Working as an Underwater Videographer
I was working as an underwater videographer for various dive boats during my time in
Cairns, Australia in 2003. It started shortly after my Divemaster
course, as getting paid work as a Divemaster in Cairns is nearly impossible.
The dive industry is flooded with Divemasters willing to work for free so the
ones like me wanting to spend more than a couple of weeks in the town don't have
I mainly worked as an Underwater
Videographer for two dive
companies, Tusa Dive, www.tusadive.com and Compass,
were day boats so all the videos were filmed on the day and edited and created
on VHS once we returned to
the shore. A very quick turn around was required so
customers could take them on the day. If a DVD format was preferred then
these would be created in the evening and delivered directly to their hotels or
working as an Underwater Videographer on Compass, I would use the outbound trip
to show videos of previous days diving, explaining to passengers what sort of
creatures and coral they will possible see during their days snorkelling or
diving. This provided the opportunity to build a relationship with
customers and gauge how many copies of the video I was likely to sell that day.
For example parents with young children and passengers doing their first ever
"try dive" were more likely to purchase a video than an experienced day tripper.
I would also use this period to cover the do's and don'ts when visiting the
Great Barrier Reef and which creatures to avoid.
due to it's mini studio in the engine room containing video recorders,
television screens and the ability to add music from CD's, I was able to produce most of the VHS copies on the return
journey. Another bonus of working on Compass was its ample opportunities for
close ups of passengers enjoying the "boom netting" (see picture to right of
text), at the end of the days diving. This was a great way to end videos.
as an Underwater Videographer on Tusa
was quite different to Compass as they operated two day boats
with smaller numbers of passengers. One boat tended to cater for Tusa's
Japanese market and the other dealt with anyone who was non Japanese. Both
boats were very fast and were possibly the fastest day dive boats operating from
Cairns. This made a lot of difference to the variety of dive sites that could be
visited and the length of the day. The down side to having such a fast
boat was that you had less time to chat to passengers on the outward journey.
This meant I was unable to show them any video footage to wet their appetites. On
the return journey there was just enough time to play the days video footage and
take orders to be delivered to their hotel rooms or posted home.
On the Japanese boat because of the
obvious language problem the Japanese speaking dive instructors would actually
do 99% of the sales work, coming to me throughout the outbound journey advising which people wanted videos. I have to say this helped greatly because without them I don't think I
would have sold many on that boat.
my work as a Underwater Videographer in Australia, I used mainly Sony MiniDV and Hi8
Camcorders, Amphibico Video Housings, and a red lens filter instead of lamps for
The reason I went for the Sony
cameras is because after speaking to other underwater videographers working in the Cairns
area I found out most housing manufacturers have concentrated on the Sony
and Canon ranges of camcorders. Indeed, you will be hard pushed to find a
housing for any other make. This can be frustrating if you already have a
Panasonic or JVC model. Although these are all good camcorders sometimes the
only way to house them is to have a custom housing made.
There aren't any features to look for in a camcorder that
are required for underwater videography. Most operate in minimum illumination of 2-6
lux, which is ideally suited to the dim conditions underwater. Much fuss is made
of electronic (and more recently optical) image stabilization, sometimes called
steadyshot. This feature stops "wobble" but is not necessary underwater as
movement is effectively dampened down anyway. Time code is one feature you may
decide to look for. This is a super accurate system to label every frame of
action and is most useful when editing. In post-production you can edit your
footage and define your clips more accurately if you have time-code information
on your tapes. However, only high-end models have this facility.
of camcorder format the basic principle of how the camcorder works is the same,
images are recorded by light sensitive microchips called Charge Coupled Devices
(CCD's) which basically translate light into electronic signals. The CCD is
available in different sizes, usually the bigger the better. There are also
models with 3 CCD's (called 3 chip camcorders). The advantage of three chips is
less colour 'bleed'. If it is important to you to be able to sell your footage
then 3 chip digital is the way to go. Other factors dictate picture quality just
as much. Hi8 in good visibility will provide better results than digital in bad.
Anyway, try and remember however good your equipment is, it is the content that
will ultimately decide whether or not a customer will buy your days video.
There are two primary functions of a camcorder housing:
- to keep water off your precious equipment
- to make the camcorder inside easy to use.
