Camera Flying Articles

Back in 2016 Nik published some articles about camera flying in Blue Skies Magazine. These came in three installments and covered some prerequisites, safety recommendations, physical conditioning, skill development, risk assessment, procedures, deployment, and equipment choices. Sadly these articles are no longer available online, therefore we have decided to repost them on our blog.

Though these articles are over 5 years old, we still find them to be relevant today. Please note that the images and gifs that accompanied the original articles are no longer available 😦 If you are interested in camera flying and would like to get some coaching/training, please have a look at the AXIS Flight School camera flying program.

Part1 Camera-Flying Essentials: The Camera Flyer

Originally published in Blue Skies Magazine on March 17, 2016 by Axis Flight School Instructor Niklas Daniel

Are you just getting back into the sport and looking forward to filming the super cool idea you had over the winter? Is this the season where you are finally going to jump a camera for the first time? In either case, I hope to be able to share some insight on this fun activity to get your season started off right—and so that you can avoid having to wear the cone of shame.

The most important thing to start with in camera flying is the camera flyer.

Safety Recommendations

The U.S. Parachute Association outlines basic recommendations for skydiving skill levels in the Skydiver’s Information Manual (SIM). In section 6-8 it states that jumpers who wish to jump with a camera should have a C-license and 200 jumps, at least 50 of which are on the equipment you intend to use the camera(s) with. If you feel like you are an exception to these recommendations, then you are in fact the reason why they are in place.

One of the more popular disciplines right now is wing-suiting. And as such, people want to capture the amazing visuals that come with it. Keep in mind that this adds another layer of difficulty. Just because you have reached the 200-jump mark does not mean you can fly a camera and wingsuit simultaneously. You need to train for them both individually and give each the attention and respect they deserve. 

Preparation and Physical Conditioning

Being properly prepared also involves physical conditioning. A typical opening can, on average, generate between 3 to 6 Gs. If your helmet weighs 5 pounds on the ground, it can exert up to 30 pounds of force during an opening that peaks at 6Gs; even through the duration of this strain is short lived, that is all it takes to end up on a stretcher. Your neck (cervical spine) acts like the conduit from your brain to the rest of your body. Most people don’t have a lot of muscle in this area, so it is imperative that we strengthen this part of our body for safety as well as to maximize flying and filming performance. 

In addition to strengthening, you can do your neck a favor and add equipment weight to your helmet gradually over time, instead of jumping with a 15-pound setup on Day One.

Here are some strengthening exercises anyone can benefit from. For camera flyers I recommend doing them first as shown, then as your neck gets stronger you can do them with your camera helmet—once again adding one piece of equipment at a time. This is a great way to stay in camera-flying shape in the off-season.

1. Lay on your back with some pillows (a couch cushion can be a good size for this, as shown below) under your shoulder blades; you want to be able to move your head around without it touching the floor. Let your head hang back, then slowly bring your chin into your chest. Do three sets of 20 repetitions each.

After you’ve practiced and have built up some neck strength, you can move on to doing this exercise with your camera helmet on:

2.Using the same set up, keeping your spine straight, tilt your head back with your nose pointed toward the ceiling. Imagine someone is pulling on the crown of your head. Now turn your head left to right, back and forth. Imagine you are drawing a straight line across the ceiling with your nose. Do 3 sets of 20 repetitions each.

Training and Skills

Focus on improving your flying skills first, before adding the complexity of a camera. This will also give you the ability to exercise your creativity by having the ability to fly around your subject(s) with less effort. If you have a hard time just staying with other flyers, you’re not going to get good footage. It’s not as simple as turning it on and forgetting about it. Get tunnel and/or skydiving coaching in the discipline you want to film.

