FAST FORWARD YOUR VIDEO - BEST CAMERAS & TOP TIPS
It has never been easier to film underwater. Neil Hope looks at the latest solutions and presents a round-up of the kit needed to take your video to the next level. Plus some handy tips and techniques
Shooting underwater video is increasingly popular, as technological advances have made the preserve of the pro or serious enthusiast now accessible to almost everyone who dips their head beneath the surface of the water. Fuelled by the availability of inexpensive mountable action cameras and the ability of modern compact stills cameras and DSLRs to provide high definition video, it has never been easier to film, edit and then upload your diving experiences for the whole world to see.
How far an individual is willing to go in the pursuit of their film-making is very much in their own hands – and budget – with each of the many different systems available offering advantages and disadvantages. After having some modicum of success with your initial efforts, you’ll quite possibly begin to think a little more seriously about your film-making and consider moving on to a set-up that will provide more professional results but still be portable enough for that regular liveaboard trip.
It seems nothing stays the same in the world of technology for very long and just as consumers rushed to immerse themselves in the joys of high definition video, along comes a new kid on the block to stir things up again. Delivering four times the resolution of its predecessor, 4K is set to become the new standard for video equipment with many consumer products such as televisions and laptops already 4K compatible. It may be a couple of years before broadcasters fully adopt this system, but when choosing a camcorder it certainly doesn’t hurt to do a little ‘future-proofing’.
Don’t worry if your current editing/viewing technology isn’t up to processing this new memory-crunching format as you can always shoot in lower definition until such time as rest of your equipment catches up with the times. Once you’ve identified a suitable camcorder you feel will best capturing the wonders of our oceans, then you’ll need to check out the availability of a suitable housing and consider what’s best for you.
Housing manufacturers often approach their products from very different standpoints to achieve similar results. Some prefer to use mechanical rods and levers as a means to access the device’s main controls, while others utilise the camera’s own remote port to provide an electronic connection to a series of push buttons on the body or handles of the housing. Monitoring what’s going on behind the lens is of obvious importance, so a large, bright viewfinder that won’t be overpowered by ambient light is essential and again there are various options available. These can vary from a simple mirror to reflect a reversed image of the camcorder’s LCD screen, to a housing design that incorporates the LCD in its flipped-out position. Other options include a rear-mounted internal screen or a separate top-mounted external monitor.
The deeper we go the more colours of the spectrum we lose, which can result in flat, bland footage with – depending on your location – a green or blue cast. The solution, of course, is to replace those missing colours using aids such as the camera’s white balance setting, colour correction filters or artificial lighting. In shallower depths, filters
can produce impressive results. They work by filtering out a percentage of the dominant hue allowing more of that all-important red to reach the camera sensor. Typically coloured magenta for green seas and red for use in blue water, these simple devices may be screwed directly to the lens front or used as and when required via a housing’s internal or external flip-up system.
Unlike a standard diving torch, which may have a central hotspot with a less-intense halo surrounding it, video lighting must provide a uniform and even edge-to-edge output in order to illuminate both subject and surroundings. With advances in LED lighting and improved battery technology manufacturers now provide a varied range of self-contained compact systems with innovations such as variable outputs that allow fine-tuning of exposures for filming close-up or reflective subject matter.
Simple to use and small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, they can provide excellent image quality – up to 4K in some cases – and can be wrist or head-mounted or used as a pole-cam. With a variety of accessories available such as lighting rigs, macro attachments and filters they can offer an inexpensive introduction. They do, however, lack a degree of creative control and this, combined with their fixed-focus lenses, may be a source of frustration as your experience level increases.
COMPACT AND MIRRORLESS CAMERAS
Many compact cameras have underwater housings. With their inbuilt zoom facility it’s possible to shoot wide-angle, mid-range or close-up. This can also be expanded with ‘wet’ accessory lenses. Mirrorless cameras, however, offer larger image sensors, a choice of prime lenses, increased functionality over their compact cousins and their smaller size and superior focusing ability offer advantages over the much larger DSLR alternative.
