Flying with a camera can be a lot of fun, and is a reasonably easy goal for new skydivers to achieve.
The USPA SIM Section 6.8E recommends that a skydiver have 200 skydives before putting on a camera. The first question often asked is “Why 200 jumps?” I believe the answer to that question is that in times past, the D license (which at one time required only 200 jumps) meant that a skydiver had experienced enough of the basics of skydiving that he/she could begin exploring additional responsibilities during a skydive. By no means is anyone with only 200 jumps generally prepared to be a good nor safe camera flyer, but everyone needs a benchmark from which to begin. This article isn’t about debating the merits of jump numbers; I’d recommend potential camera flyers stick with the SIM and the findings of the USPA.
Before beginning, you’ll need to make a couple of gear decisions straight off, and this article is to help you prepare for those decisions.HEADGEAR
Choosing a helmet is the first and potentially most important decision in flying a camera. There are a lot of good helmets out there; each manufacturer has their own ideas about why their helmets may be better than another helmet. What your first decision will be isn’t as much about a brand, but rather a type.
P>There are two types of helmets; those that are primarily side mount, and those that are primarily top mount.
Most side mount helmets do offer at least a small top area to which a second camera or other fixture may be mounted. Most of the top-mount helmets are designed to place everything on the top of the helmet. Each type of helmet has its own advantages and disadvantages.
Freeflyers and inside RW/FS skydivers tend to prefer side mount camera helmets not only because of the profile of the helmet, but due to the way the air moves around the helmet. Those that are shooting four/eight-way FS might prefer a top mount not only due to the greater stability of a flat-top profile, but that the larger top area allows for two cameras to be mounted (one acts as a backup in case a camera fails in competition). Commercial photographers tend to prefer flat top systems so that they can mount larger cameras, or have enough space to mount a DSLR and video camera from the same perspective point.
One point to consider aside from the primary flying format; top mount helmets with properly centered weight are less injurious to the neck over repetitive openings.VIDEO CAMERA
Video camera models change pretty quickly, so it’s pointless to recommend models vs features.
While recommending a brand is tempting to avoid, Sony camcorders have a strong position in the skydiving market for several reasons.
-External control. This is very important, as you’ll want to know whether the camera is on, recording, battery failing, or nearly out of media. There are a couple brands of control devices that provide this information.
-Electronic Image Stabilization (EIS). This is fairly important for freeflying, and much less of an issue for tandem shooters. Avoid Optical Image
Stabilization in most cases. The floating lenses of an OIS system makes it difficult to shoot a stable image under any but the most optimal shooting situations (very difficult to achieve).
Small is in; cameras don’t need to be large to produce large results. Keep weight on your head to a minimum and your neck will thank you over hundreds or thousands of openings.
If your intent is to wear a camera merely to document skydives with friends, low-cost camcorders such as the GoPro Hero and similar small cameras are wonderful. If your eventual goal is to work towards shooting tandems or teams, you’ll want to consider a higher quality camera. A current favorite is the Sony CX series of camcorders.LENSES
Most camcorders do not offer lens widths sufficient for most inside or tandem-oriented skydiving. Wide angle lens adapters are commonly found on camcorders used for skydiving. For most skydiving use, a .5 or double field of view lens is sufficient. If you’re flying inside video for FS or Freeflying, a .3 or more than double wide field of view is generally desired. Anything more wide than a .3 is typically going to be relegated to handcam or specialized use.
Depending on the size of the camera’s lens thread, a step-up or step-down ring might be necessary. Step-down rings almost always assure a vignetted shot (black circle around your video frame), whereas step-up rings rarely cause a vignette. Step-up and step-down rings are very inexpensive. Some are plastic, others are aluminum. Some professionals prefer plastic rings so that if a riser strike or line catches on a lens and tears it off, the plastic ring will give way before damaging the camera. While this is likely true, plastic rings also deteriorate in strength when exposed to sunlight. If you use a plastic step ring, be sure to periodically inspect it to be sure it’s not become brittle or cracked due to sun exposure.RINGSIGHTS
Although it’s tempting to want to outfit a helmet with everything right from the start, it’s a good idea to add parts one step at a time. A ringsight is a good tool for some disciplines; it helps the videographer know where the camera lens is looking, and some types of ringsights help with framing and distance.
Ringsights aren’t necessary for inside shooting of FS or Freeflying. No matter what, a ringsight is a snag hazard regardless of how much care is taken to prevent it from being so. The risk can be lessened, but not entirely removed. The ringsite should be one of the last accessories added to a camera helmet.
In lieu of a ringsight, consider a “paper asshole” or a punch hole reinforcement sticker, mounted on your goggles. This can serve the same purpose and yet completely remove the snag hazard of a ringsight. A circle or dot can be drawn on goggles as well.
