10 basic beginner tips for shooting better underwater video

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Posted May 13th, 2021 by Elisabeth

Improve your image quality with these basic tips and techniques.

Shooting underwater video has become increasingly popular in recent years. Cameras have improved, there is easy to use video editing software on the market now and it’s quick and easy to share with the world via Facebook, Instagram or YuoTube. Divers have a lot of options for shooting underwater video on small or bigger cameras nowadays.

However, there is more to making great videos than owning the latest equipment. Mirror-less and DSLR cameras are great for high quality video, but don’t hesitate to pick up your point and shoot or a GoPro, too. Here below some basic beginner tips, tricks and techniques, so you can shoot high quality videos even with a small camera and make sure your videos stand out.


1. Framing the shot

The first thing to consider when taking any video shot is how the shot is framed, or where the subject is located in the frame. Your initial instinct may be to position the subject in the middle. This might feel right but if you film a whole sequence this way, your video will start looking dull. Composition is the key here. You might have heard of the “rule-of-thirds”. It is a common rule of thumb followed by underwater videographers and photographers to better their composition.

Divide the frame into thirds, creating nine equal sections. By positioning certain elements at the points where the lines intersect, you will create a more balanced composition that is pleasing to the eye.

2. Use negative space as your background

Negative space is an empty area surrounding the subject in your image. It will draw the viewer’s eyes to your main subject. For example, if you follow a turtle swimming over the coral, your shot will look more appealing if there is negative space, meaning blue ocean water, around the turtle, rather than shooting down with as background a busy coral reef.

The way to get a negative space in your background while shooting is to make sure you shoot at eye level, or, even better, go lower, and shoot slightly up. Avoid pointing the camera down. Your subject won’t look separated from their background if you shoot down.

3. Moving shots in underwater videography

Move around. Videos are much more interesting if they contain a variety of motion. So along with some of your still video shots, you probably want to have some footage moving around the dive site or with your subject.

Practice swimming with the camera in front of you by finning straight using the flutter kick forwards over the coral at a steady pace. Record a 10 to 30 second clip. The longer the shot, the less likely it will be still steady after trying to hold it steady for 30 seconds. Coast after the last kick and film with the current, if there is one, to get smoother movement.

Keep in mind that your body is your tripod and that when you take moving shots, it will only look natural if you move your whole body as a single unit. Try avoiding just arm movements in the water since the water resistance may make that shot shaky.

After you master steady shots while swimming straight, try alternating with swimming around coral heads. Always remember to keep your camera at eye level or point it slightly up when doing this.

4. Avoid shaky movements, try holding steady

Sounds easy, right? After all you are submersed in water and all movement should be nice and fluid. Wrong! It is actually very hard to hold a camera steady while swimming around or hovering. To avoid the wobbles hold the camera in a comfortable position in front of you with slightly bent arms. If you are hovering, just add a slight movement up or down or even forwards. While swimming, use the flutter kick and try keeping your hips and body steady to help stabilize your shot. Swimming forward, around or over coral scenery will show more of your environment and will at the same time be more stable than trying not to move in the water column.

Make sure you keep the camera steady on your subject for long enough to get a good, usable shot. Count to 10 in your head once you’ve got the subject in frame and don’t re-adjust where you’re pointing the camera. A 30-second shot full of slight little moves or shakes isn’t a 30-second usable shot for your edit.

When you start focusing more on macro shooting, it will be wise to invest in an underwater tripod. There is a wide variety of choice out there. Using a tripod to film the small critters will bring your macro footage to the next level. But that’s a whole other discussion!

5. Follow the action – leading the subject into the frame

When shooting video of marine life it is best to have it facing you. A frontal or side view works great. Nobody wants to watch a video of fish tails swimming away from the camera!

When shooting a moving subject, like a turtle for example, make sure you keep it in frame and with plenty of “headroom”. You will want to make it look like your turtle still has room to move.

You can’t follow a turtle forever, so after you’ve captured some moving shots of your subject, hold the camera still and let the subject swim out of frame to finish the shot.

