I, Photographer: Skydiving Shooter Norman Kent

Anything for the best angle

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Brian Festi

What came first: flying or shooting?
I started working with photography when I was 14, and I first started skydiving on my 19th birthday. I thought my first jump would be a one-time thing, but once I'd landed, I knew this was going to be part of my life. The aerial perspectives are a photographer's dream, so I knew I wanted to shoot it. By my 24th jump, I had a camera mounted to my helmet.

What kind of work have you done professionally since then?
I've done photography on editorial shoots for various clients. I mainly do cinematography and have shot for feature films, television productions, and international sporting events such as the Olympics. I've also produced several skydiving features.

What kind of gear do you need?
It varies, depending on the shoot, but on most jumps I'll have four cameras helmet-mounted. One is a video camera for playback; one is a movie camera [RED or 35mm film], and I'll have two still cameras. These have ranged from a Hasselblad 6x6 to a Canon EOS 5D Mark III, with wide-angle and fisheye lenses. The heaviest camera I've had mounted was a 32-pound film camera on the set of Cliffhanger. I use custom cable releases, with a switch that lets me fire the trigger with my tongue.

How much freedom do you have to compose your shots?
Speed has a lot to do with it. If someone jumps before me, or if I'm capturing a team, I'll accelerate to catch up with them, or decelerate if I'm the one who jumps first. But once I'm there, I respond to instant information: what the people are doing, where the clouds are positioned, and how it fits into three-dimensional space.

What's tricky about shooting in the air?
You only have one minute to shoot. You have to anticipate lighting, cloud cover, and make sure that your settings are intact before jumping. But when you're actually shooting, you almost have to live in the future to anticipate shots. If someone's coming at you from 20 feet away, you'll want to shoot at a 5-fps burst rate. You get a better shot if you're prepared and wait until the moment is happening. I go into a dream world, and don't know what I've captured until I've landed.

How do you deal with the fear?
You learn to embrace it. You accept the fact that you might die but don't want to, and you make sure to have both your survival and camera gear prepared for the moment. Once I'm at the ready state, waiting for a jump with people lined up behind me, my mind clears out and I go into automatic.

What are things you have to do in the air to get the shot?
Positioning and having spacial proximity to your subject is key. I'll go on shoots where I jump first, and I'm accelerating faster than my subject, or I'll be photographing group jumps with faster acceleration, and have to adjust my speed to fly up or down.

What was your craziest experience in the air?
It feels crazy right before you shoot: A green light goes on, you're hanging outside a plane watching other aircraft get into formation, and the next minute you're dropping though gravity in a camera-focused dream state. But one highlight was the opening ceremony of the Summer Olympics in Seoul, 1988. There was a lot of danger in landing at the stadium, so training was a long road. But on the day it happened, everything aligned itself to happen perfectly. I was up in the air, shooting stills and also live transmission to an international audience. The world was watching what I captured as I dropped through free fall: That was a crazy experience.

Norman Kent has performed and photographed close to 23,000 skydiving jumps. The 56-year-old credits this with shaping his other photo work: "It's like having extra muscle or attention span when you're on the ground," Kent says. See more work at PopPhoto.com/Kent and normankent.com.

