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Camera-Flying Essentials: Equipment

The right equipment is essential to getting the shots.

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.

    My helmet setup with articulating ring sight bracket.

    My helmet setup with articulating ring sight bracket.

  3. Audible
    The helmet should have room for at least one audible altimeter.
  4. 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.

    Zach Lewis put together some valuable information about the Bonehead flat-top cutaway system over at Skydive Mag.

  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. Balance
    The weight on your head should be balanced evenly so you do not have to strain your neck excessively on one side.
  8. 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:

Test your helmet cutaway system on its own.

Test your helmet cutaway system on its own.

Practice cutting away your helmet 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.

Drag a section of line over your helmet to catch any snag points.

Drag a section of line over your helmet to catch any snag points.

Check the whole helmet for snag points!

Check the whole helmet for snag points!

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, not 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.

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