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Film School - 1. Choosing Equipment

John Boyle's step-by-step guide to becoming a underwater filmmaker - Part One: Choosing equipment

I am confused! When I was asked to write this series I thought it would be so easy – after all, I’ve been making underwater films for 25 years...

It used to be so simple. There were two types of cameras; stills cameras that took still images and video cameras that took video. But today even your phone is a video camera, most stills cameras have video capabilities ranging from poor to extremely high quality, and some compact cameras and phones don’t even need housings to take them underwater. Suddenly almost everyone is a film maker of sorts, even if it’s only to post clips on Facebook or Snapchat.   

You may be a complete novice wondering where to start; an experienced stills cameraman looking to try out video; or an experienced videographer grappling with whether to upgrade to 4k and thinking that the new generation of mirrorless cameras could save you a fortune in excess baggage. For those not in the know, if you want to make your footage 'futureproof' then you will need a camera that shoots 4k - 4,000 pixels. If not, then within a few years it will be the same as if you were not shooting in HD now; no-one will be interested in your work. And mirrorless cameras are effectively DSLR’s without mirrors... compact cameras but with interchangeable lenses.

If there are two things that don’t mix naturally, it’s cameras and water! But ever since cameras were invented, people have come up with inventive ways to take them underwater, and today there seems to be an almost confusing array of options. What camera to use, what housing, what lights, what accessories...

So where to start.

If you are just looking for a bit of fun, then there are some great pocket cameras on the market that although described as 'splashproof' can be taken as deep as 50 feet. But the results that you get will be just that – a bit of fun. The underwater capabilities of these cameras are limited.

One relatively cheap contender, however, is the GoPro Hero 3+ Black Edition. With its wide angle lens and even the ability to shoot at a high frame rate so that you can produce slow motion action, I’ve seen some great footage shot on these cameras. On a recent trip to Indonesia filming whale sharks, while the rest of the divers were using the most impressive high end photographic equipment, an Australian diver had a Go Pro attached to a clothes rail from a wardrobe on the boat that he was using as his pole. In the well lit surface waters he got shots that made many of the professionals on board somewhat jealous!

Film school 1 gopro

But there are many limitations on GoPro’s, not least the inability to access many camera functions, the near impossibility of seeing what you are shooting through a viewfinder, and the fact that they are so tiny that it is difficult to hold them steady enough to get a smooth shot. Filters can be added to help with colour balance underwater, there are handles and a host of other accessories available, and you can certainly get some good shots with these units. 

GoPro’s are so compact that even with all accessories they still fit in your carry-on baggage, and are a cheap accessory that both video or still cameramen can attach to their housings providing that extra option...

Until recently there were two types of underwater cameras – video and still. However the issue has been further clouded by the increasingly impressive video capabilities of what my generation regards as 'stills cameras'. Stills photographers, let me tempt you to the dark side... Most of these now shoot HD video of a quality to equal the traditional video cameras. However, there is much more to shooting good video than just the definition of the footage. 

Full control of white balance to get the best colours is essential for good video, and the extent to which this can be controlled varies massively. If the camera knows what white looks like, then it can compensate for loss of natural colours filtered out underwater. Stills cameras usually restore colour by the powerful light from their synchronised strobes. Achieving accurate white balance on them – even on the surface – involves either extremely complex delving into the menu; underwater in housings built for achieving still images this more often than not is simply impossible, and the quality of video suffers accordingly. If you are buying a stills camera and housing with the intention of shooting video make absolutely sure that you can control the white balance.

And there are also the simple ergonomics of using a camera underwater; cameras housed with the aim of capturing single frame images may not be the best to use when trying to shoot long flowing video clips underwater. Quite simply, the larger the housing the easier it is to shoot good underwater footage. You pan and move more steadily so your footage is far smoother; judder that is not noticeable while filming is massively exaggerated on the big screen.