6. Get a variety of shot types

When it’s time to edit your video together later, you’ll want to have a variety of shots to choose from. You definitely want to try to get wide, medium, and close up shots of your subject- taken either moving or in a static position.

Wide shots are often an establishing shot. They may be the first shot of your sequence. They may include for example a coral reef, ship wreck or shallow, snorkeling environment, either with or without your subject in the shot.

Medium shots can be of your entire subject or a scene that doesn’t show all the surroundings.

Close up shots are tightly cropped shots showing detail.

This sequence is telling a story by showing a wide, medium and close up shot of the turtle

And don’t forget the shots that will help glue your story together: maybe film some divers gearing up on the boat or people pointing out marine life, wide angle shots showing the overall appearance of the reef, empty shots of blue water, sunrays or bubbles, etc. These shots are often referred to as cut-away shots or transition shots.

7. Stay shallow and get close

If you want to make sure your footage is of the highest quality possible by using sunlight, 5-12m is the ideal depth. At these depths you will still get nice and vibrant colors and there is no need to bring video lights.

Get close to your subject to minimize the loss of light by having the least amount of water in between your subject and the camera lens. Your footage will look more intimate that way too.

8. White Balance

Get familiar with your camera’s white balance functions if you have access to it from the housing. On a GoPro you won’t be able to adjust WB manually, but on point and shoot, mirror-less or DSLR cameras you will have easy access. Some cameras have an automatic underwater white balance setting these days which work pretty good if you decide not to set the WB manually.

It’s often tempting to stop fiddling with white balance and just “fix it in the edit.” But adjusting it before shooting underwater will look much better.

Manual white balance normally entails pointing the camera at something white (like a white slate) and hitting a button. White sand usually works well. You may also use the palm of your hand or white fins.

If you’re shooting with lights, you can probably just leave it on ‘auto’, but if you’re shooting with ambient light, manual white balance is going to give the best result.

9.Know when to use lights or red filters

When to choose what?

Red filters are available for GoPros, and any other camera; however the use of powerful video lights will produce the best results for any compact camera shooting video. Small compact cameras or GoPros will produce their best looking images when they are used in bright, evenly lit environments.

The general rule for video is that lights are best for subjects within 1-2m of the ­camera. Switch off your light(s) if the subject is farther away. If you know you’ll be shooting without lights – referred to as ambient light- you’ll get the best ­results with manual white balance, with or without a red filter (depending on your depth).

Below is a small guideline:

Shooting wide angle at 5 to 12m depth in ambient light: You might want to use a red filter and adjust the manual white balance whenever you change depth or when the lighting changes.

Wide angle, deeper than 15m: if shooting something close, turn on your lights and don’t use the red filter. If you’re trying to shoot something larger than the area illuminated by your lights, you may just have to settle for having extremely blue footage. Putting the red filter on at this depth might help your white balance, but it also cuts out way too much light and leads to grainy, often unusable footage.

10. Check out your footage

Once you have finished your dives, check your video footage on a computer. On the camera LCD screen it might look great, but on a big screen you may realize some shots are out of focus. Or you may find some dust specks that were stuck on your dome and now appear on every single shot.

Make sure you check after every day of diving to be able to see the mistakes and correct them for the next day!

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Top 10 Lists FAQs

What does it mean to fill the frame?

Filling the frame simply means to fill your shot with more of the subject. So instead of having (blue water) negative space in the background, or worrying about the rule of thirds composition, you’re getting closer physically. So you swim/move in closer.

How important is white balance underwater?

If you want to get rid of the blue tint in your underwater video footage and capture vibrant colors in your footage which are as vivid as what you see when you are diving, you need to work on your white balance skills! Custom, manual white balance or setting a camera on automatic underwater white balance (fish mode) is used to get the most accurate color in underwater video footage as possible.

What brands do you recommend for underwater video lights?

Keldan, Light & Motion Sola, Big Blue and SUPE video lights are all great brands for the professional underwater videographer. All brands have different amounts of lumens available.


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