A photographer emailed me last week and said that he’d noticed that I was planning to write about shooting from a helicopter—something he wanted to know more about because he knew that it’s usually done with the door to the helicopter removed. But, he was also wondering what the scariest thing I’d ever done with a camera in my hands.
I thought about his question for awhile and considered a number of experiences that I’ve had while holding a camera—some of them truly terrifying. I came up with three memorable occasions:
- There was the time when I was scuba diving and I was attacked by an electric ray. Although Torpedo rays are relatively harmless, their electrical charge feels every bit like sticking your finger into a wall socket. Fortunately, the only person to hear my screams was my brother Mark, who nearly drowned from laughing so hard in sixty feet of water.
- Then there was the time that I was also with my brother Mark (who is a staff photographer with the Associated Press) and we were flying in a beautiful Aérospatiale Eurocopter AS350 on our way to a massive train derailment in the Cajon Pass about 80 miles northeast of Los Angeles. We were flying with the door retracted and just before we arrived over the crash scene, a cushion from one of the seats came loose and flew out the door. My brother lunged for it and snagged it from the outside of the helicopter just as it was headed toward the rear of the aircraft. Had the cushion found it’s way to the tail rotor, we’d have likely all been killed.
- But, the situation that scared me the most was the time I was doing some underwater photography for a major toy company. They have a division that makes products used in swimming pools and I was commissioned to photograph a model swimming through some hoops that floated in the water. Capturing the shot itself was fairly simple because once we were set up, all I had to do was focus on a spot and hold down the shutter release as the boy swam by. It was the ten-year old kid who had the really hard job. He had to hold his breath, swim gracefully and smile like he was having the time of his life while I breathed easily on scuba. My job was pretty easy, actually. I just had to avoid being electrocuted.
I knew that I didn’t want to shoot with strobes for this project because using a motor drive and hot lights would give me a sequence of frames each time the boy passed through the hoops. If I had to wait for several underwater flash units to recycle, I would only get one frame per pass and I’d miss countless shots. So, I chose to go with continuous-burning HMI lights instead.
The lights I used were SeaPar HMI lights made by a company called HydroFlex and they were actually invented for use on James Cameron’s movie The Abyss and later used on countless other movies including Titanic. I’d met Pete Romano and Rich Mula—the two gentleman who invented them—at a cinema industry trade show and thought that I might need their lights someday. That day came less than a year later when I got this project and several other underwater assignments from the same company.
So what was so scary? They were all plugged into the wall. All four of them. And they were in water.
Each SeaPar head had it’s own 80-pound ballast which looked like a small generator and hummed with the unmistakable sound of electical current. For complete protection, each one of those was plugged into a redundant GFI to insure the safety of everyone who entered the pool.
But still… “Didn’t people get killed every day from hair dryers falling into the bathtub?” I thought. Looking at these massive units made hair dryers look quite tame. “Zzzz…zzzzzz….zzzz,” was all I could hear in my head as I thought about climbing into that pool.
When I finally brought the four huge SeaPar lights up to full power, I walked over to the edge of the pool, held my breath, and quickly dipped my finger into the water as I wondered if that was going to be the last breath I ever drew.
Fortunately, people much smarter than me design these things and everyone walked away from the shoot with no more than shriveled fingers and a minor sunburn from a day making pictures in the pool.
Joey Terrill is a Los Angeles-based photographer with clients that include American Express, Coca-Cola, Disney, Golf Digest, Major League Baseball, Red Bull, and Sports Illustrated. He teaches workshops and speaks at seminars including the Summit Series Workshops, WPPI, Atlanta Photojournalism Seminar, UPAA Symposium, World in Focus, and Nikon School.