Ever felt yourself seriously inspired after watching the latest, epic David Attenborough nature documentary? Some of the underwater scenes in series such as Blue Planet II or Netflix’s brand new Our Planet II leave you speechless. They also leave you wondering…how on earth did they shoot that?
If you’re feeling motivated to start shooting underwater videography, you’ve come to the right place. Make no mistake, underwater filming is not an easy undertaking and it’s so different to shooting a normal sequence on land that many first-timers and beginners are left feeling very overwhelmed with footage that’s not very good or, even worse, a camera that no longer works!
To help you figure out the world of underwater filming, we’re giving you everything you need to get started – from how to film underwater scenes to the best underwater cameras. By following these tips and adopting these rules, you’ll be well on your way to capturing beautiful underwater footage.
The main caveats of underwater filming
Pretty obvious, but essential to everything. Filming underwater is not easy because you’re in a foreign environment that isn’t made for humans to thrive in, let alone capture beautiful, cinematic footage. When you’re looking at how to film underwater scenes, you need to start by understanding what’s required of you as a filmmaker in this environment and what’s required of your camera equipment.
Humans can’t breathe underwater and (most) cameras aren’t designed to operate underwater either. There are many dangers in different aquatic life and ocean currents, as well as the fact that sea water is incredibly salty and corrosive. We’ll address these things in our top tips below.
Colors and light behave very differently
On top of these obvious obstacles, it’s important to understand that when you’re filming underwater, both light and colors are going to behave differently in comparison to shooting on land. On the surface and down to around 5 meters or so, you should be able to find lighting and color behaving similar to how it might do on land but once you dive further down, all of this changes.
Essentially, sunlight is made up of many different wavelengths of light, which are all different colors. You can see this demonstrated when light passes through a prism.
Water absorbs these different wavelengths at different depths. As you dive deeper, you’ll find that colors such as reds and yellows tend to disappear fastest, while blues and greens stick around. This is why all your GoPro footage looks very blue underwater and it makes underwater videography particularly difficult when it comes to accurate color grading. Additionally, if the visibility isn’t great, you’ll be left working with challenging lighting conditions under the waves.
As you may have already guessed from your own research looking at how to film underwater, it’s quite a demanding challenge that tends to use more resources than shooting on land. For example, you’ll need at least one dive buddy, you’ll have to hire a boat and a captain who knows the area, you’ll need to find a dive shop to rent your gear and tanks (or buy this yourself), as well as purchase all the necessary gear and lighting for your underwater camera.
Top tips for how to film underwater
Learn to dive
First things first before anything else, you need to learn how to dive safely. There are many things that can go wrong underwater so undertaking your PADI Open Water Diving Course is essential.
When you’re filming underwater, a lot of your focus will be dedicated to your underwater videography – getting the shots, operating the camera. In order to get to this point where you can do that, you need to be diving as if it’s second nature, like driving a car or riding a bike.
We’ll discuss this further below, but working on things such as buoyancy and breathing technique is particularly important.
Don’t cut corners with your equipment
Underwater videography is expensive and sometimes, it may be tempting to cut corners and opt for the slightly cheaper option. In my own personal experience, this has never really been worth it. You tend to get what you pay for and when it comes to underwater film cameras and the housing, it’s better to be safe than sorry, right? If you’re taking a very expensive piece of gear down into an environment it’s not supposed to be in, invest in the equipment that’s going to protect it reliably.
White balance manually
Remember what you read about color and light behaving differently? In order to capture underwater footage that’s color accurate, you need to learn to white balance your camera regularly and manually. While it can be tempting to leave it on auto-white balance, this is a big no-no. The colors and lighting behave so differently here underwater that your camera most likely won’t be anywhere near what you want.
Instead, you should be familiar with your white balance settings on the camera and use something like a white slate or white fins to white balance before you shoot each piece of footage. Using the sand or even the palm of your hand can work well enough too! I use a piece of white tape on the inside of my camera lens cover.
Note – for something like a GoPro or a simple underwater camera for snorkeling, the option to white balance won’t be available.
Linking into light and color, I can recommend that staying shallower is better when it comes to filming underwater. Remember, the deeper you go, the less light and color. Up toward the surface, you’ll find better lighting, more accurate colors and in my experience at least, the most interesting animals and coral reefs.
A common trait among beginners in underwater videography is to shoot from above. Whether you’re snorkeling or just starting out diving, there’s a tendency to shoot what you see beneath you, but this footage isn’t great. It’s a bit two dimensional and reminds viewers that it’s being shot by a human on or near the surface.
