Underwater Videography Tips: A guide to underwater videography

August 16, 2010
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In this article, we’ll discuss a whole range of underwater videography tips and tricks for the wannabe professional underwater videographer including how to choose the best underwater housing set-up for your own personal requirements, how to shoot video underwater, and some basic editing principles and programs. This is a definitive guide to underwater videography.

There are dozens of video camera / housing combinations available in today’s market. Camera models and their technology is constantly changing. It’s for this reason I won’t list video camera models in the article. The best way to find an underwater video set-up suitable for your needs, is to search the Internet and see what’s about. If you know a video pro, seek their advice. Work out your budget and try and stick to it.

Housing Selection and Care

There are a couple of things you should always bear in mind when choosing your underwater video set-up…

If you’re going to be using your underwater housing professionally, and using it day to day for work, then you’ll need something that can withstand a lot of pain and abuse. It doesn’t matter how careful you are with your beloved housing, it’s going to get knocked and bashed from time to time, whether it be during a dive, from people chucking their regs into the camera bucket after a dive, or from the boat boys crashing it down on the bench after you carefully pass it to them. You need something sturdy and tough enough to withstand the brutality sometimes thrown at it.

There’s only one housing I can wholeheartedly recommend for professional videographers, and that’s a Gates. They are machined from a solid block of aluminium and all the controls are manual. Manual controls are invariably trouble free. If you move a leaver on the housing, another leaver inside the housing will move and operate a specific function on the camera. If you decide to purchase a housing with electronic controls, sooner or later it will break. Fact. As a professional videographer the last thing you need is to be air freighting your housing to the other side of the world to the manufacturer because it’s faulty. Remember, that if your housing is out of the water, so are you.

Gates Housing

Some older Gates housings had the manual white balance control as an optional extra. I’ll talk more about manual white balance later, but if you’re buying a used Gates, make certain it has the optional manual white balance control. I can’t stress how important this is.

With a Gates, there’s no need to grease the main o-ring, in fact they’re specially designed not to be greased. This saves time and hassle. Every time you remove the camera from the housing after a dive, just wipe the o-ring over with a soft dry cloth, and it’s ready for the next dive. I’ve been using the same Gates housing for four years now. I have never had a problem with it. After two years, I changed the main o-ring just for precautions, as that’s what Gates advise in the owners manual. A gates housing should be rinsed with fresh water after very dive. That’s all it needs. I can’t say enough about the quality of Gates housings, and I would never want to work with anything else. Gates housings are also rated to a depth of around 120 meters.

If you buy a Gates, it’s essential that you also purchase one of their wide angel ports. The GP25a works very well. With the wide lens, all your shots will look far more professional than they would with the standard port. The wide-angle lens will make your subjects seem further away which is particularly useful when you’re shooting in low visibility.

You can also purchase monitors for Gates Housings, but I find these unnecessary and cumbersome. The batteries need regular replacement or charging, and once you’re used to it, using the viewfinder works just fine. Another point I don’t like about the monitors, is that the colours aren’t true. You get a much clearer idea of the colours and the white balance using the viewfinder.

Gates housings won’t flood, unless you forget to do up one of the securing latches. Some other housings can be prone to flooding, especially some of the Perspex housings like Ikelite, which might be a good choice for the recreational diver who’s only going to use it for a handful of times a year, but for a video pro, a Gates is the only way to go. It’s worth every penny of the extra expense.

With Gates housings you can also take photos straight onto a memory card while taking video. This can be very useful and increase your versatility as an underwater videographer.

Camera Selection and Care

Camera models are constantly updated and discontinued by the manufacturers as technology improves. This can sometimes be a problem if you need to replace a camera for a certain housing. EBay is a good place to start looking for used cameras, and often it’s possible to find models, which although discontinued years ago, have hardly been used and are as good as new.

Take size into consideration. Usually the bigger and more expensive the camera, the better it is. Find a compromise between size and performance. Sure, if you want to shoot in super HD for a TV documentary, you’ll be looking to get a camera almost as big as whale penis, with a housing to match. For day-to-day work, a set up that size would just be too much hassle. Find a camera and housing that’s going to be easy to travel with, something that will fit in an aeroplanes overhead locker would be good. I’ve always used Sony cameras. This is for no particular reason, only that they’ve been very suitable when I’ve been choosing camera / housing combinations. I will say though, that I’ve found Sony cameras to be pretty rugged and reliable. If they malfunction or break, which sometimes they do, it’s relatively easy and cheap to get them repaired.  Consumer cameras aren’t designed to be used relentlessly every day for several years. It’s inevitable at some point something inside the camera will snap. I have one Sony HDR HC1 that’s been in use daily for the last four years, and it’s still going strong.

Take care of your video camera. Cameras don’t like water or salt so take steps to protect it from the elements. If sea spray is coming inside the boat keep the camera well wrapped up. Don’t leave your camera lying around where there are strong vibrations, for instance near the engine of the boat. Treat the camera like it’s your Mothers favourite priceless family heirloom. Love your camera.

You’ll need a wide angel lens for your surface shots. Don’t go any lower than 0.45X or you’ll be in fisheye territory.

How To Shoot Video Underwater

If you’re familiar with using your video camera then you can skip straight to the underwater part. If you’re new to video, you’ll need to get some experience operating the camera on land. Take a few days and practice on dry land. Try and get used to holding the camera steady, practise zooming and panning, play around with the exposure and white balance. Basically, get to know your camera intimately before you take it diving.

Owning your buoyancy control is a priority for all underwater videographers. You should be able to control your buoyancy like a fish.

Shoot in 16:9 and in High Definition, if possible.

