U/W Videography 101

13 Tips for Underwater Videography

Text Steve Douglas


While the basics are the same as video on land — white balance, steady shot, composition and lighting — shooting underwater forces you to embark on a new learning curve. What you can easily accomplish on land is thrice as difficult underwater. On land, it is not easy to keep a steady shot while walking. Now imagine you’re trying to film a shy hammerhead shark while avoiding the venomous urchin just beyond the ridge where a treacherous down-current awaits…

Filming underwater has its own challenges and peculiar conditions. If you are a competent diver and all set for your underwater video debut, here are 13 tips and tricks you can use to capture the underwater wonders like a pro:

1. Rock steady
Unless you are shooting an underwater version of The Blair Witch Project, the most important skill all videographers-in-the-making must learn is to keep the camera still. An unsteady hand creates a shaky and unusable clip.

2. Get a grip
Hold on to the housing handles with a light touch, and try using one hand. When conditions are less than ideal, hold the handle with one hand, while cradling the housing from underneath. This creates a “tripod” posture which helps to maintain a static shot. Find a touch and feel that is right for you — get familiarized with the housing functions to help you master the controls while in record mode.

3. Give zoom a break
Remember the golden rule: Do not zoom. It is an annoying distraction and can ruin the mood you are attempting to create. In addition, tiny particulates in the water tend to get magnified and cloud the image. Move in on your subject instead — the less actual water between you and the subject, the better the image. When shooting macro subjects like the pygmy seahorse, turn the camera off, zoom into the subject, focus, and then record.

4. Go manual
While the auto-focus setting works well with static objects and medium shots, problems arise when you shoot wide-angle. Suppose you are filming the majesty of a field of coral terraces when a shark decides to make a cameo appearance. The new focal point would confuse the camcorder as it tries to decide what to focus on. This creates a sudden loss of focus, which can ruin what could have been excellent footage. To avoid this, go manual. Extreme zoom in on an object, manually focus and then zoom out. This would ensure that everything between the extreme zoom and your lens would be in focus.

5. Primed for action
When filming marine life, it is always more impressive to film behavior than to shoot samples of fish species. For instance, a 5m manta ray doing back rolls in the water is exponentially more fascinating than one nonchalantly drifting by. Since we never can predict animal behavior, it is wise to have the camera rolling on approach, so you won’t miss the unexpected action.

6. No fish tales
Avoid shooting a fish, shark or any creature from its tail end. Shoot the action head on. However, since fish do not take direction, keep the camera static and allow the fish to swim across the frame, rather than spooking them by chasing them.

7. The spice of life
Creating an underwater film is no different from writing a story. It must have a beginning, a middle and an end. It is also necessary to film from a variety of perspectives to retain the viewer’s interest. As with topside filming, the subject matter is critical. Shooting everything under the sea in a single, long piece of wide-angled footage is a sure-fire way to put your audience to sleep.

8. Vary your shots
Not all creatures will hang around as you change camera angles. But wherever possible, try to get a diversity of shots. If you are going to document the life of the giant cuttlefish, start with an establishing shot of your location in wide-angle, then a medium shot of the male coveting the female and threatening the other males with high-held tentacles. Now, get that close-up of the female thrusting her tentacles into the crevice to deposit her eggs, and then back to the medium shot of her departure. Each sequence should contain visual interest, a variety of shots, angles and action.

9. Shoot towards the sky
Shoot marine creatures — whether clownfish, barracuda or shark — from slightly underneath. This technique adds both size and depth to the creature. Not only will you get a clear shot of its vibrant colors, you will also get an excellent view of their mouth, teeth and eyes, adding character to your subject.

10. House your cam
The first thing to consider when purchasing a camcorder is to make sure there is a housing made for it. There are two types of housings: Mechanical housings — which are reliable, durable and rugged — and electronic housings, known for their ease of use and fingertip button controls. Try both types out before you decide on which one works best for you.

