CERN, Pt. 1: It's the Little Things that Matter

IMPORTANT UPDATE: I was remiss in not including the following link as a public service. If you are concerned about the safety of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, you can always check this site for the latest status on any catastrophic, earth-engulfing side effects.

The folks at CERN like to say that the smaller the object, the bigger the detector you need to see it.

If you want to study a bug, you use a loupe. If you want to study bacteria, you use a microscope. If you want study subatomic particles, you use a proton accelerator that is 27 kilometers around and has detectors that are as much as eight stories tall.

Fortunately, that's exactly what they have hanging around at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN near Geneva, Switzerland. And that's where I was last week, to shoot some photos and teach a workshop.

Reader's Digest version: Best. Trip. Ever.

And suffice to say that, for a while at least, it is gonna be pretty hard to impress me with your run-of-the-mill photographic background.

Would You Like to Come to CERN?

"What would it take to get you to come to CERN to teach?" asked the email. It was from reader Peter Kelemen, who manages computer storage at the research consortium.

He only had to ask. The LHC is perhaps assuredly the most interesting place on (or rather, in) the planet when it comes to tech.

I was traveling with my friend Aaron D'Souza, which was a good thing. He actually understands this particle physics stuff. And he can very effectively translate it into the monosyllabic grunts that comprise my vocabulary on the subject, too.

It worked like this: I would ask him a question, he would know exactly what I was asking, and then take a moment to see just how far down into layman's terms he needed to dip to where I could understand him.

If I did understand it, or even a small part of it, that was considered a significant linguistic victory for both of us.

So, after blasting through our jet lag with the help of a little Five-Hour Energy, we arrived at CERN ready to see how the secrets of the universe would be unlocked. I would get to some of the people there, using the experiments as a backdrop.

Our guide on the first experiment, ATLAS, was Doris, who is a computer whiz specializing in data acquisition. Doris is to data acquisition as to Bill Gates is to wealth acquisition. Except for Bill is a few orders of magnitude behind her.

ATLAS is ginormous. Humongous. Frickin' BIG. You ride an elevator 100 meters down into the planet. The detector itself is 25 meters tall and 46 meters long. It weighs as much as a hundred 747 jets and will create nearly ten terabytes of data a day when up and running.

That last part is where Doris comes in. (And you think you have information overload.)

ATLAS is a beautifully symmetrical behemoth that would look right at home on the set of Stargate, except that it is quite real. It has huge, toroid magnets and muon detectors and, well, let's just say that a flux capacitor would not even raise an eyebrow in this joint.

And it is all covered in dark metal now, with only one half being visible at one time. On top of that, our access to the cavernous room is limited to a series of narrow walkways around the sides. So after a few minutes of cursing the photo gods under my breath (en francais, of course) I finally reached the conclusion that the only way to shoot from our vantage point would be in tight, with a wideangle lens.

I am sorry, but one simply cannot do justice to Doris' s classic cheekbones with a close-in wideangle lens. So we changed lanes and brought Xavier, a security officer, into service as a subject. Xavier has a smiling exterior but inside he is all business. You will remain safe under his watch.

He even carries an iPod-sized cumulative radiation sensor, to make sure none of those subatomic particles are doing bad things to him -- or you. I am telling you, CERN peeps get all the cool toys.

In any case, an in-your-face wideangle portrait with a little attitude of Xavier makes a lot more sense.

As you can see in this setup shot by Peter Kelemen, we had about zero vertical space in which to light and shoot. For clarification, I define vertical space as the depth of a photo. Which is to say, how much space do I have between my main light and subject, subject to background, etc.

Oh sure, we had literal vertical space out the wazoo here in the ATLAS cavern (they actually call it a cavern) but my shooting environment was composed entirely of the narrow walkway you see here. That's about three feet of front-to-back for Xavier, the lighting, and my lard butt.

Key is an umbrella at camera left in real tight in this setup shot by Aaron. It is being held by possibly the most overqualified voice-activated lightstand in the history of the planet. Fons plays a computer the way Yo-Yo Ma plays a cello. Except for Fons uses way, way more notes.

BTW, you tinfoil hats types will appreciate the info I got from Fons regarding the theory that CERN will produce a black hole that will destroy us all. Short answer is, um, yeah, the LHC actually will produce rather a lot of black holes. But they are tiny and not sustainable. So don't go maxing those credit cards out just yet, as Fons assures me that the LHC will not get you out of your obligation to pay them off.

