The saying goes; Spend 10.000 hours doing anything in life and you'll get good at it. With roughly 2500 underwater videography dives under my belt, I'm actually not quite there yet! But I've picked up a few tricks along the way, now entering my 11th year of underwater filmmaking. In this article I'm gonna cover my top 5 tips that I wish I knew as soon as I picked up a camera.
"So instead of you going through the same as I did, I'm giving you the tips in this article."
In 2010 I arrived in Thailand with a Canon EOS 7D and an Ikelite housing and literally zero clue what to do with either. We usually say that it's time for underwater shooters to upgrade their gear because their skills have surpassed the constrictions of their camera system. Well, my gear was miles ahead of my skills! But it did mean I had something to grow into, and boy did I.
The truth however is that it took me a long time to figure out those early basic skills that truly turned my filmmaking around and propelled me to the next level of my career. So instead of you going through the same as I did, I'm giving you the tips in this article!
If you prefer watching videos to reading, you can check out my YouTube channel where you will find more tips and educational material on underwater filmmaking.
#1 Manual White Balance
If you've seen other blogs or YouTube videos talk about this before that's fine, because it is by far the most important step to take to improve the look of your compact, mirrorless or DSLR camera. You may have noticed I didn't say action camera? I'm afraid this feature is usually not available for those systems (sorry GoPro shooters).
Manual white balance is a camera feature that allows you to get an accurate color reading at your current depth while diving or freediving, and hence have your colors look realistic and vibrant. Truth be told though, the word accurate here is quite fluid. Camera companies operate with different color science, and some brands are simply better than others when it comes to color accuracy.
Although I'm currently not an underwater Canon shooter, their color science is widely considered to be the best for underwater use. The list of different brands cameras and their capabilities in this field is too long to cover in this article, but generally speaking you will be better off with larger sensors and the latest models. Saying that, my previously mentioned Canon EOS 7D, a camera released well over a decade ago, had great colors that outperforms my current Panasonic Lumix GH5 to this day!
Now why is this a feature that we need to use anyway? Or in other words, why won't our cameras simply do this automatically? Without going into too much technical detail (trust me, I could ramble on for eons) light hits the surface of the water and different wavelengths of it diffracts and gets absorbed by the water the deeper you go. Hence things look less colorful the deeper you dive. Now as to why cameras can't correct for the loss of colors underwater, simply put, they were never designed to. Most cameras have features designed to work optimally on land and not underwater. But saying most cameras, I should mention that there is one camera that will do color correction based on depth, the Paralenz. If you're looking for a dedicated small underwater camera, it's a really interesting piece of kit!
Understanding that we now need to perform a manual white balance to correct our image, how is this achieved? Brands place this feature in different parts of their camera menus, so you have to go roaming around for it a bit, but once you've located it the process is fairly straight forward.
First you need a surface area that is of a neutral color. By neutral color I mean somewhere between 50% gray and white. This can be rocks, coral or sand on the divesite that you're visiting, or it can be a dedicated neutral color card or slate that you bring with you underwater. You can get even more creative here, some videographers swim over to other divers to white balance off of their tanks!
Once you have the surface area in front of you, make sure that you are not blocking the light coming from the sun (or this won't really work) and prompt your camera to perform the manual white balance. This will essentially let you recalibrate your colors based on your current depth.
And current depth here is key! Because guess what happens when you go deeper or shallower? You'll need to do it all over again. I would recommend doing it at every 3-5 meters to start and see how you feel about the colors you get.
#2 Shaky hands & Steady shots
"there are techniques and skills that you can practice that will help you achieve a better, more pleasant looking image"
So with your cameras colors now looking great, we can move onto the next skill set that will make a huge difference to your underwater images. And it is so important to start on this as early as possible in your scuba career, because trust me, most people take a long time getting it right. Don't expect mastery in a few dives!
When we go diving underwater a few things will make our bodies react in various ways. If we are on the move, our legs are propelling us forward. If we are cold, we shake. When we inhale and exhale, our lungs and abdomen contract and expand. Even something as simple as moving our heads causes bones and muscles to reach in our spine and shoulders. And then there's external forces. Waves, currents and surges can cause us to move uncontrollably.
All of these factors can result in your stunningly colored underwater images turning into a shaky experience worthy of motion sickness. But fear not, there are techniques and skills that you can practice that will help you achieve a better, more pleasant looking image that will help your viewers keep their last meal down.
Let's get right to it with the most important skill that you will need to practice every day you go diving; Buoyancy. This is a skill your instructor taught you during your open water course, and probably even more so during the peak performance buoyancy part of your advanced open water course. However it takes most of us a bit longer to achieve any sort of mastery of it than a couple of lessons. But buoyancy is something you always can and should practice whenever you go diving. Got nothing to do on your safety stop? Bored swimming over featureless landscape to get to wherever you're going? Those are the times that you break out your dive computer and swim or hover as well as you can, without going up or down. It requires a correct amount of air in your BCD at your current depth combined with the right amount of weights, controlled breathing, correct trim and a calm manner. And if you feel like you fail during your first go, guess what. You will only get better!
