I’ve been sidetracked from working on this blog for the last few weeks so am behind in writing and editing my next few planned posts. One of the things that sidetracked me was my mother jumping out of an airplane.
When my mom’s 80th birthday was approaching I asked if she wanted to do something special since it was a big milestone. She promptly replied that she wanted to skydive. I was relieved because that was something I could actually make happen for her, unlike say a cruise trip.
Eight family members agreed to pitch in to buy the full skydive package for Mom as her birthday gift. And after thinking about it for a bit, my sister and one of my stepsisters decided to join Mom on her aerial adventure so she wouldn’t plunge to earth all alone.
On Sunday, May 20th approximately 30 people from all over Washington and from California, including several grandchildren and great-grandchildren, gathered at Harvey Field in Snohomish to celebrate my mom’s 80th birthday.
Unfortunately, the weather didn’t cooperate.
Skydive Snohomish has a really nice spectator area with an awning, picnic tables, and patio furniture. So we sat around and visited and watched the sky for almost two hours before the skydive leaders called it a lost cause for the day. It was disappointing for sure, but we did have a lovely and relaxed time chatting with people we don’t get to see often.
The good news for rescheduling was that my stepsister from California who was going to skydive (and had already paid a non-refundable deposit) planned to be here again in August. So on Thursday, August 9th a much smaller group of 12 people once again gathered in Snohomish.
This time was so different from the first. The weather was sunny and hot, though somewhat marred by a thin layer of wildfire smoke. There was no relaxed hanging around this time. Everything went lickety split from start to finish, especially since my mom and two sisters were scheduled on the first plane up in their timeslot.
A tandem skydive is done as part of a class, with as many as 12-15 people in the class. Training comes first and lasts between 20 minutes and half an hour. First they watch a training video, then they get on the floor and practice the three poses they need to know, two for freefall and one for landing.
As soon as training is done the people scheduled for the first flight go out to the equipment shed and suit up. That was done pretty quickly.
There were six class members and one experienced solo jumper in the first flight. Though at the time, everything was moving so quickly I wasn’t aware of those details and was just trying to keep track of my own three people. In a few minutes the plane was loaded and taking off.
The slowest part of the whole event was between when the plane taxied to take off and we first spotted the parachutes. We lost sight of the plane quickly as it gained altitude and became mostly obscured by the smoke haze. None of us knew how long it would take or where in the sky we should be looking, though I finally pointed to the windsock as a potential clue.
Someone finally spotted the plane. It was just a faint fuzzy speck up above the smoke layer. It turns out that when people are in freefall from 13,500 feet they are way too teensy to see from the ground, even with a good telephoto lens or binoculars. We didn’t see the jumpers until the chutes opened, and even then they weren’t spotted immediately because the chutes were just tiny colorful dots in a very large sky.
For reasons discussed below, I didn’t get any good closer pics of my mom and sisters once they were a bit lower in altitude. The feature photo at the top of this post is of two complete strangers, though I didn’t know that while I was madly shooting away at whoever I could get in my viewfinder.
I did get pics of all three of our group landing, but they were pretty disappointing in how they turned out. I came away with very few sharp photos from the day, and having to adjust for backlighting as they made their final approaches didn’t help.
What I Learned About Photographing Skydivers
Note: You don’t need to personally know someone who wants to jump out of an airplane. If this is a type of photography that you would like to try just for the fun of it you can do that.
I did a few things right, but just as many wrong. Unfortunately, this was a one-time thing so I won’t have an opportunity to do better next time. I figured I’d pass on some of what I learned so other novices might be better prepared than I was if you ever have an occasion to do this.
The first is that everything seems to move incredibly fast. I don’t just mean fast through the air, I mean all the activity. Especially if your people are in the first plane like mine were.
From the time training started to when everyone was back on the ground took under an hour. Of that, about 20 minutes were taken up by training, and about 15 minutes between when the plane took off and when we first saw the chutes. Those two periods are your only slow times.
Suiting up, loading the plane, and the jump itself were all packed into less than 20 minutes. From leaving the plane to landing only takes 4-6 minutes.
Because everything moves so quickly during the activity periods it’s very easy to do things too fast yourself. I was totally amped up from excitement and trying to document each step of the experience for all three jumpers.