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Members of Team Fastrax fly ten flags in formation over Middletown, Ohio in honor of those that lost their lives during the September 11th tragedies. Shot with Canon 5D Mark II. 14mm, 800/sec, F13.Norman Kent
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Members of Team Fastrax jump with pyrotechnics during a training session over Palatka, Florida. The team regularly does exhibition jumps for events worldwide. Shot with Canon 5D with 24mm, 800/sec f3.5.Norman Kent
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Skydiving model Roberta Mancino, performs over Eloy, Arizona during the shooting of a commercial for HTC. Shot with Canon 5D Mark II, 24mm, 1000/sec, F7.1.Norman Kent
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Jumpers walk back from the landing area after a fun jump during the "Work Stinks Boogie" a Labor Day celebration at Start Skydiving in Middletown, Ohio. Shot with Canon 5D Mark II, 14mm, 160/sec, F11.Norman Kent
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Ramsey Kent and Nicole Angelides play a game of Scrabble on a classic board while on assignment for the game's 50-year celebration of its release. Over Zephyrhills, Florida. Shot with Canon 5D with 15mm lens, 640/sec, f11.Norman Kent
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Jumpers exit a bell helicopter during an end of the year celebration event, over Sebastian, Florida. Shot with Canon 5D MarkII 14mm 800/sec, F11.Norman Kent
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Tandem jump over Australian skies. Shot with the Canon 5D Mark II. 24mm, 1250/sec, f9.Norman Kent
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Ladies having fun with bunny costumes during Skysisters 2011 at Ramblers Skydiving Center in Australia for Susie and Cypres. Ramblers Skydiving Center Australia. Shot with Canon 5D Mark II 24mm 800 @ F8.Norman Kent
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Wendy Smith practices on the ground for a bunny-in-the-box jump during Skysisters Event at Ramblers Skydiving Center Australia. Shot with Canon 5D Mark II, 24mm, 800/sec, F4.Norman Kent
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The first ever eight-woman parachute stack sets an Australian record during the Skysisters Event at Ramblers Australia. Shot with Canon 5D Mark II, 24mm, 640/sec, F14.Norman Kent
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A 71-person formation of "Wingsuit" skydivers fly over Elsinore, California during a world record attempt for the most number of Wingsuit flyers in formation. Shot with Canon 5D, 24mm lens, 1000/sec, f5.6.Norman Kent
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Jumpers await the exit command during a record jump for the most number of Wingsuits flying in formation. Over Perris, California. Shot with Canon 5D Mark II. 14mm, 800.sec, f5.Norman Kent
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One hundred jumpers set a Guinness World Record for the most number of Wingsuits in formation. Over Perris, California. Shot with the Canon 5D Mark II. 50mm, 1250/sec, f13.Norman Kent
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One hundred Wingsuit flyers over Perris, California during record event. Shot with Canon 5D Mark II, 14mm, 1250/sec, F13.Norman Kent
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Camera flyer Noah Bahnson shoots video over a formation of Wingsuit flyers during a world record event in Perris, California. Shot with Canon 5D Mark II, 50mm, 1250/sec, f16.Norman Kent
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One hundred Wingsuiters fly in formation to set a Guinness Book Record over Perris, California. Shot with Canon 5D Mark II, 24mm, 1250/sec, f8.Norman Kent
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Jumpers exit over Middletown, Ohio during a Labor Day event. "Work Stinks Boogie" at Start Skydiving in Middletown, Ohio. Shot with the Canon 5D Mark II. 15mm, 1000/sec, f5.6.Norman Kent
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Jumpers exit a Helcules C-130 over Mmabatho, South Africa. Shot with Hasselblad ELM with 50mm lens, 500/sec, f8.Norman Kent
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30 skydivers form the Olympic rings over the Olympic complex in Seoul, Korea as part of the opening ceremonies. Parachutes are seeing flying in to the full stadium bellow, soon to be joined by these jumpers. Shot with Hasselblad ELM with 50mm lens. 500/s f8.Norman Kent
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formation made from open parachutes flies over Lake Pend Oreille, Idaho during the shooting of the film "From Wings Came Flight". Shot with Hasselblad ELM with 50mm lens. 500/s f8.Norman Kent
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Deanna Kent and Mike "Michigan" Sandberg captured during the shooting of a romantic segment for the movie "From Wings Came Flight". Shot with Hasselblad ELM with 50mm.Norman Kent
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Bill Booth and his passenger exit over the North Pole during the first expedition ever to skydive on to this remote area. This scientific expedition was organized to prove that tandem skydiving would be an efficient way to take non-skydiving specialized personnel (like medics) in to a remote area far from reach of helicopters in case of an emergency.Norman Kent
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Deanna "Skydancer" Kent dances over Locarno, Switzerland, during a training session.Norman Kent
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Jumpers ride bicycles out of a Casa aircraft over Flagler Beach Florida during a shoot for a Japanese TV show.Norman Kent
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Nicole Angelides and Hunter Roberts on a playful jump during a shooting experiment, over Deland, Florida.Norman Kent
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