5 Tips to Dive into the world of Underwater Cinematography

5 Tips to Dive into the world of Underwater Cinematography

December 10, 2020
  • Shweta Raman
  • Cinematography, Underwater, Wildlife, Useful Tips, Film Gear

At Emaho, the underwater world has a special place in our hearts. Since the past two years, our team has been putting together a feature film documenting the story of India’s sea turtle man, who at 73, journeys back to remote islands in an attempt to see the sea turtles one last time. Through our journey filming in these islands, we have learnt a lot about underwater filming from our cinematographers who are well known for capturing striking underwater visuals and sharing their special bond with the vast blue ocean and its mariners.

Here are some underwater filming tips that we found and curated for our readers through our research:

1. Use a tripod to avoid shaky movements

Geographic publisher James Frankham and photographer Richard Robinson attempt to document the entirety of the New Zealand realm using virtual reality technology.

Any amount of wobble can be extremely distracting to your viewers.If you’re using a compact camera or an action cam like a GoPro, you’ll also want to add a tray to your setup to help stabilise your footage. A tray with one or two handles adds weight to reduce shake, and gives your hand a better surface to grasp onto and stay still.

Several manufactures make mounts for different housing, and tripod legs to suit your dive style and price range.

Tripods do have the drawback of being stuck in one place since it’s bulky. This makes it not that convenient except for attaining static shots.

Moreover, most experienced divers have really good buoyancy underwater and so even their handheld footage is really smooth and beautiful.

So the key is actually to get your buoyancy great, and use weight to keep you down so that you can get smooth shots.

2. Set your camera to 60, 90 or even 120 frames per second, then play it back at half the speed or slower movements

Comparison of frame rates (Source TechRadar)

You may want to make some adjustments to the frame rate for creative purposes. These creative choices help you to slow down or speed up the action in a sequence. During the editing process, you can manipulate the timeline by stretching or compressing footage shot at 60 fps. If you drop it into a timeline with 24 fps, you can create a slow-motion effect. If you shoot at a lower frame rate, you can speed up footage much like a time lapse. However, take into account, if your footage is captured at 30 fps and if you try to slow it down too much, it will look like a jittery slide show. When there are not enough frames to blend the sequence, the human brain gives up.

Normal slow motion is generally shot at between 48 and 60 fps where dramatic slow-motion footage that looks more like stop-time is shot between 90 and 120 fps. This footage can be ramped down in speed to bring attention to a critical moment such as a jawfish opening his mouth that is full of eggs. Shooting at very high speed might also help you find a few moments that are well stabilized. Very few cameras such as the Panasonic GH5 (Full-HD) and Phantom Flex 4k are capable of 180+ fps and super slow motion.

Slow motion can be a great tool to bring attention to a particular animal or action, but there are no such rules. If the footage segment is too long, people lose interest. Short pieces of slow motion are appealing, but longer ones can appear dull and contrived.
So the next time you have a chance to capture some remarkable marine life, experiment with a higher frame rate to give you options in the edit suite. Then you can enjoy your footage on the screen – perhaps twice as long!

“Slowing underwater footage slightly makes it more stable and gives it a more professional look” – Patrick Dykstra, a cameraman who worked on Blue Planet II


When the sun is shining, ideally you want to have it at your back, allowing your shot to have more colour and cut down on the amount of ‘backscatter’ in your shots. Which are small particles in the water that often get lit up by the sun. This is particularly important when using relatively basic equipment. Keep aware of the sun’s position and adjust your angle accordingly.

On the other hand, the deeper you go, the less natural light you’ll have. And if you plan to shoot at 10 feet or deeper – you’ll need a light. Underwater, ambient light, and correcting filters can only take you so far. With light and color loss starting after just a few feet, successful videographers often rely on quality underwater video lights to reproduce the colors and beauty of the underwater world around them. Choosing an underwater video light can be challenging in a market saturated with options. Check out Blue Water Photos recommendations for a variety of high quality, feature rich video lights.

4. Film for the story you are telling, not just what looks pretty

Perhaps the most important part of any video, however, is that you tell a story. There should be a beginning, middle and an end. That’s what will separate your film from just a bunch of nice moving images. A good story involves no technical skills or equipment at all—just a great idea.

“If you know what you are going to do with the footage and you do some research to get familiar with the animal in question and its behaviour, there is a better chance of having the shots you need when you’re done filming.”

– Patrick Dykstra

5. Have fun experiencing the deep blue world, but also be responsible while interacting with its fragile ecosystem!

Still from ‘My Octopus Teacher’

Much like filming at gigs or taking pictures of sunsets, it can be all too easy to become so focused on filming that you forget to appreciate what you’re seeing with your own eyes.

“Don’t get so caught up in looking through the viewfinder and forget to enjoy yourself! If you are out having a good time, it often comes through in your shots and people enjoy seeing them. I know that I tend to stay out longer and put in more effort when it’s fun to be there!”

– Dykstra stresses

Each time someone visits the marine environment, they have the wonderful opportunity to encounter wildlife. However, the unfortunate potential to harm our marine life and resources exists with every visit. When it comes to marine life interactions, there are clear do’s and don’ts. Divers learn in their very first scuba class not to damage, touch or harass underwater life. There’s one thing nearly every topside or underwater creature has in common: they run away when chased. If a sea turtle, fish, octopus, or other critter is frightened, simply back off, lie low and be still. If the animal is curious enough, it might come out of hiding.

Chasing the animal is a good way to ensure you’ll never see it again. The best way to get close to marine life is to learn about its behavior and/or dive a rebreather. Here are some some important guidelines for marine life encounters:

Do you have any experience in shooting underwater? Any tips to share? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comment section below.

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