Dana Denny may have the best Chase Cam pictures ever. They come from putting well-designed gear to its best use. One of his shots adorns PPG Bible 6 Chapter 32 on Photography. He was kind enough to provide information on what was involved in the process which is shown here.
We couldn’t fit all of this in the book so a link to this page was provided for those interested in hardware and setup tips from a pro.
the Ultimate Chase Cam
by Dana Denney
One thing pilots cant seem to wait and try once they start flying paramotors is the chase cam or follow cam. It seems like the perfect companion for a sport like paramotoring where a pilot has so much cumbersome gear to reckon with and the idea of trying to fidget with cameras and mounts while keeping your focus on flying can be challenging enough. The chase camera attaches to the paraglider prior to launch, comes up with the wing as it inflates, tracks and follows the pilot on its own based on how it was initially attached and returns to earth with the wing on landing. Its a “set it and forget it” scenario which is perfect for the powered paraglider pilot; or is it?
Like most pilots, I couldn’t wait to try out the chase camera early on in my flying. At that point there were a couple of very rudimentary styles available for sale. One being essentially a windsock with a camera mount inside the large opening and the other a shaft with some fletching style vanes on the back and a camera mount on the front. Both seemed pretty basic to me and I ad also seen YouTube videos of paraglider pilots using two liter soda bottles with the bottom cut off and a camera mounted to the front and decided I could make something myself that would be as functional as what was commercially available. I built several styles and tried each one out by attaching them to about a meter of cord on the end of a pole and then hanging them out a car window while driving at about 25 mph. After multiple experiments with windsocks and two liter bottles I came up with a design that incorporated a carbon arrow-shaft, the front 5-6 inches of a two liter bottle and some aluminum flat bar to hold a small GoPro camera.
My first attempts to fly with a chase camera were nearly catastrophic. Not knowing any better I attached the camera to the center of the trailing edge of my paraglider, and then stretched out the line behind the wing with the idea in my mind that, as the paraglider inflated, the chase camera would be far from the lines and have less risk of tangling into them. The result was exactly the opposite. When the wing came up over head with the chase cam already stretched out behind the wing, the weight of the follow camera set up and forward momentum of the wing resulted in the camera swinging into my lines with a surprising amount of speed and immediately intertwined itself throughout the right brake-lines. I didn’t actually realize anything had gone wrong since you really can’t see a chase camera when you perform a forward launch and since the wing was tracking fine as I ran forward, I went ahead and launched. Once I was in the air however, I could see the chase camera was intimately entwined with my brake lines and what was worse was that as the camera setup itself broke free from the lines and went rearward from its drag. It essentially engaged my right side trailing edge into a fairly significant right turn which, exacerbated by the torque effect, created a situation that really couldn’t be corrected without fear of stalling the left side of the wing. It could be that I may have been able to compensate by letting out the right side trim some but, hindsight is as they say “20/20” and I was somewhat panicked since, having launched from a fairly high mesa, I was several hundred feet in the air as this occurred and my new heading was about to take me directly over an intersection of power-lines that at the time seemed to me, to be crisscrossing like a L.A. interchange. I had to add enough power and correct course to make it to the nearest potential LZ but the more I tried to correct, the more the follow camera seemed to try and steer me right. In the end I was able to make enough course correction under glide to overcompensate for the right side bank I would enter under power, to land safely just within a golf course. This was when I reevaluated the “set it and forget it” concept of the chase camera.
Over the next few years I became somewhat obsessed and realized that it’s better to lay the camera just behind where the pilot would stand to start a forward launch. The chase-cam line should run parallel to the paraglider lines toward the risers. This means that as the wing comes overhead, the chase-camera is picked up vertically and doesn’t typically have a chance to swing forward unless the wing comes to a halt which shouldn’t be the case in a normal forward launch scenario. In a reverse the pilot can see what’s going on before turning to launch. I also learned to mount the camera to the “C” (or row just ins from the trailing edge) row rather than the actual trailing edge, This I believe is very important especially of Reflex paragliders where pressure on the trailing edge can create a dangerous “center of pressure” scenario in the wing if the trailing edge is pulled while reflexed. I also began using a piece of line about a 1.5 meters in length with a lightweight key-ring tied in the center to act as a quick-attach point for the camera. The ends of this line were tied to the two “C” row V-tape anchors that were on the left and right side of the center line of the wing. I could leave this line attached all the time and it wasn’t loose enough to get caught up in other lines, didn’t affect the wing if I wasn’t flying with a chase-cam and displaced the stress from the drag of flying with a chase camera onto to anchors rather than just one which hopefully equaled less stress on the seams and fabric of the wing. The purpose of the light key-ring was to enable the chase-cam to break away if it ever snagged something, hopefully before ripping the paraglider.