Since there is no camera-flyer rating, aspiring skydive photographers should take it upon themselves to seek out proper coaching. There are many accomplished videographers who host courses and seminars. Each one will have their own specialties and experiences, so consult several. At the very least, consult your local S&TA for advice before venturing into the unknown. I offer camera coaching at AXIS Flight School, located at Skydive Arizona, including tunnel time to practice flying new equipment and to rehearse emergency procedures while in the airflow. These include pulling handles with a dummy rig, flying through and managing burbles from other flyers, introduction to using a camera jacket (for FS disciplines), and much more.

Attitude and Risk

Your attitude directly influences how safe or unsafe your actions are going to be. I am not saying people should be afraid of jumping with a camera, but a healthy respect for the risks goes a long way. Stay curious about updates in technology and methods, and always give it maximum effort. If you are intending to do this professionally, think about the fact that you are providing both a service and a product. To deliver the best product possible you need to become trained, informed, and practice practice practice … 

Consider the added risk of injury. I have ended up in the ICU because of a spinal cord injury brought on by a less than stellar opening. I probably would have been fine had it not been for the amount of weight that was on my head that day. Consider doing hundreds or even thousands of camera jumps—over time your neck will feel significantly different. Camera flying is something that should be performed by people who are passionate about the discipline. If you’re not passionate, is the added risk really worth it? Ask yourself why you want to jump with a camera. Is it to take pictures? to document a jump (AFF, Coaching, etc.)?

The camera equipment requires that the jumper add additional layers of procedures. Did you practice pulling handles in a harness room when you got recurrent? Did you consider what you would do if a camera was in the mix? Of course, we talk a lot about you being a risk to yourself, but if that does not concern you, then maybe think of the hazards you may present to someone else. Poorly constructed camera helmets are susceptible to breaking. Losing a camera in freefall or under canopy can endanger the people and property on the ground. Sharp edges and protrusions can injure not just yourself, but other jumpers in the event of a collision or emergency aircraft landing.

Part 2 Camera-Flying Essentials: Procedures

Originally published in Blue Skies Magazine on March 22, 2016 by Axis Flight School Instructor Niklas Daniel

Are you just getting back into the sport and looking forward to filming the super cool idea you had over the winter? Is this the season where you are finally going to jump a camera for the first time? In either case, I hope to be able to share some insight on this fun activity to get your season started off right; and so that you can avoid having to wear the cone of shame.

If you’re just landing here, read part 1: The Camera Flyer first!

You need to think about how your camera setup will interact with your parachute system. Do you have the experience and awareness to deal with a problem that is complicated by a camera setup? Remember that your No. 1 priority on every skydive is to save your own life. First worry about your life-saving equipment such as your rig; the cameras are icing on the cake. Getting distracted by a camera is not a good excuse for mistakes like a misrouted chest strap or forgetting to turn on your AAD.

Always wear or secure your helmet in the aircraft during taxi, take-off, and landing. If left unattended you run the risk of damaging your equipment, or worse — injuring a fellow jumper. If the pilot needs to abort a takeoff, that fancy camera helmet has just turned into a projectile in the fuselage.

There are three major things jumpers can lose track of, even without a camera:

  1. Traffic
    Losing track of traffic because you have tunnel vision trying to get the shot could lead to a freefall or canopy collision. Being able to account for all participants on your jump is crucial. Start out flying camera with only one other person, then work your way up to small groups, and then ultimately larger ones.
  2. Altitude
    Altitude awareness, specifically your internal clock, is key because you will probably spend less time looking at your altimeter while you are trying to get the shot. Because of this I recommend every camera flyer have at least one audible altimeter in their helmet and an AAD in their rig.
  3. Position
    Not checking the spot before climb-out can put you at a disadvantage when trying to make it back to the DZ. Likewise filming someone under canopy or wingsuit can cause you to lose focus and land out. If you feel like you need more time to take in your surroundings, perhaps be jump-ready a bit sooner than usual and open the door a bit earlier to spot. With regards to canopy or wingsuit flying, take a moment to locate your DZ during flight. However, make sure that you will not run into your subject(s) while taking a glance.

