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Shooting Underwater Videos
Planning and Shooting
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Sunset and a beer bottle.When making a topside video on dry land, everything, apart perhaps from the weather and a baby's facial expression, can be planned down to the minutest detail and you can follow your prepared story almost exactly. Topside on a boat is quite similar but rain may now be replaced by salt-water spray. A major difference is the stability of the surface upon which you are standing. For the shot of the beer bottle against the sunset, the yacht had to be moored at a site where there was little swell to rock it, and timing was critical to get the sun in the required position. At the last moment a boat passed across the scene - it is actually behind the bottle in the final shot.
Under water it can be almost as simple, or impossible. If you are going to dive at a site you know well, and are intending to video a fairly common indigenous creature doing a very common action, then you can plan exactly what you are going to do before you enter the water. In some cases you may even wish to "arrange" your shot by taking a delicate morsel to place in front of the creature of choice, or tools to allow you to place one creature, say a small urchin, in front of its natural predator. "Dinner Time" is certain to result, but you may consider this to be too cruel. Diver subjects will hopefully follow the script! Another possibility for planning is to decide on the theme of a story and to video appropriate footage at a number of sites over a period of time. It then only remains to shoot definite "Beginning and End" sequences to complete the final video.

The most common situation however will be you on holiday at a new and distant location. Certainly read the dive site guides and as much as you can about the types and activities of the expected inhabitants. Think about what you would like to see and record. But the actual dive site may be new to you and you will not know exactly what will be down there. I spent a week at a well-known Whale Shark site; not one turned up.

Detailed planning is rarely possible, but you will know the "theme" of the site - big pelagic fishes or minute invertebrates - and will have worked out the type of shots you would like. For large creatures, place yourself at a certain depth and wait there for the whole dive to see and video what comes by to investigate you. Chasing large creatures is rarely successful; they can always swim much faster than you can! Pelagic = from the open sea - mainly larger fishes or sea mammals.

Sharks = a group of fish ranging in size from the "rock salmon" on chip shop menus to the giants beloved of Hollywood. They are rarely dangerous, but must not be provoked and must be treated with respect. You are more likely to be struck by lightning than bitten by a shark.

Eight-metre whale shark seen from the side. An eight-metre whale shark head-on.

An eight metre whale shark.

While waiting, observe what is happening at other depths, particularly at what is happening close to the bottom (if there is one). Then plan to video these creatures at the new depth on a subsequent dive. Assuming you are lucky and they are still there, watch the way they are moving and place yourself directly in front of them, or so near to their predicted path that you can get a side facial shot with a clear background. You have to remember of course that you are videoing large wild animals and that they may not be too happy about it.
Carribean reef shark approaching. Turtle diving at Sipadan. Flying Gurnard.

Caribbean Reef Shark

Turtle at Sipadan

Flying Gurnard.

At sites such as Sipadan, just off the NE tip of Borneo, the appearance of turtles can be guaranteed on almost every dive and you can define almost exactly what shots you will be able to take.

Videoing small creatures can be easier as they often stay at a relatively fixed location but you may need your buddy to coax them into facing you rather than swimming away.  You must be able to see their eyes; you must not be able to see your buddy! Of course the creatures will not do what you would like them to do, so simply video them for several minutes from all angles whilst they go through their complete repertoire of actions and then edit to get the seconds that you require. Patience is essential. Whilst videoing you must remember that many small, highly venomous, creatures are so well camouflaged as to be almost invisible. You must not come into contact with any of them!

A stonefish. Another stonefish.

Stonefishes - Instant death

Many small creatures are almost totally immobile and thus make good subjects for still photographers but not for videographers. Understandable and specific action by the subject is highly desirable. And as you already know, your video will always be better if it includes wide angle, mid angle and close up of many of the subjects.

© words and images, JohnFletcher

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Page updated on 11 October 2011
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