Nat Geo….The Closer

Just like the opener, you never know exactly where it’s going to come from.

Our efforts to document UAV stuff led us to an abandoned warehouse in Boston, where a drone called Skate was undergoing tests and observation. Built as an ultralight weight alternative to bigger drones such as Raven, the Skate basically comes in a box, and a child could most likely put it together. It’s a bunch of styrofoam like material with propellers and a camera, and when you start the props, it just leaps out of your hands.

Well, trying to photograph this flying piece of foam was harder than catching a fart in a bag. The thing would generally head in the direction its controller headed it, but honestly, its flight pattern reminded me more of dropping a baseball card from the top of a building. It would waft, wiggle, flutter and float. I went chasing this sumbitch around a warehouse with a camera in my hands and a flash on a pole, until I realized how utterly ridiculous that was. See below for a truly memorable frame.

Holy shit. I was in big trouble, and I knew it. The warehouse was spectacular, and the Skate was essential to the coverage, and I walked in there feeling confident. After its first couple of flights, though, my heart plummeted, until I realized that the one singular thing about this drone was that you could catch it by hand. The bigger military drones had to crash land on the ground and get picked up in pieces and reassembled. This puppy would fly, roughly, into someone’s paws. It was the one way I could show difference in this unit, as opposed to the others, which was good information for the reader. And, it was one way I could get the thing to fly into my camera, instead of having me chase it like a lunatic with a D4.

I had no idea it would be the closing image. None. Decisions like this are made above my pay grade. I was happy enough with this result, to be sure, and I urged Bill Douthitt, my editor, to put it forward. For me, it signaled just a bit of difference. The hands humanized the scene, and made it a bit odder than the rest of the coverage, which de facto was a bunch of pictures of machines flying over something or other. Bill, in this rare instance, went along with the notion. Generally, he simply listens to my fevered reasoning, smartly advises me to stay out of it, and tells me my best resort, if I’m going to be that emotionally wrapped up in my work,  is to find the nearest bar. I hate to admit this publicly, but he’s a brilliant editor, and he’s almost always right. Which is why I generally refer to him as the Dark Lord of photography. When I go on assignment, I call, and in my best Orc-like voice, I simply ask, “What does the great eye command, sire?”

Below is a production shot of the approach.

After seeing these, Bill offered the wry commentary about me generally doing my best work when I don’t look through the camera. Which in fact I didn’t on this shot. Nor did I use live view, as handy and obvious as that would seem to many. I generally know the feel and field of the 24-70 I had on the camera at the time, and, sort of going back to my rangefinder camera days, I prefer to have both my eyes outside the camera, judging the approach and size of this vehicle as it approached my airspace. I would just click when if felt right.

Below is a grid of info submitted to Geographic with the raw file.

Of course the controller is not seen in this frame, being hidden by the outstretched hands. And of course, I went to the trouble of lighting the controller. Sigh….

More tk….