Most of my focus within underwater filmmaking is targeted towards scuba diving, but lately I've been getting more and more into freediving as it offers it's own unique challenges and rewards. And while both disciplines take place in the ocean, there are more then a few differences that makes an article like this helpful.
So I am going to cover my top 5 tips on how I shoot underwater video while freediving. These are not specific tips on freediving techniques, there are plenty of articles and videos that cover that better than I can. But I will include some very important bonus safety tips at the end, so please make sure you don't miss out on those.
So let's get started with tip number one, buoyancy. Having a good trim and finding the right mix of equipment and weight is important. For those that haven't been freediving much, imagine trying to dive down with a life jacket on. Or imagine trying to stay afloat while wearing something heavy.
So here's the formula; you want to be as weightless as possible when under the water, while floating comfortably when you're on the surface. Now finding this mix can take some time and you might need to experiment with a few different setups, and there's a lot of factors at play here. You might prefer to free dive with just your swimsuit, or perhaps a rash guard or even a wetsuit or drysuit, depending on where you are in the world. And if you have very little body fat, you might not even need weights while freediving in the tropics with just a swimsuit on.
Personally I like to use a 2mm wetsuit jacket and shorts, with a pair of fins and my slightly negatively buoyant camera setup. For this I take between 2.4 and 3.2 kilos of weights, depending on the ocean conditions. If you are too negatively buoyant in waves, you might be spitting out a lot of water from your snorkel. So find a good equipment setup that works well for you.
#2 Visualize the shot
Tip number two is to prepare the camera and visualize the shot. There's really nothing worse then diving down only to start having to make a lot of adjustments to your camera settings. So I wanted to share my process on how I do this every time I go free diving, so that you don't have to go through the same mistakes.
The first thing I do once I get to an area I might want to be free diving in, is I dive down and grab a manual white balance reading at the depth I will be shooting at. If I'm somewhere shallow like say 3-5 meters I'll just do it off the bottom, but if I'm somewhere deeper I might get a reading at an average depth for whatever I'm trying to capture.
For example, if there's sharks swimming around at 3-9 meters depth, I might go down and grab a manual reading at about 6 meters depth. And if you don't know how to white balance your camera, I highly suggest you go check out this video on how to get the best colors out of your camera.
Moving on with the preparations, another thing I like to do is to set my exposure at a more or less correct level. That way I don't need to deal with massive exposure changes while I'm down there, so one less thing to do. Finally I like to roughly pre-focus my camera before even going down. If I imagine I might end up say a meter away from my subject, I'll just focus on my fins before going down. So that way I have less things to deal with once I'm under the water.
Now if you're a gopro shooter then practically none of this applies to you, just remember to hit the record button.
#3 Distance to subject
Tip number three is to find your ideal distance to your subject before diving down. That means not being too far away from your subject, but perhaps not being to close either. The biggest variable here is what are you shooting. Some marine life can be more skittish than others, so it's easier to get your shot if you're not scaring it away in the process.
For example certain shark species can be quite easy to scare, also sometimes animals like turtles or other fish in general. But their behavior can be more calm if they don't feel threatened. So starting your dive from a bit of distance can sometimes be better, as you can get yourself into position before your subject starts to react. But it's also important not to start too far away, as you might drastically reduce your time spent underwater and therefore also your chance of getting your shot. That's unless you're someone like David Blaine, in which case you can probably do whatever you want.
#4 Half Breath
Tip number four is a breathing technique or exercise known as half breath. There's a couple of ways to do this, and again I'm not an expert on how to execute this for maximum effect. But I've found it to be a necessity for myself when I freedive, hence I've just been practicing it and experimenting with it myself.
The idea is to achieve the best possible neutral buoyancy when underwater, and chances are you are going to be quite positively buoyant if you take a full breath. Now there's nothing wrong with that, but it gets tricky if you are diving in shallow water and need to constantly kick downwards to stay in place. So what you can do is you can take a half breath before diving down instead of a full breath. Now there is a bit of practice and technique involved here, and it can be tricky to get it right.
What I sometimes recommend doing instead is taking a full breath like normal and just exhale about half of the air as you're descending down. Again practice makes perfect and you need to find out roughly how much air to release to achieve neutral buoyancy, and this of course goes back to tip number one. But it's quite a useful technique that will allow you to just stay down and swim around in a similar way to scuba diving.
#5 Repetitive diving
Next at tip number 5 is to practice repetitive diving. This is useful for being able to get quick, repetitive dives in with a subject. Normally when you freedive there's a long period of breath buildup and recovery to maximize your time underwater. And while those techniques are great and very important to learn, they might not do you much good if whatever is below you won't stay there for long.
So again, I'm not a free diving expert, but here's what I do. I tend to do dives at maybe around 70% of my max capacity. For me, this means each dive is long enough for 1-3 shots. I then return to the surface and do about 3 deep recovery breaths. This is where you purge out as much carbon dioxide as possible by doing quick, full exhales through your mouth. Next I do a few slow, deep breaths followed by maybe 2 deep breaths with quick exhales. Then I'm good to go again.
This whole process can take anywhere from 10-20 seconds, depending on how quick I feel I need to get down again. With practice you can do this quite a few times before needing a longer recovery period on the surface.
Now I wanted to talk to you about safety, because freediving even in shallow water has some risks, especially if you're inexperienced. First of all, the skills that I've mentioned in the tips above should be practiced in a pool or shallow water before going out deep.
It's also very important not to go out alone. Always bring a friend or a buddy of similar or higher skill level to yourself, and make sure you are both confident swimmers and that you are both comfortable using a mask, snorkel & fins.
Another very important tips is to always bring a surface marker. There are special ones made for scuba diving and freediving, but in the absence of those bring a life jacket and attach it to your wrist or torso with a line. This helps boat captains spot you from a distance and can also double as a flotation device if you get tired.
Finally, always check local dive conditions. Many places in the world can have strong currents in particular spots or at different times of the day. Ask locals before getting in the water so you can be better prepared and enjoy yourself with less worry.
I hope you found some of these tips useful and if you have any questions please leave them in a comment below and I will make sure that I get back to you as soon as I can. Thank you for reading and happy (free) diving!