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Film School - 3. Composition & Framing Shots

John Boyle's step-by-step guide to becoming a underwater filmmaker - Part Three: White balance – Composition and framing of shots

'Do you use lots of different coloured lights when you are filming underwater? Is that how you get it to look so bright and colourful?' Not a question from a primary school pupil, but from my first agent when I started making films some 25 years ago. Okay, maybe the agent wasn’t the sharpest tool in the box – she also described in her catalogue my film from Grand Cayman as being about 'diving in the Grand Canyon!' But the thought behind her question was not so stupid – we all know that what the eye sees when diving is nowhere near as colourful and vivid as the images we see in magazines and on documentaries.

The reason for this is that water absorbs light, and the first colours to go are those with the longest wavelengths. Colours all have different wavelengths, so they disappear at differing rates. In clear shallow water sunlight penetrates sufficiently that the natural colours are still visible. Within the first 5 metres the reds disappear, followed as you go deeper by orange and yellow, until at 30m all that is left are greens and blues. And at greater depths even they disappear, everything becoming just grey.

To restore the natural colour, and to produce those superbly vivid coloured images, stills photographers use strobes. The tools available to the underwater videographer are filters and lights, and perhaps the least understood tool – white balance.

Lighting is a subject of its own that we will come to later in the series. Filters are useful for wide-angle shots which are beyond the range of lights; a red filter attached to the housing or camera will restore some of the red spectrum that the water has absorbed and so add colour. However, white balance is the trump card in underwater video.

Our brain often compensates for what we are seeing. We know something is white and so we see it as white. However, in reality a white sheet will look very different in sunshine to under fluorescent lights. So if a camera sees white as in fact a shade of yellow, all other colours will be similarly tinted.

Film School 3 thirdsThirds - The negative space on the left of this image balances the colourful content which makes up two thirds of the frame

Underwater the total disappearance of wavelengths from the spectrum depending on depth makes what our eye sees appear dull and without colour. Proper white balancing helps to restore natural colours, even though we are not actually seeing them ourselves. This explains why when showing others 'rushes' from a dive we have done together, they will often comment that it looks better on the camera than it actually did down there.

There are two ways to white balance. One is to use the preset options on the camera which give you a range of alternatives such as sunshine, artificial light, cloudy… but most of these are not generally applicable under water. The alternative is manual white balancing.

If the camera is shown what true white is then it will adjust all other colours accordingly. So a white card, or even focusing on a white item on a buddy’s dive kit, shows the camera what white looks like, and it does the rest. Just take a shot without any white balance and then apply white balance – the results at times seem almost miraculous! I do know some cameramen who believe that they can add colour in the edit stage of a film, in post-production. That can be done to an extent, but if you get it right at the filming stage then that has to be best.

BASIC Composition

The difference between a good shot and a poor one will usually depend on the amount of thought that has gone into it, and there are two golden rules that apply just as much in video as in stills – the rule of thirds, and the 'foreground, middle ground, background' mantra.

Beginner photographers always tend to position their image in the very centre of the picture, but this is often not the most interesting shot. Watching a film where in every shot the subject was centre frame would very quickly become tedious. There is nothing wrong with having the subject centre frame, but not all the time, and it is the extra creative shots which will make your work stand out.

Imagine that your viewfinder is divided into thirds, by either horizontal or vertical lines. Then try and position your subject according to these lines, avoiding the central section. So picture, for example, a diver swimming along a sandy sea bed. Diver mid frame, and it’s an ordinary shot. Diver below the lower horizontal line, with two thirds of the screen blue water above and bubbles rising to the surface, and you are now creating a moody atmospheric shot which conveys far more of the experience of diving.

Or imagine a simple sea urchin on a kelp stalk. Mid frame it will look fine. But draw your imaginary lines now from top to bottom of your viewfinder, and place the urchin to one side, leaving the other two thirds of the screen as empty sea. How much more interesting is that?

Your subject simply plonked in the middle of an empty screen will look like something from a fish identification book. Use some creativity in framing and positioning your subject and your footage will be far better.

Like any rule, this is not one to follow slavishly. There are times when centre frame is by far the best place for your image. But if you mix up how you frame your images it makes for a far better and watchable film.

The 'foreground, middle ground, background' mantra is again based on looking as your shot in three parts, but this time instead of thinking of the image two dimensionally, we are thinking of three dimensions. 

An angelfish with a small coral head in the foreground. Or an angelfish with a small coral head in the foreground plus a school of silver baitfish in the background. No prizes for guessing which will tour out to be the most interesting image. The more layers that there are in your shot, the more interesting it becomes.

foreground2Foreground - The sea star makes an eye catching foreground which draws you into the image. The larger diver holds the middle and the diver in the background enhances a sense of perspective

 

Clips 

1 

Demonstrating very clearly the need for keeping a camera steady while filming, as mentioned in a previous feature, this clip shows the impact of lights, red filter, and finally use of white balance to get the best colour balanced image.

2

All rules are only guidelines, and are meant to be broken! In the first part of the clip, the screen is divided horizontally not into thirds but in half. The blenny in the bottle is in the lower half, in clear focus, while in the background out of focus the mullet are shoaling. This shot works well with the second, which focuses solely on the bottle in the left-hand sector of the screen; when the blenny pops out it does so in centre screen.

3

This is a very clear example of the thirds rule. The mantis is in the right-hand third and the fish strays from left to centre screen. Far more interesting than if the mantis had been in centre screen throughout.

4

A variation on the theme! Camera pans from snake eel in bottom right corner to bottom left with action also going on behind, before focusing on a centre frame close-up

 

5

Obviously the highlight of the sequence is the close-up shot, but the establishing shot shows the lone orange anemone lost in the bottom left corner of the frame – far more interesting than if it had been dead centre.

6

Once again the wide shot is far more interesting as framed, with the inimicus in the bottom and right corner showing the vast empty Lembeh sea floor, before moving to the closer full frame shot.

7

After an establishing shot of the octopus, this shot illustrates the two rules – the wider shot placing it in the horizontal and vertical thirds sector, and also having a layer of activity behind, so making the shot far more interesting.

8

And a final example of framing in the vertical right hand sector before moving in closer.

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