Cameraman's guide to underwater filmaking

See more articles on
Underwater cameraman coral reef Jeff Goodman

Filming and Technology

Things have certainly changed since I began my career as a wildlife cameraman. Technology in all its facets has brought the capability of making good wildlife videos, especially underwater, within reach of most people. When I started, in the late seventies, professional and semi professional movie cameras were a very specialised item, particularly with any sort of underwater housing. Now, the modern day high street store or web shop can supply a whole variety of cameras and housings pretty well tailored to fit requirements and budget.

Technology has also made the process of shooting video easy. ‘Point & Shoot’ cameras are very good and the quality can be excellent. A bit further up the scale we have cameras that give us the option of either using complete ‘auto’ or complete ‘manual’ with a few combinations in between.   So, why learn about equipment and how to make underwater films when technology has so many things placed in the ‘auto’ folder of life? Basically ‘auto’ will only take you so far and while producing a very immediate image, it will not replace your mind as a thinking decision maker, with a sense of artistic ability. While many people are, quite rightly, excited about the first video clips they make, there soon comes a time when the desire to do better things arises.

Know your equipment

Jeff Goodman with Gates Underwater Camera Housing

Whether you are intending to make a professional broadcast film or a good quality hobby video, the basic principles of making that film are the same. A cameraman must know the camera and its underwater housing controls fully and be able to use all its required functions without any second thought.

Imagine the scenario of getting to a location - saving the money, deciding where to go, getting the tickets, passports, currency, excess baggage, travel to airport etc etc. You get the picture. Finally you get to the location you have dreamed about. Now you organise the diving - where to go, what state of tide, what time of day, how deep, who to go with, etc etc. Finally after all this preparation and anticipation you are in the water and the conditions are good. Without any warning, there in front of you, is the animal you came to film and incredibly, it’s doing its thing! You are excited, you lift the camera up to shoot and then panic as you ask yourself - is it in focus, is the exposure right, what about colour balance and so on ??? - and then in that brief moment while you are deliberating over the camera settings, the animal swims away, or buries itself in the sand, or simply stops what it is doing to look at what you are doing.

Oh! the sheer frustration of not being prepared! ‘I should have used auto,’ you may think to yourself, and perhaps you should have, but knowing where and when not to use ‘auto’, is part of the whole deal.

Think about the edit

But let’s suppose you get some great shots, the next question is what are you going to do with them? Show your fellow divers - show the family (and let’s face it, they will love anything thing you do) - then what? If that’s all you want to do then probably the ‘auto’ way of life is not such a bad thing, but, if you want a little more out of all your hard work, then perhaps my book "A Guide to Underwater Wildlife Filming" would be useful to you. Most people with a modern video camera get to take some excellent shots now and again, but it takes a little more effort and thinking to be able to produce a video sequence that will enthral your audience and keep them entertained until the very last frame has been seen. This applies to the absolute beginner right up to the professional.

By the time you may become a professional, all these skills will be second nature, allowing more time to think about animal behaviour and to predict what is about to happen next. This is where research and knowledge of the species you are filming becomes invaluable and knowing what is going on, and perhaps what to wait for, instead of just shooting away only to achieve a simple catalogue of animal portraits instead of a good behavioural sequence.

So, being a good cameraman does not end with just knowing your camera and being skilful in getting all the best shots. As any video editor will tell you, every shot can be a masterpiece, but if there is not enough variety of material to make a full sequence, then all that effort can be wasted. A great shot is of course a great shot and this is most obvious when taking a still photograph. But with video, the story doesn’t end there. All the time you are filming you have to be thinking about your final video product. ‘I have a great shot, but how am I going to get into it story-wise and then how am I going to get out of it and into the next great shot?’…….and so on.

Editing is a crucial part of film making and in my opinion no professional cameraman is truly worth his or her salt until they have spent some time in an edit room and seen how sequences are made and fitted together.  It is with equal attention that my book will looks at cameras, how to get the best from them, how to approach filming your subjects and how to ensure you have enough material to make a good and full sequence. We will then look in detail at how to put your hard earned shots together with easy to use consumer editing software.  

