Small-Format Camera Safety
Since skydiving first began as a sport, skydivers have wanted to capture its amazing visuals. Early pioneers used film-based still and movie cameras to let ground observers see what it’s like to jump out of an airplane and freefall over the landscape below.
As cameras improved and video came on the scene, the demand for freefall photography increased. The first jumpable video cameras were two-piece units: a large recorder with a somewhat smaller camera head that the jumper could mount on a helmet. This gave the sport something it had not had before: a way to review a jump almost instantly. Jumpers were able to land and see within minutes how the jump had gone before going up and jumping again. The video camera became a tool to improve performance and determine the validity of records, as well as a method of capturing images for later viewing.
With better video technology came an increase in the number of skydivers jumping with cameras. Unfortunately, it also led to the first camera-related fatality caused by the distraction of extra equipment: In 1988, a jumper carrying a video recorder in a chest-mount harness forgot to put on his rig before making a skydive to record a student. Apparently, the complexity of the camera harness masked the lack of a rig from both the jumper and the other people in the plane.
Over the years, video cameras have gotten smaller, while their quality and design have improved. This has reduced the risk of neck injuries and entanglements with equipment and has allowed more skydivers to take up photography. Today, due to the instructional value of video, almost no competition, coached 4-way team jump or big-way event happens without it. And now tandem students can share their videos with friends online, often within just a few hours of jumping.
Recently, consumer electronics companies have introduced very-small-format cameras that have pushed the trend even further. The ContourHD® is not much bigger than a tube of toothpaste, and it fits easily on helmets and gloves. And the GoPro® not only comes with all the hardware needed for mounting it to helmets, its advertising portrays it as ideal for skydiving.
With all the small and easy-to-use cameras available, it’s tempting for new jumpers to slap one on a helmet and go make a jump. The size seems to make them safer than bigger, bulkier cameras, and installation is a snap on most helmets. Their low cost also makes damaging one less of a worry. The rewards seem significant: a video to post on Facebook® to show friends and family, a record of a fun jump and even the potential to learn to fly video and get a job at a DZ recording tandem and AFF students.
However, as the use of small-format cameras has increased, so have the number of incidents related to their use. While the small size of cameras does make them easier to mount, their size does not eliminate snag hazards. More importantly, the primary danger that cameras pose to jumpers—distraction—is as big an issue with small cameras as it is with larger ones.
Douglas Spotted Eagle, a cameraman and wingsuit instructor at Skydive Elsinore in California, recently compiled a list of known small-format camera incidents. His list includes 34 incidents ranging from very minor problems (funneled skydives and minor freefall collisions) to more serious problems (automatic activation device discharges, malfunctions and broken bones).
This reinforces one of the most important facts about flying a camera: A camera will distract you, even if you are determined to just turn it on and forget it. Smaller cameras may reduce snag hazards, but they do not make it easier to ignore the distraction posed by flying with a camera.
Even experienced jumpers are not immune to this. In the same incident list, three tandem instructors wearing hand-mounted cameras did not pull their reserve handles after cutting away from malfunctions because they wanted to get a shot of themselves falling away from their canopies. Their reserve static lines initiated the reserve deployments.
In a more tragic example, a skydiver with 150 jumps recently died while recording a tandem. The videographer was not accustomed to the long tandem spot (tandems often exit the aircraft farther away from the drop zone than recreational jumpers do), and she struggled to get back to the DZ landing area, barely clearing a power line before attempting to turn into the wind at about 50 feet to land. The resulting hard landing proved fatal. While this incident was not directly caused by her camera, it is possible that the additional distraction of filming the tandem contributed to her opening at a point that made it difficult for her to reach the drop zone and that her desire to capture the tandem’s landing contributed to her decision to try to reach the main landing area instead of choosing an alternative area she could reach at a safe altitude.
Learning Camera Skills Correctly
An inexperienced jumper will often think that he can put a camera on his head, forget about it and just “video my own skydive.” But learning camera safely is not as easy as that. Wearing a camera significantly increases the complexity of a jump, and those who wish to do so must have prepared for it and have gained enough experience to do so safely. You can’t just pick up a camera helmet and get on a load.
Having an adequate amount of skydiving experience is critical. Skydiving requires a lot of attention, and newer jumpers do not have much to spare. USPA recommends that a person have 200 jumps before he tries to fly video, and this is a good absolute minimum level of experience. At 200 jumps, skydivers are starting to become familiar with the environment in freefall and under canopy and may have enough experience to start working with cameras (although some jumpers will need more).