With these points in mind certain industry trends have emerged with regard to
how housings are sealed and operated.
When it comes to ingress of water, prevention is always better than cure.
Accessories such as leak detectors (electronic devices with audible and
sometimes visual LED warnings that you install inside your housing) can help to
give a sense of security. However, the fundamental problem is keeping water out
in the first place and this is essentially a problem of design, with certain
designs proven to be more inherently successful at keeping water out than
others. The best designs should protect the user from his/her own mistakes -
i.e. be idiot proof (because of the sad fact that user error accounts for nearly
all floods). Trust me if you become an underwater videographer you will have at "least" one
flooded housing in your career. So I always used to take two of everything on
board as with most businesses dependent on sales, if you don't have anything to
sell you don't make any money.
build quality of your housing should reflect that there is a lot at stake
inside! The most sensible material to build a housing out of for use in the
underwater environment is aluminium, either cast or extruded. It should
be fully anodised and/or covered with acrylic enamel finish. Plastics are
also used extensively in housing manufacture but are not as durable. Plastic
housings also do not have the same heat sink properties as aluminium and so are
more prone to misting (condensation appearing inside when taken from humid
atmosphere into cold water). So working in Australia, the aluminium housings
from Amphibico were ideal.
Most housings are of the clamshell design, that is to say they split at some
point to allow access to the inside. The two halves of a housing should open and
close positively, not open accidentally, and without the need of tools. With
this brief in mind manufacturers almost universally install stainless steel
clasps these days rather than screws and bolts. Clasp fasteners are
pre-tensioned to give the correct closing pressure and there can be no argument
as to whether or not it is closed properly. It is either open, or closed - end
of story! For additional idiot proofing most manufacturers employ the type of
clasp with a safety interlock, which cannot be opened accidentally.
Depth rating of housings is dependent upon many variables, such as housing
size and wall thickness, O-rings and structural considerations. The depth rating
for housings can vary between 60m (Perspex construction) and 100m (Aluminium).
Most housings should operate far beyond sport diving limits (to give a margin
for error) which, needless to say, is also well below the depth where
interesting subjects are found. To illustrate this, 90% of my filming was
done in the first 8m of water.
The hidden O-rings around control shafts can suffer abrasion, which will
challenge their integrity, if you allow salt crystals to form by drying out. It
is vital that you maintain your equipment by regular and prolonged (all night)
freshwater soaking (not a rinse under a tap) after each diving day and do not
let it dry out after the dive before you get it to freshwater. Remember "Flooded
Housing = No Money".
housings usually have electronic controls. This system requires no holes in the
housing as external controls transmit signals by electromagnetism through the
body of the housing. The control buttons have magnets inside which come into
proximity with a switch inside the housing when pressed. The switch then
operates the appropriate control via electronic connection to the camcorder.
Such systems need electronics inside in order to interface with the camcorder
(and a flying lead with a mini jackplug, which plugs into the LANC - remote
control - socket). This system has been around some time with video housings and
is proven technology.
Electronic housings can usually take several models, which means that you
have more choice and greater likelihood of getting the camcorder features that
you want underwater. To install the camcorder in the electronic housing you
usually attach the camcorder to a universal tray via the tripod bush and then
slot the tray into a guide rail. With electronic housings you just plug in the
jackplug and you are ready to go! There are no fiddly connections that could be
Mechanical control housings are usually cheaper and sometimes the only option
for obscure makes of camcorder. However, mechanical transmission of functions
not only increases the potential for leaks, has moving parts that wear out (and
therefore need to be serviced), but also you are physically limited as to how
many functions you can access.
Whether mechanical or electronic, controls should be positive and fall to
hand. Strictly speaking, the only vital control functions to look for on a
housing are Record and Stop. In most situations you can rely on the technology
to focus automatically. However, you will want to zoom in and out to crop your
shots for interest. Most housings have these controls as a minimum. Ideally you
should be able to focus manually. This is particularly useful in low visibility
as auto focus systems may start hunting (searching) if there is a lot of
particles in the water and so you will want to over-ride it.
top of the range housings allow you access to other functions. White balance
control is useful to adjust for different lighting conditions, although most
camcorders do this automatically anyway. Exposure control can be useful in
The housing should be contoured to fit like a glove, which means that it is
more neutrally buoyant underwater than other designs. If it is not neutrally
buoyant, the housing should be slightly positive. But be aware, housings with
too much wasted space in them should be avoided because the airspace will make
them far too positively buoyant and therefore need ballast, which is not what
you want to carry in your bags when you are already carting all your dive gear
to the boat each morning!
