By Paul Eastham, EAA 726291
Since the advent of digital photography, we’ve gone to great lengths to capture images and video from our airplanes, in an attempt to preserve those precious airborne moments. But so often, even the smoothest conditions and best-engineered mounts carried vibrations to the camera that rendered the images less-than-perfect. Plastic canopies and windows put a constant haze on things too, while moving the camera outside the cockpit often resulted in even more vibration and unappealing camera angles.
With the recent arrival of Electronic Image Stabilization (EIS) in small action cameras, the situation has changed quite a lot. Now, even a camera being visibly buffeted in the breeze on a flexible mount can create images that look as smooth as butter. Add in the 360-degree-capture features of the newest cameras, and you can simultaneously record all camera angles at once — the scenery ahead, behind, and below, and even of your ship cruising along.
This modern flexibility opens up entirely new possibilities for where cameras can be placed, including out in front of or behind the wingtip, or even on a tailwheel or wheel pant — creating an ever-present camera ship of sorts, in formation with your aircraft just a few feet away. (360 cameras even automatically edit out the hardware that attaches it to the airplane, completing the illusion.) The resulting images occasionally look on par with professional air-to-air shots, without the need for formation flying.
How to get a camera in front of the wing? Enter the pole mount, which brings the idea of the selfie-stick to the world of experimental aviation. These can be homebuilt with a bit of effort (think Adel clamps or 3D-printed brackets) or purchased as a kit. On my RV-9A, I had good luck with the “Maui Flight Surface Pole Mount” from Flight Flix Aviation. Most pilots secure this style of surface mount into existing #6 or #8 screw holes used for wingtip attachment, which gives a good vantage point over the entire aircraft.
As you might imagine, it’s critical to use multiple attach points and load-spreading surface plates to make this a strong and stable situation. Alternatively, it’s also possible to mount to struts, tie-down rings, and other hardpoints, with hardware shaped to clamp the cross-section in question.
Regardless of the method, I’ve found that even the most rigid installation will still have some movement in flight. The safety implications of this movement need to be considered carefully, but the EIS can remove most or all of whatever movement remains. Still, some experimentation, for example with the pole length or attach location, will probably be needed to get the best results.
Once the flight’s over, you might worry about how to deal with video that’s captured in all directions simultaneously. But if you have at least novice computer skills and a relatively modern desktop or iPad, you should be able to manage it. Camera vendors supply 360-video-editing software that is generally decent, and the results are very suitable for amateur use. Converting 360 video to a more conventional cinematic format involves selecting a series of “keyframes” that set the camera angle at a particular moment in the video. The view will then smoothly pan from one keyframe to the next, all while the action unfolds. The process is not difficult, though selecting the best-looking angles and transitions can become quite time-consuming if you let it. You can also snap still pictures of the best moments from the live video, which yields very presentable snapshots — the photo at the top of this story was captured in this manner
Collecting all this great footage doesn’t come for free — battery life and storage capacity on 360 cameras are still limitations, often topping out at around an hour. While many cameras provide the ability to power on and off remotely via your cell phone, in practice I’ve found this to be unreliable in the airborne environment. I generally resort to just turning the camera on before takeoff and letting it run until the battery dies.
I’ve spent many hours trying to build good camera mounts over the past decade, both inside and outside the airplane, mostly without satisfying results. The setup shown here took great images literally right out of the box.