I learned you’re better off being a slow and methodical observer rather than an active part of the whirlwind. A small number of really good photos is better than dozens of mediocre to poor photos that capture every little moment.
I don’t really know why, but my adrenaline-fueled haste led to me frequently cutting off feet and other similar blunders. Those aren’t the kinds of mistakes I normally make, at least not repeatedly.
Second, my biggest mistake was not taking time to look at the posted load list. The list shows which flight your people will be on and which order they will come out of the plane.
During training it was announced the list was posted in the suit-up area and it was distantly in the back of my mind while everyone was putting their gear on, but I never took the time to actually look at it. Dumb move!
From watching my mom and sisters board the plane I thought they would be first out, but I was wrong. And I didn’t know I was wrong until the first people started landing. If I had looked at the list I wouldn’t have wasted all my time photographing strangers thinking they were my people and would have come away with some good shots of my family in the air. (While shooting it was impossible to recognize who was in my viewfinder.)
Third, you don’t need a mammoth lens to get good pics. A 200mm (FF equivalent) lens provides adequate reach and 300mm will cover things very nicely, as long as you don’t want extreme close-ups. I was using my longest zoom lens for the skydive portion, but I could have gotten away with using my medium zoom (83-300mm FF equivalent), and doing so probably would have made things easier.
Last of all, something that never even occurred to me is that I could have gone to the airfield sometime in the weeks before our date and done a practice run. I’m not sure how things are set up at other skydive places, but anyone can go to Skydive Snohomish’s spectator area and take pictures. You just walk around to the back and hang out with your camera.
If I had done a practice session when it didn’t count I’d have gotten much better images when it did count. Plus, it makes for a fun and different type of photography outing.
You can look at the schedule on the website and pick any day and time there are few to no sign-up slots left to make sure you’ll have subjects. Also pick a day with mostly clear weather or high clouds (the ceiling needs to be at least 14,000 feet) to make sure classes won’t be cancelled.
What I Did Right
* Shooting in burst mode.
I shot in burst mode the entire time, even during training and suiting up. Since everyone is moving and expressions change quickly, you have a better chance of coming away with the photos you want. Low burst was enough, high is overkill.
* Using spot metering in the air.
Better chance of getting people in the air correctly exposed with the bright sky as background. If it’s not working well, center weighted metering is the next best answer. Even with spot metering you’ll probably run into backlighting problems, but that’s unavoidable.
What I Did Wrong
* I didn’t use continuous (tracking) autofocus.
I don’t know why I didn’t, except that I almost never need it and didn’t think it through. My focusing simply couldn’t keep up with the action during burst shooting, even when it was something as simple as people walking towards me.
* I didn’t use a fast enough shutter speed.
I shot in Shutter Priority Mode, which was the right choice. But wow they move through the air a lot faster than you’d think, and landing speed is amazingly fast. Think birds in flight and use 1/1000 as a minimum. When they get lower in altitude and for landing faster would be much better. I was using 1/800 and I think some of my pics are a bit soft not from autofocus issues but because that was a little too slow.
* I didn’t allow light metering to catch up often enough.
Because they were moving through the air quickly, and because I was shooting in burst mode, I didn’t keep up with the constantly changing light as their position in relation to the sun rapidly changed. I should have made sure of exposure first every time instead of just acquiring a target in the viewfinder and jamming the shutter button. It didn’t help that for around a minute of the short time they were in the air they were in front of or near the sun, so shooting during that whole time was impossible.
Action Photos of the Skydive
The photo package we bought for my mom from Skydive Snohomish as part of her gift seemed expensive at $90 since you’re not getting professional grade photos, but it turns out it was totally worth it.
You can choose video or stills, but not both. After I discussed it with my mom she decided on still photos. We thought video would more fun at first because you get to see everything “live”, but then once you’ve watched it a couple times we figured you’re kinda done with it.
Still photos are easier to share via email, you can frame them for a desk or wall, make a scrapbook to show off to dinner guests, use them as computer wallpaper, etc.
The tandem guide took the stills with a GoPro strapped to his hand that was set to automatically take a pic every few seconds. The pics start with loading the plane and end just after landing.
We had 400 photos to sort through with lots of duds, and tons of almost exactly the same thing. I got my set sorted down to about 100 keepers that are a good representation of the entire jump.
These are some of the GoPro shots from Skydive Snohomish.