With large image sensors and interchangeable lenses, they can provide outstanding results within the limits of their autofocus capabilities. However, their video optionsutilises a much slower contrast-detecting AF system. Manual focus is almost always preferred. Great for wide-angle, but much less so for close-up and moving subjects wherefocus is critical. Some DSLRs also have a limitation on shooting time. to prevent overheating.
While the choice may not be as expansive as it once was thanks to the video capability now found in other imaging products, a dedicated video camera, housing and lighting system offers the most effective solution for the aspiring underwater film-maker. This is the real deal where video is the point with fast autofocus systems, zoom capability and plenty of creative control.
DIVE'S VIDEO KIT SELECTION
The base cameRA
Sony FDR AX-100
Since its launch in 2014, Sony’s FDR AX-100 has established itself as one of the most popular ‘prosumer’ camcorders and, with a variety of underwater housings readily available for this particular model, it’s a great starting point. With a large one-inch CMOS/14.2 megapixel sensor, the AX-100 is capable of shooting 4K cinematic-quality footage at 24 or 30 frames per second in XACV S, AVCHD or MP4 Codecs, with the latter pair simultaneously if required. Featuring a 29mm wide-angle Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* lens plus a 12x optical zoom, the camera has a shutter speed range of 1/8 to 1/1000 second. Exposure and white balance controls offer a variety of options from auto settings for the beginner to full manual for the advanced user.
Gates GT14 LED Light
Gates GT14 90 CRI LED 14000 Lumen light offers a uniform 90-degree beam angle with a duration of 30 minutes to ten hours. Constructed from robust aluminium and stainless steel, the GT14 is powered by a rechargeable lithium ion battery, features a three-hour charge time and utilises mirrored light output and fuel gauge indicators to provide at at glance readings from either side of the light.
Gates AX100 Housing
Housing with flat port $2,920
Constructed from type III hard-anodised aluminium and with stainless steel hardware, Gates’ offering has kept things simple by using an uncomplicated rod and lever mechanical system to access the AX-100’s controls. The housing can be used with a choice of three port options: macro, standard dome or wide-angle dome. An internal flip-up filter is fitted as standard, while the camera’s LCD display is viewed via a large clear window located on the left side of the housing. Depth-rated to 137m, the camera, housing and port combined weigh 5.1kg in air making the setup slightly negatively buoyant underwater. Optional extras include a vacuum seal check system, water alarm, carry handle and tripod.
Mangrove MVHS-AX100 Housing
Housing with flat port €1,995
With a marine-grade aluminium front case and solid Delrin rear section, Mangrove’s cylindrical housing utilises Sony’s LANC remote system to link control to a series of 12 electromagnetic push-buttons sited on the rear of the housing. These controls are grouped together in three convenient locations to the left, right and below the built-in 3.5-inch rear-mounted TFT LCD monitor. A 77mm threaded port accepts a choice of a wide-angle dome or a flat port that supports any 67mm threaded wet lens. A leak detector with audio and visual warnings is fitted as standard to the housing, which is rated to a depth of 200m.
Subal VS-1 Housing
Subal’s VS1 housing is a versatile universal video housing designed to fit a variety of makes and models. Manufactured from anodised alloy, acid-resistant stainless steel and high-quality plastics, the VS1 is supplied with a flat port as standard that may also be extended via port extensions or substituted by a dome port for wide-angle filming. The housing features a programmable 7-function control handle operated via the camcorder’s remote control with an adjustable slide to allow fitting of approximately 80 per cent of current camcorder models. An integrated 15cm rear screen, powered by standard AA batteries currently offers full access to the camcorder’s display when shooting in high definition only, however, future upgrades will allow full functionality in 4K mode.
Sealux HDX100 Housing
Housing with flat port €2,850
CNC-milled from a mono-bloc of aluminium, Sealux’s anodised housing for the AX-100 is covered with a water-resistant powder coating and provides a maximum depth rating of 80m. A large display window offers a complete view of the camcorder’s 3.5 inch screen, tilted at a 15-degree angle for optimum viewing. Fitted with a 90mm bayonet mount optical glass flat port, the housing also offers the option of a wide-angle alternative to increase angle of coverage to 110-degrees. As well as a flip-up colour correction filter, the Sealux housing also provides an additional close-up lens that can be swivelled in front of the lens to give a choice of macro or wide-angle shooting at any time. Camera functions are accessed via an electronic keypad located at the right side and a set of manually operated switches on the left.
