That Daring Old Man in the Flying Machine…

…and unlike that daring young man on the flying trapeze, my moves may not be graceful, all girls I cannot please, but damn, I can produce some pretty nice-looking aerial HD video for clients who can’t afford the big, nosemounted, two-man crew, aerial Hollywood video helicopter setups when they need views higher than the growing army of DJI drone-ographers can get them.

Preparing to shoot aerial video of Atlantic City and surrounding areas on the Jersey Shore.

There are three factors that help me compete with the big boys.

But before I explain them, here’s a quick sample of something I did for a commercial client who had previously used a feature-film type heli rig out NYC that costs a relative fortune compared to me and my little setup (and I don’t hang out of choppers for peanuts, either, so we’re talking a lot of  bucks for those Hollywood setups!)         

Shooting aerial video above Philadelphia


The first ingredient in this aerial cocktail is the Sony PJ 790 camcorder with its incredible Balanced Optical Steadyshot . This camera (which seems to be discontinued, but the professional version, the HXR-NX 30, is still an active item) and a few other of Sony’s compact handicam-sized camcorders feature this unique “gyro within the camera” stabilization system. When checking, remember, the key word in the description is “BALANCED” Optical Steadyshot.

As opposed to just Optical Steadyshot (OSS), in Balanced Optical Steadyshot, the whole lens and sensor mechanism floats on an interior gyro system to achieve great stability, even in a bouncy car or chopper.  At first, it’s very disconcerting to see the front element of your lens floating up and down. But when you see what it does for stability with even a bouncing camera, you begin, like a Wall Street banker, to appreciate “the float.”

So, yes, it’s a small chip camcorder and not one of our beloved large chip DSLR or Mirrorless marvels, but the HD 1080p looks pretty darn good, especially at the wide end, and there simply is no other camera that has this type of stabilization.

But wait, there’s more!

On a smooth day, you might be able to get away with just this type of camera, but for double insurance and smoothness, I use it with a KenLab 4×4 3-axis gyro.

I’ve always loved to shoot aerials and had a KenLab KS6 gyro for years and used it happily to shoot sharp still images out of choppers and planes. But video demands extra smoothness and the addition of the 3 axis gyro series from KenLab came around just as I was getting requests from my aerial clients to supplement my still shoots with some video.

In the beginning, I said “no,” because I hadn’t tried it and when I did try it with the old gyro and my DSLR, the results were less than satisfactory. When I traded in my old KS6 for the new 4×4, my results improved dramatically. And when I added the Sony with the Balanced Optical Steadyshot on top of that gyro, I got that much-desired, buttery smoothness (with no fat or cholesterol!).

You can handhold this setup, but to make the most of the gyro, it’s best if the whole package can kind of “float.” So I put the camera in an inexpensive Alzo Transformer rig , attached the gyro to the bottom, attached a couple of carabiners to the top, and got the heaviest duty bungee cords I could find, and hung the rig from the chopper doorframe (always a good idea to have safety guy wires from the camera, gyro, and even the rig anchored to points inside the chopper too as a fail safe). See the picture on the first page of the post to get an idea of what the rig looks like.

This works like a charm, and relieves the strain on the arthritic wrists and hands of the Old Man in Motion:-). To further contribute to smooth operations, I use a Sony remote taped to one of the Alzo’s handles to zoom in and out and start and stop recording, so my hands never really touch the camera.

And finally, the third ingredient is a great pilot. When I’m flying in the Philly/South Jersey/Baltimore area, my go-to guy is Jeremiah Griffith of Horizon Helicopters, out of Dover, Delaware. Flying with BJ or his dad Harry is like flying with another set of eyes…these guys are so good, they know what you want before you know what you want.

So while the FAA continues to hassle drone guys and that whole looming legal battle works itself out over the next few years (there are more “no fly zones” for drones popping up every day), here’s an alternative for getting good aerial footage without having to go all Hollywood.


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