Sunday, July 15, 2012

Filming Underwater

One of the things that's always really interested me has been underwater filmng. I've always loved watching shows and films shot underwater, seeing a whole different world. From coral reefs, to jellyfish and shipwrecks, it all looks so different from our day to day that I've always found it fascinating. I've never really had a chance to do this, since I don't scuba dive & the cost of filming underwater isn't cheap. Taking lessons and then buying gear to film has always cost a small fortune until now.

I started toying with the idea of shooting a little bit underwater last year with these two videos.

First Day (HD) from Steve Savage on Vimeo.

Sharbot Lake Camping 2011 (HD) from Steve Savage on Vimeo.

The underwater shots in those videos were shot on an iPhone 4 using a $14 Dry Pak that I bought at Canadian Tire. If you've never seen one before, these things are fantastic little cases to keep your smartphones dry when you go out. Most of them are waterproof up to about 30 feet or so, which makes them easy to use for taking some pictures or video when you're splashing around near the surface of the water, but there's one problem with using something like this as a solution for filming underwater.

Re-watch one of the videos that I posted above here and look at the quality of the underwater video. Even though it was shot at 720p, it looks soft and out of focus, even on the close-up shots. The reason for this is that lenses are curved. Though that works in the air, it doesn't work underwater. To film clearly underwater, you need to have a flat lens. This allows the light to be reflected properly into the CCD or CMOS sensor, resulting in a clear picture. Here's a real world example. Most of us have a set of diving goggles or a mask, but have you ever paid any attention to the shape of the lens? It should be flat, to allow you to see clearly underwater. Want to see how things would look underwater without that flat lens? Get a round clear glass bowl or something else with a curved surface and look though that underwater. Unless what you're looking at is really close to the glass (less than a foot) chances are it'll look soft and out of focus, or you just won't be able to see that far.

So, filming with a Dry Pak, or something similar for a cheap price just doesn't make too much sense, unless you're looking to just shoot a little bit of video for family vacation or for some fun and don't care too much about having crystal clear results. they also don't typically go too deep in the water. I looked into dive housings for my cameras. One for my XA10 costs about $3000, which is more than the camera cost. When I had the HV30, one for it cost about $2000, which was double the price of the camera. When you're looking to just accent a few videos with a few underwater shots, or just to film a few things now and then, unless you've got money to burn, it really doesn't make sense to buy something so expensive just to have it sit most of the time. Renting out gear is always an option and less expensive, but it all depends on whether any place close to you has it in store, and with rented gear, you really never know how it's been taken care of, which always worries me.

The last option has always been a GoPro camera. The casing is rated for 60m (197ft) of diving, which is a lot better than most of the other cheaper solutions out there. The only downside with getting one of these historically, has been that the lens is curved on the casing. So video after video posted online you got nothing but blurry pictures. GoPro addressed that earlier this year by releasing their Dive Housing. It goes just as deep as the regular case, but it has one key difference. A flat lens. The price on these isn't bad at all either. Henry's sells it for $55 Cdn.

One other consideration is that it seems to get proper perspective underwater, you need a bit of a wide angle lens, so the GoPro seemed perfect here too. When I was filming with my iPhone underwater, everything seemed much closer to the lens in the videos I took than what I was expecting every time. So I thought I had a few things in frame and they were either cut off or not in the shot because though the lens was wide enough in the air, underwater, it reacts differently.

I picked up a GoPro HD HERO2 Outdoor Edition and a GoPro Dive Housing From Henry's. I then finished up by picking up a GoPro Tripod Mount from FutureShop. I rigged the camera to my right hand and went swimming a few times in the St. Lawrence River just to get used to the feel of it and to see what the quality of the video was like. I was pretty impressed by the quality of the video that came back and that the camera was seeing a little bit farther than I could with my dive mask. (Visability isn't that great in the St. Lawrence in the summer with all of the algea. You can get up to 20 feet in the clearer sections, and less than 5 in others. It all depends on how warm the water is.) The perspective on the widest setting the camera allows seems just perfect underwater too.

Now that I had the gear and felt comfortable using it, my next step was to go to some shipwrecks that I could freedive on. I picked the Conestoga shipwreck & the Wee Hawk. I spent 2 days freediving on these wrecks and then I brought the video home to look at and edit. The quality of the video was pretty good again, with the camera picking us stuff sharply and farther than I could see with my dive mask when I was there. The steadiness of my shots, though, was far from great. I knew the GoPro had a smaller lens, which means any camera movements are exaggerated. (The bigger the lens, the less you see smaller movements. Ever wonder why your camera on your smartphone gives you blurry pictures when you think you're holding it still or why your smartphone videos always shake badly? That's why.) One thing I didn't count on was the current. Where I was swimming before, there really wasn't any current, but on the shipwrecks, I was spending a lot of energy fighting the current, which meant I was always moving, and that didn't help out my camerawork. The other thing I didn't count on was getting cold near the end of my dives and shivering.