Deployment

Like I mentioned in my last post, I have ended up in the ICU with a spinal cord injury brought on by a less than stellar opening. There is nothing like coming back to the sport from a neck injury. Needless to say, my anxiety meter still spikes at pull time. I had to regain trust in my equipment again. I’m now pickier with whom I let pack and handle my parachute system, to minimize the chance of future emergencies. On the equipment side, I minimize the weight on my head and neck by only using large cameras or vertically mounting my DSLR when absolutely necessary.

During the main parachute deployment, you will also want to consider your head-to-torso alignment. If your vertebrae are not properly aligned, your camera helmet can create some serious torque on your neck that can injure or kill you. The consensus among most camera flyers is that you should keep your head in a neutral position, meaning your spine should stay perfectly straight. I have found most success when I look at the horizon through my eyebrows as I release my pilot chute. If you can do a headstand, you have probably noticed that your neck can support the weight of your body much easier if you are on the crown of your head. The idea here is very much the same: Balance the weight of your helmet on the crown of your head during the opening. Another trick of the trade you can use, but only if your body flight abilities allow, is to use your hands to support your jaw after you have pitched the pilot chute.

As your body sits upright in the harness you will want to move your hands to your risers, not allowing them to go past your ears. This will help mitigate the potential for your risers or excess brake lines to snag on your ring sight or other helmet components. In addition, you now have the ability to create a heading change quickly by pulling on a rear riser, in the event you have to avoid another jumper on deployment.

Consider pulling at a slightly higher altitude to give yourself more time to deal with any potential problems. Even after the deployment is over and you have stowed away and checked all of your gear, your camera helmet remains a hazard. Many camera flyers including myself have snagged a camera or unsecured helmet mount on a perfectly functioning canopy’s lines. Keep your head in the game; you still have to land safely.

Future Planning

You may be jumping a GoPro for now, which may mitigate some of the risk of larger heavier cameras. But if you are truly passionate about capturing images in this sport, you will probably evolve and start upgrading your equipment. It is a good idea to start practicing good habits with the smaller equipment before moving onto something larger and more expensive.

 

Part 3 Camera-Flying Essentials: Equipment

Originally published in Blue Skies Magazine on April 20, 2016 by Axis Flight School Instructor Niklas Daniel

Are you just getting back into the sport and looking forward to filming the super cool idea you had over the winter? Is this the season where you are finally going to jump a camera for the first time? In either case, I hope to be able to share some insight on this fun activity to get your season started off right; and so that you can avoid having to wear the cone of shame.

If you’re just landing here, read part 1: The Camera Flyer and part 2: Procedures first!

What are the features of a good camera helmet?

Many jumpers mount GoPros with sticky mounts to full-face helmets—neither of which may be intended for aerial camera use. Full-face helmets are great for formation flying because the chances of getting kicked in the head or face are pretty high on those jumps. They are not, however, designed with the purpose of camera flying, which should include features such as a cutaway feature and mounting platforms in mind. A full-face helmet can be retrofitted to accommodate cameras but will still lack the proper fit that camera helmets are designed with in mind. This is because they are designed from the ground up to mitigate vibration due to loose fit.

Serious camera flyers need workhorses we can rely on. We need quick and easy access to cameras and their components. We need solid mounts to prevent the camera from flying off or creating shaky video, and to mitigate snag points.

