Pro's Choice: John Emerson: The Doctor Is In: Photographing The Healthcare Industry

“I fell into shooting the healthcare industry quite by accident,” recalls Montclair, New Jersey-based photographer John Emerson ( He’d met an art director who hired him to photograph the staff at a research lab, for Rutgers University—which remains a client some 20 years later. That was the proverbial foot in the door. Aside from that, Emerson continues to pursue his other passion: environmental portraiture of celebrities, athletes, and politicians.

Client: Chilton Memorial Hospital, Pompton Plains, NJ

The hospital was doing a series of ads promoting their robotic surgery team. Pictured behind this surgeon is the da Vinci Surgical System. John Emerson shot this portrait with a Hasselblad and an 80mm lens. In this instance, he had the luxury of lighting the surgeon with a beauty dish centered in an octabank, while bouncing a light off the white floor so that it brought out the blue wall tiles. He also used the existing equipment lights, but he added a sidelight with a 1/4 CTB gel to match the predominant blue tone. The doctor was leaning on a stainless steel cart, which kicked some additional light into her eyes. (Art director: Eric Miller.)
© John Emerson

Originally Emerson worked as an assistant for a commercial illustration photographer. But seeking to broaden his horizons and get out of the studio, Emerson moved on to work with editorial photographers who specialized in portraiture. “I think it takes a lot more creativity to come up with an interesting shot on the spot,” Emerson points out.

A Trend Toward Realism
That editorial approach paid off. In recent years, his clients began edging toward a more lifestyle look in the portraits they hired him to shoot. For assignments that feature a patient profile (a success story), for instance, the client prefers to show patients who are back on their feet and busy with life. “Since these shots are not staged, I keep the lighting to a minimum.” Often he may simply use reflectors or scrims with available light, where needed.

Client: University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey

These vials were sitting in boxes on a bench in a lab when Emerson was walking around, looking for things to photograph to round out a photo shoot. “I took them out of the boxes and placed them on a Chimera softbox, using it as a light table, then photographed them directly from above.” (Art director: Eric Miller.)
© John Emerson

Another reason Emerson prefers not to shoot in a studio, especially for patient profiles: “People find it harder to relax in a studio. On the other hand, working with them in their own environment puts them in their comfort zone.” Within five minutes, Emerson notes, the person feels at ease in front of the camera. That doesn’t mean that Emerson never uses a studio. He does, on occasion, and will rent when necessary.

Lighting For Healthcare
Some healthcare work takes the photographer directly into the Operating Room (OR). The problem here is, you can’t pop strobes in a surgeon’s face while he’s operating on a patient. “The only way to use strobe would be to stage a surgery, but then the shot loses its immediacy and impact. So I shy away from that.” Instead, Emerson turns to existing light. “The downside is that I can’t light it as much. The most I can do is maybe get an assistant in there with a silver reflector to help throw a little bounced light from the surgical light. I’ve occasionally set up a few ARRI hot lights to accent things in an OR, but that’s the extent of my lighting.” Emerson adds that hot lights blend in well with existing lights.

Client: New Jersey Monthly Magazine

This is one of those rare studio shots, which Emerson produced for the magazine’s annual “top doctors” issue. “Not knowing who would be on the cover, I photographed eight doctors individually, in various poses, with and without lab coats. The magazine wanted that low ‘hero perspective.’” Emerson used a Hasselblad with a 50mm lens, lighting with a beauty dish with a grid from the front, with another light on the background. On either side of the subject are black discs (clamped to stands) to absorb some of the light on him, giving the shot more of an edgy appearance. (Art director: Donna Ingrahm.)
© John Emerson

When it comes to portraits of doctors and researchers in a more casual environment, strobe lighting reigns supreme. That may be the case outdoors as well. “I can’t always shoot during the best time of day, from a lighting standpoint, so I often have to find a spot in the shade and light the subject. Or if I have to work with sunlight, I’ll first diffuse the light with an 8x8 Matthews silk (supported in a frame, on two hi-boy stands). The silks help balance the lighting on the subject with the background illumination. And since even the slightest wind can topple over a screen, it’s mandatory to sandbag the stands in place, and possibly have a couple of assistants to lend a hand.”

For his strobe lighting, Emerson turns to Profoto Acutes, including an Acute 6B battery-driven unit when power is not available. Mostly, though, to ensure he has power outdoors for the AC-driven units, he’ll bring his own Honda gas-powered generator.

Emerson may employ umbrellas and softboxes to shape the light. One of his favorite techniques involves centering a Profoto beauty dish (with grid attached) within an octabank. The bank, which is set one or two stops below the “key” light, softens the edges, as fill. And there’s only one catchlight. He’ll also use a Profoto ring flash at the camera, but in this instance, it becomes the fill light, with the subject flanked by two Chimera softboxes providing the main lighting. He also uses Visual Departures dual-sided (white/dull silver and black/silver) Flexfill collapsible reflectors. He often uses the black side to pull light from the face and add depth.

Client: Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital

Emerson photographed the surgeon engaging in heart surgery. “I try to use foreground elements as a frame or to otherwise give the shot a sense of depth by throwing them out of focus, since the available lighting tends to be flat in the OR. I was shooting from a low viewpoint with a 70-200mm lens.”
© John Emerson

Choosing Cameras
Emerson started with a Hasselblad 500CM and a Nikon F3, but switched to digital nearly 10 years ago. Until recently, he’d worked with Canon EOS D-SLRs, but switched over to the Nikon D3X and in particular, for low-light shooting (such as in the OR), the D3S. His Nikon lenses include the 24-70mm f/2.8, 70-200mm f/2.8 VR, 50mm f/1.4, and 105mm Micro. And since switching to Nikon, he also added the new SB-910 speedlight. His current Hasselblad is the H3D (31MP), which he uses with a variety of lenses from 35mm to 150mm, including the 120mm macro. Emerson will also use a Leica M9 for outdoor building shots and occasionally for lifestyle, when he needs a more editorial feel, mostly using the 35mm lens, but on occasion the 50mm and 90mm optics.

