Enter the Technical Photographer

Some lens makers call them macro while others refer to the same type of lenses as micro. Either way, what they mean is extreme close-up. It takes a macro or micro camera lens (let’s go with macro for this article) to photograph a world where tiny items become huge and fill the frame, and the results can be dramatic—breathtaking. They can also explain and clarify. A clear, close photograph of a complex mechanical scenario is worth the proverbial thousand words.

Like all photographers, I’m always looking for an excuse to pull out the camera. For me, there’s no bad time to capture the moment.  But these days, I’m using my Nikon more and more in conjunction with my tech writing work. Enter the technical photographer.

All too often in our computerized world, an everyday civilian is forced to do the unthinkable: fix his computer. And when he pops the side open and peers into the mysterious insides of the machine for the first time, he understandably experiences a sensory overload of chips and circuits and wires and poorly-translated instructions. No untrained soul is ever prepared to navigate this science fictional labyrinth.

Cue the horns and enter the technical photographer, who captures the areas in question, photographing them like so many houses on streets of solder. He adds some arrows and step-by-step narration to the image, and suddenly this high tech stuff is pretty elementary. Diagrams are fine, descriptions often work, but there's nothing like a few sequential photographs to simplify a task.

Taking close-up shots of an intimidating motherboard is just one use of the macro lens. Technical photography can also be invaluable in the diagnosis of a mechanical malfunction. Recently an air conditioning repairman told me my problem was due to one tiny hole in a copper line and quoted me almost two thousand dollars to fix it. But after an emailed shot of the interior of the unit, along with a close-up view of the hole, and I was able to find someone to do it for half the original estimate.

A picture is a tech writer's best friend. Whether you’re trying to describe a surface, texture, a condition, or none of the above, nothing does like an image of the real thing

Weeks ago, a friend was trying to describe to a German musician over the telephone how to fix a part in a Gibson Les Paul pickup and the language gap wasn’t working for them at all. It just took a couple of emailed photographs depicting the process and my German acquaintance was able to make it to his gig on time.

What separates a technical photographer from High School Harry and his trusty iPhone? To start with: skill and technique. Lighting is critical, and one doesn’t handhold a close-up shot. Designing an effective image requires some knowledge of the craft, especially depth of field and composition.

These days, the technical photographer is also a tech editor with the skills to take a raw photo and add the elements and make the adjustments that maximize an image's ability to illustrate and clarify. Photographers don’t just take pictures anymore. Software skills are part of the job description now. And not just Photoshop, either. These days, tech photographers are also tech videographers, and the movies these new cameras capture are ultra high quality, wide screen, and in digital stereo. Adding short Quicktime movies to technical presentations is always a nice touch.

So the next time you find yourself on the phone trying to explain to a Russian speaker how to add some RAM to his archaic Macintosh, just stop yourself. You know what to do: Call a technical photographer.


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