Fons also introduced me to some new gastronomic delights on our trip, the first being jellyfish. (Verdict: Like eating thick rubber bands, only it eventually snaps in two after a good bit of chewing.)

Dish number two was horse steak.

Yeah, I know. But Fons is very allergic to horses, and in the CERN cafeteria he goes by the motto, "Don't get mad -- get even."

He was kind enough to let me try a piece, as I would never have taken the whole plunge on my own. (Verdict: Surprisingly delicious.)

Sorry, Emily. I know you love to ride them and pet them, and I promise to stay away from your trusty Nirvana with my knife and fork. But suffice to say that you and daddy both share a love for horses. Sort of.

Back to the setup shot. In addition to the key light above, you can see our background light. It is crammed into the same railing about 15 feet away and aimed at the ATLAS shrouding. We are not lighting the dark metal cover so much as bouncing some reflections off of it. There is a CTB gel on the flash, too, for a cool color key.

Unseen in the other direction was our fill light for Xavier coming from about 30 feet away (and one story up) at camera right (that's your left as you are looking into the camera). This gets me light on both sides of Xavier's face within our tight space constraints.

We decided to flip on Xavier's head lamp to add a little pop to the photo, too. If there are interesting ambient lights inside the frame, I will always turn them on if only to check to see how they look. In this case, we went with it.

The photo was lit mostly by flash, with the ambient dial down about three stops.

The "Compact" Muon Solenoid

Later that day we got to visit the CMS, which I suspect is the biggest "compact" anything on the entire planet. Michael, seen in the pic at the top of the post, is a damn good photographer in his own right and was our guide for the visit.

He had some stunning photos on the wall that were there to help to educate the King of Belgium, who came through the CMS shortly before we did. Michael showed us a cool little trick by firing his pop-up flash into the mouth of the giant sensor and illuminating the reflective stickers used to measure if the machine shifts during operation.

I liked the effect, and also noticed that if you fired a direct light into the cavity it tended to bounce around on the metal surfaces and come out looking as if it had come from several angles at once. Given we could not get into there to light it, that would help us out a lot.

We set the camera to underexpose the environment by a couple of stops to use the ambient as fill. (You can't easily light something that big and complex with a couple of small speedlights, so you let the ambient help you out.)

In each of the experiments, that was our strategy -- let the ambient do the heavy lifting, suppress it a little, and highlight areas and people with flash.

As you can see in this setup shot by Aaron, we did it all with an umbrella and two small flashes. And a very sexy subject, too. (Easy there, Michael -- I am talking about the CMS.)

The umbrella lights Michael from a second walkway, and also lights the railing for some context. If you look carefully (or click through) you can see a Justin-clamped flash on the walkway behind Michael's feet which fires into the mouth of the CMS.

The power levels were surprisingly economical -- 1/16th on the key and either 1/4 or 1/8 (can't remember) on the CMS light. Huge areas, but dark. Don't try to nuke them. Expose for them (a little under) and finesse the ambient.

The next day we toured The LHCb experiment, shooting Niko in a nightmarishly sodium vapor cavern. That is a long post unto itself, so I won't stretch you out any more here today. Did a little french cursing under my breath there, too. Big room full of sodium vapors to fix. But the LHCb looked like a big, beautiful view camera.

Also, Fons took us to see ALICE, the fourth Experiment on our tour. We threw every light we had at here and she still remained dark and moody.

The very best vantage points for the detectors are pretty much gone now, as the beam pipe (which contains the protons and lead particles used for the various experiments) has been installed. But when they were building the detectors it was possible to see them from a proton's eye view. And some amazing images were made from that concentric viewpoint.

Some of the most beautiful ones were made by CERN's own Max Bryce, and for a tech geek it is practically a religious experience to view them.

At one point on the tour Max muttered some kind of half apology about making some of the shots with just an old Nikon D1X.

Yeah, well, I shot for quite a while with a D1X, too, and I never made a photo anywhere near as cool as some of the ones Max made. The machines are awesome now, but to totally appreciate their beauty you have to see them without their clothes on. You can see many of the early construction shots in a beautiful page done by The Big Picture, here.