What you want to do is get low and eye-level with the aquatic marine life and landscapes that you’re shooting. By moving with the animals and through these environments, you’ll capture much more immersive, interesting footage.
Download Sealion Swimming by Alfredo Barroso
Just like on land, you’ll want to keep your camera as steady as possible when filming underwater. You may think that underwater, all your movements are slow and fluid, so holding a camera won’t be that hard but the reality is, it’s really difficult to remain totally steady!
My advice is to use a camera tray with two handles set away, either side of the underwater housing itself. With arms slightly bent and a neck strap for additional stability, hold the camera out in front of you in a comfortable position. This is where mastering your buoyancy and breathing technique will really help you out, allowing you to maintain a controlled, calm and neutral position while you get the shot.
At a minimum, shoot each clip for 10 seconds, holding the frame steady on your subject.
As a way to further eliminate any annoying shakes, I’ve always shot my underwater footage in slow motion. Not only does this smooth out my clips, but it means I have longer clips to play with in the edit and adds an ethereal, almost “magic” feel to the footage which I really like. You’ll notice that they sometimes use this for the big-budget blue-chip nature documentaries and it’s a useful tip when it comes to how to edit an underwater video. Add some beautiful ocean sound effects and you have yourself a memorable sequence.
Get a variety of shots
When looking at how to film underwater, you’ll be pleased to know that there are at least some rules of thumb that remain the same as on land. When filming underwater, you’ll want to make sure you get a good variety of shots.
Capture wide shots that establish the location and environment but don’t forget to mix it up with medium and close-up shots that focus in on specific details, whether that be a certain type of coral or marine animal.
Additionally, play with both static and moving footage. Moving through an environment or tracking a creature such as a turtle can lead to some incredible underwater footage, so don’t be afraid to use your legs to move you around, perhaps even as a way to naturally “zoom in” on certain parts of the reef or subjects you find interesting.
Underwater filming equipment
When it comes to how to film underwater scenes, your equipment is the most important factor. We’ve broken down the main pieces that you’ll need to get started.
There are lots of different underwater film cameras you can use for underwater videography but they’re certainly not all equal. It depends on your needs and there’s no one-size-fits-all answer when it comes to the best underwater cameras on the market today.
A GoPro is most likely everyone’s very first underwater camera, right? It’s a great underwater camera for snorkeling and makes for an okay camera while diving, but there are many limitations that will soon become apparent. If you’re serious about capturing beautiful underwater footage, then you’ll want to move on and upgrade from the GoPro which has a relatively small sensor (not great when lighting is already poor) and doesn’t allow for manual white balancing.
DSLRs and mirrorless cameras
At the opposite end of the spectrum to GoPro’s are your big DSLRs and mirrorless cameras with interchangeable lenses. While they have large sensors and produce fantastic, cinematic imagery, they tend to be more complex to operate – even on land! When you take one of these big, expensive cameras underwater, it’s going to cost you a lot to purchase the underwater housing. In fact, the underwater housing can often be the same price as the camera itself. Additionally, the learning curve will be steeper.
If you can afford the bigger budget and take the time to learn, this is the way to get truly beautiful, cinematic underwater footage.
I’ve found that point-and-shoots are a nice in-between. You can white balance manually and the image quality is superior to something like the GoPro, but they’re often a little cheaper than larger mirrorless options and they remain smaller and lightweight, meaning the underwater housing is also more affordable. I’ve been using the Sony RX100-V for two years now and so far, it’s doing everything I need it to without breaking the bank!
Get all you need to create the perfect video
Whichever type of camera you opt for, you’re going to need an underwater housing for it. As I mentioned with DSLRs and mirrorless cameras, these can sometimes cost as much as the camera itself. My advice is to take your time, do your research and check out the reviews for each product. This is a big purchase and you want to ensure you’re investing in something that’s not only easy to operate but absolutely 100% reliable (remember what I said about not cutting corners with your equipment).
If you’d like to get the most out of your underwater camera, purchasing lights is a must. You may get away with shooting in the shallower depths with good lighting and great visibility but if you’re going lower, to a shipwreck for example, then lights are your friend. You’ll get a better image and show your subject much more clearly, while also adding realistic color back into the footage.
Purchasing a camera tray helps bring everything together. With handles that are separate from the underwater housing, you can eliminate the worst shakes while also providing a mount for your lights. I’d say this is a must-have for any serious underwater videography.
Buoyancy aids are a maybe. Ultimately, it depends on how heavy all of your underwater equipment is. If the camera with its underwater housing, tray and lights is dragging you down and impacting how you dive, then you’ll need to invest in buoyancy aids until it’s neutral.