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Skydiving photography techniques

Skydiving photography techniques - Fancy jumping out of a plane with a parachute and a camera? ePHOTOzine member, Mike Murphy is the man to speak to about it.

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Mike Murphy
Mike Murphy.
Mike Murphy made his first parachute jump in 1986 and the experience was overwhelming - the endless space, the silence, the view, the total freedom. When he landed his first comment was: "Wow! Lets go again" and from that point he was hooked. Since then he's spent his weekends with the Wild Geese Skydiving Centre In Garvagh, Co Londonderry in Northern Ireland working on his skydiving and, wait for it...photography technique. Yes, as well as controlling a parachute and flying at speeds over 120mph Mike also takes photographs.

"To become a skydiving camera person you have to have done a minimum of 200 jumps. This time is used to hone the art of flying your body using your arms and legs at speeds of 120mph or more. This becomes very important when you're flying the camera slot as a closing speed of 300mph is possible and any contact with the subject or formation is very dangerous."

Mike says the basic technique for skydiving photography is quite straightforward, although it does take a lot of practice to achieve consistent results. Generally, you mount a camera on to a special helmet by means of a quick release bracket and the camera is activated by a remote control cable or blow switch. 

When you see someone in freefall, you simply fly towards them until you're the right distance away, then press the switch in your hand or blow into a tube to activate the shutter. Mike often takes a camera and mounts it onto his foot or stomach. This method allows him to take interesting shots as he exits the plane or later when he's under the parachute's canopy.
Skydiving images by Mike Murphy
Photo by Mike Murphy.

"You can also get great exit shots by mounting a camera on the plane and activating it as you leap out," explained Mike.

As the camera is mounted above Mike's head he can't look straight through the viewfinder, as you would do on the ground, so instead he has a special ring sight that's mounted onto the helmet and comes down infront of his eye. He sees exactly what the camera sees and with experience, he's developed an accurate feel for what angle is covered by each lens. When it comes to lenses, Mike mostly uses a Sigma 15mm, 20mm and occasional a 35mm.

Mike Murphy skydiving photography
Photo by Mike Murphy.
"On the Sony I always use a 0.45mm Converter lens. I like these lenses because they see so much of the sky, but you have to fly very "tight". Once you're using a 35mm lens or upward, you can keep to a safer distance, but for me that's not as interesting. I want to be part of the action, get in close and see the expressions on their faces. To do it safely requires a lot of skydiving experience."

As Mike's head is basically a camera tripod it's important he keeps it steady during freefall. To help with shake he also pre-sets the shutter speed, f-stop and focus on the ground.

"Wide-angle lenses offer excellent depth-of-field, so focusing is only critical when I shoot close-ups. If necessary, I can change the f-stop by hand during freefall, since I know exactly what f-stop should be used in different light conditions."

Mike Murphy skydiving photography
Photo by Mike Murphy.
When it comes to elements to focus on Mike thinks there's nothing better than the sky. He sees it as one of the biggest photo studios on earth and always finds it exciting and spectacular. There are even skydives he only remembers because of the fantastic shapes of the clouds and warm colours of the sky but the sky's not his only focus: "Basically, just as with any other form of photography, you need a certain artistic eye to "see" a good shot, but when shooting in the air, I look for action, colour, light and composition. Action and movement are the essential elements. One trick which I use quite a lot is to set a medium shutter speed, 1/250 sec on the 450D and 1/500 sec on the 10D. This has the effect of blurring the skydiver's jumpsuit sleeves, giving an impression of movement. If I used 1/1000 sec or faster, this will freeze the action.

I also try to capture the expressions on the faces of skydivers, the joy, pleasure and sometimes fear they have during freefall. My real goal is not just to take good pictures, but to show everyone how beautiful and stunning our playground is
."

To be a good freefall photographer you must, of course, be a good skydiver. According to Mike, you have to anticipate your subject's movements so that you're in the best possible position to get the shot, taking into consideration the position of the sun, sky, clouds, ground or a combination of all four.

When you've done so many jumps you develop a certain instinct. Mike can now "see" pictures in advance. He predicts where and when something is going to happen, and he gets himself into a position where he can make sure he's ready to shoot as the action unfolds. Skydiving is constantly developing and in order to keep up, Mike has to constantly improve his skydiving skills by doing a variety of jumps and training in new disciplines.
Mike Murphy skydiving photography
Photo by Mike Murphy.

"Skysurfing is a good example. It's the hottest new development in skydiving, and certainly the most difficult to photograph. Skysurfers can achieve enormous speeds. I have to use all my skydiving and photography skills just to get them in the frame. Wingsuiting is the latest discipline that I have started shooting. This brings it's own challenges as we are traveling across the sky at almost 200mph with a fall rate of 40mph instead of 120mph giving you over 2 minutes in freefall."

According to Mike, a normal jump from 13,00ft gives you a freefall time of seventy seconds before you need to deploy your parachute. When you're filming and shooting a competition your working time is only 35sec - not a long time for the team to perform the required set pieces for the competition. This is why it's very important for the camera person to be in the right place at the right time.
Mike Murphy skydiving photography
Photo by Mike Murphy.

As well as having good timing it's also important you have the right equipment. Mike has 2-3 cameras and a flashgun mounted onto his helmet. His favourite is his Canon 10D as it's strong, reliable and has lasted for many years. Mike carries around 10Kg of camera equipment on his head which may sound like a lot but he says you hardly notice it in freefall: "The conditions are almost identical to being weightless. There is one problem: the jolt of the parachute opening places an immense strain on the neck muscles. I've solved this problem by using a parachute which opens very slowly and gently, and by packing it in a special way to
Mike Murphy skydiving photography
Photo by Mike Murphy.
make the opening even more slow than usual. It is vital to have a cutaway system built into your helmet as a bad opening can cause the parachute to get entangled in your camera equipment. This has happened to me on one occasion when I had a malfunction. The loss of your cameras and equipment is a very costly but that's the price of survival
."

The loss of equipment is never a happy moment for a photographer but all is not lost and sometimes there are moments that make you smile. There was one occasion when Mike organised a jump specifically to shoot pictures and the sky was so spectacular that he knew anything taken in freefall would look great. When Mike and the team reached the exit altitude, he climbed out first but while the others were climbing out, he lost his grip and fell out of the plane! The rest of the team didn't notice so they didn't jump after him. Instead, they took their time preparing while Mike was already thousands of feet below them with cameras, a beautiful sky but no skydivers.

"All I could do was swear and shout angrily at myself. Of course, it was a ridiculous situation so in the end I started laughing. Later, on the ground, the skydivers wanted to watch the video to see how they'd performed. They hadn't seem me fall from the plane, and couldn't believe that there was no video, no pictures, nothing. We solved that "problem" with lots of beer until deep in the night. The only real problem was that all the beer was on my tab! Beer aside, I hope that I have been successful in bringing our unique sport to a wider audience."
Mike Murphy skydiving photography
Photo by Mike Murphy.

For more information visit Mike Murphy's website.

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Comments


Ganto 8 769 2 Ireland
11 Oct 2009 1:51AM
I still think you're all mad Mike!

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