You’ve got your underwater camera in-hand, you found the turtle cleaning station, the star of the show arrives – a massive algae covered green sea turtle approaches you with twelve surgeon fish on its back, cleaning away. You set your exposure, frame it up, you hit record. After the dive, you rush back to your laptop to offload the footage and review your prize. But for some reason… it just doesn’t look like what you watched on the BBC natural history show from the night before. The color is off, the footage is a bit too shaky, your dreams of joining the next Planet Earth production team are quickly fizzing away like bubbles to the surface. Before you ditch your camera into the drink, here are a few tips that will help take your underwater video footage to the next level.
#1: WHITE BALANCE
Setting correct white balance in your camera is absolutely essential to get good looking color for your footage. Color in an underwater environment changes rapidly as you descend deeper and each color changes at a different rate. Most obvious is the reduction of red as you descend, but other colors are changing too and at different rates, so just adjusting for red will not be enough to retain good color balance (like adding a red filter to your lens for example).
To get truly accurate, high quality color representation underwater, you need to do a custom white balance and you need to do it often – about every six feet (2 meters) of depth change.
To do this, you typically set your camera to “custom white balance” mode, you take a photo of something white at that depth (such as a white slate), and you set that as your white balance reference photo when your camera prompts you to do so. While every digital camera is a little bit different, they all more or less follow this process to achieve proper custom white balance.
You can also use a patch of sand underwater in a pinch, but remember that you will then be shooting down towards the patch, meaning it isn’t exactly accurate for the depth you are shooting if you plan to shoot straight ahead of you – it would be accurate at your depth while looking down to the depth of the sand.
If you are shooting RAW video (lucky you!), you could hypothetically correct the color on your computer in post. However, it will not be easy to get it just right and you will likely spend a lot of time tweaking the footage to get marginal results. Honestly, setting proper white balance in your camera while underwater is sort of a pain – especially when using a longer lens, as someone else will have to hold the white card for you. But if you want to get top notch quality footage, you will have to work a little harder to get it and the payoff will be worth it!
#2: CAMERA NEUTRAL BUOYANCY
If you let go of your camera underwater, does it start floating up and away from you or sink like a rock? If you flip it upside down, does it immediately right itself? These are all indicators that your camera is not neutrally buoyant and it is negatively affecting your video quality. This is because you are using muscle power to adjust the position of your camera in the water, meaning the camera wants to go one way and your muscles are moving the camera in another way, over and over again. This translates to shake in your camera and shake is no good when it comes to video.
Generally speaking, you do not want to be “carrying” your camera underwater, you want to be “pushing” it through the water. And if you stop pushing the camera, it should stop moving at all. Weight plays a role in this as well – the heavier your camera is, the harder it will be to push underwater – not just you pushing it, but surging water will not push it as much either. And if nothing is pushing your camera around, there will be no shake. But wait – if you make your camera heavier, it will sink, right?
Yes – unless you add floats to the system. So how much weight and how many floats should you add? That’s up to you, but the more you add, the more stable your footage will be. For an extreme example, imagine mounting your camera to the front of a submarine. How stable would that footage be??? Very, very stable.
#3: SMOOTH KICKS
Unless you are using an underwater scooter, you are probably propelling yourself forward underwater using fins. If you stop kicking, you will still move forward a little bit and this is called your glide. If you were to kick super hard and stop, your glide would be longer than if you kicked very lightly and stopped. If we called each glide a pulse, then your kicking underwater would be a series of pulses, one left pulse, the next a right pulse, etc. In a perfect world, your kicks would overlap in a way that your pulses were barely discernible from another, creating a non-stop forward glide where your forward speed never changes one bit.
In my experience, this is near impossible unfortunately. So while it may be difficult or impossible to create a perfectly smooth forward glide without “seeing” the pulses of your kicks in the footage, you should make as many efforts as possible to move towards as smooth of a glide as possible. There are many different kick styles that may help you do this, but what I have found to be the MOST helpful is this: use freediving fins. Yes, those long, awkward things are smooth as butter underwater and with a little practice, even a slight flick of the foot will give you a nice smooth push through the water.
They are a bit of a pain to manage – especially on small boats and in tight spaces, but in my opinion well worth the trouble. A second option would be to find the softest short fins you can reasonably move with, but seriously nothing will work quite as good as the nice long, flexible freediving fins.
Underwater videography is all about incremental improvement, once you get a solid baseline to work from. That baseline for me is proper exposure, good color balance, and smooth footage. The rest of it – focal lengths, framing, f-stop, etc. is more of a personal choice and up to each videographer to decide their own style of shooting. If you put some time into getting your baseline down solid, it will pay off enormously when you move onto more stylistic choices so you can spend more time having fun shooting and less time scratching your head with RGB curves and stabilization plugins in post.
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