Camera flying is about living the dream and then reliving it in everyone’s screens
But how do we stay safe while enjoying the fun it can provide?
Every day, new technology is presented to the world. Better phones, better laptops, every gadget we own is getting better, faster, lighter and smaller.
This has greatly affected our lives in both positive and negative ways but today we will focus on a tiny effect of this evolution in our beautiful sport. To fully understand this, we need to get down to the basics. What in the world is this so-called ‘camera flying’? Because if we think about it, most skydivers you know can be called camera flyers since likely their heads are blessed with a little red blinking light that indicates that their action camera is recording. So, in a sense, jumping with a camera, any camera, is camera flying. It’s the most beautiful and lasting form of art in skydiving, all about capturing the moment, making some friends along the way, maybe being fortunate enough to make a living out of it, maybe making some history along the way! Camera flying is about living the dream and then reliving it in everyone’s screens.
Historical camera flyers
But isn’t it so simple? It’s just a GoPro, I don’t need to be a master of the photographic arts to fly a camera, so why does the term ‘camera flyer’ even exist? Well back in the good old days, when beautiful formations were made, eager skydivers thought, “Damn, I’d love to get a print of me in an 8-way to hang in my office for my co-workers to see how much of a badass I really am!” (80s instagram) or, “Man, I’d love a VHS tape of my 4-way stack to show my friends on the watch party I’m hosting next week in my basement” (80s TikTok)… but all this came at a cost. Cameras were HUGE. No-one was going to put a set-up that ridiculously big in the middle of a formation, no-one in their right minds that is. Hence, the camera flyer was born. Professionals dedicated to their craft, rocking crazy set-ups and managing risk in a very effective way: mostly capturing the action from the outside, so an Otter load would be 20 maniacs trying to follow through with the dirtdive and one (or more sometimes) camera flyer, joining along with the sole objective of capturing the moment. Nothing else, that’s why he or she was THE camera flyer; the only one with a camera, and ready to get the shot.
Nowadays these individuals still exist. Their cameras are smaller, lighter, and very much more capable. Like I mentioned above, modern technology looked at the positive adjectives you can attribute to a camera and branched off each one. Better? We have mirrorless cameras with similar form factor to analogue SLRs but vastly more capable. Smaller? We took the best components we could and fitted them into little bricks the size of a golf ball. Now the pros can still capture the incredible media we know and love, managing risk in similar ways to the earlier camera flyers, while opening up the possibility of capturing first-person point of view media by pretty much anyone, and rightfully so. We have the smallest cameras available, the safest helmets, and technology to create the best camera systems possible! It’s all very enticing, especially to someone looking to start filming young in their skydiving career. The use of cameras has become so universal that I find myself looking at the clean helmets of experienced jumpers and wondering, “Why does he not use a camera?”
Risks of camera flying
As with everything there are many risks associated with the use of cameras. Here, we will focus on the amateur side of camera flying, the ‘first-person POV shooting for fun’ jumpers, not the professionals. There are obvious first-party risks to using a camera, sooner or later in your career – one of them being a final loss since 500 euros broken off your helmet always hurts. This, however, is not as bad as the risk of causing snags with various parts of your gear (or someone else’s gear, I’m looking at AFF instructors with the student’s bridle wrapped on their GoPros). There are real consequences to cameras that are set up poorly, and this has been proven with blood. It is inexcusable to not jump with a snag-free set-up. It’s easy enough to test: grab a piece of string and dance it around your helmet (imitate a bridle dancing in a burble) and see where it can get stuck. Most likely it will snag on that XL GoPro bolt you are rocking or that two-storey extension you are using.
Risks of cutting away
Now the common solution and justification to having a Captain Hook style helmet is, “I’ve got a cutaway”. Well, terrific, right?! “The helmet was pulling on my neck, so I got rid of it.” To me, this is the same attitude as, “Well I’m done with this dirty candy wrapper and it’s so sticky I’m not putting it in my pocket, better throw it away randomly and move on”. While this is not about being eco-friendly, it is about the attitude of passing the problem on, either to someone or something else, which is what you are doing. Let’s say you have a low-speed cutaway, the free-bag and the reserve lines are dancing on your back and possibly head. Some reserve lines get snagged on your jazzy GoPro mount but, not to worry, I can cut that away, no problem! Now it’s up to the deploying reserve to deal with the mess! Results may vary…
But now hold on, sometimes you cutaway your helmet because of a snag and it ends up free from the lines holding it. Well now we have a rigid ball of weighted carbon fibre tumbling down at 100+kmh and, with a good pilot, guess where it’s headed? Yup, the dropzone you love so much! And someone’s son, daughter, wife, husband, dad, mom, friend, etc are looking up waiting to receive you and all the others after an awesome jump but guess what? They will meet an untimely doom due to the missile you just dropped on them. Now the locals will complain to the mayor’s office that their nice evening at the dropzone bar turned into a horror movie when a bowling ball mangled their friend and traumatised the kids who just wanted to see some parachutes, and now the dropzone is closed. Now I know this sounds like the works of a vivid, morbid imagination but it’s a VERY possible outcome to a very small mistake, which can be so easily fixed that it’s a crime not to enforce it.
Snag hazard reduction can be accomplished in many ways. Some are high tech with modern 3d printing solutions (look for the 3D printing master at your DZ, I highly recommend and use @jw_skyprints), or low tech, some tape around the snag hazard to eliminate it. I have done this many times when building one-time use set-ups such as RED cameras for movies and TV shoots. Manufacturers are also coming up with their own solutions, like Tonfly with (some) of their mounts and – my favourite – Cookie’s G35 modular system.
There is also a very prevalent mindset factor when using a camera. Studies have shown that just having a blinking red light pointed at you can have a subconscious effect on your behaviour. There is an influence when capturing and being captured. It’s a distraction over our heads, it crowds our mind at 200km/h, and the only way that mind can be freed enough to have space for another burden is with skydiving experience. 200 jumps or bust. I would also agree with the minimum being lowered to 100 jumps and a camera safety course but this is biased since I’d be quick to set up a course and cash in on it, so I won’t pressure any entity to allow it. For now, at least.
Yes, we all make mistakes and yes, there are still many snag-full setups being jumped in the world. But all this rambling about safety to say that, when it comes to your first camera set-up, how and when to assemble and start using it… take a step back, enjoy your last unrecorded jumps and look at flying camera as a milestone to achieve and not something to rush. And when you do get that camera, it’s your duty as a member of a beautiful community to jump a responsibly assembled set-up. Thank you for reading, have a good day. 😁
Video: Camera Flying Basics
Snag Hazards and Helmet Cutaways
Video by author Gonçalo Resende, discussing camera flying in general as well as the use of POV cameras, snag hazards and cutaway systems on helmets.
This article was inspired by Gonçalo’s presentation on camera flying at the 2022 European Skydiving Symposium, a 3-day event of safety seminars, demos, expo hall, lunches, parties, activities and more. Find out more on their website here.