Most pilots love to capture their adventures using digital cameras and re-live the glory of flying well after the event has passed. It's a great way to share the magic of aviation, and especially backcountry flying, with friends and other pilots.
These days, micro HD cameras purpose-built for action sports are everywhere. They're very affordable, easy to use, and the results are mind-blowing: 1080p high definition video that is crystal clear and can show a very wide field of view, accuratley capturing the feeling of flight. However, while the quality of the equipment may be high, the limiting factor for getting great footage is often the operator. There are many tips and tricks that are easy to implement that will make your video much easier to watch, and more entertaining. We'll cover a few of those here.
The GoPro Hero3+Let's start off with the most popular camera available, the GoPro. Current model is the GoPro HERO3+, so while there are competing cameras from Garmin, Drift, and new company I just discovered out of Idaho called Reel, they can all be used similarly from the cockpit, but my personal experience is with the GoPro.
I personally prefer watching footage from inside the cockpit, as I like to see the pilot doing stuff-- pushing buttons, working the controls, whatever. It makes it more interesting in my opinion. The gear leg or wing mounted footage just isn't as interesting, even though it can capture stunning footage of the landscape. So here are my tips for shooting from inside the cockpit.
One note on safety though: Using these cameras can be a huge distraction. Aviate. Navigate. Communicate. Play with camera, in that order.
Because of the way CMOS sensors work in modern digital cameras, by continiously building the video frame with lines that are written from top to bottom, called Progressive Scan, a rotating propeller appears distorted because it is captured at different angles in the rotation by different lines of the scan. Here's an excellent visualization of the effect. The solution is to trick the camera into automatically adjusting its exposure settings so that the prop is blurred into invisibility by a slower capture. This is done by using a filter which reduces the amount of light that is allowed to reach the sensor.
I recommend a neutral density or circular polarizer kit for the GoPro (or any automatic exposure video camera.) Either will work as long as they "stop" down the light adequately to force the GoPro to make longer scans (blurring the prop), but the circular polarizer has the benefit of optically removing some haze and improving the brilliance of the blue colors in the sky. A neutral density filter has no optical effect beyond reducing light intensity. Be careful to not reduce the light too much, as this can cause blurred definition in video.
This item for the HERO3+, available from B&H Photo is about as easy as it gets. Nflightcam also makes a snap-on ND filter for just a few dollars more. Keep in mind that since these are snap-on devices, there may be compatability issues between the various model GoPros, as they apparently change the housing design from model to model. Double check that the filter works for HERO3 and/or HERO3+.
I personally use the Blurfix from Snake River Prototyping that allows you to screw on 55mm standard photography filters, so I can stack ND, polarizer, whatever. You just have to hunt down a 55mm filter. Tiffen makes good ones for cheap.
Mounting of cameras inside the cockpit take a little creativity and ingenuity, but it's made considerably easier with the RAM ball and socket mounting system. An owner should also consider the safety and legality of mounting stuff inside the cockpit.
This image will be replaced later with one of the unit mounted in the Cub I fly.For tube fuselages with exposed tubes in the cockpit, this is really easy. I prefer the RAM mount system because it's so flexible. You'll need:
It's up to you whether you use the yoke mount or the U-bolt style. The U-bolt style is a little more permanent as it requires tools, while the yoke mount has a thumb screw that lets you quickly move or remove the unit with just fingers. You'll have to shim inside the yoke mount a little to get a good grip and protect your tube paint. I would use some thin rubber, but the makeshift duct tape one I made in a pinch one day is still in use 2 years later. If thick enough, the shim can provide a little vibration dampening too. For shots inside the cockput, vibration is what causes the "jello effect" and is purely a result of engine or prop vibration. Sometimes it's worst at full throttle and will subside when the power is pulled back.
For Cessnas, the interior mounting options aren't quite as straightforward. The ideal method for a cockpit mount would be a 1/4-20 rivnut sunk into either the rear or forward carry-through spar, giving you a nice permanent female socket to attach a mount (any camera, not just GoPro.) However, the engineering safety of drilling your carry-through spar, as well as the legality, is a personal choice for aircraft owners. As mentioned in the comments, attaching to the dome lighting bracket may be possible.
Another easily removable method which might be good for renters is to use a crossbar style mount. Using 2 RAM suction cup mounts and homebrew adjustable telescoping tube with RAM U-bolt balls attached at each end, then connected with RAM double arms. Or, you can use a single suction cup mount and attach to one of the interior windows for an off-center shot, like this example.
Remember to consider crash safety and visual obscuration whenever adding these interior mounts.