If you’d like to learn to fly camera, you should also:
- Become proficient at basic body flight (tunnel time can be very helpful with this). Fly with another person and pay particular attention to fall-rate control and side-sliding into position. You need to be able to effortlessly put yourself where you want to be before you start trying to put a camera where you want it to be.
- Choose a subject for video practice. An excellent way to start learning belly-flying video is to film intermediate-level 4-way teams, because they present a stable target, are likely to break off at a reliable altitude and will not mind if you mess up occasionally. Avoid new 4-way teams because they often slide around too much; advanced competition teams may put too much pressure on you to get the shot.
- Get good at whatever discipline you want to film. If you want to film 4-way teams, learn to perform basic 4-way. If you’d like to record students, get your coach rating. (It’s critical to know how to fly with students before you stick a camera on your head to film them.)
- Find a good local videographer, and get his advice on equipment setup, snag prevention, aircraft safety with camera helmets, emergency procedures (for example, consider downwind and water landings with a camera helmet) and flying with camera wings (both in freefall and under canopy).
- Configure your equipment correctly. A releasable camera helmet is a must, and you should be able to operate the camera itself without having to pay much attention to it. Minimize snag points—a line dragged across the helmet from below should not find places it can easily lodge—on any camera, be it helmet, hand or chest mounted.
Using small-format video cameras can be a great way to capture unusual angles, and they are a relatively inexpensive way to shoot inside or outside video of skydives. They can also provide a good learning tool for new jumpers who want to get into flying video. However, it’s critical that jumpers do this after they have the experience to do so safely, the spare attention needed to deal with the camera and the training to handle the new equipment and procedures.
About the Author
Bill von Novak, D-16479, made his first jump in 1991. Since then, he's worked as an organizer, an S&TA and a chief instructor and has taught students via static-line, tandem and AFF methods. He has been on three big-way formation skydiving world records and currently works as a videographer at Skydive Perris in California. He lives with his wife, Amy, and son, Liam, in San Diego.
The Five Myths of Small Cameras
“I’ll just turn it on and forget it.”
The most common misconception that new jumpers have about small cameras is that they will be able to ignore that they have one on. Numerous incidents have demonstrated that fighting the distraction of a camera is not easy for skydivers of any experience level. The fact is, wearing a camera adds complexity to any skydive, and it is crucial for camera jumpers to have enough experience to handle that.
“Since I don’t have a big, bulky camera, I don’t have to worry about snag hazards.”
There are two misconceptions in this phrase. The first is that smaller devices have fewer snag hazards. This is not the case: A GoPro® with a standard mount, for example, poses significant snag hazards and will not release under the stress of a trapped line or bridle. In addition, since jumpers often use small cameras on unmodified helmets, the helmets do not generally have a quick-release feature to help deal with entanglements. The second misconception is that snag hazards are the most significant problem for new jumpers using cameras. Distraction causes most small-format camera incidents, not snags.
“I will just use it to video my solo and regular jumps so I can become a better skydiver.”
The video that results from attaching a camera to a skydiver and having it record what’s in front of him is not all that useful for personal training purposes since there is no reference point. This type of video will generally just show people sliding by or record a tilting horizon and won’t give any indication of what the camera flyer is doing. Video can certainly be a useful tool to debrief the skydivers being filmed, but this requires a camera flyer to have the skills necessary to record other people in freefall.
“For practice, I’ll just follow tandem (or AFF) students out and stay far away.”
Student jumps are among the most dangerous jumps to film due to the unpredictability of the student, the attendant fall-rate changes and the potential for early deployments. Camera flyers should never jump with a student—even if they will stay far away—without first getting the explicit approval of the chief instructor of the school. In addition, U.S. tandem manufacturers require the following experience before skydivers start flying camera for tandems:
- 500 relative work jumps, 100 camera jumps and at least 100 jumps in the previous year; or
- 300 jumps and having passed the air skills portion of a USPA Coach Course.
“I’m progressing more quickly than average skydivers, and my camera is very small, so I’ll be ready for it sooner.”
The 200-jump recommendation is an absolute minimum. People who have 200 jumps are not automatically ready to fly camera; they merely have enough experience that they may be ready. Not everyone will be ready to start flying camera at 200 jumps, and even those who are ready will need some practice before they are safe videographers.