11. Let there be light
As we dive into the ocean, colors disappear. First to go are the reds and yellows, then finally the blues. The use of additional lighting underwater is crucial in bringing out all those brilliant colors lost at depth, whether shooting day or night.

12. And color too…
The white-balance feature compensates for the loss of color at depth. While auto-white-balance works well, there is a significant improvement in going manual. Carry a white plastic slate with you to readjust the white-balance as your conditions underwater change.

13. Look before you leap
Remember to make the essential pre-dive checklist: Turn your camera on, check that your set-up is working, the battery is fully charged, and you have enough room to store your images for the duration of the dive, and finally, check the seals of your housing. It takes but one drop of seawater to fry your expensive camcorder.

Underwater filming is an exciting and creative endeavor. Like every other skill, it requires a great deal of time, patience and practice, but there is nothing like it in the world when you hear the appreciative applause of your audience. Before taking the plunge it is imperative that you are completely at ease underwater, with an objective knowledge of your diving abilities and limitations.

Never neglect safety concerns at any time: Check your air, depth and bottom time every once in a while, and don’t forget your buddy. A prerequisite for any underwater video endeavor is the mastery of buoyancy. Poor control will not only create shaky and unusable shots, it can also stir up a “sand storm” or worse, destroy the delicate ecology of the reef.

Steve Douglas is an award-winning underwater videographer. He worked on the feature film The Deep Blue Sea, for History Channel TV. One of the principal organizers of the San Diego UnderSea Film Exhibition, Douglas leads both underwater filming expeditions and African safaris with upcoming filming excursions to Kenya, Bali and Komodo, and the Philippines

SOURCE: www. asiandiver.com

Photography: Remy


  1. Yes!!! Albert should read tip #13 . . . . especially the part of “… dont forget your buddy…” Laging nawawala.

  2. Ha…ha…ha… Ako naman laging naiiwan.. It really takes time to get the right shot and angle. By the time I’m finished taking the photo wala na ang mga kasama ko 🙂

  3. prerequisite for any underwater video endeavor is the mastery of buoyancy…


  4. Balita ko yung mga Nat Geo Diver kaya yan. 🙂 Yan ay balita lang naman. hehehe

  5. HAHAHAHA. Kawawa Not-Geo.

  6. Kayang kaya din ng mga Not-Geo iyang bouyancy mastery basta ang instructor nila si Dave…of course kelangan din ng regular exposure…kaya dive lang ng dive.
    Hey Albert & Jonet and whoever else is interested to volunteer their talents and Tubbataha photos, when is the best possible time for us to meet regarding the Tubbataha video?

  7. Kasama ko si Dok Orly at si Derek Ricky Aragon sa Tiubbataha video at kukuha daw si Dok ng sponsors… post nyo lang po kung kelan tayo meet. Tnx

  8. Okay. I am just waiting for them to send me a copy of their old video and some more photos. Pag-complete na ang materials, set na natin schedule. Regarding the International Coastal Clean-up sa Sept 22 – 23 iyon, pero wala pa tayong definite plan kung saang resort tayo mag-paparticipate 🙂

  9. Nawala lang ako ng 5 days, kung ano ano na ang nangyari at sinabi … okay, I’m really at fault for not looking at my buddy while taking pictures. It takes time and patience to capture “the” shot … Paz, pareho lang tayo naiiwan … problema sa akin, hindi ko na alam kung nasaan sila … pero, nahahanap pa naman. Sorry bud!!!

    Anyway, regarding the Tuba project, we better start ASAP (at least brainstorm) as there are many things to discuss and plan. We can meet when the video from their office arrives … we can watch, study, take it apart and definitely plan to improve on it.

    Regarding the COT and Int’l Clean-Up, please announce early enough so we schedule for it.

  10. Hey Albert, why is it that when I click on your name, I get a website of GT Trends? Is this really part of your website? Regards…

  11. Yes sir … I am now am associate travel agent for GTTrends … the website you go to is assigned to me. I’ll email you for details.

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