Dan @ Fly Flow Media
A guide to filming cycling with drones
As a fan of mountain biking (MTB) and since taking up first person view (FPV) drone flying, I have been interested in filming MTB with drones. However, the thought of carrying my drone gear whilst riding techy trails put me off. Where I was riding and who I was riding with were also factors for not being inspired to film MTB with drones. After all, I ride MTB for fun and so do my mates. Getting them to wait around while I setup and have one of them act as spotter was never really fair on them.
However, in 2022 I finally got the motivation to film MTB riding on multiple occasions, both in the UK and Europe. This article looks at some of the things we learned and some tips for others looking to capture MTB riding with drones. These tips also apply to filming other genres of cycling. We’ll look at equipment, piloting and location. These are probably the three biggest factors to consider when filming MTB with drones. Although, this is not an exhaustive list.
You can use any type of drone to film MTB provided the location is suitable for getting the drone in the air. For example, flying a line-of-sight (LOS) camera drone in steep, dense woodland might not be the best idea. However, being creative with how you use a drone is what makes your drone footage unique. I find that filming MTB with FPV drones is the easiest way to capture MTB riding in most locations. For exposed ridgelines and hillside a LOS drone would be great for capturing stunning footage.
FPV drones are what I like to fly most and have a lot of experience flying, so when considering what FPV equipment to use for filming MTB, I was thinking that it needs to be small, lightweight and agile. Most FPV drones available today fit these categories, but some are arguably too much for the task. I should also consider using equipment that I don't mind putting at risk. After all, there is a chance I could fall whilst riding and damage my equipment.
For most FPV drone filming on trails in the woods and on calmer days, a cinewhoop is the best tool for the job. It is easy to carry in a riding bag when compared with a 5-inch freestyle FPV drone. Additionally, a cinewhoop can be made to fit into the sub-250g class, meaning that if you’re flying in proximity to uninvolved people, then they will be kept safe. I would only really use a 5-inch drone or similar for MTB filming if there were no uninvolved people nearby and the weather necessitated it. Cinewhoops are difficult to fly smoothly in a strong breeze and thus a heavier 5-inch drone with more authority against strong winds will help with capturing smooth FPV drone footage.
Camera settings are also important. Most MTB FPV drone videos are shot using an action camera like a GoPro and many pilots film with a 180 degree shutter angle (meaning the shutter speed value is double that of their frame rate). However, for high speed shots the amount of motion blur introduced to footage using 180 degree shutter angle can be excessive, going from looking fast to just blurry. A 90 degree shutter angle can provide crisper footage whilst retaining some motion blur when filming at speed. Stabilization software like Gyroflow also handles faster shutter speeds better. For example, filming with too slow shutter speed (which can sometimes happen with 180 degree shutter angle) can introduce some blurring to the footage. Said blurring looks similar to auto focus changes, however action cameras don’t typically have auto focus.
Whilst stabilization of GoPro footage is pretty incredible these days, it still doesn’t hold a candle to smooth piloting and experience with the topic that is being filmed. In the case of MTB riding, chasing a rider with a FPV drone requires a lot of thought and anticipation. Having a good amount of experience with piloting a FPV drone and the muscle memory to control a FPV drone helps reserve some brain power for concentrating on things like framing the shot and managing speed. For example, if the rider we’re following comes to a steep take off, we understand that we need to back off and slow a bit to avoid overshooting and passing the rider, or worse flying into the back of them. Anticipating trail features and rider actions can also help you decide whether you want to purposefully overshoot the rider or fly alongside them etc.
Finding a good section of trail to film MTB with drones is one aspect of this. Steep technical sections of trail can be difficult to film with FPV drones. Filming steep sections of trail can be filmed better with LOS camera drones but need to be positioned well to help show how steep some sections are. Having trees in shot to give a vertical reference helps. Another aspect of location is positioning yourself (and your spotter if you need one) where your radio and video link to the drone will be most robust. Flying from an open section of trail and following a rider into thick woodland would certainly impact on video link and could result in losing the drone or impacting the rider (or both, especially after the rider has exacted revenge by stomping on the drone). When choosing a position to fly from and the types of antennae to use for your video link, I find that separating yourself laterally from the trail helps cover more of the trail and helps a spotter see more of the trail. This helps them monitor the drone in flight. This means you should be able to film longer sections of trail before technological hard limits kick in. However, the nature of mountain biking can make it difficult to position yourself optimally.
I hope the reader finds this information useful and if they have any questions or further tips for filming MTB with drones then I invite them to leave a comment.
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