Shooting at 13,500ft

Published on PetaPixel

“What single moment defines a skydiver?” This is the question I kept asking myself as I prepared to photograph Sarah. At the time of this shoot, I only had a few tandem jumps(attached to an instructor.) For me that "moment" had always been getting in the door before a jump. You can put the gear on, you can ride the plane up, but getting to the door is where you really have to face yourself. And so it was this moment that I chose for our shoot: at the door, arms overhead, eyes fixed on the horizon.  

Knowing the tight space I'd be working in, I rehearsed the night before - imagining myself in the small plane I quickly dismissed the use of a soft box or umbrella. So I decided instead to bounce a flash off the metallic fuselage. In my office I set up a silver reflector and observed the quality of light bouncing across the room, as seen in the pictures above. This bounced /artificial light turned out to be just enough fill after properly exposing for the exterior.  

Drop zones turn a profit with a very simple concept: get a plane full of jumpers up and down as quickly as possible(so as to burn as little fuel as necessary.) So I would need to be certain of my plan in order to work quickly and be respectful of that. Composition, focal length, exposure, all of these decisions had to be made before we took off. So we rehearsed on the ground both with/without the flash. 

Considering I’d be untethered and near an open door I also had to wear a parachute. Sarah helped me wrangle all the straps while someone else pointed towards a handle saying “if you find yourself outside the plane just pull this, but you shouldn’t need to.” Ok. As we reach our designated of 13,500ft the pilot pulls the stick and pitches the nose of the plane slightly upwards, the plane slows - wings shuttering a bit, the door goes up and a green light comes on. A cold rush of air enters the plane and a thought of “oh shit,” crosses my mind. The plane full of jumper went out the door and now it was our turn. At ground level the temperature was a balmy 85deg, at 13,500ft that’s been cut in half. But it’s not the cold that has my attention, it's the realization that we’ve entered another dimension of sorts, where everyone readies themselves in their own way, and then with a “woosh” are quickly falling towards the earth. 

With everyone out, the plane is empty and our time has arrived. I ask our Tommy(the pilot) to position the sun at the tail, giving Sarah a backlight. With sun in place we moved in and fire the first shot without a flash, a few more with the flash, and then, with hair catching the wind, the moment I had hoped for perfectly arrives.  

And just like that I give Sarah a thumbs up, and told Tommy that we had the shot, he asks if we're sure and generously offers more time, “Nah I think we’re good!” I yelled over the noise. “Alright!” he replies in a “get ready” sort of way. The ensuing descent can only be described as an all out dive. As we hurtle back towards the earth I kept shooting until Sarah and I both thought it best we just brace ourselves. 

With feet firmly planted on the ground, I take a moment to admire the beautiful sunset Florida so often gives (while trying not to look like someone who almost threw up.) And though exhilarated from our shoot, I found myself longing more for the jump I had seen everyone else take. It may have actually been this photo shoot that helped me realize I could no longer just observe something so incredible. Today I have 27 jumps and thanks to Sarah and Jairo, now stand within arm’s reach of finally having my A-license! 

Follow Sarah & Jairo on IG for all their skydiving exploits, and come jump with us at Skydive Palatka