Rapping it Up

Last but not least, if you have five minutes I recommend the video embedded below. It totally passes muster with the CERN folks for accuracy -- and does it with style. And for a more thorough tour (with lotsa cool links) of the experiments we visited, check out Aaron's post.


Next week: Inside the CERN Computer Center


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Anonymous Robert Frazier said...

Amazing! I can't believe you got to go there. It's even more exciting for me because I just finished reading Angels and Demons and you actually got to visit CERN.
Great embodying photos, really shows the atmosphere of the place--and you even got to wear one of the hard-hats!

March 03, 2009 12:41 AM  
Anonymous Chris said...

You just have no clue how much you just made the day of this physicist/photographer. Thanks for the blog.

March 03, 2009 12:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That was an awesome read. You get to take pictures of such cool places and people.

March 03, 2009 12:56 AM  
Blogger Alex said...

Best. Post. Ever.


March 03, 2009 12:57 AM  
Blogger Nick Morozov said...

Excellent work... How simple - and yet how powerful these portraits are! Thanks...

Nick Morozov,

March 03, 2009 1:18 AM  
Anonymous hon fai said...

I really enjoyed the course! I would still think it was too short even if it was a one week course. It was truly a fantastic experience to meet the man himself. And thanks for signing the DVD (I hope there is DVD volume 2):)

March 03, 2009 2:24 AM  
Anonymous peterkelemen said...

David, thank you very much for accepting our invitation. We had lots of fun and the seminar was a big success! We hope to see you drop by again if you're in Europe the next time (save for the black holes ;-)

March 03, 2009 2:30 AM  
Blogger Zotz said...

You are a talented and fortunate fellow! What's next for you? The topping out of the Burj Dubai? :-)

March 03, 2009 2:45 AM  
Anonymous hon fai said...

PS. I guess you were hungry enough to eat a horse .. hehehe.

March 03, 2009 3:27 AM  
Blogger Kirk Lau said...

OMG! two of the coolest thing I know just collided! Particle Physics and Strobist WTF!!

(Used to be a summer intern in a nuclear research facility in Canada doing data acquisition...So i know exactly how tough Doris' job is!)

March 03, 2009 3:39 AM  
Blogger Kirk Lau said...

was meant to say FTW.. not "WTF" .. is it possible to edit it?

March 03, 2009 3:40 AM  
Blogger DaPi said...

You obviously had a great time . . .

. . . but I don't think they were jellyfish! I guess you were eating squid (calamari) - much appreciated in souther Europe.

March 03, 2009 4:05 AM  
Blogger Anna said...

I recently had to photograph the inside of a particle accelerator (in Oxfordshire, UK: )

And goodness, was it dark in there - just like Cern, no natural light at all. I wish I'd had the benefit of this article to give me some ideas, it's so interesting to see how you've tackled the lack of light :)

March 03, 2009 5:03 AM  
Anonymous Niall Macpherson said...

Thanks David,
we hade a good time with you during the seminar and it's nice to see you hade plenty of fun around CERN too!
One more thing: the CERN guys that pulled this off simply rule!!!

March 03, 2009 5:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i am just green (or any other gel color you prefer) with envy! i teach high school physics and am an amateur photographer, and religiously read your posts... easily the best blog on the 'net. now made even better, what with knowing you've been to CERN!
you should have let us in on you holding a seminar there, maybe we could have booked a proverbial seat (i would think everyone was on their feet the whole time)... or not :)
thank you for sharing your experience... and time, and talent, and... everything. kudos!
you think they'll invite you to the space station? where's your next cool destination?
are there any links to shots the group came up with? i'd love to see more.

March 03, 2009 6:05 AM  
Blogger Adrien said...

The name of the man who photographed the collider is "Maximilien Brice", apparently. (Proper spelling makes it easier to Google him!)

Great video!

March 03, 2009 6:27 AM  
Blogger Mark Howells-Mead said...

Thanks for coming over are perhaps not necessary, in that case :-) But thanks for a great seminar, for sharing your knowledge with all of us and for being so positive about our "little" Swiss strobist meetups! Hope to see you again some time: perhaps you can have a few friendly words with the guys at Google in Zurich and make a return Swiss visit! I know that there are many who would be happy to sign up.

March 03, 2009 6:40 AM  
Anonymous stk said...