When taking underwater video try to hold the camera steady. Nothing looks worse than a shaky video. With some practice adults and grown children should be able to hold the camera steady.

Try to never shoot downwards. If you can shoot horizontally, or even better, with a slight upwards angel, your shots will improve tenfold.

Frame your shots. Try not to shoot divers in mid water. Try to find something to frame them with. The frame could consist of marine life, corals, boulders, part of a wall, and so on. Occasionally you’ll be pulling your hair out trying to frame divers in your video. When your subjects are floundering at a depth from zero to three meters for most of the dive, just do the best you can.

It always looks cool when you can place your divers in the background of whatever marine life you’re shooting. That’s what divers want to see when the watch the video back, the huge Moray Eel, or the Clownfish, with their smiling faces close up in the background.

Be selective of the marine life you shoot. Choose Interesting shit that looks good on video. Stay away from boring stuff. Interesting shit includes Mantas, Sharks, Turtles, inquisitive Batfish, and wreck shots. Lionfish also look pretty cool on video. Of course, the list goes on and on.

Get the white balance right. If you use auto white balance underwater your shots will look colourless and bland. Basically, it will look like shit. I think I’m using the word shit far too many times in this blog so I’ll try to refrain for the rest of the article. Seriously, I can’t stress how important it is to use manual white balance underwater. It makes the difference between an excellent video and a shit terrible video. It’s easy to learn how to use the manual white balance feature and the results make it extremely worthwhile. Some videographers like to take a white slate down with them to help with their white balancing. I prefer to use sand. Sand seems to offer a much better result colour wise than a white slate, and it’s easier as well, as there’s no need to struggle and hold something in front of the lens while you manipulate the white balance controls on the video camera. Post-production is fine for photos, but for video, it saves hours of time in the editing suite if you get the colours right at the time of filming.

White balance should be used as soon as you descend. Every time you change depth by a couple of meters you’ll need to manually white balance. If you want really bright colours then white balance a couple of meters deeper than the depth you’re lining up to film at. Use the red filter that comes with the housing at the same time, it makes the colours even stronger and more natural. White balance will take the murky greens away and replace them with vibrant blues and reds, this works well when the water is green, with the result being crystal blue water.

Occasionally you’ll not be able to find a sandy patch to use to white balance, for instance on a wall dive. In emergencies like this you can use your hand instead of the sand. It’s not as good as using sand, but you need to make the best of a difficult situation. Alternatively, keep a white slate in your BCD pocket.

Lighting is also important, although light can be manipulated with the aid of manual exposure as well as white balance. The manual white balance feature also does away with the need for expensive lights for your underwater video set-up. Strobes are great for filming at depth or in low light conditions like at first thing in the morning or in the late evening. They are also good for shooting in nooks and crannies. The downside of strobes is that effective ones are expensive and prone to failure. They’re also an unnecessary burden that need constant charging as well as transporting. Unless you’re planning to film during night dives or caves, stay away from strobes, you can always purchase some later when you’re an accomplished videographer. Natural sunlight makes for excellent videos, and with the sun high in the sky there’ll be no problems filming quite easily down to a depth of 30 meters or more. Cloudy days mean that the colours will suffer a little bit. You can get around this problem by white balancing deeper than you plan to film and / or adjusting the manual exposure. Strobes can also sometimes tend to make underwater videos look unnatural.

Try to frame your shots

Try not to get too carried away with the zoom controls. They’re tricky to use effectively through a housing, and zooming too fast is a constant error. I find it easier to film a wide shot of the subject, then zoom in for a close up. You can either stop recording while you zoom, or edit the zoom out later. Panning is extremely hard to get right underwater. If you must pan, try to pan with the subject in the middle of the shot. Always pan slowly and steadily. When you cut from a wide shot to a close up, try to change the angle of the different shots by at least 90 degrees.

If you’re videoing guests for a dive centre, try to tell a story with your video. Get some shots of the guests on the boat, gearing up and entering the water. For the underwater footage I like to get a good mix of divers and marine life on the video. Try to aim for 60% divers and 40% marine life. Of course, this is really up to you, but I know divers love to see themselves underwater. If you manage to get the marine life you’re shooting and the divers in the same shot, you’re doing very well. They are the money shots, so to speak.

Becoming an accomplished underwater videographer is all about practice and experience. The more you practice the better you’ll get. Some people are naturals while some people are not. Heed the tips and advice in this article and you’ll have a head start.

Underwater video pros are usually the ones who get bent or run out of air. It’s easy to get carried away filming a Manta or something and forget to keep a track of your air, depth, or no-deco time. Be careful underwater and keep an eye on your gauges and dive computer.

Editing Underwater Videos

If you’re serious about becoming an underwater video professional, you should think about investing in an Apple Macbook Pro and install their editing suite, Final Cut Pro. There are other programs available on Windows PCs, but they don’t come close to the Apple offerings.

Final Cut Pro by Apple

You’ll probably want to add music to your videos for your customers. Add the music first, and cut your video in time with the music. This makes a big difference to the final product and gives it a professional feel.

Don’t overdo it with the special effects and transitions. Keep it simple. Sometimes it’s nice to experiment with changing the video speed. Have a play around and see what works best for you. There are manuals and tutorials for all the major editing suites if you get stuck.

When you eventually get some cool shots, keep them for future use. You never know, posting some good stuff on the internet could lead TV production companies to you, asking to purchase footage for shows or documentaries. The money for things like this is usually pretty good.

If you’re outputting your video to DVD for your guests, think about offering them something extra. This could include photos, or maybe a short Facebook ready Internet edit, with just the highlights of the dive.

Good luck!

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