One of the 'secrets' of underwater video is to get rid of the
water! You must keep as close as possible to your subject, ideally within
a third of the limit of visibility (to maintain good contrast).
At best, in tropical waters, the limit of visibility is 30 metres, (which
means you need to keep your subject less than 10 metres distant). In UK waters,
with an average of 3 metres visibility, you must keep your subject within 1
Another 'secret' of underwater photography is that even the most powerful
lights do not penetrate further than 2 metres underwater (which is even more
justification for keeping your subject close).
overcome the problem of needing to be close to your subject whilst getting it
all in shot you need a lens that has a wider view than normal. This necessitates
the use of wide-angle lenses. Fortunately, you can make your camcorder lens
'wider' by attaching an extra lens to it (called a supplementary lens).
Unfortunately, not all housings allow you the space to do this! Some housings
come with a wide-angle lens fitted as standard.
However, even with a wide angle lens there is another optical problem to
overcome. Most divers will remember from their training that, due to refraction
objects underwater appear closer and larger (when behind a flat port just like
with your mask). The problem is that if you place a camcorder lens behind a flat
port (even a wide angle) it becomes more telephoto (again the opposite of what
you want). Fortunately, you can correct for this telephoto effect by putting the
lens behind a hemi-spherical port (called a dome port) or by a supplementary
Some camcorder housings give you the choice of interchangeable ports and are
usually more expensive. As a general rule the larger the port the sharper the
pictures. Larger domes also allow you to do pictures half in and half out, which
can be very interesting and an ideal transition from the dive boat to the
underwater action in your storyline.
Camcorder viewfinders are designed to be used with your eye up close but
underwater you are forced away by your mask. This results in the viewfinder
image appearing cropped at the edges. This makes composition difficult and
reading the status information impossible! To remedy this some housings employ a
viewfinder optic which allows full frame viewing (albeit with minimal reduction
in image size).
basic principle of filters underwater is that they allow the same wavelength of
light as their own colour to pass. They are only subtractive, they reduce the
amount of light, and this is not a good thing! Unfortunately, filters also stop
other wavelengths of light so; ultimately any colour gain is traded against an
overall loss of light. A standard 30 red colour-correcting filter is pretty
cheap and will alter your colour bias. However, there is precious little red
light to let through to begin with so such filters are counterproductive. Better
results are gained by 'pumping' up the reds when editing, but this then involves
the added expense of computer software etc.
However, most manufacturers offer a 'blue water' filter for their housings
which operates on slightly different technology to simple colour correcting
filters and can be used, with limitations, to enhance colour reproduction.
Virtually all manufacturers supply the UR pro filter, which screws onto the
camcorder lens, or (better still because you can remove it during the dive) it
is fitted externally to the housing port. A proper underwater filter can easily
be identified - it more pink than red (and costs more!).
Scuba diving at depths between 3m and 20m use the UR Pro CY filter and set
the white balance to outdoors. However, in the shallower end of this range (5m
upwards) you may find the image too red. Set the white balance to indoors to
The UR pro VLF filter will make your images more colourful (with or without
lights) down to 10m. Complimentary blue filters can be used on your lights to
correct for the differences in light source but most videographers feel the loss
in light output unacceptable and prefer to do without. Diving in temperate
waters, which exhibit a green rather than red cast, requires a different
coloured (Magenta) filter.
Last piece of advice.
hope the above has helped you with what ever information you have been looking
for, if I can leave you with one piece of advice for all divers (especially
those wanting to work as a diver), get insured. As you will
know if you have looked through the rest of my site I was stung by a deadly
jellyfish during my time as a videographer and needed to be airlifted from
50miles out to Cairns Base Hospital, where I underwent days of treatment to keep
me alive. Without the support financially from DAN Europe Insurance, I would be
having to pay of the medical and rescue bills until the day I retired (lets just
say they were a massive amount even with the exchange rate of Australian Dollars
to Pounds Sterling).
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