I love the way you use both SI and imperial/US units in your post :D

March 03, 2009 6:48 AM  
Blogger Mike said...

what a brilliant article. i can't believe you got you wander round CERN....I would love to go there and have a look. You really are a lucky guy!

March 03, 2009 7:36 AM  
Blogger Mike said...

what a brilliant article. i can't believe you got you wander round CERN....I would love to go there and have a look. You really are a lucky guy!

March 03, 2009 7:36 AM  
Blogger brent... said...

learning, shooting, teaching... especially at that level - sounds like a great week. great info as usual. THX.

March 03, 2009 7:56 AM  
Anonymous David Blenkey said...

OMG - what an absolutely dream gig!

If I were any greener with envy right now, I would need testing for radiation with Xavier's sensor.

It must have been an amazing experience. Thanks for sharing.

March 03, 2009 8:58 AM  
Blogger Photography Rulez said...

Alex said, "Best. Post. Ever." and I have to agree.

Kudos you lucky [edit].

March 03, 2009 9:15 AM  
Blogger Daniel Han said...

"It is being held by possibly the most overqualified voice-activated lightstand in the history of the planet."


p.s. David, along with your great adventure, I felt that this post was a great on-location lighting piece. Thanks!

March 03, 2009 10:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

David, I am green with envy -- that is the location of my dream job! I'm looking forward to next week's computer center installment, as I'm a comp scientist. It's amazing what you're able to do in such confined spaces! -Cole

March 03, 2009 10:33 AM  
Anonymous Holly said...

I immediately thought of Angels & Demons too. Glad they didn't have a murder-mystery for you to solve while there. I'm not sure you can pull off the "Harris tweed" look. :-P

March 03, 2009 11:02 AM  
Anonymous Tyler said...

Looks like a ton of fun. Several tons of fun, in fact.

March 03, 2009 11:05 AM  
Blogger Luann said...

How cool is this! Just don't trip and accidentally flip a switch. There's no telling what might happen if all those micro black holes ganged up.

March 03, 2009 12:21 PM  
Blogger Heipel said...

What a great post. Cool stuff. Great tutorial. Excellent prose. Loads of laugh out loud wit!

Cool assignment, David. Congrats and good work.

March 03, 2009 12:30 PM  
Blogger Mike Motoda said...

The COLORS in that first picture are terrific. What a fun shoot and great read. Like others, 'jealousy' doesn't being to describe it...

March 03, 2009 12:52 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

Surely this facility has a place in a future Bond film. :)

Question to show my Noobness, but with all that spectacular hi-tech metal in the background, why blur it out with depth of field? Would you have lost the subject in the busy detail? To me it seems that the structure lends itself to be sharp. Just curious what your though was going into it. Nice work!

March 03, 2009 3:32 PM  
Blogger Andy said...

Awesome job, David!

I got a behind the scenes look (not as good as your adventure though!) back in 1998 when a family friend that works at CERN took our family on a couple hour tour. You nailed it right on. It is the coolest place on earth. The size of all the equipment is flabbergasting!

Great work with the pictures and post!

March 03, 2009 7:36 PM  
Blogger Aaron Ziltener said...

An EPIC post. Thanks for sharing!!!

March 03, 2009 9:58 PM  
Anonymous Pepin said...

How envious! I want to play around at CERN!

Hmm.. it seems that they didn't allow you to wear shorts.. :)

March 04, 2009 2:43 AM  
Blogger ingalbraith said...

did they re-name it the 'hobby particle'?

March 04, 2009 2:46 AM  
Blogger Georgios said...

I'm fluorescent green envious..!!!

March 04, 2009 4:33 AM  
Blogger Atma Singh said...

Excellent information re: setup for the shots. It's all starting to make sense to me, thanks to your very straightforward, concise and specific use of language. Thanks David.

March 04, 2009 8:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great photos as always... and in case any of you worry about man made black holes, just check this page from time to time:

March 04, 2009 10:07 AM  
Blogger Passionate About Baking said...

That's an amazing post. I just HAVE to thank you for the macro photo box studio idea. The hub set it up for me today, & it is BRILLIANT!! Just the box itself is a great utility for outdoor shoots.THANK YOU from the bottom of my heart!!

March 04, 2009 10:21 AM  
Blogger Michael Ignatov said...

Very cool. The biggest scientific achievement of the year (at least) and the jet-setting photographer is on the scene. Working in such tight spaces must've been tons of fun.