All that having been said, the temptation of turning away from expensive video cameras in bulky housings that are cumbersome and heavy to carry and costly to take by air has led more than one very experienced underwater cameraman to invest in the new mirrorless cameras; looking like stills they have all the functions of a video camera, and shoot in 4k which has become the latest nirvana for wildlife filming. 'I can fit the whole rig in my backpack, get amazing footage, and save a fortune in crippling airline excess baggage charges.'

If you are looking at a dedicated video camera the range of options is still staggering. Some bottom end housings are not built for one specific camera but can be used for several. As prices rise the housings become more camera-specific and the range of functions that can be accessed increases; and so too does the quality of footage that you can obtain.

 

John Boyle set out to Isla Espiritu Santo in Baja California to film Californian sea lions

 

The starting point has to be your budget and what you want to achieve. There are plenty of relatively cheap housings for domestic video cameras if you are just looking to have a bit of fun. At the other end of the spectrum are the high end, broadcast quality units that you will see cameramen using on Attenborough-style documentaries. 

The budget issue is fairly simple to address – my advice there is get the very best that you can afford. Underwater filming is a totally addictive passion, and if you go cheap simply to save a bit of cash, you may soon find yourself regretting the decision due to limitations on the images that you can get.

I don’t propose trying to review the whole market – new cameras are produced so quickly that the housing manufacturers have difficulty keeping up! Instead I will address a few basic issues

Manual or electronic controls? Entry-level housings supplied by Ikelite and top-end professional housings supplied by Gates have in common the use of manual controls. The housings are designed so that the levers on the outside pass through the body of the housing and connect with the controls on the camera itself. Sometimes this will be a very basic set-up, only allowing you to access a limited number of camera functions; the more expensive units utilise ingenious engineering techniques to permit almost total camera control.

Many other manufacturers utilise electronic controls, usually conveniently situated on the grips of the housings. Both have their advantages and draw-backs. Electronic controls are generally easier to use with your thumb or finger without having to take your hands from the grips. Manual controls by their very nature have to correspond with the position of the camera controls so you will often have to fiddle around to operate these. Critics of manual controls point out that these necessitate numerous holes in the housing any of which is a potential leak site. Supporters of manual housings pose the question – what if your electronic system develops a glitch? You can end up unable to use the housing and have a wasted and expensive dive trip... at least manual controls won’t go wrong in this way.

There is no simple answer; after many years of using housings with electronic controls – and more than one fail on me in very distant countries! – I made the switch to manual controls. It took me a while to get used to them, but it soon becomes second nature. Perhaps the most important issue is to ensure that you maximise the number of camera functions that you can control through the housing.

What accessories will you need? Some housing designs allow you to view the camera’s monitor screen, while others limit you to the camera’s viewfinder – often only in black and white. If the latter then an external monitor is absolutely essential, and the bigger the better, so you can accurately gauge focus, white balance, and framing of shots. These external monitors can also be extremely useful in numerous filming scenarios when peering through a small viewfinder is either difficult or at least not conducive to good filming.

Generally you will need more than one lens; a good quality wide angle lens and a flat macro port are the minimum requirements. Maybe a super wide angle too so for those amazing big creature encounters!

You are going to need lights, to get the best from anything but shallow water, well lit locations. From adding a little colour and depth to scenarios such as night, cave and wreck filming, these are absolutely essential.

Then there are colour filters, dioptres for macro work, a tripod for dedicated underwater use, hard carrying case... 

I never said this was going to be a cheap experience, nor that making the choice would be simple! Next time I’ll start trying to help you to use your investment to get the best images and have the most enjoyment from it.

About the author

Film school 1 john

John Boyle has been diving since he was 17 and started filming in the late 1980s. Since then he has produced more than 30 underwater films that have sold to television stations worldwide. Other projects include work for tourist boards, airlines and other corporate clients. John has won more than thirty major international awards, including an unprecedented double Palme d'Or at the Antibes festival for his 'critter' films.

For more of his work visit www.sharkbayfilms.co.uk

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