being lifted on a daily basis. It was like watching construction of a massive Meccano set – just amazing.”
Communication was also a challenge. Alan recalled: “You were allowed a two-minute phone call once a week back to shore, which you had to book in with the radio room. The system was set up in such a way which meant that everyone in the fishing and shipping industry could hear your conversation.”
Things have changed now, and technology has revolutionised the way Alan and his team operates. “I think we have the best of both worlds and the worst of both worlds now. We used to take out a video camera which would film about 20 minutes of footage. Now you have an SD card the size of a thumbnail that can store hour and hours of quality content.
“You can buy a digital SLR camera which will shoot high quality photographs in almost pitch-black conditions and 4K video. Equally everyone else has got a smartphone, so you find we might shoot some footage and the guy next to you takes a shot and puts its straight up on Facebook.
“It means we have to invest in state-of-the-art equipment – we reinvest 50% of our annual profits back into equipment.
“The technology has also meant things are safer. I have spent five or six hours a day sitting on the outside of helicopter in -12 degrees shooting a platform or a vessel. Now we can send up a drone which can fly around and get shots we just could not have achieved before.
“That does not mean we take less equipment though. We recently went to Norway and still took 15 bags because of the different cameras and the drones.”
One thing that has not changed though is the range of work, and Alan utilises his knowledge, techniques and equipment to get exactly what is needed. ScottishPower wanted a time-lapse of a sub-station they were building near Ipswich over a two-year period, shot from two different angles from areas where there was no mains power.
Enter Andrew Pinder, CHPV’s technical expert, who designed The Tic, a solar-powered camera system which shot an image every 10 minutes, documenting progress. “That has become an industry standard for us. It is thinking like this that helped us win an Innovation Award from EEEGR,” said Alan. “The technology can be mind-blowing, and we have to learn lots of processes. Every day is a school day in this business.”
One of the keys to success (as well as a head for heights) is preparation. When the phone call comes in to confirm a new job, Alan and his team complete several risk assessments, detailed mapping of where a drone can be flown, plans for moving and using equipment and, if possible, an idea of positioning and the equipment or site that is being captured, which is on top of all the relevant safety training.
Personal traits are also vital. Alan explained: “You have to be a diplomat. When you join a vessel, you are working alongside a very slick, professional team and you are going to interfere with their day. You need to shoot film, be in their face when you interview them and be in their workspace, which is not nice for anyone, so we try to join the vessels when they are loading in port. After spending 10 days with them, they get used to us being there.”
Patience is also definitely a virtue. “We were asked to go to one of the drilling rigs off the Aberdeen coast to film what they call the Christmas tree – which is a mechanical piece of equipment – going on the seabed. It was only a 10-second shot but I had to clamber down a ladder in the cold every day, waiting for this to happen,” he said.
The Covid-19 outbreak has had an impact, with Alan and colleague Julian Claxton having to self-isolate in hotels and prove they do not have the virus before heading offshore.
This does not blunt Alan’s enthusiasm and he is heartened to see the new generation of offshore workers coming through in the East, which is why he has continued to keep a base at Orbis Energy in Lowestoft, backed up by a second virtual office in Humberside. “Wherever I go in the world, I am always bumping into someone I know from this area. East Coast College now has an amazing training facility, which is fantastic for anyone thinking of coming into the sector. You could not have a better place to start,” said Alan.
“You have got wind farms scheduled to go up in this era and the support of EEEGR. The other great thing is that wind farms have a 25-year life. People can go into the industry and stay here, coming home every night rather than being stuck on a boat for two weeks missing their family.”
The future is also looking rosy for CHPV as it continues to grow and expand. They are working on creating 360 Google Earth-style inspections of up to 74,000 files within turbines to integrate with maintenance packages and aid with planning. They’re also putting cameras on a technicians’ clothing or helmet so work can be monitored remotely.
The nature of filming work is also changing. “We used to make content that was 40 or 50 minutes long but now, with social media, it needs to be just three minutes long. Everything has to be turned round very quickly.
“We are now shooting in 8K, so I think computer speeds will increase in order to keep up with the size of files and I think there will be much more automation particularly with drones.”
This also helps with showing the reality of offshore life to everyone. One of CHPV’s most recent jobs was to create a 360-degree video of what it is like to be on a turbine from quayside to tower for the Rampion Visitors Centre on Brighton seafront. The footage followed the journey out to a tower, going up on a lift and heading right up to its summit. Alan said: “I went up on the turbine roof, erected a 14-foot pole and put a 360-degree camera on the top.
“You can’t be on the turbine when it is working, so I had to install the camera, head back to the base of the turbine, switch it on for 2-3 minutes and then get back up there before the battery went dead.”
But the effect was worth it. Alan laughed: “Each person has a VR headset on. In the final shot, we say ‘whatever you do, don’t look down’ and suddenly you are 14 feet above the turbine, and everyone screams.”
A finale which brings home the technique, skill, and flair of Alan’s four decades in a specialised and challenging industry and demonstrates his enviable enthusiasm and energy for energy.