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Video Cameras for Skydiving: Safety Considerations

The concepts of skydiving and parachuting are very murky and somewhat shrouded in mystery. The origins can be traced back to legends in ancient times in China prior to 90 B.C.  In the early 1500's even the renowned artist and inventor Leonardo da Vinci developed early concept sketches of parachutes as a means of saving people from burning buildings. While da Vinci never made a functional prototype,  many more inventors over the centuries made and tested their own versions of parachutes  for numerous different reasons. Some were tested as emergency devices, especially used to save hot air balloon operators. Parachutes were also used as a means of safely delivering supplies and goods into fields or dangerous territory. Of course, it wasn't long before people were using parachutes for daredevil stunts, and high adrenaline recreation.

When the 19th century came about, parachutes became commonplace in the rapidly growing aeronautics  industry. Initially used as a safety apparatus for pilots and crewmen, it was not long before military regimes the world over began implementing skydiving as a means of delivering troops and equipment  to the battlefield as seen heavily throughout World Wars I and II.  Through extensive military use and development, parachutes went through many iterations until they eventually became as we know them today.  Most of the procedures and techniques that we follow today in skydiving were also heavily developed at this time.  It wasn't until the 1960's and 1970's that parachuting became a full fledged sport and recreational activity.

Early film pioneers recorded the first skydiving videos on the ground as people slowly descended to safety. These early recordings help spread the interest in skydiving and demonstrate to viewers  what the growing sport was all about. Eventually as the interest in skydiving spread, and technology became more and more ubiquitous worldwide, the request for a  live recording  of a jumper as they make the leap became impossible to ignore. Eventually people plotted on different ways to pull off this challenging feat.

Initially camera men trained in skydiving were making the leap from planes with big bulky equipment. The extra equipment served to distract and over complicate jumps.  This led to some unnecessary deaths as a result. However the rise of aerial  photographers persevered, leading to new aerial techniques and the introduction of camera rigs. Nowadays camera technology has advanced to higher resolutions with better features, in smaller and smaller packages.  The increased affordability of equipment and rise of video enthusiasts has made aerial photography a very popular hobby  among skydivers and even a career for some. This article will go into depth about the different types of camera technologies, and the dangers and concerns of skydiving with cameras.

Safety Concerns and Dangers

Skydiving in itself requires great attention to detail to preserve safety and is an adrenaline fueled activity that has its own share of risks. When you decide to add camera use into the mix, this leads to even more potential for human error.  Any errors while skydiving can have catastrophic results and therefore the utmost care and consideration must be taken at all times.  Originally, jumpable camera systems were two large pieces, a recorder and somewhat smaller camera.

Leaving a lot to be desired, cameras have developed into smaller and smaller units with less to distract the jumper. Nowadays camera technology being small and easy to use, many jumpers get ahead of themselves and are often over excited to start filming which can lead to complications in itself. It's important to be very experienced before attempting aerial photography of any kind. The USPA recommends that skydivers hold a C license before jumping with any sort of camera, in addition to special training.

Many skydiving professionals have pegged the action camera "GoPro" generation as a huge contributing factor to accidents in the last decade. Many novice skydivers and professionals alike are just not as careful  or considerate as they should be. There are numerous hazards that arise when video cameras are added into the mix when skydiving.

The first major concern is the ever occurring risk of the cameras actually coming off entirely and hurtling towards  the earth at accelerated speeds. These cameras could of course cause serious damage to people and property. Many manufacturers make extraordinarily flimsy mounts that simply do not stand up to a stress test. Because of this failure on the part of camera manufacturers, third party camera mounts are very big business. Of course there is no standard across these mounts. Here is a great example of video captured from a GoPro falling back to Earth because of a poor mount.

Even more preposterous, are pole camera mounts that are mounted directly on the operator's helmet. While these are not often used in skydiving, they are worth mentioning for the sheer lack of thought behind this design that commonly cause neck injuries from the pole colliding with or becoming entangled in any number of things.

While poor mounts that result in freefalling cameras are certainly a problem, and even bigger risk is cameras that don't detach so easily, i.e. cameras and mounts that become snag points on your parachute lines. This is an incredibly dangerous risk for skydivers everywhere. As stories of lost gear and free falling cameras are spread, more and more skydivers are taking extra precautions to make sure their cameras are not going to detach mid-air. The bigger and bulkier the bracket holding the camera is, the bigger risk of causing a snag point. These snag points exceedingly often end up tying up parachute lines, and cause head and neck injuries. They are often considered one of the biggest risks of skydiving with cameras.

Just jumping with a camera is in itself a huge distraction. The skydiver becomes distracted while making sure the camera is on securely, if it’s facing the right way, if their settings are correct, will they get the correct angle, among various things.  Their attention becomes centered around non crucial aspects of the dive, and this results in proper procedures and safety precautions not being followed.  For this reason only the most experienced divers should be diving with any other duties than that of completing a safe, successful dive.  

POV Camera Options

There are numerous different POV or body worn cameras on the market today. While they all have different features, some of the biggest factors that are important to look for are size, resolution, and stability.  Without stability and proper mounts to use with your cameras, your footage will likely come out very shaken and unusable. When skydiving, it’s very important to find suitable mounts designed to have as few snag points as possible. Also, they must be designed to withstand the wind and air resistance when falling.