When shooting research shots, Emerson points out that the client often asks him to shoot details. “I walk around the lab or the OR and look for things of interest to shoot.” With these kinds of shots, he doesn’t have the luxury of staging elaborate sets, so working on the fly he fabricates a simple solution, such as using a softbox as a shooting table. “One thing I do to make these shots more interesting is, I get in really tight with the macro lens and shoot at maximum aperture to throw things out of focus, which gives the picture an edgy feel.”

Client: Meridian Health

Emerson shot this for a patient profile using a Hasselblad and an 80mm lens. The man is a bricklayer, so it was only natural to photograph him where he felt comfortable, at a worksite, specifically a home renovation. Though he used daylight, Emerson had to exercise some control over the lighting with the addition of two silks, one to deal with a distracting background and the other to soften the light on the subject. Added to that, an assistant held a silver reflector to open up shadows on the man’s face. (Art director: Dave Paulis.)
© John Emerson

Emerson routinely begins with the camera on a tripod, “and within minutes I’m shooting handheld so that I can explore different angles.” He has two carbon-fiber Gitzos, with a Gitzo ball head on the lightweight tripod and a Manfrotto ball head on the other, each head with quick release.

He prefers to shoot to memory card, especially when speed or other constraints come into play. To help him see the image better he uses a Hoodman magnifier. He’ll shoot tethered when the lighting gets complex or if the shot involves numerous people.

Client: Montefiore Hospital

Emerson photographed this doctor as he was leaning over a patient, from a slightly elevated angle, solely by available light, with a 70-200mm lens on the camera. He especially likes this lens for situations like this because the operating theater gives him little room to maneuver, and, since you have to avoid touching anything that’s sterile, moving in too close is out of the question.
© John Emerson

Interestingly, Emerson has to wear full surgical scrubs in the OR, “but I don’t have to scrub up,” he adds good-humoredly. The majority of his equipment has to be left outside. “Anything that I do bring in has to be covered in a sheet and I only take out what I need: you don’t leave things lying around in an OR.”

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karenass's picture

I completely agree with you that his photos played the role of center of attraction.Even though today people prefer color photos more but his collection of black and white photos are seemed to be more attractive and different as compared to the color one. grosir jilbab katun paris bordir

quora30's picture

I'm quite glad to have seen this blog, thank you so much for all the great information on cameras and wonderful pictures, I'll be sure to pass the url on to my more artistic family and friends
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quora30's picture

I traveled with my tripod too and it was stresfull but in the end everything was ok. I love taking photos of all the amazing buildings and impressive cathedrals I see during my trips.

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joberlaktar's picture

Emerson will also use a Leica M9 for outdoor building shots and occasionally for lifestyle, when he needs a more editorial feel, mostly using the 35mm lens, but on occasion the 50mm and 90mm optics. free cell phone spy software cell phone spyware

zacsifac's picture

The healthcare industry is quite profitable for some individuals I'll give you that. While others try to improve technology and make it more accessible to the masses (alternatives like nighthawk radiology for example) some really are in the business for profits only.

aglaja's picture

Well what can i say about this..I think that photography reached a certain level these days where it is easier to tell lies in images rather than the truth as Kovak Laser told me once. I wish i could see the health industry with all it's bad and good not only with what we hope we will see.

blogs159's picture

Access to health care varies across countries, groups and individuals, largely influenced by social and economic conditions as well as the health policies in place. Countries and jurisdictions have different policies and plans in relation to the personal and population-based health care goals within their societies. Thank you.
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crazymeme's picture

I appreciate a lot this quality post and I consider it to be very interesting. I am working to a healthcare center that provides acne cures and I am aware of what means to be a doctor and how important is to have experience in this field in order to treat patients properly.

crazymeme's picture

From my personal experience I am aware of how hard is to work as a doctor as the responsibility is very high.I am working at the Atlantic General Hospital for ten years and I like my job a lot. My patients are my priority and my team is made of some professional doctors that I admire a lot.

crazymeme's picture

My sister is a doctor. She works to a healthcare center and she uses advanced technology devices such as the nioxin system in order to provide quality medical services and treatments to her patients.In this field it is very important to have performant devices but also professional stuff.

myrthyljean's picture

Though there are confidentiality in terms of the health care privacy however with regards to the services and the health care provider it is essential for patient and care provider to have trust each other and learn what are they. Good shots and it is ideal!!!


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crazymeme's picture

I appreciate doctors a lot as they dedicate their lives to save people and the majority of them do a lot of sacrifices in order to be close to the patients every time it's needed. My brother works as a doctor at the Urology Department and there are many nights in which he receives a call from the Emergency Room and he dresses up and goes to the hospital.

crazymeme's picture

It is great to see photos with doctors as they play an important role in our lives. I am working in the healthcare system at the Novocur center and I appreciate a lot my colleagues as they try to give their best in order to save patients and to cure them.

crazymeme's picture

There are a lot of professional doctors who are fighting every day in order to save patients. Many of them are involved in health campaigns that aim to encourage people to take care about themselves in order to stay healthy and to have a normal lifestyle.I am glad to see that there are photographers who focus on the health care system and try to reward doctors for their efforts.

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