My shots got better and better over time and eventually I found what I thought was the magic combo. No, It wasn’t the line length (though that is a factor). Whenever I would post a picture on social media of a flight from the chase-cam, I would inevitably get a half dozen comments asking “How long is your line”? It happened so often that on one forum, It became a running joke within the community. I learned a couple things over that time: 1) lots of people were struggling to get a follow cam set up just as I had, and 2) no one reads the previous comments on a Facebook post.
So what’s the secret sauce? Is it a well trained Cockatiel with a Go pro on its back? A few things really helped.
- The badminton “Birdy” (shuttlecock) style mount that SkyBean started building.
- GoPro’s super stabilization improvments, and
- a really lightweight stretchy shockcord that SkyBean began using instead of the static cord that most people were trying to use.
These set the stage for great footage but are just the recipe’s ingredients–everything still needs to be mixed and baked for it to all come together. Most people probably think the Skybean’s use of shockcord was for helping to stabilize the chase cam body, but what I discovered (by accident really) was that it could add a meter or more to the line length through the drag effect of the “Birdy” design.
Elements of A Good Chase Cam:
- Badminton “Birdy” style flyer (this one is the “SkyBean”)
- Line from 15′ to 17′
- Use of shock cord
- 5 to 10 grams of weight at the bottom of the Birdy
So lets jump back to line length for a minute. I can get a well framed shot with anywhere from 15′ to as much as 17′. Follow Cams frequently end cropping part of the wing out of the image. The typical solution is “moved the camera further back to get the whole wing and pilot in frame,” but longer line means the camera drops more. Like everything in aviation, nothing is free. A shorter line will remain in a higher plane but be too close to get the whole shot framed, a longer line can get the whole shot framed but trails so low that the top of the wing is cut out. You can try and adjust the camera angle or the Chase cam hangpoint but typically this doesn’t solve the problem.
The Camera will play a vital role as well. My experience has been that Go Pro has the best overall ability to capture the whole wing and Pilot due to their “SuperView” aspect ratio. I’ve tried lots of cameras from Sony to Dji’s action camera to cheap import cameras and so far no one can get as much into the shot as the GoPro-7 or newer. That said, it’s still not quite enough on its own and this is where the magic of Skybean’s Ultra stretchy Shock comes in. At some point I noticed that whenever I let out my trims, my framing changed. After playing around with camera, hang point angles and trim settings I found that with the line between the 15-17′ length and an airspeed of around 44+Kph, I could get the whole wing/pilot consistently framed in almost every flight and even better I could control (to a certain extent) how close or far away I was in the shot by adjusting the trim settings. So if I wanted a shot with me as close as I could in the frame I would close the trims to about half way and if I wanted the scenery to be a bigger part of the shot, I would let them out all the way. The increased speed forces the chase camera to fly higher because of the increase in drag and the shockcord allows the line to lengthen to achieve the distance required for better framing.
While releasing the trims to increase airspeed was key to getting better framing with a chase-cam, along with a dynamic cord that could stretch and allow the increase in the drag of the chase-cam to take the camera further back with less drop, then it follows that speedbar would have the same effect. Well, Yes, However keep in mind one of the fundamental rules of paragliding which is: application of speedbar may put the wing at increased risk of frontal collapse. I have pondered this for awhile and came to the conclusion that, if a frontal collapse occurred while flying with a fairly large object that probably weighed about as much as your kids Hamster, tied to the back of the wing, the result would be unpredictable at best and unrecoverable at worst. So my advice to people starting out with chase-cams is, stick to using the trims rather than speedbar.
I was never one to leave “well enough alone” so my own setup is still fairly customized and honestly, pretty goofy looking to say the least. For instance, one thing I found through my car driving experiments was that by covering the lower half of the follow cams body, the chase-cam would plane higher by about 20 degrees for the same airspeed. So my personal Chase camera setup has the entire lower section covered in sticky sailcloth repair tape which I sort of hand stitched to the edges of the SkyBean. I also sewed a custom camera mount from Hypalon which allows me to get the exact camera angle I want without adding the additional weight of the camera mounts, housing and screws that go along with adjustable camera mounts. It isn’t pretty but it’s effective. However you can get great chase cam footage without modifying the setup and just following the recipe above.
The last thing that I learned through trial and error with the “Birdy” style follow cams was that sometimes they wanted to flip over and fly upside down. The fix for this is to add some weight to the very bottom of the Birdy, as close to the back edge as possible. 5-10 grams should suffice to make it fall into place, right side up as it you launch. A fishing swivel attached in between the camera and main cord can help as well.