They're out there every weekend - you see them with the students, following the teams, part of the Freefly revolution. And now you've decided to join them. So you want to be a camera flyer, huh? Here's a few tips to consider before you rush out and buy that first video camera.
This article is intended to be a brief introduction to some of the things you need to consider if you want to fly a camera, and is in no way comprehensive. The intent is to get you to consider the choices and options available, and to try to match that with the intended use of the camera. Still cameras, camera helmets, and technique are not covered in this article.
Flying a camera is as fun as it gets skydiving - but it can turn your fun into an expensive and frustrating affair in a big hurry, and eat away at your precious jump money even faster. What's that? You don't expect to pay for your jumps if you fly a camera?
Well, you will - for at least the first 50 to 100 jumps, until your proficiency (NOT your flying skills) with the equipment and techniques has improved to make it worth while for someone else to pay your slot. This is an additional reason to ensure that the precious money you spend on camera equipment is not wasted due to inexperience.
First, as with any major purchase, you have to know what you are going to do with it. The same camcorder may be useful for tandems, AFF, 4-way, and Freeflying, but if you don't know which brand and model that is, you'll likely end up with something that does not do what you expect.
Next, start a list - are you intending to make money or just expand your fun? There's a huge difference in between those two answers, and while one does not preclude the other, you may not end up with the right tool for the job.
If at all possible, find a mentor! Go out of your way to find an experienced camera flyer and ask for their input. Find out how they got started and why, and what equipment they bought. Ask what hard and expensive lessons they learned - any camera flyer with experience will have a few eye-opening stories for you. They may cause you to reconsider the whole idea - and that's the point. Don't expect that they can drop everything on a Saturday afternoon to help - be reasonable and try to work within their hectic schedule.
Obviously, once you've done your homework, it's time to go shopping. In today's consumer environment, there are so many choices and options available it may seem overwhelming to know who to trust and where to go. Do you buy mail order or locally? Do you get the extended warranty they try to sell you? Do you need an extra battery? What about a wide-angle lens? How wide? This is one time it really pays to have a mentor.
Personally, I tell every new or want-to-be camera flyer to be careful and ensure that their purchases are what they intend. If you're intending to shoot the Freefly revolution and make awesome head-down videos, a large 3-chip camcorder is probably not what you want to buy. Of course, if you plan on challenging one of the well-known freefall photographers for title of "Top Dog" you may wish to find the most powerful and feature-heavy camera on the market.
By contrast, if you are just intending to shoot video for fun and as a point-of-view when you fun jump, then a basic camcorder with an ultra wide-angle lens(0.42x to 0.45x)may be just what you need. Most of Sony's PC series have become very popular as point-of-view cameras, with even the seasoned pros. For freeflying, they're a dream come true, offering great features, top quality images, and a fair price all in a tiny package that is easy to use.
In between is a vast assortment of choices, manufacturers, models, and formats. With both Sony and JVC making fine models that are as small as a paperback book, Mini-DV is now the single most popular format to shoot skydiving in.
If you intend to shoot videos for hire, such as tandems, check with the local video concession to see what they require. They can also give you an idea of what sort of experience they expect, and how to get it.
If you buy an analog camera, even Digital-8, it may be hard to sell later, and it surely will not
produce the clear and crisp image you're used to seeing from Mini-DV. Analog camcorders are also not nearly as small and light as Mini-DV.
Once you've decided on Mini-DV, the usual manufacturers are JVC and Sony. There are other options, but their equipment is not as robust or well-built as Sony and JVC. They are also not as popular, and while being popular does not mean much - it does mean others have similar equipment, have experience using it, and know what works well and what fails miserably using the camera.
Both manufacturers seem to be widely discussed on some of the Internet chat rooms related to video cameras, so there is a ready source of information for those with access. I have a personal preference for Sony - but that is solely based on MY opinion.
Sony is without question the most popular brand of camcorder that is found in the sport today. Sony builds top-quality equipment that is small and light, yet packed with features - some of which are useful and some of which are useless. Overall, the Sony line has a reputation for quality and is widely used - therefore it will probably be the easiest for you to learn and understand.
The models available seem to change almost daily. In 1996, when I first purchased the Sony PC-7 I own, it was a new and radical departure from camcorder design and sparked an entire line of miniature cameras from both Sony and JVC. Most of these models have very slight differences in features and functions, and are too numerous to discuss at length here.
JVC is also popular, but many models do not offer Firewire ports (for perfect digital copies) and do not offer the same image quality as Sony.
Prices for Mini-DV camcorders have dropped dramatically. My first Sony VX-700 cost over $2000, and the PC-7 was about the same. Today, many of the PC models from Sony sell on the street for $1000 or less. I have seen JVC models advertised as low as $750.
Once you have narrowed your search to a specific brand and model (or models) it's time to decide where to buy. I always try to go to a local business and make a point to get to know one of the sales people. I make them show me the model(s) I am interested in, tell them I'm serious about buying it, and inquire about price. I also tell them I am considering buying mail order, and why.
In many cases, the local retailer will not be able to match a mail order price. However, any mail order purchase has its own risks - which often outweigh the potential cost savings. Most on-line or magazine-ad merchants have large restock fees if the equipment is returned - even if it's their fault or broken when you get it.
They may also try to charge you extra for items the manufacturer intended to be included with the basic package - including batteries! I know of at least one merchant in New Jersey who shipped me an empty box - and charged me for it. When I called to complain, I was told I'd be charged a restock fee even though the box was empty. Buyer beware, indeed.
At any rate - wherever you buy your camera, ensure it is packaged with all of the accessories that are supposed to be included. It may require a visit to the manufacturer's web site, but the effort may save you heartache later on if something important is missing.
Most camcorders do NOT include a Step-up ring that may be required to mount one. Again, do your homework and know what to expect and what you will have to purchase separately.
Personally, I always buy one extra with the required adapters.
Once you actually do purchase the unit, I recommend one more step prior to purchasing your camera helmet - read the owner's manual thoroughly! Aside from being the best way to find out what buttons do what, it is also the only place you can learn what the different indicators and icons really mean.
Knowing that may help you later, when you're on jump run at sunset for the coolest dive of the year. There you are, fat, dumb, and happy, when your camera begins to display funny codes and weird symbols, while making grinding noises and spitting out digital tape.
Next up is buying a camera helmet - but that will have to wait for another installment. Remember - this was your idea! You wanted to fly a camera, even after I warned you…
About Robbie Culver
Robbie Culver is a freefall photographer with 2800 jumps, about 1800 with cameras. Robbie's still photography has been featured in Skydiving and Parachutist magazines, the USPA Calendar, and in various industry ads. His video credits include the staff of Roger Ponce's Color Concepts at the World Freefall Convention, the 1999 Lost Prairie Boogie video, and annual dropzone highlight videos. He and his wife Brenda skydive in the Chicago area, where Brenda is an aspiring 4-way competitor and CReW dog. They can be found most weekends at Chicagoland Skydiving in Hinckley. Examples of Robbie's work and tips on freefall photography can be found on his web site, www.skydreams.net.