Good, Clean Work.

Lost to the vagaries of the web and a lower res scan from the original neg are the amazing amounts of detail and sharpness in the originals...

I love looking back in the archives and thinking about how we used to work in the days before digital imaging. This is a job for Motorola that dates back to 1996. They had just opened their MOS 13 facility with a large percentage dedicated to clean rooms that were instrumental in fabricating .25 micron geometry microprocessors and microcontrollers. Every industry magazine and our chamber of commerce wanted to be able to take tours into the fab but the company soon realized that having so many people coming through would be a productivity black hole.  Not to mention that keeping out contaminants would be more difficult with clean room newbies.

The marketing team and the engineers in charge of production hired my company to create a photographic tour  of the facility that would show the 12 major steps they take to create chips on a wafer.  We had some challenges.  The first one being that all the images needed to be of high enough quality to be enlarged up to five feet by six and one half feet. The images would be encased in acrylic and hung up in a giant entry hall so people would be able to stick their noses right up to the image. The images needed to be sharp, saturated, grainless and of very high quality. Our next challenge was that we would not be able to bring in any sort of lighting equipment. None. I called a friend at Kodak and we discussed all the parameters and came up with a solution. Because the lighting was very mixed we would shoot on color negative film.  That would allow me and the lab to do lots of fine tuning for color, after the fact.

Since we needed high sharpness and low grain we settled on using Ektar 25 (ISO 25) color negative film. I wanted to shoot 4x5 sheet film but the contamination officer (rightly) wouldn't hear of it because the bellows folds would be incredible dust magnets and the felt traps across the tops of the sheet film holders were also rated as high dust perils.  Seems one small bit of airborne dust could really mess up the process.

We ended up using several Hasselblad bodies with 6x4.5 film backs. The film backs were 220 (we were well equipped in those days...) and held enough film for 32 images in each. The cropped backs helped me visualize the final aspect ratio of the prints while shooting.  We used two bodies because we didn't want to change lenses in the clean room.  Each body had one of my favorite production lenses on it.  One was a 100mm Planar 3.5 (slight telephoto with no geometric distortion) and the other was a new 50mm Distagon f4 FLE (floating lens element) which gave me a nice, but not intrusive, wide angle view.

We loaded a back for each camera and then took out the dark slides and sealed the dark slide slot with approved tape before swabbing down the cameras with an alcohol solution in a semi-clean room. Then we ran everything through the high air pressure entries areas and brought them, along with a metal tripod (also scrubbed) into the clean room.

The Ektar 25 had a very good long exposure characteristic that didn't really show reciprocity until you went over a 1 second exposure. We used the camera on the tripod throughout and always used the mirror lock-up control on the camera to eliminate camera shake.  I shot sparingly because reloading the backs required me to exit the clean room and start the process all over again.

I spent a long day in a bunny suit with rubber gloves and safety goggles on. In the end we produced 12 enormous prints which still hang in the facility (at least they were there last time I visited).  If I were doing the same project today I'd probably use a medium format digital camera with a high quality zoom lens.

I worked with a lab in Dallas called BWC. The did the printing and the acrylic process and they did a great job. Fun to do a job whose results are still in use over a decade later. And fun to remember the role of slow, sharp film and precision mechanical cameras.


  1. A very interesting story of just how much p&a (pain & agony) can be involved in making basic institutional photographs, Kirk. This particular image has that creamy/dreamy patina suggesting that fine-grained daylight film you used.

    I think you also do some health care work so I would imagine that you've encountered other p&a work in that industry, too. Surgical suite work, for example?

    1. Oh I just love to scrub up, wear tyvek booties and a hairnet into the O.R.... We do that too.

  2. I hope the people paid to do that all day make good money! It might cut down on office romance too.

  3. I simply love Ektar, and now that I'm back to using film a little more I just ordered a batch.

    Related to film, I just scanned up some old family stuff that was shot on 127 film late 1960s and early 70s. Technically the camera I used there was a joke, but it fit my teenage budget. Amazingly, some of the images that have the look of being blown out white, yet they retain highlight detail even with the junk camera. There is still something to film that I have not found with any other digital camera.

  4. I remember in the 90's using the "holy trilogy" of landscape films for 35mm and top lenses: Ektar 25 (later Royal Gold), Kodachrome 25, and Tech Pan, developed appropriately for pictorial uses....alas all gone now.

  5. Back when big magazines occupied the space now taken by the Internet, it was the high level of detail, great colour, and beautiful highlight roll-off one frequently saw in full-page ads that got me into photography. Ad photography knocked me out. I wanted to know how it was done, and I wanted to do it. After enrolling in a very tough professional program, I remember visiting a commercial studio where there were at least 20 bays, each with a guy shooting 8x10 transparency film with a Deardorff. This was in the early 1970's, and that place was going full tilt. Amazing to think of it now. I love film when it's used in such as no-compromise manner.

  6. Here's a polar opposite to that assignment... Mud Day at a local park. I wear chest waders with several bandannas hanging from the suspenders (An effort to keep my glasses relatively clean), DSLR with wide zoom and an old skylight filter. The camera goes in a giant ziplock plastic bag with a hole cut for the lens, sealed with gaffer tape.

  7. "we didn't want to change lenses in the clean room"

    In other words, you didn't want to change lenses because you might let dust out of the camera? Of course these days we all worry about letting dust in when we change lenses. If I've understood you correctly, that's pretty funny.

  8. As a photographer and a person who has smocked up many times, I found this article very interesting. I can even identify the tool sets in the photographs. Non-technical visitors in cleanrooms are very rare for safety reasons and contamination issues.

  9. Interesting that your work is still in use a decade later. I wrote software for a living for 25 years and I'm pretty sure none of it was used for more than 2-3 years.

  10. This is really cool. Images like these are what got me interested in engineering and also showed up in my textbooks. I never considered what kind of care the photographers have to take in to actually get into the fabs in order to get these photos.


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