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.
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 wingsuiting. 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 35-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.
- 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:
- 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 to 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.
Stay tuned for the next installment of Camera-Flying Essentials: Procedures.
Edit March 29, 2016: The first section of this article was re-titled “Safety Recommendations” from “Basic Safety Requirements (BSRs)” and re-worded from “requirements” to “recommendations.”