Paul Cockrell's unique side job has likely given him the distinction of having visited more treatment plants than anyone else in the country.
As the sun sets in the California foothills, a shadowy figure stands in silent regard, looking down on a wastewater treatment plant from the catwalks. His name is Paul Cockrell, and he’s setting up a camera and tripod to capture the splendor of the facility in its magic hour.
Being a water/wastewater design engineer, you might think Cockrell gets enough of treatment plants and their design during daylight hours. But you’d be wrong. There’s something inescapable about the finished product for the Placerville native, who has made a lasting side business out of treatment plant photography.
It started more than 20 years ago as a hobby. At that time, he worked for a design consulting firm called HDR Inc. and had taken a photo of a secondary clarifier as the sun was going down.
“There were nice reflections on the water, so I took a few photographs,” says Cockrell. “I gave the photos to HDR's marekting people, and they forwarded them on."
After those photos attracted interest, he started taking his camera along with him when he went on engineering site visits, quickly building an image portfolio. In a few short years, the demand for his treatment plant photos had increased dramatically. With a couple dozen wastewater photo assignments stacked up and no time to work through them, Cockrell left his full-time job at HDR.
“I decided then that I could make a living photographing engineering projects and that I should just go for it,” he says. “Nowadays, I also do a lot of power plants, roads, bridges and architectural photography."
Some of his larger clients include equipment manufacturers, design consultants, architects, magazines and plant owners.
Water and wastewater treatment plants are surprisingly beautiful to photograph, according to Cockrell.
“There’s the geometric shapes, reflecting water surfaces, ample night lighting on site and the ability to get on top of buildings and processes for an elevated view,” he says. “At dusk or dawn, with the right mix of sky light and site lighting, the plants just glow. I call those images the ‘glamour shots.’”
Cockrell also owns an art gallery in Placerville, where he showcases his landscape and architectural photography. There’s a stack of wastewater treatment plant glamour shots in the back, and occasionally he invites customers to take a look.
“Sometimes they walk out the store with one of my glamour wastewater images,” he says. “So, if people are willing to hang a photograph of a wastewater plant in their living room, I’d say photography has the power to influence their views of wastewater facilities.”
These days, Cockrell splits his time between photography, the art gallery and working part-time for El Dorado Engineering and Architecture, which is a small firm specializing in fats, oils and grease (FOG); food waste anaerobic digestion; and digester gas utilization.
Treatment plant photography continues to develop
The quality of water/wastewater treatment plant photography in general is improving with time, and to a certain extent, Cockrell is responsible for people’s growing interest in the craft. After all, he’s built a considerable reputation the past couple decades. His photos have graced the covers of countless trade magazines, and if you walk through the vendor displays at wastewater conferences, you’ll likely see hundreds of his images on display.
He had his very own niche 20 years ago, but today Cockrell is part of a competitive market he helped establish. “Thumbing through the trade magazines, I now see images where I think ‘uh-oh, I’ve got some competition,’” he says.
Cockrell is a regular attendee of the California Water Environment Association’s annual conference, and he hasn’t been shy about giving away his secrets during presentations on treatment plant photography.
His advice to amateur photographers — or any treatment plant operators out there interested in taking quality photos of their facilities — is to start in the late afternoon, seek some high ground, and take along a tripod and wide-angle lens.
“You walk around the plant and photograph the processes, and then as they light starts getting good, you want to revisit the best spots at the best time,” he says. “You definitely need a tripod. What looks like a black sky to my eye, is maybe a nice dark purple sky to the camera.”
Using a camera’s manual setting with a slow shutter speed and tripod allows it to capture magnificent colors and light that the human eye can’t always detect.
“What I think is cool about wastewater plants is that you can usually photograph from a rooftop or on a tank, or a ladder on some process,” says Cockrell. “You have this potential elevation that gives a different perspective. Get up on a catwalk. I’m good at getting up on stuff.”
Getting in touch with the plant operators prior to the photoshoot also is crucial, because they can sometimes turn on the site lighting before sunset, according to Cockrell. “It’ll go from more sky lighting to more street lighting as the night goes on, and that lighting mix is what makes for interesting photographs."
With digital cameras, lenses and image stabilization progressing at breakneck pace, Cockrell says almost anyone can create beautiful photos, although that viewpoint undervalues his masterful eye for quality shots. For his own professional images, he uses a Canon 5D Mark III and typically pairs it with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L lens.
Paul Cockrell owns and operates Paul Cockrell Photography. He has photographed more than 500 wastewater assignments across the United States and likely has the dubious distinction of having visited more wastewater plants than anyone else in the country. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or see more of his wastewater photographs on his Facebook page.