Capturing the moment: five decades of photographing the North Sea

CHPV has been working offshore for 50 years, capturing photos of oil, gas and renewable power installations since the early days of offshore gas in the Southern North Sea. Its specialist services have seen CHPV working all over the world and constantly expanding its technology, including the recent introduction of drones.


Originally called Charles Hodge Photography and Video Production, CHPV Media is a specialist offshore photography and videography company that has worked all over the world. Set up in Suffolk by Charles Hodge, an aviator as well as photographer, the company has created its own niche, and developed into a household name offshore that has worked with BP, Shell, Statoil, Petrofac and Siemens, amongst others.

Taking photos and videos from the air, platforms and boats, and even subsea, CHPV has witnessed everything from the construction of some of the first wind turbines to the gas boom and the decommissioning of oil rigs. As CEO Alan O’Neill puts it, "we've been hanging out of helicopters for over five decades".

But what allows CHPV to operate in challenging offshore conditions, and how has technology changed the company?

What is CHPV?

CHPV is an unusual media company due to its focus and dedication to capturing images and videos offshore. This is a speciality that it has spent years developing. O’Neill, who took over from founder Charles Hodge, says: “I've been doing it 35 years as a cameraman, and have been going offshore all that time. The company itself has been going for over 50 years.”

The company was established in 1964 and has weathered more than a few changes in the offshore sector since, giving it a unique understanding of the environment. “We've seen the construction of the oil, the gas, and now the renewables [installations],” says O’Neill. “So we've documented, filmed and recorded all those events, holding 2.5 million images on stock file.”

Throughout these five decades, CHPV has managed to focus on identifying and mitigating the challenges of the offshore environment in a way that other media companies simply can’t. This has meant a vast amount of accreditation to ensure that images are captured as safely as possible. This is what O’Neill believes sets CHPV apart from other photography companies.

“What makes us different is that we are highly certified, working at heights, rescue at heights, subsea survival,” he explains. “There are about 15 or 16 certifications that we have to have to work offshore. This allows us to use locations and places that other people can’t.”

Wet and windy

Offshore photography is unlike any other, and brings with it a whole host of challenges. One of the biggest is the unpredictable and often treacherous weather; working in the hostile waters of the North Sea, amongst others, provides one of CHPV’s biggest challenges. “If a client says, 'We'd like you offshore for four days.’ we would normally say that you have to budget for about eight because you get there and it's too windy,” says O’Neill.

Wind can challenge photography at sea in a variety of ways, buffeting camera men and decreasing visibility. In areas like the North Sea where CHPV has undertaken many projects, weather often entirely postpones filming as waves of over 50ft and gale force winds make clear photographs, safely taken, impossible. Even in calm conditions, it is hard to keep cameras still and focused, while rigs and turbines are themselves in constant motion.

"Safety is our major concern; nothing happens unless you can prove that you can work safely."

The weather is intrinsically linked to safety, CHPVs greatest challenge when operating offshore. “Safety is our major concern; nothing happens unless you can prove that you can work safely,” O’Neill says. Prior to every shoot extensive safety checks are undertaken, and approved by both CHPV and the company employing it. O’Neill happily points out that, “[CHPV] has a 100% safety record which we're very proud of, and we'll bend over backwards to enable our clients to get what they want”.

A soaring success

Recently CHPV has added a new option to its services, as O’Neill has trained as a drone pilot to enable the company to take striking images from the air. This move has come as the offshore industry goes through a period of change, and CHPV adapts to the increasing presence of renewables offshore.

“Oil and gas companies, they had big budgets so invariably it was a bigger platform,” says O’Neill. “Helicopters would come out and we could commandeer the helicopter for ten minutes. So if you wanted to go to a platform further off, you could get the 10 o'clock helicopter to come at half nine, and we would jump in it, slide the door back, fly around and take a few photographs, come back, land, and then the passengers would get in these aircraft. That was easily done.”

Renewable installations such as wind farms often do not have the platform space or the budget for helicopters, however. This led to a new approach, with CHPV introducing drones to ensure they could continue capturing images from the air. “We came up with the idea of using a drone, and we looked at companies to bring alongside,” says O’Neill. “But we couldn't find anyone who was certified to the same level we were, so we decided to undergo training.”

"Drones have allowed CHPV to shift its services towards renewables, as offshore skylines become increasingly dominated by turbines."

This was not a simple process; regulations surrounding drones are complex. “Basically I attended flight school,” explains O’Neill. “Then I went through a written examination; once that was done, we then went through a flight test with a CAA-approved examiner. Once they're satisfied that we've got to a certain standard, we then have to write all of our guides, our handbooks, our working manuals.” This process took over a year to complete, and O’Neill and the cameraman still have to train often to ensure that they are working together as well as possible.

Drones have allowed CHPV to shift its services towards renewables, as offshore skylines become increasingly dominated by turbines. They have opened a new chapter for the company, as “once we'd got the drone we realised there's a lot more potential uses, basically the drone is just another camera in our bag,” says O’Neill. “Depending what we're filming and what we want to photograph, depends on what camera we want to use, just like a mechanic choosing what spanner he needs to tighten a bolt up. The drone is another piece of kit which enables us to do so much more now.”

“To improve is to change”

Technology is constantly changing and advancing, something acutely felt by CHPV. “I think we've almost had to rediscover ourselves on a yearly basis,” O’Neill says. “We've got a big motto printed on the wall from Winston Churchill saying 'To improve is to change, to be perfect is to change often' and the company works on that basis. We're constantly reinventing ourselves.”

CHPV has embraced this new technology and its recent introduction of drones is just the tip of the iceberg. “When we started we were just still photographers, and now we have probably 50 different ranges of technology from 3D mapping, to drones, to subsea work, all sorts of different techniques,” says O’Neill. This is only set to continue, as CHPV introduces 360-degree images, and virtual tours which enable someone on the other side of the world to move around an oil rig or any other offshore structure.

The constant advancing of technology is an exciting aspect of CHPV’s work, but keeping up with it is no easy feat. “There's no one-stop shop where we can go and learn so invariably we're spending all our time training, finding out how these things work,” says O’Neill. “That's the challenge, and that's what we enjoy.”