Film School 2


Film School - 2. The Basics

John Boyle's step-by-step guide to becoming a underwater filmmaker - Part Two: Basic filming techniques

At the end of every dive they would be the first back on the liveaboard, towelling off quickly so they could commandeer the television screen in the salon in order to view their shots. The shots were invariably the same. Wife in her pink dive skin and fluorescent fins would be swimming ahead of cameraman husband, the shot of her ample buttocks flickering in and out of focus due to the camera being in autofocus and therefore constantly searching. When a fish was spotted she would bang her tank and point; the camera would then wave around until locking onto a distant object that might have been a turtle, a shark, or a drifting plastic bag so unclear was the footage. Husband would then zoom to the maximum and with the autofocus now totally unable to cope there would be an unidentifiable blur on the screen till he zoomed back and we were once again treated to the wobbly brightly clad buttocks...

It was the perfect seminar in how not to film underwater! And also raised the fundamental question – why do we film underwater? Answer – to capture the magic, and to share. But to share, the footage needs to be of a quality that others will enjoy watching, and can ultimately form part of the jigsaw of an edit.

There are a few basic rules that have to be grasped if you ever want to produce watchable footage and maybe one day produce an edit that you will be proud to show. We all see so much visual media whether on television or online, yet many of us forget the obvious basic rules that are so apparent from everything we watch. Here is Boyle’s Three Laws for basic underwater video.


BOyle's Laws

1  Keep the camera steady

2  Avoid using autofocus

3  Remember the close / medium / wide rule


First essential lesson is keep the camera steady. If your shots are jumping around everywhere, the effect will be massively amplified on a large screen. This just takes practice but is actually easier in the denser medium of water than in air. 

Once you have mastered the skill of taking a steady shot, try taking a steady moving shot, panning the camera to follow your subject. Don’t snatch movements – if you are moving the camera do so smoothly. On land fluid head tripods are the most expensive, the fluid making panning the camera flow more smoothly. Under the sea we are surrounded by fluid!

But it’s still an art that takes lots of practise to perfect. Most video cameras have a steady shot function and that certainly can help, but it’s not a miracle cure. In the sea you may have to contend with current and surge and you may be finning hard to maintain position, while at the same time trying to achieve a steady well-focused shot of a moving wild creature. Just try holding a video camera steady at home for 20 seconds and then imagine doing it in difficult underwater conditions while also maintaining correct buoyancy and position!

You will develop new diving skills to enable you to hover just above coral, or maintain position above a silty sea bed that if stirred up will ruin your footage in a cloud of fine sand. 

Secondly, try and avoid using autofocus, particularly for distant subjects. Autofocus means that the camera will lock onto whatever is in the centre of frame and focus on it. This is fine when taking still images that are captured in a nanosecond; however for a video clip of many seconds duration the autofocus will continually readjust, going in and out of focus until it again acquires the sharpest picture. This searching effect can ruin what might otherwise have been a great sequence.

The more distant the image the more difficult it is for the camera to lock onto it, the more the chance of something between you and the subject distracting the autofocus, and the more likelihood of searching and loss of focus. 

Film School 2 img"It’s amazing how much better the camera is at getting it right than I am!"

It’s often difficult to trust your judgement in difficult conditions as to whether a shot is in the sharpest of focus. I’ve often surfaced excited by behaviour or creatures that I have filmed, only to discover that when played back on a high definition large screen it is just that tiny bit soft. Many video cameras now have a very helpful 'peaking' function. Quite simply, it highlights on the monitor the areas of the shot that are in focus, helping you adjust manually to obtain the sharpest picture. I never now film without using this application and it’s amazing how much better the camera is at getting it right than I am!

Finally the close / medium / wide rule. Don’t get me wrong, long flowing shots of subjects definitely have their place in underwater film making. However, the mantra that I will be repeating throughout this series is that a video camera is the greatest story telling tool ever created since a bored Egyptian scratched a symbol on a scrap of papyrus! When you are in the water filming you must have in mind that you are not there to capture a series of still portraits – you are gathering the building blocks for a story you are going to create back home on your computer.

So get as much of a variety of shots as you can. Get wide-angle shots to establish your subject and its environment. Get medium-range shots to show the action. And get close-up shots – eyes, mouth, fins, body texture – to not only illustrate detail of the creature but to make your film clip that much more interesting.

Quick Tips | Seconds Out

While filming, don’t take shots that are too short. For stills photographers, one flash and they can have an award winning image. It’s a bit harder for us! It’s a classic beginners’ mistake – the stills mentality of 'get the shot and move on.' Lots of wobbling around, a moment of the subject in focus, and they think they have nailed it! Only back in the studio when trying to edit, to tell your story, will you realise that you need so much more...

I have always worked on a rule of thumb that the average length of a clip in a documentary is six seconds. Try counting the length of shots in the next documentary you watch and you may be surprised how many times I’m right. I know that’s ridiculously simplistic; some may be just a second, others 30 seconds; equally, shorter clips may be edited together into a rapid fire sequence. But for a film to flow smoothly and your audience to get a chance to appreciate the shots, I work on the six second rule as a good starting point.

So if you have in your head a minimum shot length of six seconds, add on a handle of a couple of seconds each end for use in editing, and a minimum ten second shot, perfectly focused and totally steady, is what you should be aiming for.


Scorpion fish

This sequence was shot in the Lembeh Strait and is included in my Sea’s Strangest Square Mile film. I spent a couple of minutes shooting the action in wide angle, then having gathered enough wide footage closed in to capture detail. Even while filming wide angle, in addition to a static wide shot I tried different ideas such as panning across the scene, and back in the studio was glad that I had, as that pan ended up being the first shot of the sequence.

Shot 1  Using a pan to reveal your subject will add some movement and here also emphasises the fish’s camouflage.

Shot 2  Close-up shot to show as much detail as possible.

Shot 3  Semi-close shot taking in all the action, the predator and the prey surrounding it. Close is good but be aware of missing important action or details in the frame. That is where a combination of shots works well.

Shot 4  Another closer shot with some action.

Shot 5  Slightly wider than previous shot but keeping it varied. Very-close, semi-close, wider and the full- wide gives you some contrasting shots and a variety for editing. 

Shot 6  Full-wide then zooming into the action. This is an example of adding movement to a static subject.

Shot 7  And finally a semi-close shot showing the whole scene, the predator, the action and the prey.



This sequence was filmed in Cuba’s Jardines de la Reina. The croc was just cruising and being accustomed to divers let me get very close. It’s easy to get over excited when confronted by such a subject, but it’s still important to think of the story you want to tell and ensure that you get as wide a variety of shots as possible for back in the edit suite.

Shot 1  Wide-angle shot for taking in the whole scene and clearly seeing your subject.

Shot 2  A completely different angle to contrast the first. This is a 'wet and dry' shot, which isn’t always possible but a great mix of shots if you can get it.

Shot 3  A closer angle incorporating a pan to show the subject.

Shot 4  Another mix of angles here before going back underwater.

Shot 5  The subject moves and the camera remains in place but follows the subject. The temptation here would have been to give chase but the shot would have been wobbly. Sometimes you have to let things run their course and let it come naturally.

Shot 6  A great example of things just happening naturally and the croc coming straight to the camera for a close, passing shot.

Shot 7  Here is another passing shot, a little wider but great to mix with the previous shots and taking in the whole subject. Another nice technique here is letting the subject leave the frame. It is a great way to end a sequence and very helpful when editing.



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