Why we do it

Underwater Cameraman Jeff Goodman with seal

There are many skills and qualities that make a good wildlife underwater camera person. A few of these are confidence in their diving abilities, slow and easy going in movement while approaching marine life, a good degree of knowledge about the subject, being able to give the correct body posture and not to appear threatening. When filming wildlife there are often no second chances and over many years of underwater filming, I've developeds a ‘whole new way of diving’.   Having said all this there is one more very important factor. FUN. Wildlife filmmaking, especially underwater is a wonderful pastime and for a lucky few, profession. Think of all the things it encompasses - adventure, technical know how, artistic interpretation, stamina, physical fitness, love of the wild, an understanding of the natural world, patience, determination………… There is also a slight degree of exhibitionism as you will no doubt have the desire to show your work to others.  

There is the excitement when a usually shy fish comes close to you, the adrenalin rush when a shark cruises by, the peace and tranquillity of diving with a turtle. The overwhelming feeling of being studied when accompanied by a curious pod of dolphins. Watching and videoing animal behaviour. All this and more. And what keeps it all so exciting is the limited time you are able to spend underwater doing these things.

Unlike sitting in a Land Rover watching lions or cramming into a hide waiting for a bird to bring food to it’s chicks, your underwater time is very limited and as such, concentrates the mind totally on what you are trying to achieve. It is a true adventure each time. Even diving a reef you know backwards, will more often that not spring you a few surprises on a daily basis.  

Conservation and the future

Fish on a reef

As well as looking at Cameras and Editing we will also be looking at marine conservation and asking you to examine closely why you want to film marine wildlife in the first place. If, like me, you love the oceans and get immense pleasure from being underwater with truly incredible marine animals, then you may want to be looking at ways of protecting the marine environment through your films and gain the ability to communicate with large audiences.  

Whether you are shooting underwater video for your own pleasure, for scientific recording, marine biology, or for commercial use, the principles are the same, as are the rewards, the excitement, the great sense of achievement. The photos and wildlife examples in this article are from the warm waters of the Red Sea. That’s because the Red Sea is a great place to be and film. This in no way should detract from filming in cooler waters. The techniques are the same even if the species are very different.

I have made many films in temperate waters and find it equally exciting and beautiful. There are a few more challenges to filming in temperate seas and these are mainly due to being colder, generally poorer visibility, stronger currents and unpredictable weather.   The oceans are still one of the least explored and understood environments of our amazing world.

Our bodies are made up of approximately 75% water and when I get into the sea it’s like coming home. I’m near weightless and my senses come alive. I feel comfortable and content and yet as time goes on, I feel a great loss.   It saddens me greatly to know how we, mankind, have almost completely decimated a once great environment. Over-fished and polluted, the oceans are struggling to survive in a form that has taken millions of years to evolve. We alone have scripted and acted out this annihilation of marine species and habitats through greed, ignorance and arrogance.

Is it too late to turn things around? I think so but hope not. We probably won’t actually stop this pillage until the shear effort of it all becomes a commercial liability. Even then the legacy of plastics and chemicals in the food chain is now irreversible and will take its toll for generations to come.   I just hope that while you are learning how to film underwater wildlife, you will take time to learn more of its plight and perhaps take a part, even be it a small one, in its recovery.   I see and hear divers talking excitedly about the incredible dives they have had. The fish, the sharks, the turtles and whales, encounters with dolphins, the wonders of a reef or fathomless drop-offs. It then never fails to astound me when within almost the same breath, they look longingly at what sea food is on the menu. It is absurd how they, in their minds, separate the two - wildlife in the ocean and wildlife on their plates. A stark reality is that you either swim with it or eat it. You can’t have both, at least not any more.  

Even in my short lifetime I have witnessed the disappearance of mind bogglingly huge shoals of fish, great schools of dolphins, even the complete loss of some species. The sad thing is that younger generations of divers have and never will see many of the things I have and so will not miss what they have not experienced. A very clever man once said. “We only preserve what we love and we can only love what we know”.  

Jeff runs underwater video and editing courses for beginners and professionals.

‘A Guide to Underwater Wildlife Video & Editing’ is available at Amazon and Waterstones.

Written by

Award Winning TV Cameraman, Documentary, Wildlife, Underwater, Aerials, Sound Sync, Presenter led Programming, Science & Features
© Copyright Jeff Goodman