This story is loaded with crazy stuff: my first use of a drone for a mom-to-be, failed equipment leading to a major upgrade of underwater maternity photography, and—get this!—this beautiful lady is a Delta pilot who comes from an F-16 fighting squadron. Read on!
A concept of aerial shooting has been in my mind for over a decade, before the mass-production drones came to light. You’ll find it insane, but my first (unsuccessful) attempt involved a helicopter in Alaska during the 2009 famous maternity shoot in the snow mountains. I still did a cool coverage from the ground, but alas, the helicopter plan fell through the last minute.
In 2013, just when DJI introduced their first drone, Phantom 1, I tried bringing an experimental flight crew to an art project Anastasia’s Morning in New Jersey. The stunning photoshoot involved two horses, but that drone made so much noise and was such a novel phenomenon that the horses grew agitated and we had to drop the aerial component entirely…
Fast forward a few years and I started using own drones in 2018. Played with a toy DJI Spark first, then upgraded to DJI Mavic Air 2. I’ve been using it for videography to include in my wedding, event, and commercial packages. It was time to expand the aerial coverage to my portrait photography, and this kicker came with Fatima.
So much to tell here! Fatima is a former PAF engineering officer in an F-16 fighter squadron. She went through a lot to graduate the Pakistani school dominated by males, then served in military, and finally made it to the US captain and first officer on civilian flights by Delta. For a load of #keepclimbingwoman inspiration and awesomeness, check out her IG!
Images source: https://www.instagram.com/fatima_shafi/
Imagine how thrilled I was when she found me on Google! A real badass female pilot! When we met, I jokingly poked my finger into her shoulder saying “May I touch a real pilot, so beautiful at that”?
Being that supergirl, she was big on my underwater maternity photography. It’s just that she can’t swim… Hey, F-16 is not ShinMaywa US-2, right? I told her an anecdote about a Nigerian client who informed me of the same while entering the water on a shoot, and she meant it—she was not comfortable in water. We had to spend an hour teaching that black beauty to stay afloat, then hold her breath, and finally submerge. The results were sick, so I had faith in Fatima, too, and encouraged her to try. And, not to risk it, we went with an all-day package to do both underwater maternity photography and the traditional one. That way, she’d have a backup if the underwater part sank.
We arranged for a pool in Westchester, as I knew a great place nearby for a scenic maternity by the Hudson River, Little Stony Point. I had spent a few nights in my Zotel there, loved the scenery, but never got to shoot it. That’s when it hit me to finally put a drone to work. Such vistas beg for it; I wish I used it during this shoot on a cliff.
Her husband Joel, also a Delta pilot, joined her.
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Fatima also has an affection for boats. We stopped by the Half Moon Bay Marina and I talked our way in with a manager. He kindly allowed us to use the docks for photography, including drone.
Half of the day passed by and it was time to drive to a pool. We came, I started unpacking and setting up, got my Ikelite underwater housing ready, and fired a first test shot. Boom! My camera screen displayed an “Err 30” message, pointing at a malfunction related to the power source. Sharks!!! I always have two cameras for backup but only one of them can be used underwater (see below). I frantically research online and troubleshoot what I could, all while my clients are waiting to enter the water of a rented pool… Nothing helped and dismayed, I delivered the bad news to them and the pool owner.
Long story short, we rescheduled the underwater maternity photography portion, and I volunteered to cover the makeup redo. With my pilots tricky scheduling and Fatima’s due date approaching, I had a very narrow window to address the camera issue. There were two options: fix the camera (~$350) and use the same housing, or buy a new housing (~$2,500) for my other camera, the latest DSLR from Canon, 5D Mk IV. See, these housings are model-specific because of the exact button mapping. That is why I got stuck with using an older 5D Mk II for my underwater photography for 10 years—shelling out a few thousands isn’t easy.
I took this mishap as a sign for an upgrade I’ve been craving for a long time. Although I still had to fix the camera, I got my new Ikelite 50DL with the required lens add-ons, making it a whopping $6K beast along with the camera and underwater lights. That’s a price of a car!
What’s the justification, then? Using the latest DSLR camera bumps the max resolution from 21 to 30 Mpx. Next, I will use a better class and upgraded lens, 24-70mm Mk II, including zooming capabilities. That means clearer and sharper photos with less distortion. Then, the new housing dome is in its pristine condition, still free of any scratches that inevitably occur with years. Again, clearer and sharper photos. Higher ISO with the same clean results. I use underwater lights but sometimes they kill the natural mood. Turning the flashes off will still produce sharp natural-looking images even in deeper caves as in this shoot in Dominican Republic. Lastly, I will be able to shoot videos!
If you already loved my underwater photography, imagine the revamped experience!! And—I now provide a pool in your preferred area at no extra cost! (With another month or two left this season, consider booking this power tool.)
We were back at the same pool, and everything worked nicely. Yes, Fatima needed time to get accustomed to just floating in the water. Her fighter spirit was there. She would not give up, even though she could never put herself at ease and do everything I normally try for my underwater maternity photography. Only a few ideas worked, but aren’t they an out-of-this-world addition to her adventure that mastered air, ground, and water!
Keep climbing, woman, and wishing your family love, thrills, and new horizons!
Makeup: Larisa of Larina Makeup