BEING THERE - FLORIDA SKYDIVING
by Shelly and Keith Larrett
The twin-engine plane soars 2 1O2 miles
above the earth, slipping gracefully through the air at 90mph. Suddenly
the door opens and the thundering wind rushes in to fill the cabin
with brisk air. A man climbs out and around the edge of the opening,
his body hugging the side of the plane as he reaches for a handrail
on the top of the airframe. Perched precariously on a tiny step
between the door and the tail section, he balances on the toes of
one foot, wearing a camera helmet that is heavier than a bowling
Another face appears in the doorway, this one frightened and excited
by the sight of the ground so far below and the prospect of jumping
from the safety of the plane. A tandem passenger is about to make
her first skydive connected to the harness of an experienced tandem
master, and they will fall together nearly 8000 feet before their
parachute opens. The tandem "pair" sways forward in a motion that
commits them to gravity but the camera flyer has left a split second
before, his exit timed perfectly to get the best picture! Click,
The tandem passenger, tightly suspended beneath her tandem master,
is now smiling and blowing kisses to her video man, who literally
flies circles around the pair! He swings around to get the plane
in the background as it dives dramatically back to earth to pick
up the next load of skydivers. The photographer stretches the wings
of his special jump suit to raise a few feet above the tandem jumpers,
as they spin through several 360ù turns set against the scenic backdrop
of the land and ocean below. Back down to their level, he is interacting
with his customer, helping her create a wonderful keepsake of her
adventure. Finally, he flips from his belly onto his back, so that
he is slightly beneath them when the tandem master deploys the parachute.
In a kaleidoscope of color, the bright parachute spills out into
the blue sky above their heads while the photographer ends the skydive
with a big peace sign in front of his lens. Cool! Such is a day
in the life of Keith Larrett, who is becoming well known in the
world of skydiving for the amazing energy and emotion he creates
in his camera and video work.
"My favorite compliment is when someone asks me how I got the shot,"
says Keith who has made more than 6,000 jumps in 14 years of skydiving,
the majority of which are with camera and video. He constantly seeks
new angles and techniques to present his subject matter in a fresh
manner and he feels rewarded when he receives such positive feedback.
"In addition, I want to find more opportunities to get inside of
the skydive instead of being an outsider, looking in."
was born in Zimbabwe, formerly Rhodesia, and grew up during that
country's civil war. Despite political sanctions, food rations and
the violence of a civil war, his family enjoyed vacations and Keith
was the one who liked to take all the snapshots. But it wasn't until
his 21st birthday, when his father gave him a gift of 1000 South
African Rand, that he realized photography was more than a passing
"I think my father was hoping that I'd invest the money, and I did,
although not in the way he had in mind!" Instead, Larrett bought
his first camera, a Chinon CP7M and began to explore photography
while he was completing his degree at the University of Durban,
in South Africa. He took pictures of Durban's harbor at night and
experimented with B&W images, developing his own prints.
Keith also learned to skydive during his collegiate years and it
wasn't long before he realized that he could earn money to make
more jumps by taking photographs of other skydivers as they landed.
Taking pictures during freefall was uncommon in South Africa with
just a few hundred active skydivers during the 1980's; it was beginning
to flourish, however, in countries like the U.S., the United Kingdom
and France, all with very large jumper populations. Skies Call,
an inspirational, three-volume book of skydiving photography by
Andy Keech, and the video, From Wings Came Flight by Norman Kent,
inspired Keith to combine his love for skydiving and photography.
"More by luck than by design, I ended up in America, where I started
pursuing a career in skydiving," quips Keith, who has owned and
operated his video concession for four years. He currently manages
the drop zone at Skydive Daytona Beach, the scenic drop zone located
on the eastern coast of Florida.
Falling out of an airplane and plummeting to the earth at 120mph
is something that most people never even want to try! And one of
the many challenges in skydiving is that jumpers only get to practice
for intervals of one minute, which is the average length of time
a skydiver falls 10,000 feet before deploying the parachute. Consequently,
it requires several hundreds of jumps to become proficient enough
at body flight before it's even possible to consider jumping with
a camera."I remember reading an article in National Geographic about
a photographer who was asked how he consistently took such great
photographs," Larrett recalls. "He answered, 'F8 and Be there!'
