Underwater scenes in film can be some of the most magical. A world not too far from our own – seen in a clear lens. Trying to achieve underwater scenes in independent filming may seem a bit daunting at first, but here are a few tips and techniques that may help you create those beautiful images.
The first thing that would be most helpful is to learn how to dive. This might seem like a hassle to eager filmmakers who just want to jump in and shoot, but knowing how to properly dive can really help. Not only is being SCUBA certified important when wanting to obtain scuba gear, during the certification lessons they teach you how to control your buoyancy. This is important when keeping shots steady in the water, ocean or pool. Know that scuba gear is not required, lessons can also teach helpful free-diving techniques. Make sure to be aware in the underwater environment, not bumping into reefs or other obstacles. Remember not to touch or harm the wildlife around you if you choose the ocean as your location, and stay calm.
Underwater housing is probably the most important investment for filming underwater. This does what you’d expect; keeps water out and further protects the camera making it functional underwater. There are cheap options, and expensive options much like other film equipment. I highly recommend you see this as an investment, and obtain a high quality housing for your camera. A cheap housing (sometimes looking like plastic bags) is not worth the fragile life of your camera. Not all cameras have housings that are designed for them. Your best bet is to find a high quality housing first, then a camera that fits. If not try looking at Sony or Bates models.
There are two types of underwater housing, mechanical and digital. At Pixel Productions, we have mechanical housings that have buttons that push levers in the housing to then push the buttons on the camera. It is important to keep up maintenance on these buttons so that they do not jam, stick, or rust. Since your housing is mechanical, there are no electronics to worry about getting wet. Digital housings have a port that connects to the camera so that when the knobs are turned, the camera is controlled electrically. They have easy access to buttons, but are known to get circuit damage and can stop working unexpectedly. Manual housing is prefered. No matter what you choose to get, keep all housing in a drive safe environment when not in use. Make sure to rinse off the housing in freshwater after a saltwater shoot.
Shooting underwater is very different from shooting on land. Simple things there can prove difficult in the water, like making a composition, panning smoothly, and focusing. The rule of thirds is still important when filming underwater. A camera’s thirds display preset can be helpful. Make sure that manual focus is activated as auto tends to get lost in the soft lines found underwater. Do not zoom too often, try and swim to your subject. Over-zooming can look cheesy and amateur. Try your best not to shoot in the diver’s perspective: down. Make sure your angles are level with surface or on something interesting. Your buoyancy skills you learned in your SCUBA lessons will come in handy when trying to stabilize your shots. If you find your camera and housing not heavy enough, add weights while under the water to help stabilize your shot.
Last but not least: manually white balance! Colors are different underwater than on the surface, and the deeper you go the more blue the color white will get. Manually adjust the white balance using a white slate every time you move deeper in the water. Even in shallow pools, white balancing is important. The color with the longest wavelengths disappears the deeper you go in the ocean: red. That’s why without proper white balance and a red/orange filter, you’d end up with a messy monochrome blue hue to all your footage. A red filter puts the other parts of the rainbow back into your image, creating more vivid colors. (cameras and housings with filter picture here)
You’ll run into issues like one does in every shoot, but these tips can help you improve your skills and foresee any issues in post. Don’t be afraid to go to the lengths you need to make your vision come to life!