After you've achieved mastery in buoyancy in about 3-500 dives from now, you should start to become aware of how your body generates motion and how you can prevent it from reaching your arms. Kicking is definitely the largest source of motion in your body, so lets start there. When you kick the motion goes from your legs to your hips, and usually progresses from there to your chest, shoulders and finally to your arms. Now each body part absorbs some of the motion, meaning that your arms probably don't move as much as your legs do. But wouldn't it be nice if all that kicking motion got reduced or even better, we got rid of it altogether? Again this takes a lot of practice, but this is how to do it.
This tends to work better if you are doing fluffer kicks rather than any other finning method. You want to be kicking slowly, meaning you already create less energy travelling through your body. Next, you want to focus on stopping your motion in your hips. Essentially you want your hips to absorb the majority of the energy, instead of letting it travel up through the rest of your body. I know it sounds weird but simply being aware of this will help you figure out how to move your hips more gently. Again it's a practice thing, so go practice it!
With buoyancy and correct finning technique down, you are probably looking much better already. Another few quick tips is to also be aware of the conditions. All this becomes much more difficult if you're kicking against the currents. You should also try to keep your elbows bent as much as possible, as this will also help stabilize your arms. And make sure that you have a firm grip on your TWO handles. That's right, having two of those makes a huge difference as well.
Finally on the topic of gear, there are some features that can help you, but in my opinion they are pretty useless on their own without the previously mentioned tips. More and more cameras have IBIS or built in image stabilisation these days. This allows the sensor to stabilize itself and create a steadier image. Certain lenses come with image stabilisation, which gives a similar effect. Some brands even allow you to combine both these features at the same time.
There's also some stabilisation options for you to do in post. Even services like YouTube will detect if your footage is shaky and offer to stabilize it for you (which I consider the ultimate insult). Does this work well? Not really. Generally speaking, whenever you have multiple layers of foreground/middle ground/background in your shots, it will look terrible. You can get good results if you are doing it on specific clips with a proper stabilizer like Premiere Pro or After Effects, but doing it to your entire movie is probably a bad idea. But by all means give it a go, just be prepared to potentially take nausea tablets again.
#3 Manual Camera Settings
Besides setting your manual white balance, there are some other manual camera features that can help bring your underwater videography to the next level. Some are more advanced than others and some can be tricky to learn, but in my opinion it's all worth it down the road.
The features I'm going to cover here relates to exposure, the correlational between ISO, aperture & shutter speed and how it helps capture the light that hits your sensor. Most underwater shooters will simply let the camera choose these values automatically, but here's two good reasons why that's a bad idea;
1) Your camera probably doesn't know how to properly dial in the correct shutter speed for video. That's right, there's an easy magic formula that sets a correct shutter speed for video to achieve correct and realistic looking motion blur. And for reasons beyond me, most cameras can't set this value automatically (which would make so much sense). Some higher end systems will have this as an automatic feature, but I suspect most of its users are shooting with manual settings once they've reached that level. But that's not nearly as bad as reason number
2) Automatic exposure can cause a lot of unwanted flickering. Flickering is when the camera does rapid minor exposure changes as the scene gets brighter and darker. You might appreciate this feature, as it keeps your image more or less properly exposed (if you're lucky). But all those micro adjustments show up as flicker in your shots, and in my opinion it ruins the footage.
Sadly manual exposure for video isn't available on all camera systems, but if your camera has it, here's what you need to know:
Shutter Speed – Double your frame rate. If you're shooting at 25p/25fps, use 1/50 of a shutter. Double the frame rate, double the shutter speed. This makes videography far easier than photography for manual exposure, as your shutter speed mostly remains constant.
ISO – Keep it set as low as possible, and learn your cameras limits. Some cameras can capture a clean image at ISO 3200, others can't. Understand the limits of your underwater system before even taking it underwater.
Aperture – Our goal is usually to keep an image as sharp as possible, and the majority of lenses are sharpest somewhere between F5.6 and F11. Again, research your lenses and understand how they work. If your goal is rather subject separation through depth of field, use the widest aperture of your lens (the lowest number... I know, confusing). But be aware of corner sharpness when using wider apertures, as this can quite often be affected when pushing your lenses to the limit on wider shots.
Now there are obviously a lot more to this and again, I could write a separate article about it. But just know that if you can learn how to operate your camera manually, your images will be better and you will learn so much more about exposure from doing so. Now let's cover something a little bit more fun.