To sight in a dot on a goggle; face a plain wall on which, you’ve taped a target. A paper plate works well for this exercise. Stand back from the wall at a distance of about ten feet. Put on the camera helmet, turn on the camera, and have a friend hold your head/helmet so the paper plate is dead center in the camera’s display. Keep your eye looking forward; don’t be tempted to roll the eyeball up/down/sideways. Keep it straightforward. It might take a moment to get comfortable holding your eye straightforward while a friend guides your head/helmet to the centerpoint/target.
Once you’ve relaxed, focused on the target, and the target is in the center of the camera, mark your goggles (one side only, usually the right side) with a DRY ERASE marker. Remove the helmet, remove the goggles/glasses, and then put them back on and check to see that a reasonably accurate target acquisition occurs. Otherwise, repeat the aiming/targeting process.
It’s worth mentioning once again however, a ringsite should be one of the last accessories added to a camera helmet when you’re a newcomer to camera flying. A ringsight adds an unnecessary snag hazard.STILL CAMERA
Again, it’s very tempting to buy a camera helmet with everything in one shot, and as mentioned previously, is a poor decision for newcomers to camera flying. Learning to fly with a video camera will help develop the skills necessary for flying a still camera.
DSLR cameras are popular, as they record stills to a memory card, making for fast previewing of photos taken during a skydive, and for tandems, DSLR’s are necessary for fast delivery of photos to tandem students. Though Canon and Nikon are both popular brands of cameras for skydiving, most any kind of camera can be modified to accept a bite, tongue, blow, or hand switch for taking skydiving photographs.MOUNTING DEVICES
The device used for mounting a still or video camera to the camera helmet is critical, particularly for video cameras. If the mounting device isn’t rock-solid, the camera will shake or shudder in freefall, resulting in an unstable image. Sometimes this shudder/shake will be blamed on the video camera when the blame lies squarely on the camera mount. Check whatever mounting device you’re considering to be sure it will not move either at the time of purchase, or after it’s been in use for a period of time. Personally, I’m a big fan of the Cookie Composites Padlock systems and the Really Right Stuff mounting systems. Neither are inexpensive, but if you want solid video and clean stills, a solid mounting system is critical.CONTROLLING SYSTEMS
Camcorders and still cameras need hands-free operation. Video cameras can be manually started/stopped in the aircraft, but for convenience and comfort, most camera flyers use a control system of some sort. Sony tapeless systems offer essentially one controller choice; the HyPeye products from GetHypoxic. All of the camera control systems also offer an indicator that indicates the status of the camcorder such as Power On/Off, Standby, and Record modes. In lieu of these indicator devices, you can always wear a small mirror on the wrist next to the altimeter, and view the Record light on the camcorder. I’d recommend a plastic mirror vs a glass mirror in case your wrist strikes the side of the aircraft.
Still cameras/DSLRs require some sort of trigger device to cause the camera to snap a shot. Conceptus manufactures tongue and bite switches for Canon cameras. Custom Nikon switches are available from The Ranch Pro Shop and other resellers. Some Pentax cameras use the Canon connection (2.5mm plug).
It’s difficult to recommend a bite switch, hand switch, tongue switch, or blow switch; everyone has a preference. I personally prefer a tongue switch, but many friends like bite switches. Some like hand switches. You can also “roll your own” from inexpensive parts available at Radio Shack.JUMP SUIT/CLOTHING
Some camera flyers opt for jumping with or without a camera suit, or a suit with “wings.” Although it’s a personal preference, camera wings provide the camera flyer a more stable flying platform (when used correctly) provide the for a great deal of range and control that isn’t quite so easy to achieve when wearing a standard jumpsuit or freefly suit. If you’re looking at flying with tandems, wings are often an important part of the jump. If you’re shooting freefly work, you probably won’t want to wear wings.
There is a lot to learn about flying a camera. Getting good at RW is perhaps the best thing you can do to prep for flying a camera with tandems and four/eight way teams. Understanding burbles, trapdoors, safe zones, and having good belly skills that include side sliding, the ability to orbit, and a very broad fallrate are all important aspects of camera flying.
This article does not discuss the challenges of camera flying and make no mistake; there are many dangers. One such danger, is that the camera flyer is always focused on the action in front, and never able to turn to see what’s happening behind him/her. Another danger is that in order to “get the shot” some camera flyers lose altitude awareness and may find themselves well below appropriate deployment altitudes.
Spend time talking to the camera flyers on your dropzone, reading the forums, and pay attention to some of the videos you’ll find on Skydivingmovies.com, YouTube, and Vimeo. All have examples of good and bad camera flying. You can learn a lot just from watching the techniques of others.