Sealux FL5200 Video Light
This rechargeable and multi-functional video light is manufactured from anodised aluminium and rated to 100 metres. Offering a 120-degree angle of even illumination with no hotspot, it provides 5200 Lumens at maximum power for 90 minutes. A further two reduced outputs of ‘medium’ and ‘low’ offer burn times of 180 and 240 minutes respectively. The light also offers a choice of red or ultraviolet LED options accessed via the device’s simple two button system.
Keldan video 4x/8x Video Lights
Rated to 200m, the Swiss-made Keldan 4x (6,000 lumen) and 8x (10,000 Lumen) video lights offer very similar specifications in a lightweight, compact package. Both offer 110-degree coverage, variable power settings and a burn-time of 45 minutes at their respective maximum outputs, with 170 minutes at their lowest setting. A removable rechargeable lithium-ion battery pack features an integral charge indicator and can be fully recharged in three to four hours.
Mangrove Videocompact K-VC-3L6 Video Light Set
This dedicated lighting system consists of two self-contained Mangrove VC-3L6 LED video lights, a pair of stabilising wings, two adjustable arms and associated mounting hardware. Each light offers a maximum output of 6,750 lumens and a 100-degree angle of coverage, with high to medium selection for exposure adjustments.
Light & Motion Sola VideoPro 8000 Light
As its name suggests, the Sola VideoPro offers a maximum output of 8,000 lumens. Featuring a wide beam pattern the light has additional settings of 4,000 and 500 lumens with a runtime of between 50 and 800 minutes. The Li-ion battery recharges in just 1.75 hours via a mains connection and also features a rear OLED display to monitor settings and remaining battery life.
Orca Seawolf EX2260 Expedition Light
With a 22,000 lumen output and a runtime of 1.25 hours at full power, the Seawolf Expedition canister light is made from a combination of aluminium and carbon fibre to provide neutral buoyancy underwater. With a choice of interchangeable 60, 90 and 120 degree optics, a recharge time of as little as 2.5 hours and a 30-minute 8,000 lumen emergency back-up, the Seawolf offers a completely flat beam for filming purposes.
Mangrove MS-4.3 External Monitor
This high-resolution external 4.3 inch colour TFT LCD monitor with its 16:9 aspect ratio, allows easy viewing from above to allow the housing to be used at arm’s length. Fully displaying the camcorder’s status information via a direct cable connection, the screen is powered by rechargeable lithium-Mn batteries with a duration of nine hours to reduce power drain on the camera itself. Other features include a swivel mount and an aluminium hood to reduce glare.
SKILLS & TECHNIQUES
You may have a great set of kit but if your technique is lacking then you’ll only have yourself to blame for disappointing results.
- Number one on the list is to make sure you’re in control of your buoyancy at all times.
- If you’re trying out a new system for the first time take great care, especially among fragile reef systems and think about checking it out in the pool first.
- Always make sure your camera is steady by keeping it close to your body.
- A good rule of thumb for successful filming is to take three basic shots: an establishing shot, a medium shot and a close-up and don’t be afraid to look for different angles of the same subject.
- Don’t shoot ad hoc, but attempt to tell a story by including surface shots of the immediate area, such as divers kitting up and entering/exiting the water.
- Just as with underwater stills photography, the less water you have between yourself and the subject the better so get close and closer still.
- Research your subject. For example, is there a particular time of day or state of the tide when feeding behaviour is most likely to occur.
- Avoid shooting downwards as it gives a flat uninteresting viewpoint. Shoot horizontally or slightly upwards for a more dynamic look.
- Use white balance, especially when using ambient light. With increasing depth colour absorption is quite dramatic so readjust every metre or so.
- Don’t record while zooming. Choose a focal length and stick to it to make for a much easier and more professional edit.
- Count to ten! Nobody likes to endure minute after minute of continual footage so, unless something absolutely incredible is happening, shoot in ten-second bursts.
- Don’t chase your subject. Finning at speed behind some fast-moving critter stresses both animal and diver. Relax and observe and let the action come to you.
- Always respect the marine environment.