#4 Ambient light direction
For many the realization of just how important this is comes much later than it should. Light direction is seriously everything, and can make or break an image. In this tip we take a closer look at how we can make good use of ambient light for underwater videography.
You might have noticed that when you go diving, the visibility will look very different depending on which way you are facing. That's light direction for you and it's most obvious in the early or late hours of the day, when the sun sits on an angle. If you look towards the light it will look washed out especially towards the surface and the visibility will usually suffer. This goes double if you are diving somewhere in the world with lots of particles in the water, as they will get illuminated and highlighted by the sunlight. In addition anything that you are filming will probably have harsh shadows and be poorly lit, that is unless that's the look you are going for.
If you look the other way however, it's all the opposite. The reef and it's inhabitants are nicely lit and the visibility will look as good as it possibly can. Particles in the water are less visible too. Basically most everything just looks better! So how does this information help us with our underwater images? The first thing to talk about is approach.
Not everything underwater enjoy the company of scuba divers, and creatures can be more skittish in different parts of the world as well. Hence you need to make choices when you approach certain subjects. Let me go ahead with an example to explain to you my process.
Let's say we're out on a beautiful tropical afternoon dive with great visibility. We are swimming towards the sun and hence the visibility looks best behind us. Off in the distance we spot a turtle gracing on the reef. Now turtles are a great example because they can be both skittish or completely careless towards your presence and you never know which one you're gonna get until you get close. But in this example, we are going to assume worst case scenario; this turtle will swim away as soon as we get close.
In that case, we can make a choice. We can either approach it directly and start filming, hoping to get some sort of a ok shot before it jolts. Or we can circle the turtle at a good distance not to scare it and approach it with the sun behind us, hence giving ourselves the best possible conditions for our shot.
Personally I tend to go for option number two, as long as it's a viable option (I'm not swimming over a triggerfish nest to get it done). It simply helps create better images. And even if the turtle doesn't scare, you are now shooting it from it's best lit side and all that's left to do is avoid casting a shadow over it if you get close!
Another way of using ambient light direction is to create silhouette shots of your subjects. The previous turtle example doesn't work so well for this, but any large marine creature or large school of fish will. Shooting against the sun and bringing your exposure down will make your subject stand out as a silhouette against the bright background (previously mentioned manual exposure settings comes into play here). This can help create a beautiful and unique image that will stand out from your “normal” shots.
In short, being aware of where the sun is positioned can greatly help you create better images, regardless of the type of shot you are shooting.
"learning composition is a process and most of the time underwater, a quick one"
It would be a real shame to learn all the above mentioned tips and just point your camera aimlessly at your subjects, hoping for the best. So let's try to avoid that and talk about composition!
I'm sure you're tired of reading this by now, but you guessed it; I could do an entire article on this subject. It's true! So with that in mind, I will try to cover some of the most important aspects of composition and especially how it relates to moving images.
Because hey, video is all about motion! The motion of the camera, the motion of the reef and it's inhabitants. Let's face it, your subject will have to be super rare to look interesting while completely static (I'm looking at you frogfish!)
So the very first thing I want to teach you about video composition, and especially when shooting wildlife, is learn to predict your subjects motion. What do I mean by that? Example time;
Let's say you are shooting a grouper gliding across the reef. It's swimming from your left field of view towards your right. We can assume that it will continue in that direction, as long as there's no visible reasons for it to change course. Hence we can make some choices for composition before and while we start shooting. Let's say we want to do a static shot; The grouper enters the frame from the left and we keep the shot rolling until it's left the frame off to the right. Where in the frame do we want it to go? Are there other parts of the scene we want to include? The reef perhaps? So if we place the reef in the bottom part of the image and let the grouper swim in the upper part, how does that feel? Or do we want to cut out the reef and just have the grouper swimming in the blue instead?
Or perhaps we don't want the shot to be static at all? Maybe we want to track our subject as it's moving across from us. Well, where do we place it in the frame? Considering the grouper is moving towards the right, and we assume it will continue to do so, we could place it to the left. That way we are seeing where it is going, more so that where it has been. It's also easier for us to continue tracking it if it decides to pick up speed.
The examples above are not about right or wrong answers, but about making choices. You can read articles and watch YouTube videos about composition for weeks on end (and to a degree, I recommend that you do) but at the end of the day, you need to make a choice. It can be based on a conscious decision (perhaps relating to something you've read or watched) or more of a gut feeling, but regardless there should be reason behind your choice. It doesn't have to be more deeply philosophical than “I felt that would look the best”. That's fine! Because learning composition is a process and most of the time underwater, a quick one. We usually don't have the time to think much about how to shoot a certain subject, because most of our subjects are unpredictable wildlife! Hence the process often becomes about instinct or what feels right. And if you can back your feelings up with some knowledge, there's nothing wrong with that.