The sleek, low-profile design, an easy-to-use system, so small it’s hardly there, and it’s oh-so-glorious high quality images – the Go Pro, Hero. In this social media society, the Go Pro is seductive, yet it’s oh-so-risky. For all you rebels at heart, those willing to learn, and especially those with less than 200 jumps - let’s lay down some tracks about being courted to don the camera.
As an AFF Instructor and having been in the sport for nearly two decades, I have developed a hearty outlook about jumping a camera. But let’s slip on a bit of perspective mixed in with a bit of old school and new school thinking. So to round out this discussion, I interviewed two well-respected and well-known camera flyers about the topic – Norman Kent and Brian Buckland.
Norman Kent, a life-long photographer and artist has been jumping a camera since 1975. Norman only wanted to try skydiving once. However, he experienced something so captivating, he saw an opportunity to capture the moments of beauty that was so different and so freeing in the sky. He admitted to be a fast learner, however he first strapped on a camera only having 24 jumps – it was a Kodak Instamatic with 126 cartridges.
Norman didn’t have a skydiving photographer mentor. In fact, there weren’t many people strapping cameras on their heads in those days. It was an arduous and expensive venture for those willing to try. And for Norman, he made his own contraption by using a motorcycle helmet with no chin cup, wired a mechanical plunger, and confessed he didn’t know anything. So as he jumped his equipment, the air pushed the helmet up and the buckled strap choked him as the helmet moved all over his head and he fumbled in the sky. While these set backs were disappointing, it did not detour him. Instead, he was motivated to invent something that worked better - this approach lead to many camera helmet and jumpsuit innovations over his career, leaving a legacy of pioneering in camera flying.
I asked Norman what he thought of today’s USPA’s current regulations for jumpers to wait until they had 200 jumps to fly a camera. “Regulation is a good idea, a good guideline,” he says. “It sounds hypocritical to say because I started with the ‘yahoo’ approach, but it’s wise to wait.”
I’ve known Norman for a long time. I’ve seen him jump enormous contraptions carefully constructed upon his head. He’s a proficient and a well-respected camera flyer and we talked how different it is today with the Go Pro being so small. I ask him if he sees any dangers. “It all comes down to the attitude of the jumper,” he begins. “Because the Go Pro is small, it’s inviting people to use it who aren’t even in photography. It’s [jumping a camera] not so simple and there are dangers involved.”
Norman and I both agreed that there is a shift in thinking in skydiving from the renegade days of the past. The development of tandem jumping and social media have greatly changed the image our sport, attracting more types of people to experience skydiving that the thinking of the past has to change.
Norman elaborates, “People learn so differently that I’m not pro-regulating, I’m pro-educating. We need to develop a training or an awareness program [about jumping a camera.]” Although he recognizes the dangers happening, he also sees this as an opportunity for the sport. “This is an opportunity for coaches and instructors, for inventors, for schools…” Norman is currently working on a project for a You Tube production geared towards camera flying educational purposes coming out later this year.
Let’s bring it back in the day where these young lads photographed below are sporting some serious state-of-the-art camera gear in 1988.
Brian Buckland comes from an entirely different background. Brian made his first jump in 1994 and didn’t jump a camera until 5 years later and racked up about 500 jumps. Brian’s philosophy was to become a proficient flyer first; so he logged about 200 belly jumps, then learned how to freefly. During this time he notes that he was becoming more aware of his routine with gear checks, canopy skills, and landings. Finally the time came and he strapped on his first camera – a Canon Rebel 2000, with film.
Brian went to Radio Shack after buying an off-the-shelf flat top camera helmet to wire up a shutter release. He admits to being nervous since his routine greatly changed with having to be concerned with battery life, clean lenses, and correct camera settings, in addition to checking his gear and high fiving everyone. When he landed from his first jump, he looked over his wares and was surprised how well they turned out. He submitted them and they were published.
“I learned about photography after the fact [of getting the first photo published]. So I went to a continuing education course for photography and started translating that to the sky.” Over the years Brian has developed a systematic routine and is busy the entire flight making sure everything is in order prior to jumping. “It’s important to be comfortable with gear, build good habits, and safely skydive with others.”
Brian also didn’t have any skydiving photography mentors. However, he looked up to the likes of Norman Kent, Joe Jennings, Mike McGowan, Tom Sanders, Craig O’Brien and later, Jason Peters. Now with established photographers in the sport, I asked Brian what he thought of USPA’s camera regulations. “The numbers are decent because the time in sport and time in the air are important in building a comfort level. Adding something new when you’re new and not comfortable with the everything else, something like a camera becomes a distraction.”
Both Norman and Brian elaborated how the common attitude is, “it’s [Go Pro] not a camera, it’s so small, you-don’t-even-notice-it” attitude. Brian conveyed a story how, against his advice, a tunnel instructor with about 100+ jumps had lost two Go Pros! And we’ve all seen the photo on Facebook with an AFF student’s pilot chute wrapped around an instructor’s Go Pro. The Go Pro is a snag hazard and most people who wear them use non-cutaway helmets and screwed on mounts.
This is an excerpt from USPA on September 1st, 2011:
The SIM is an excellent outline about camera safety and requirements, but it doesn’t educate. I agree that too many people have a careless attitude about the jumping camera equipment too soon and that we need more education. We’re fortunate to have an organization that mediates our government relations, memberships, insurance, etc. However, they do not govern, they suggest and that gives us the freedom to self-police safety amongst ourselves. If we want to see change for the better, we need to take it into our hands and pass on good information.
Allowing newbie’s to jump camera equipment just because they’re “heads up” isn’t a qualifier to allow them the privilege to wear one. I visited a DZ and asked the S&TA; about their policy of jumpers with sub 200 jumps wearing a Go Pro. The answer I received was, “If their heads up, it’s ok.” I quizzically looked at him and said, “How do you know he’s heads up? Have you jumped with him?” Two hundred jumps is, although not the best, a measure of experience. At least I can assume they’ve earned their B-license (including the canopy progression) and have a bit of time and experience. I don’t have a chance to jump with everyone to qualify someone with sub 200 jumps “heads up,” and who’s to judge whose heads up anyways?!
There’s so much more to just jumping a small-little-thing like the Go Pro. Because of social media, there are ethics that ought to be tied into this conversation. Excited newbie’s may use their footage unjustly and this effects more than the person jumping it. For example, Gerardo Flores – an uncurrent, 30-jump wonder sneaks a camera on his jump and has a “near death experience” that goes viral on the web. This situation affected the skydiving community negatively and gave a sneak peak to the public how “reckless” skydivers can be. Not to mention other videos that go live streaming on the web.
I asked Brian what advice he’d give to those thinking about jumping any kind of camera and he said, “Be comfortable with yourself well before strapping on a camera. Be proficient under the parachute, build your awareness, know your emergency procedures, know your gear and wear the proper gear. Then, learn about the camera prior to jumping it.”
Although Norman and Brian didn’t have mentors, both have been a huge help and inspiration to aspiring camera flyers over the years. Both have made themselves available to help give direction and may be reached through their websites, www.BrianBuckland.com and wwww.NormanKent.com. And stay tuned for Norman’s upcoming video on You Tube, "The Dangers of Being a HERO".
Now, for all you rebels at heart and those willing to learn, I cannot tell you what to do but share my experience. However, when you meet the camera flying requirements, it’s like earning the rite of passage to don a camera on your head. Throw in a bit of education in there and believe me, it’s totally cool and absolutely worth the wait.