Underwater filming is an art of its own. The best photographers are also going to be scuba divers and will have a love for underwater species. The light is very different underwater, and the equipment is different from still and topside and can be pricey. But for those who enjoy life under the sea, the opportunities for killer photography are many, and the rewards of seeing beautiful sea life perfectly rendered are amazing.
One of the most critical skills for shooting underwater is to be a very competent and stable diver. Control is everything. It takes experience to remain steady underwater and not scare away the fish you are trying to shoot or stir up the sand in sediment by touching it. Buoyancy control is critical and can even allow you to shoot upside down if that makes a better shot.
Knowing What and Where to Shoot
Some species are very tough to film. None are particularly easy! So bring your patience. Great places to shoot are in national parks, wildlife preserves, or marine preserves. Beware as they are often protected areas and will require a permit to shoot. You’ll also need insurance for some of these areas.
There are many subjects to shoot in nature in Caribbean waters. Get a boat, or hook up with a commercial dive operator. Remember that some species’ behavior is seasonal, like shark mating or whale migration, so do your homework.
Special Challenges of Underwater Filming
Shooting above the water is very different from shooting underwater. Forget what you know when you go below the waterline! Think carefully about your ISO. Never assume it will be dark. Telephoto lenses will not work in underwater filming. You’ll be shooting through the thick medium of water and have light absorption, color absorption, and color diffusion. This means that most shots will require artificial light, and often even two light sources. It’s helpful to get close to your subject since the light will not travel well.
An excellent underwater shooter will stay very close and shoot from a few inches to even 1-3 feet from your subject. This will result in the best light and color and provide the best background.
Think of shooting underwater as shooting under a vast blue filter. Use the daylight setting to apply your white balance. The water’s clarity will vary and will impact how sharp your images might be.
Your subject will bring unique challenges too. If you are trying to capture a school of fish, they often move quickly and will scatter. The larger species are more likely to glide. Fast shutter speeds are tough to master underwater, so that it will take practice. Keep your shutter speed as slow as you can.
One of the most significant challenges of underwater filming is to hold still. As with all videos, you want to avoid shakiness in your shots. It may sound easy, but it is not! Any wobbles will be very distracting to your viewer. Holding the camera as close to your body as possible will help.
Alternately, you may be able to use an underwater tripod. Various styles and prices will depend upon your diving and filming style. A tripod can be handy when shooting wide-angle. It’s also cool to keep the camera on your subject and sim away. This is less intimidating to the fish and can produce some great images.
Stay on your subject longer than you think you need to. Hold for a count of 10 once your subject is in the frame, and don’t adjust your zoom. Remember, you will have some shakes and moves, so you need to get excess footage to allow for any unusable footage. You may be surprised to see that 60 seconds of footage may yield only a few usable seconds.
Change it up
Any video is more interesting if it includes a variety of shots. Mix it up with some nice steady shots, and then some taken moving. You can pan the camera by twisting at the waist as far as you can to one side. Hit record and slowly turn your body back all the way to the other side. Don’t move your entire body with your fins, as that will cause shakiness. Each kick will cause some wobble, so try to frog-kick as you pan to get a nice long shot.
The best way to follow a moving subject’s action is to keep it in frame with lots of headroom, so it looks like your subject has plenty of space to move. When you have caught enough of the action, stay still and let the subject swim out of the frame for a great end to the shot.
When you are in edit, you’ll appreciate having a great variety of shots to work with. Try to get wide, medium, and closeup shots of any subject if possible. Shoot your subjects from various angles and with different lighting. A pro tip is to take images that will help weave the story together. Think about getting shots of the divers putting on gear or entering and exiting the water, some nice wide shots of the site, lots of blue water site and diver bubbles are always great.
Shooting a wide-angle shot (scenic): Start by zooming all the way out. Keep our elbows locked and to your sides, and try to stay neutrally buoyant. Try to hold your breath to minimize shaking. If you pan a scene, do it very slowly and shoot multiple takes.
Shooting medium shots (fish pictures): First, zoom to compose your shot. Get as close to your subject as possible. If you can, set the camera on a solid object or place your elbows in the sand to steady the camera. Hold your breath to minimize shaking if you are on the ground. Press record once the camera is steady.
Shooting closeup or macro shots: Here, you will need to have lights and will want to hide from the sun. The closer you get, the stiller your camera has to be. A tiny shake can ruin your shot.
Pro Tip: Always be sure to check your footage on a larger screen if possible. You would hate to find dust in your lens obscuring your entire shoot when you view it.
Lighting is Key
Practice getting USD to your camera’s white balance function. With luck, you can leave it on “auto” but experiment.
Some lighting basics:
- A wide-angle at 45 feet or less requires a red filter and ambient light with manual light balance.
- For a wide-angle deeper than 45 feet, use lights and remove the red filter.
- For macro filming, lights on and no red filter. Always experiment for the best result as many things such as the water clarity and subject can change the results.
Shooting underwater video does not have to be intimidating. It’s usually easier than shooting still images. You can let your camera run and wait for the action to happen. The keys are to keep it in focus and steady. Your post-production is also much easier and more forgiving than with still images. Underwater video is a great way to tell your story. Have a big underwater project and need an experienced team by your side? Give us a shout; we’d be happy to help.