Action photographer Steven Donovan developed a unique way to capture aerial stunts. Called the FPoleV, the results have amazed online viewers and brought him a cult-like following.
Donovan’s FPoleV allows him to film dynamic and standout videos with what amounts to a customized 24-foot camera pole. He posts the clips of cliff divers, skateboarders, mermaids, parkour athletes, ice skaters, BMX-ers, scooter riders, and many others to his 62k followers on Instagram.
Passionate cameraman Donovan spoke to PetaPixel about his journey from cleaning toilets for the national parks to becoming an internationally-recognized action sports pioneer.
“About ten years ago, I got a massive boom crane for my GoPro and I really loved the shot you could get with it,” explains Donovan.
“Then I had a golf ball retriever, those extendable sticks to grab balls out of water or a ditch and I strapped a GoPro to that and the shots were terrible, I mostly used it for long selfies and stuff,” he continues.
“Then there was one company who made a Kickstarter for a gimbal that had a remote so you could actually control it from a distance. That was a gamechanger for what I was doing on the pole. So I upgraded to a 16 foot window cleaning pole so I could get those boom movie shots that I always loved.”
At the time, Donovan was working at Glacier National Park in Montana where he wanted to capture the beautiful wilderness, but drones are banned from national parks so the resourceful photographer used his trusty window cleaning pole instead.
“That where I always wanted to be, in nature filming action sports, but I didn’t have a whole lot of access to that initially. In the national parks there was only people hiking or climbing.”
However, Donovan had contact with a small group of cliff jumpers based in Northern California. So he decided to quit the national park gig, bought a small van for $1,000 to live out of, and hit the road to meet up with the cliff divers.
“What they were doing was really rad, but the filming was whack. I knew with their skills and my filming skills it was an opportunity to change the game,” says Donovan.
“So I quit my job and lived out of my truck and followed the cliff jumpers, and I’m still doing that now. Some of those guys are now my best friends.
“Between me bringing in a new element of filming, and them progressing so fast and pushing the limits, it got the attention of everybody online. Our clips are going viral, we didn’t get the kind of sponsorships we hoped because it is an illegal sport in some ways.”
FPoleV, which is a play on words of FPV, came about after Donovan suffered a nasty skateboard accident leaving him unable to go on a cliff diving trip to Switzerland. Looking to turn a bad episode into something positive, he began looking at wholesale carbon fiber poles online.
“There was a company who made window cleaning poles and camera poles, and I asked them if they could combine those two things,” says Donovan.
“Can you put a 1/4-inch tripod mount on a window cleaning pole that extends 30 foot? We went back and forth until they sent out prototype that turned out flawlessly.”
Around the same time, Donovan won the GoPro Million Dollar Challenge, not once, but twice, and won a significant amount of money that he says was a big reassurance “he was on the right path.”
“The wholesale company was willing to do just 10 poles, which was unusual, and only because they liked the product, but 10 orders was a lot for me at the time,” explains Donovan.
“It costs thousands of dollars. But I realized if I didn’t make the order someone else would move into the pole market and capitalize on it.”
From the initial order of 10, Donovan’s now sold over 160 poles. The carbon fiber FPoleV is a prosumer, not a consumer, product. It retails at $500, and if you want one you have to message Donovan on Instagram.
360 Cameras Changed the Game
Donovan’s striking work is helped enormously by the advancement of 360-degree cameras, which means rather than worrying about what’s in the frame, he can reframe the shots in post.
“When I found 360, there wasn’t that much other there about it and I was able to figure out all on my own, it’s a brand new way of thinking of filming,” he says.
“Lately I’ve been trying to show that the poles are not just for cliff jumping, recently I shot an ice skating video with the pole and that got a lot of attention.”
Donovan, who uses a GoPro Max, started to experiment by throwing the camera after the cliff divers to get shots he says people “were blown away by.”
As featured in an article by PetaPixel, he uses the four foot removable section of the FPoleV, which floats, so he doesn’t have to “risk his own life” by jumping with the daredevils.
“I used to get involved with the jumping but I’m 28 now, I’m getting old. I’ve got back issues which is a combination of living in the van and filming. When they started doing bigger jumps, I started throwing the pole in after them.”
Donovan is still living a “free” lifestyle, which he says is more important to him right now than building a big business around his product.
“Right now I’m working on a 15 foot micro pole and that will be more in the selfie stick/backpack type pole. I also want to make a floating selfie stick.”