How to shoot underwater Video

Shooting Underwater Video
text by Jonas Stenstrom

It was probably all the underwater videos that sparked my interest in marine biology. The world underwater is just incredible and there is still so much to discover. New species, historical shipwrecks, unexplored underwater cave environments not to mention the deep sea. Think about it, there is a whole world down there that most people never get to see!

But actually, getting started and getting fun video underwater isn’t that hard but it will likely require some equipment investments.

This guide will bring up some of the basics on how to get you started with your underwater filmmaking endeavors.

Prepare yourself

To become an underwater filmmaker you would probably want to start with becoming a scuba diver. You could of course shoot some video snorkeling but for many shots you want to get close and at an angle where you would have to be under water yourself.

There are of course some freedivers who are excellent underwater filmmakers but to be able to stay down longer scuba training is probably the way to go.

The benefit of freediving is that you would not leave any bubbles that sometimes could scare off wildlife, and the equipment cost is much less.

On the higher end, professional underwater filmmakers use closed circuit re-breathers, dive units that do not release any bubbles and generally allows you to stay underwater for a long time. It is important to know that whatever technique you go for it will require getting appropriate training with professionals.

The Camera

You will need some kind of watertight case, or underwater housing, for your camera. This will probably be your most expensive investment (after buying the camera of course).

There are way more camera models on the market than housings. If you know already when you shop for a camera that you would want to get into underwater video, make sure you ask about this before. This will help you searching for an underwater housing that fits your camera. Many camera manufacturers team up with different underwater housing manufacturers, and so there will be camera models that already have specialized housing. SONY for example works with Amphibico who makes housings especially for SONY.

Some camera brands are trickier and would require a custom made housings, which can be really expensive. Think about this when you buy the camera.

The camera housings may be mechanical, digital or a combination of the two. Mechanical housing generally have buttons and pins that go through the hard casing and physically push buttons and turn switches on your camera. Digital housings generally plug into a port on the camera and all the camera functions can then be controlled from digital controls on the housing. The benefit of a mechanical housing is that things can be replaced and if something breaks, it (usually) don’t destroy the whole shoot or the camera unless you get a leak in the housing of course. The buttons and switches have to be kept in good condition so they don’t jam or get stuck. Gates and Ikelite are two manufacturers who make mechanical housings.

Digital housings are often constructed with all buttons located where they are easy to control. Like having the buttons where your thumbs are for quick adjustments. This is a real plus. If you for some reason have problems with the port on the camera though, your whole system may fail. Amphibico working with SONY cameras are digital.

There are also cheaper options such as watertight bags if you only want to shoot in really shallow water and just want something simple.

With this said, there are some great manufacturers of both mechanical and digital underwater housings out there. Just see what is available for your camera.

The Underwater environment

When shooting video underwater you want to make sure you don’t break or damage anything. This may sound obvious but it can be a bit difficult keeping your eyes on the camera and at the same time making sure you are not sinking or floating up to the surface.

If you are diving on a wall or without a fixed reference it is really hard to know if you are heading up or down and it could be dangerous too if you accidentally sink or float up.
Be sure to practice good buoyancy skill before you start playing with the camera. You will be glad you did when you get that camera in your hands!

To get close to wildlife underwater you want to stay relaxed. Move slowly and controlled, don’t chase things. You are likely to scare things off. And it is going to look better on the final video too if you pace yourself.

Another reason why you should perfection your buoyancy skills is to prevent kicking up silt and dust from the bottom. It will get in front of the camera and make the water look dirtier than it probably was. There is nothing worse that getting a great shot and getting the cloud of dirt you (or your buddy) just kicked up rolling in from behind you.

Colors and Light

Colors underwater are also something to think about.

With increased depth colors get “absorbed” by the water. The first color to go is red so when you are looking at the video you just shot it may come out more blue or greenish than you hoped. The last colors to go are blue in clear tropical waters and more towards green in temperate waters because of the greater amount of plankton and particles in the water. There are two easy ways to get around the color problem. The first one is to use a color filter on your camera, usually a red filter. This will bring back some of the red in the image making it richer. The second option is to use underwater lights. If you re shooting in shallow water, or in clear tropical waters you might not have to bring any lights at all. Make use of the natural sunlight. The deeper you go the darker it will be so anytime you know you will be going to depths where the sunlight is limited, you will need to bring extra lights.

Lights come in different shape, size and price ranges!

There are some specialized underwater video lights what will cost more but give you a good spread of the light and a close to “natural” temperature. The HID lights used more and more give a much greater effect than conventional halogen light and traditionally have a much bluer light than the halogens. The battery time is on the other hand a limiting factor and HID’s require large battery packs that mount to your light rig.

More energy efficient LED’s are also starting to hit the market.

Smaller halogen lights normally used for diving without a camera often have a more concentrated and focused beam and for anything but close-ups you will see the light as a circle on the video. If you want your video to look like daytime you would have to get stronger lights with a wider spread of the light.

Specialized underwater lights for video are going to cost you a fair bit of money but the light is usually incredible.

You also want to think about how you are going to hold both the camera and the light, or lights! Usually this is done with a mounting mechanism that attaches to the camera housing. With professional lights the set-up is usually bought as a package.

White Balancing

To compensate for the light even more you will need to adjust the white balance. The white balance may be very different between depths and light conditions so you may have to do it several times during a dive. Make sure you bring a clean white slate to use as your white reference.

Focusing underwater

Setting the focus for underwater video can be tricky. If the water is somewhat murky the autofocus may have problems finding a fixed focal point and you may want to switch to manual focus.

Think about the Angles for underwater shots

To get your underwater video to come alive try to not shoot the whole film facing down. Get horizontal and even shoot slightly up towards the surface to get the cool effects of the sunlight coming down. Only shooting down will give the effect of an observer only while getting yourself down and getting those camera angles right makes you feel like you are a part of the underwater environment.

If you have a cleared area where you could set the camera down without damaging anything, an option is to bring down some sort of weights (such as an extra weight belt) to stabilize the camera for a steady shot. Traditional tripods are difficult to use underwater, especially with a large heavy underwater housing but feel free to experiment!

There is no right way or wrong way.


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