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IT'S DANGEROUS, DAMNIT!! Now, get over it. Part 2 -- Powder Shoots

This is part 2 of my 2 part series on dangerous photography. In this post, I'm going to address Powder Shoots, and two reasons why I think they are dangerous. Powder shoots are very popular with dancers and photographers who shoot dancers. These are usually shot in a studio setting, where either the dancer themselves or one of the photographer's assistants tosses powder (could be talc or baby powder) or flour in the air as the dancer does their dancer thing. Admittedly, the photos can be stunning.

Another version of powder shoots combines colored powder and marathon-style runs. I've never attended one of these events, but my understanding is that at the end of the race, bystanders toss handfuls (or more) of very fine, colored powder at the runners, often coating them from head to toe.

It wasn't long after I first started seeing images of these powder shoot races appearing on the internet that I started seeing something else -- companies that rent gear (lenses and camera bodies) began including clauses in their contracts stating that if a returned item showed evidence that it has been used in a powder shoot or powder race, the person who rented it was responsible for replacing the item with a new one. In other words, if you use their rental gear to shoot a powder shoot or race, you bought it. Why?

Because the powder is so fine that it literally gets into every part of the lens and camera body. Think of flour or talc or baby powder. Extremely fine particles. It can work its way past any seal, any gasket. When my oldest son was in the Army, he served in Iraq. He told me that the sand in the Iraqi desert was so fine that it not only got into their weapons, it go into every bit of the workings of ever piece of equipment -- from tanks to walkie-talkies. And it would ruin everything, and total gum up the works. So the claims by the rental companies that their gear was being ruined and they were incurring huge repair bills when gear was used in powder shoots and races made perfect sense to me. Since I would prefer my gear not be ruined by something totally preventable, I steer clear of powder races. And was giving doing powder shoots for dancers second thoughts.

Then one day, I was conversing with a fellow photographer who also happens to be a Medical Doctor. I related my findings about potentially ruining gear, and he asked me if I'd ever heard of

Chemical Pneumonia

I had heard the term, but didn't really understand it. So he explained it. In short, here it is, from the definition found on WebMD:

“In chemical pneumonia, inflammation of lung tissue is from poisons or toxins. Many substances can cause chemical pneumonia, including liquids, gases, and small particles, such as dust or fumes, also called particulate matter. Some chemicals only harm the lungs; however, some toxic materials affect other organs in addition to the lungs and can result in serious organ damage or death.”

You can -- and I suggest you do -- read more about the subject here: you more questions or concerns, consult your family physician. My doctor friend explained that dancers and runners are working pretty hard when they're doing their thing. Even someone in top physical shape will be breathing pretty hard after a while, as their lungs try to suck in as much air as possible. But he went on to say that they are also sucking in any particulate matter in the air.

And if they are doing so in the midst of a cloud of powder -- the “particulate matter,” they cannot help but breath that stuff into their lungs.

Even small amounts of particulate matter can cause chemical pneumonia.

Chemical Pneumonia can kill you. But there is another side to powder shoots. Fire and explosion. Yeah, like flour or powder can burn, right? Yeah, It can not only burn, it can explode. When I was a kid growing up in upstate New York, we'd take a garden hose, an empty coffee can (a 1 pound size worked great), a short candle (6 inches, max), and as much flour as we could steal from mom, and head out into the old apple orchard. Stretch the garden hose out its full length. At one end (the "launch pad"), we pile about a cup worth of the flour up over the end of the hose. It was important to cover the end of the hose. We'd stand the candle up next to the pile of flour, and light it. We'd then turn the empty coffee can upside down, and put it over the candle and the end of the garden hose. We'd then run to the other end of the hose, and blow in it. We were 10 or 11 years old at the time, and had no idea why it worked but when we blew into the end of the garden hose, there would be a huge explosion under the can, and the can would be launched high into the air. Exactly how high depended on how much flour we poured over the hose -- the more flour, the higher the can went. What was happening was when we blew into the hose, the air rushing out of the end the flour was piled on would cause the flour to be blown into the air inside the can. Flour, as particulate matter, is highly flammable, and very explosive -- it burns so fast that it's really just a big explosion. And that explosion was enough to launch that can. When I moved to Oklahoma, I started seeing things I'd never seen in New York -- grain silos. They are scattered everywhere throughout the state, always on a rail line. Many of them are made of concrete and can be quite huge. The farmers from the area send their grain in trucks to the nearest silo, where it would wait for a train. When the grain train came to town, the grain was moved from the silos to the rail cars, then hauled to market. These grain silos can be quite dangerous to work in, for a couple of reasons. But the reason I'm worried about in relation to powder shoots is fire and explosion. From Wikipedia:

"Dry-material / bin hazards

There have also been many cases of silos and the associated ducts and buildings exploding. If the air inside becomes laden with finely granulated particles, such as grain dust, a spark can trigger an explosion powerful enough to blow a concrete silo and adjacent buildings apart, usually setting the adjacent grain and building on fire. Sparks are often caused by (metal) rubbing against metal ducts; or due to static electricity produced by dust moving along the ducts when extra dry."

For my money, anything that can produce an explosion big enough to "blow a concrete silo and adjacent buildings apart" is something I'd rather not mess around with.

Please note -- it doesn't take someone smoking, or a flash tube breaking. It doesn't take a candle, or a match. The explosion can be caused by static electricity. And if a half a cup of flour can launch a coffee can 50 feet into the air, several cups of flour, floating in the air in an enclosed photo studio, can blow the walls out.

I don’t want to see anyone get sick. I don’t want to get sick. I don't want to get burned to a crisp in a dust explosion. I don't want any of my subjects to be hurt in a dust explosion. So while I have never heard of anyone blowing up their studio doing a powder shoot, it could easily happen. And we'll never know if anyone has gotten sick with Chemical Pneumonia because it may take some time for symptoms to show up. But I'm going to play it safe, and steadfastly refuse to do powder shoots. I might lose some business, but for me, that financial loss is a whole lot better than a dancer or some other client being seriously hurt or getting ill over shooting a photograph.

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