Even with all of that, I managed to get enough clips that I cut together a short video for my Vimeo account on the Conestoga. I didn't want to include the Wee Hawk with this video.

Freediving The Conestoga from Steve Savage on Vimeo.

I liked the idea I had for the video, but my camerawork really bugged me. The two words that kept going through my head (and still do) when it comes to this video are "amateur hour". I didn't scrap it for one reason; I've never been to a shipwreck before. That video captures my first experience on a shipwreck. Regardless of the quality of the camerawork, that's pretty awesome for me. So I started thinking. How do other people do it? Looking back, I guess I could have Googled something like "how to film smoothly underwater", but I didn't think about it. I started thinking back to shows I've seen where the video looked smooth and came up with two ideas to try out.

1) Go two handed. I had two ideas on this. The first was to use my GorillaPod with the GoPro tripod mount and go two handed. Stretch two legs out to the side and then curve the ends inwards as hand grips and curl the other one inside so it doesn't cause any drag. This would mimic the larger dive housings you see on TV shows that have 2 hand grips. The second one was to take one of my full size tripods out with me and spread out the legs and extend the camera far from me to make all of my movements smooth.

2) Troll the camera similar to how the Argo was used to find the Titanic. I came up with 2 ideas for this idea too. The first was to mount it to a tripod and collapse the tripod, with the camera upside down, but level to the horizon. The tripod would be attached to a rope, which I could play out or reel in as I needed to. The other idea was similar, but with the camera on the GorillaPod, which was weighted down with a large rock to keep it level.

So I had 2 ideas and 4 tests to try out and I returned to the Conestoga to give them a shot, since I was more familiar with this wreck than I was the Wee Hawk. I did the first tests with the tripod as I freedove on the shipwreck. I started by diving underwater and holding the tripod two handed and slowly moving it towards things I wanted it pointed at. Then I tried for some more stationary shots by swimming against the current to hold my position steady and holding the camera steady like this. The last thing I tried was trolling the tripod. So I collapsed it above the shipwreck and then swam the length of the ship back and forth a few times while trolling the camera. I figured out how to adjust the angle I was swimming at with or against the current to make the camera face different directions, and I was careful not to snag it on any debris inside of the ship by raising it and lowering it as needed. This was actually a lot more complicated than I thought, but I didn't snag the camera. After 30 minutes, I started shivering, so I headed back to shore to warm back up, get the GorillaPod ready and start the next test.

I started with trolling the GorillaPod, since it was easier to weigh it down first with a rock first, than it would have been to have to swim back to shore to get a rock, weigh down and then swim back out, after 15 minutes of being in the water. Trolling the GorillaPod was pretty easy. The rock was pretty heavy and the current didn't mess with it too much. Just like with the other trolling test, I was spending a lot of time keeping the camera and the shipwreck safe from any bumps, but I did it. I swam out past the Conestoga, dropped off the large rock away from the ship then adjusted the GorillaPod so I could go two-handed with it and then did a little filming around the stern of the ship.

This is what came out of my tests.

Freediving The Conestoga v.2 from Steve Savage on Vimeo.

I'm pretty happy with how it turned out and I used some of each of the different methods in the video. All 4 ways were a huge improvement over shooting with the camera strapped to the top of my hand and trying to be as steady as I could be. Instead of having the problem where I was struggling to find semi-decent shots to make a video, even though I had a ton of footage, I ended up having less than 1/4 of the footage I shot on the first two days and the problem was what to leave out since there was so much good stuff.

What I learned was going two handed gives you great control over what you're shooting and you pretty much know what you'll get. The farther away the camera is from your body, the smoother your movements will be with this method. So the tripod worked really well. Yeah, you'll look like a doofus bringing a tripod in the water and swimming with it, but the shots you'll get are pretty good. The more cinematic shots like the shot at 1:27 or the shot at 1:41 in my video were done by trolling my camera. What it comes down to is you need some separation between those small body movements you always make and your camera, when you're working with a smaller lens like the GoPro HD HERO2. The tests I did worked well when it came to doing that and that's how I was able to get such a difference so quickly in my two videos.

Oh, and I should make this clear. I used no stabilization in editing on my shots. Except for my usual crop at the top and bottom and some slight color correction, this is what came out of the camera.


  1. Interesting post. I've also had my "i-phone-in-the-water-moment" and got pretty much the same results as you did. Currently, I own an Olympus TG-2 and am very satisfied with it but your article has certainly got my mind thinking of buying a GoPro. Great article. Hope you'll find my blog useful as well, .

  2. That is very enlightening! I also find it difficult to capture moving images underwater, so I have to adjust the stabilization to get a better shot. I haven't had the chance to try GoPro yet, but the good reviews that I've read are a good indication that it is worth it. Thanks for sharing!

    Paul Cherry @ VestPac, Inc.