  1. Fit
    Make sure your camera helmet is snug yet comfortable, as any excess wobble will translate to the camera creating a shaky image. For some manufacturers you will have to be extra careful, as their padding can expand as you ascend in the plane, making it almost impossible to put on just before jump run. Try taking your helmet on a jump to see if you like the fit before adding a bunch of extra weight.
  2. Visibility
    The helmet should provide as much visibility to the camera flyer as possible, in free fall, under canopy, and in the event of an emergency. If you want to use a ring sight, consider getting an articulating bracket to move it from view when necessary.
  1. Audible
    The helmet should have room for at least one audible altimeter. 
  2. Emergency Release
    An emergency release is recommended for camera helmets in the event you have an equipment entanglement. The Cookie Fuel comes with a great cutaway system that allows for easy operation with either hand and is very effective. Although some jumpers install after-market cutaway release systems on full-face helmets, manufacturers advise against it—and for good reason. While it may release the helmet’s closing buckle, the helmet may not be jettisoned because of the tight fit around a user’s head. It’s best to use helmets designed with cutaway systems. 
  3. Shell Quality
    The shell of the helmet should be strong to be a solid foundation of your mounts. As you drill holes into your helmet to attach mounts, stay aware of any undesired cracking, flaking, or splintering of the shell. It is always recommended to start with a smaller pilot hole, rather than starting with a big drill bit.
  4. Snag-Free Mounts
    Use low-profile mounts like the Cookie FlatLock which were designed specifically for skydiving. These do not need to be taped over if a camera is not present because there are no moving parts and do not present a major snag hazard. Other mounts such as the stroboframe have complicated inner workings with springs that can break over time. These were not designed with skydiving in mind and provide some snag points even when a camera is not in play.
  5. Balance
    The weight on your head should be balanced evenly so you do not have to strain your neck excessively on one side.
  6. Versatility
    More advanced camera flyers need to be able to easily and quickly change out cameras and lenses into any combination they desire for creative outlet. This means that some serious forethought needs to be given to the location and angles of the cameras, rings sight, indicator lights, and switches. You may also have to consider that different models have screens that needs to be flipped open to operate the camera or review footage.

Ground testing your equipment is essential. Test your cutaway system on the ground:

  • Practice cutting away your helmet system on the ground.
  • Check for snag hazards by dragging a suspension line over your equipped helmet; if it catches on something, that’s a snag hazard.

Add individual components one at a time to see how they interact with the rest of your equipment. Weigh your helmet in its different combinations and try to make it as light as possible. Have an experienced camera flyer and rigger inspect your setup before taking it to the sky. 

If you are mounting a camera somewhere else on your body, rig it with respect to the deploying parachute. This includes handycams, chest mounts, foot mounts, and any other area on the body. Every edge and potential snag hazard should be covered with tape or protected in some other fashion. 

Canopy Choice

Make sure your canopy is appropriate for your skill level, currency and discipline. For camera flying, you want a canopy that is a consistently reliable, on-heading, slow-opening sniveler. No matter how low-profile your setup is, you still need to make sure your bridle, risers and lines (especially excess brake line) are not able to come into contact with your gear. That means your packing, body position in freefall, and deployment method needs to be spot on. Don’t get complacent; especially when packing. Please stow your excess brake lines, as these are most likely to find a snag point on your helmet or your slider stow (if you use a standard tie down). 

To RSL or Not To RSL?

Every camera flyer needs to consider the pros and cons of using a reserve static-line or SkyHook. The advantage of having one is that it can assist after a low cutaway or if you are disoriented during your cutaway procedures. A potential disadvantage is that after a cutaway you could become unstable and increase the chances of your reserve canopy getting entangled with your helmet. Every camera flyer, no matter their experience level, should revisit this subject frequently (on a jump-by-jump basis in fact). If you are unsure, talk to your local camera guru, or rigger and see if they can provide additional insight.  Once you have determined whether to use an RSL or not, consider adding a cutaway system to your helmet and carrying a hook knife if you do not already have them. Novice camera flyers should practice cutting away their set up on the ground while rehearsing their emergency procedures. Revisit your decision altitude and under what circumstances you would have to cutaway your helmet, understanding that this will require additional time and therefore altitude.

Note to the reader: For a closer look at Nik’s camera helmet from 2016 and the accompanying equipment shopping list, click here. Many cameras have come and gone over the years and Nik has made multiple upgrades along the way. You can expect an updated blog post with his new equipment in the near future.