The neat thing about the GoPros now is the preview feature on your smartphone. Be careful though, because running the wireless radio on the camera and transferring all that data for the preview video eats up battery life. I recommend using it to aim the camera, then turning off the wireless (hold button on side for 3 seconds until blue light blinks and goes out) for your flight. You can easily look up to see if you're recording and operate the ON/OFF switch and start buttons on the camera itself.
Buy a few extra batteries, you'll be happy you did. These Wasabi brand ones work great, and even come with a wall charger. Only $24 for 2, half the price of GoPro brand battery and probably made in the same factory.
You may need to switch the camera orientation to "upside down" in the settings, once again made 10x easier by using your smartphone app.
For field of view, inside the cockpit, I think the Wide setting is great. It really picks up the whole scene well, but it can sometimes make landings and takeoffs seem really fast due to the natural distortion of wide angle lens. Medium and Narrow are ok, but it's a crop of the sensor, not an optical setting and so you lose a little resolution.
Frame rate is not terribly important unless you plan to do slow motion (60 or 120 fps), or you need to use the footage with other footage shot by a different camera. For instance, I shot a lot of footage recently at 24 fps because I was shooting with my DSLR at 24 fps for that "cinematic" look. It can make some motion look weird, but for the most part it is hard to tell the difference between 24 and 30 fps with the naked eye.
Shoot 1080p, widescreen, 30fps and it's hard to go wrong. The Hero3+ Black can shoot ultra high resolution "4K" format but it makes massive movie files, and unless you have a monster computer at home, it's hard to deal with the HD footage when editing.
These little action cameras are pretty much designed to be a set-it-and-forget-it device. Out of the box you'll get some very nice quality, and the color and sharpness is automatic. The GoPro has become popular with professional cinematographers for capturing shots that require a very lightweight, waterproof (and expendable in some cases) camera. On a pro's budget, $400-500 is actually rather cheap and allows for several of these cameras to be used simultaneously, possibly mounted in some precarious locations. GoPro recognized this demand and designed a mode called "Protune," which utilizes the highest possible data rate for video capture, as well as the highest dynamic range. If you've ever experimented with this mode, the first impression is that the video appears very flat, poorly exposed, and unsaturated. This is because with normal GoPro mode, the color saturation, contrast, sharpening, etc are all baked into the video file by the onboard software. In Protune mode, as much capture data as possible is preserved (hence the high data rate) and no post-filtering or enhancement is applied. That part is left up to you in post-production with your editing software.
This adds an incredible amount of work to the process, but the results can be worth it. This is how most of the GoPro demo reel footage you see in their commercials was captured, and why it looks so fantastic: It's maximum data rate/quality and professional color grading.
What's this mean for the weekend warrior pilot/videographer? For most of us, it's not worth the time and effort without a pedigree in color grading. The end result though can have increased dynamic range, which is what we're after if we want a nicely exposed cockpit instrument panel, pilots, as the cloud definition in the sky as well. All too often the brightest source of light is "blown out" meaning the exposure values are too great to retain the definition. The bright areas of the cloud will simply appear white, while our eyes would perceive subtle gradients of light and a spectrum of greys.
One way to approach this is the use of a filter, the same type we used above to "blur" the prop, a circular polarize or neutral density filter. It is often safer to slightly underexpose a scene and amplify the darker areas in post-production than it is the recover overexposed areas. The latest GoPro models, the HERO 3+ and 4, have added exposure compensation controls for this reason.
A circular polarizer also has a few other desirable effects: They can eliminate or reduce glare on the windshield. By rotating the filter, you can adjust the angle of the polarization to match the glare angle and cancel it out. I often forget this step when mounting a camera and kick myself afterward. If handholding the camera with a viewfinder, it's easier to remember this step and to be proactive about adjusting the polarizer. This can also be used similarly for the blue sky and cloud definition. Rotate until the sky seems the most rich in blueness and the clouds "pop."
If you're interesting in give color grading a shot, try the free DaVinci Resolve editor. It requires registration but is free to download. Color grading is also possible in most editors, but applying realtime effects or color correction can severly degrade the smoothness of playback while editing. It's best to grade separately, export, then edit.
The top image is raw from the camera in [a Protune-like mode of a non-GoPro camera], whereas the bottom image has been corrected in DaVinci Resolve, adding saturation, contrast, white balance, and tonal corrections. This allows full capture of as much detail as possible without the onboard camera software omitting data.
Here's an example of the results. In this footage I am only using the circular polarizer, which doesn't have quite enough stop-down to totally blur the prop, as you can see. I also forgot to adjust the polarizer for best glare reduction. Swapping out to the neutral density filter works better, or better yet: a circular polarizer with more than 2 stops of light loss.