March 04, 2009 11:04 AM  
Blogger David said...


Yes! I knew about that and forgot to put it in!

Fixed. Thanks much.


March 04, 2009 2:25 PM  
Anonymous RKPhoto said...

I still like the Flicker comment that "Skynet" is going to take over at that facility" ha ha! I love obscure movie references like that!

March 04, 2009 3:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post as always, David. May I throw a request your way? I always find it really helpful when you detail how you set the zoom on your flashes, whether you're running them wide or tight or in-between and why. It fills out the thought process you go through and makes for better understanding of how you constructed the image.

March 04, 2009 9:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dude, that YouTube vid...


You're a fan of ( the good stuff of ) P.D.Q. Bach, too, aren't'cha?

( PDQ On The Air was good.
Eine Kleine Nichtmuzik was good.
Talkity-Talk Radio sucked utterly )

PS: I didn't see it in the wackypedia page, but PDQ's last hangover was tested to have a half-life *longer* than the time he's been dead: he's still suffering from it.

Cheers, dude!

March 04, 2009 11:36 PM  
Blogger D. Segers said...

That was a great post and some very cool pictures!!!
I'm also glad you added the latest link for our comfort ;-) it's hilarious.

March 05, 2009 4:00 AM  
Blogger Jonathan said...

Incredible post. CERN is so freaking cool!

March 05, 2009 11:22 AM  
Blogger shawnpix said...

I did something somewhat similar to this today at work. I had some extra time and photographed some construction workers before they started for the day. I figured I'd post here to share. Thanks David for all you've taught us!

March 05, 2009 3:49 PM  
Blogger Tsuka said...

What a great post! Fantastic job on the shots, some of the best I've seen from CERN yet and what a photo-op! Thanks for sharing.

March 05, 2009 8:59 PM  
Anonymous Clayton said...

ROTFLMAO- Thanks for the update and public service announcement!!!

March 06, 2009 3:27 PM  
Anonymous max said...

that video... ridiculously entertaining. makes me think strobists everywhere should be working on a sound track to lighting 101...?

March 06, 2009 7:01 PM  
Blogger Herson Rivera / ProPixel Photography said...

Amazing as usual. Awesome work and even better gig/trip!

March 07, 2009 7:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

horse is best eaten as carpaccio. trust me on that.

March 08, 2009 1:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

David, this is one of your coolest posts up till now .. totally wonderful.
Thanks for sharing,


March 08, 2009 2:02 PM  
Blogger Manny said...

That is absolutely amazing! Great stuff! Thanks!

March 08, 2009 6:12 PM  
Blogger V said...

Interesting, I have been here. CERN is pretty serious stuff. Not to mention how beautiful the ride up to it is. Such a sight for sure. I like the photo from this. Nice work, I know how close the quarters are inside that big ol thing!

March 13, 2009 7:15 PM  
OpenID coffeegrounded said...

I have to ask, where do you go from here? .... I can't imagine anything greater than CERN!

Kudos, and thanks, to all that made this project possible.

March 14, 2009 12:46 AM  
Anonymous Matt said...

Cool shoot!

Here's a story I edited for 60 Minutes about the collider, in case anyone is curious.

March 19, 2009 5:56 PM  
Blogger brent said...

What a post! Wow! I have just recently stumbled upon your website and cannot be grateful enough for the information you share. Being a graduate student in Physics it's nice to see how both photography and Physics can be complimented at once. I, being only a hobby photographer, cannot wait to read more about techniques and motivations. Thank you again!

December 30, 2009 10:34 AM  
Blogger Richard Turton said...

Hi David, I hope this hasn't already been answered but, apart from the umbrella'd strobe and the CTB bare strobe for background, what did you use to modify the unseen fill light at camera right? or is it bare as well? and at what power? Shish, sorry for being so OCD but it's such a great shot...

January 07, 2011 12:22 PM  
Blogger Richard Turton said...

Sorry, i'm talking about the shot of Xavier

January 08, 2011 12:23 PM  
Blogger bobek said...

Very nice shots. I've spent some time in CERN during my PhD when LHC was still work in progress and it is a great place to be - you can feel the excitement of the people who were building it.

Thanks for a great pictures. They bring memories back.

January 17, 2011 9:59 AM  

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