On the market today there are helmets with built-in cameras. While the camera quality would depend on the manufacturer, these helmets are great being that they are all in one units, meaning less to worry about when preparing for a jump. Best yet, being as the camera is contained within the helmet and only a lens cover protrudes from it, there are much fewer snag point than just a camera bracketed to your head.

Aside from mounting options and safety concerns, there are numerous features to look for when purchasing a camera for skydiving use. Some of these features are very basic but others make a huge difference when you are using these cameras while skydiving. Physical dimensions and size and weight are all very important to know before purchasing a camera. Knowing how much extra weight a camera will add is very important, as well as being able to imagine the camera attached to your gear.  The smaller the camera the better normally, for less complications and possible hazards.

Different image stabilization features are also very important features to have.  Electronic Image stabilization (EIS) and Optical image stabilization (OIS) help compensate for shaking and jittery camera video. EIS reportedly produces a better, cleaner video when used in skydiving.

External control ports on the physical camera model are very nice features to have as well. What these ports allow is your camera to be used with different controllers and expansion kits. These will allow you to control your cameras in numerous helpful ways, leaving your hands and attention free for other things. There are different controllers for flash controls, start and stop options and zoom and clarity as well as different digital effects. Theres hand controls, helmet controls, even different bite controllers for total hand free maneuverability. With these external controls you are now able to mount your cameras in different ways you otherwise would not be able to.

Choosing your lens type is important when you are purchasing a new camera. Knowing what lenses you plan to use and the different ways in which you will use them is important to figure out before making your buy. Cameras should have the option to use different lens types with that model. You want to be able to upgrade and use different lenses for different effects. You also don’t want to be using a top of the line camera with some bargain lens type.

You might also want to determine what type of boxes and enclosures can be used with your camera before making the purchase. These boxes and enclosures can very well save the life of your camera in an unfortunate event. For avid outdoorsmen who want to use these cameras for more than just skydiving, enclosures are a lot more important. These enclosures can allow your cameras to go underwater or take extreme distress in other scenarios. It’s important to consider all intended uses of the camera before making the purchase.

Of course it goes without saying but always refer to the manufacturer specifications and comparing them to your needs and intended uses. You want to take note of the resolution, battery life, compatibility, and recording file type among all the other specs. It’s very important to know the capabilities of the camera.

Selecting a Camera

Here are several good sources for gaining more insight on how to choose the right camera for yourself:

Best Video Cameras for Skydiving

This section will discuss the best rated cameras on the market for skydiving use. These are rated the best specifically for their use with skydiving  by users and professionals in the industry. Some are better for their overall quality and reliability. Others are better for their features and specific applications. For the full review we suggest you give this article a read.

GoPro (hero4)

GoPro is the industry leader in action cameras and equipment.  With a wide range of camera models, mounts and accessories, GoPro cameras are a very good brand to consider. GoPro even sells a skydiving bundle that comes with very useful attachments and mounts like a helmet mount, wrist mount, chest harness and smart remote. These are very useful components for the enthusiast. In terms of camera features, the new GoPro Hero 4 includes 4k resolution, auto low light compensation, superview, 12MP pictures, microSD storage and GoPro app compatibility. It can also support very high FPS. That’s just some of the many features that go into a GoPro camera and are helping make it the leader in action cameras.

By design, these cameras are notorious for snap points, especially with the helmet mounting options. The mounts that ship standard with the camera also are not the best, meaning that you might want to consider a mount upgrade when looking into a GoPro. Regardless of these drawbacks, GoPro cameras are ubiquitous on the action camera scene.

Contour (roam3)

Contour cameras are an increasingly popular mid range action camera option. Contour cameras are normally half as much or less per camera than their GoPro counterpart and thus they are finding a home with many enthusiasts. They have sleek side mounting options for your helmet that are very popular. The Contour Roam3 is waterproof down to 30ft without any extra enclosure as well. It also features a rolling lens with laser alignment so your video is always straight.  The lens is super wide angle at 170 degrees. A completely waterproof case for underwater use is sold with the camera unit itself as well making a nice bonus. While not the highest resolution or the most advanced features, the low price of these cameras have helped these styles of cameras become very popular.

There are some sincere drawbacks to the model of camera however. First off, there is no monitor built in to this camera like its popular counterpart, the GoPro. This is an issue for anyone who wants to see instant feedback of their recordings, or want to see how things are configured settings wise. There also are far fewer mounting options for the Contour cameras. They are limited to either a tripod mount or their own sliding rail mounts which are specific to their cameras. In competition with other action cameras in a low light scenario, they also did not perform well.

Sony (HDR-AS100VR)

This Sony camera and similar Sony models have become huge competitors in the action camera market. Loaded with extra features and high resolution sensors in a small and lightweight package, these Sony cameras are quickly gaining a following in the action camera community.

These cameras are shotgun style as opposed to the block style of the GoPros. Built-in wi-fi allows you to connect with all your devices and share or customize your footage. A very popular device to use in conjunction with this camera is the live view remote from Sony. This remote is wrist wearable and allows you to view your camera feed in real time. Unfortunately some sincere drawbacks to this system are a complete lack of playback of your recorded material on the remote, it’s only for live feed. The lens style is a wide angle 170 degree view, this camera comes with a built-in stereo microphone and its impressive CMOS sensor is great for low light situations. Some of the newer models of the Sony action cameras are even full 4K resolution making this line of cameras very impressive and perfect for hobbyists and professionals alike.