I was impressed by his reply. Not only do I have to be a skilled
photographer but I also have to be a world class skydiver so that
I can anticipate where the shot will happen and BE THERE." Although
he has thousands of skydives under his belt, Keith says he sometimes
feels like a beginner because no two skydives are ever the same.
He is continually learning new ways to deal with each situation,
so that he can be there to get the shot. "If I ever got to the point
where I've learned all there is to know about flying my body and
taking photographs, I wouldn't do it any more. But I don't think
that will ever happen." The challenges seem endless.
Freefall photography requires some specialized equipment and mounting
techniques. Keith jumps with a custom-made, form-fitted fiberglass
helmet to support his cameras. His full-face helmet is crafted from
a mold of his head to provide the most stability and to give the
helmet the lowest profile possible, which reduces the chances that
parachute's lines will become snagged during opening. His helmet
supports an aluminum plate upon which a 3-chip digital camera and
up to two Nikon N90 cameras (one horizontal, one vertical) can be
mounted. Each of the Nikons can be equipped with a Nikon Speed Lite
flash and they are fired by a microswitch mounted inside his helmet,
just below his mouth. The microswitch is activated when he purses
his lips, leaving his hands free to fly. The entire assembly weighs
Sighting is another area that presents challenges because Larrett
can't look through his viewfinder to see what he's capturing on
film. Instead, he uses a Newton Ring Sight to approximate his framed
area and relies on his experience and instinct to know how far he
must fly from his subject. He pre-focuses the cameras for an anticipated
distance and needs to fly within that distance to get the photograph
in focus. Slow shutter speeds are difficult since his neck is his
tripod and is falling through the air against hurricane force winds!
Keith uses Fujichrome Provia and Velvia, 50ASA & 100ASA, for
the best color saturation and because these vibrant, "contrasty"
films lend themselves to skydiving imagery. People are often surprised
that he shoots at these slow speeds, since skydiving is such a fast,
dynamic sport. Because the photographer and his subjects are falling
at the same rate, the movements are relative to each other and are
not very fast after all.
Besides "being there," Keith wants to show the beauty, action and
excitement of skydiving to both skydivers and non-jumpers alike.
"The skydivers are often so engrossed in the action at hand that
they might have missed the panoramic backdrop of a scenic landscape
or a brilliant sunset. Sometimes they are quite stunned when they
see their dive from my point of view!" He strives to portray the
magic and thrill of the sport as vividly as possible so that he
can give non-jumpers an understanding when they look at his images.
In any type of photography, you start to see standard shots - photos
that are good - and those that work. But there is obviously something
that separates a good shot from a great shot. The backdrop can make
that difference in a skydiving photograph. "In addition to the jumpers,
I want to capture the immensity, the utter vastness of the space
they are falling through. I like the background to remind us that
we are all insignificant little specks falling through the sky by
comparison!" Keith normally uses one of his wide-angle lenses to
give the greatest depth of field. He films his subjects from a distance
of 4-6 feet but the background is often a couple of miles away.
His standard lens is a 24mm but he also uses a 28mm as well as a
16mm fish eye lens, which is sometimes the best way to "contain"
the enormity of the sky while focusing on the close up action.
Shooting the subject from a different perspective is another way
to create an excellent image. Keith once slipped beneath a group
of skydivers exiting the plane, while the fish eye lens captured
the jumpers as well as the entire plane behind them. The photograph
earned a place on the cover of a popular British skydiving magazine.
Sometimes, he will remain on the plane. In fact on one occasion,
he leaned out of the cockpit window clicking away to another cover
shot as he filmed the jumpers leaving the plane, from the pilot's
point of view!
To get "inside" of the skydive, Keith has attached a camera to various
parts of his body while participating in unusual skydives and parachute
descents! A belly-mounted camera snared a cover shot as he and another
jumper exited the plane in an exciting "head down" dive. He fastened
a camera to his sneaker and captured several impressive self-portraits
under parachute. Appearing to defy gravity, he flew aggressive inverted
patterns and both the parachute and the landscape whirled dizzyingly
above his head in a magazine centerfold!
Larrett says he knows that he can't do it without the subject matter
so essential to his photographs. "It would be wrong for me to take
all the credit. I might chose the decisive moment and have the talent
to be in the right place at the right time, but if it weren't for
the wonderful skydivers, with their abilities and dedication to
excellence, there wouldn't be a shot for me to BE THERE for!"
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