Learn Underwater Videography

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Scuba Diving Articles - Scuba Diving Techniques
Friday, 14 November 2008 20:36

This article was contributed by venson

For many divers, capturing the world we see underwater is a way to relive their experiences or share them with non-divers. Some paint pictures, or write in their logbooks, but nothing beats the instant gratification of photography or video. For many, photography is an obvious choice, but the complexity and training required are intimidating barriers to entry. However, with the advent of low cost and high quality video, many are interested in taking this to the underwater realm. The good news is that video is as easy underwater as it is on land and can offer the shortest path to sharing your life underwater.

Probably the biggest question people have in getting started with underwater video is what video camera and video housing to purchase. In this introduction to underwater video, I’ll summarize how to make that decision based on some key factors. Since there is a lot of miss-information out there, I’ll attempt to provide you with some information to make an informed decision, then summarize with some of my recommendations.


First, there are 5 things you want to ask yourself when purchasing an underwater video solution:

   1. What is my budget?
   2. What do I want to shoot?
   3. What is my technical skill level (diving & video)?
   4. What is my travel footprint?
   5. How do I want to distribute my videos?


1.      What is my budget?
How much you spend on an underwater video camera varies greatly, from fully submersible cameras to splash bags that you put your existing cameras in. I’ll focus on the majority of us who are somewhere in between. This means a standard video camera and separate underwater housing specifically designed for it. Expect to pay anywhere between $1500 to $20,000 for a complete system, with about 1/3 of the cost being the camera itself. Interestingly, even with the difference in cost, in many cases the quality of your video will be exactly the same. As the price goes up, your ROI (return-on-investment) will be less, so I suggest targeting around $5000 and adjusting this value based on additional factors below.


2.      What do I want to shoot?
For many divers just getting into underwater video, they just want to extend their existing travel videos with underwater elements. For others, they specifically want to capture certain shots for a particular use. Ask yourself if you are a generalist or a specialist. For instance, do you see yourself shooting more macro or wide angle? Day dives or night dives? Caves & wrecks or reefs? As you get to be more of a specialist, your needs/equipment are going to vary as well as increased cost. For instance, you’ll need interchangeable lenses for macro or wide, or a 3 chip cameras for low light shooting, etc. If you know exactly that you want to shoot as a specialist, increase your budget and increase this factor in your purchase decision. If you know you want to be a generalist, stick to a lower budget. If you don’t know, stick to the lower end of your budget and perhaps get a system that can grow with you.


3.      What is my technical skill level (diving & video)?

If you are very new to diving. I would strongly recommend you focus on increasing your diving skills before getting into underwater video. Not only does diving skills directly influence the quality of your underwater shots, it will directly impact your safety as well. At minimum I would have at least 50 dives under your belt before adding anymore task loading. Also, once you take a camera underwater, you should approach your dives as a solo diver, both for your sake in planning, but also for your buddy whose life relies on you. If you already have lots of diving experience, then ask yourself how much video experience you have. Are you comfortable with operating a video camera already and do you know or are willing to learn everything about your housing/camera. Some people prefer everything on auto, whereas others prefer manual. You can shoot about 90% of general shots with auto, but once you start specializing, you’ll need to know everything about your equipment. Also, as complexity increases, so does maintenance and up-keep. Ask yourself how much time are you willing to devote to pre and post dive equipment preparation and do you have or want the necessary skills to do it. For some, they just want to grab their equipment and go. Then head straight to socializing after their dives. For others, up to 50% of their dive trips are devoted to their equipment. There are systems for both these types of people, so just keep this in mind.


4.      What is my travel footprint?
This is becoming an increasingly important consideration due to recent travel restrictions. For some, their video camera and housing comprises a bulk of their travel luggage and they are willing to pay extra for it. Whereas for others, having the ease of a carryon camera/housing is paramount. Generally liveaboard or local diving can accommodate larger systems, whereas resort diving or remote diving is easier with smaller systems. For many, this is the primary consideration when purchasing an underwater video camera and housing.


5.      How do I want to distribute my videos?

Although this is becoming less of an issue these days, it is something to definitely consider as part of your purchase process as it can affect cost as well as the complexity of your overall system. For many, having a system that offers the ability to quickly share their videos is paramount and cameras that record direct to DVD or memory (for easy upload to the internet) is the easiest. For others the quality of the video they want is more important for broadcast or HD distribution. Today, all cameras can record outstanding quality, but depending on how you want to distribute your videos, you will loose much of this quality or increase the time/effort spent preparing for distribution. Ask yourself if are already setup for HD, DVD, editing, etc. A 3-chip HD camera with footage edited in HD is perfect for distribution on Blue-Ray DVDs, or even regular DVD’s, but is way overkill for sharing on VHS tape or the general Internet.


So how does one make sense all this information and translate it to a purchase decision? After asking and answering all the questions, you should be in one of two places. 1) I am just getting into this as a hobby or 2) I want to become a professional at this. You should also have a rough idea of a budget at this point.


The next question you should answer is probably the most debatable. Underwater housing come in two flavors: Manual housings or Electronic housings. Manual housings have buttons and levers that penetrate the housing so you can push the required controls on the camera. Electronic housing use buttons that interface directly with your camera’s control. Here are some pros/cons to each:

Manual Housings (Ikelite, Gates)


  • Generally cheaper
  • Generally increased reliability
  • Flooded housing only ruins camera


  • Somewhat less control over camera functions
  • More penetrations into housing


Electronic Housings (Light & Motion, Amphibico)


  • Complete control over all camera functions
  • Ease of camera control
  • Less penetrations into housing


  • Generally more expensive
  • More things to go wrong
  • Flooded housing ruins camera and housing


So in summary, understanding yourself first and answering a few questions can help you set your budget in purchasing an underwater video system. Then get the best system your budget can afford. Also note that housing are made specifically for a particular camera, so make sure you purchase both at the same time. Only a few housing manufactures (like Ikelite) can make a custom housing for your camera.


I’ve also listed 4 of the top housing manufacturers above, however there are many many more you can find online. As for recommendations, for an entry-level, general system look into Ikelite. Many professionals continue using Ikelite due to it’s no nonsense approach, ease of use, and great customer service. For more specialized shooting, look into Light & Motion or Amphibico. Both offer great housing for the most common cameras used underwater. Gates is the workhorse of housings and are known for their reliability.


In case you are wondering, I shoot with a Light & Motion Bluefin housing with a Sony HVR-A1U HD camera. Stay tuned for further articles on how to get the best shots with your housing/camera and how to edit your videos.


Venson is a Master Diver with over 30 years of photography & video experience and 20 years of diving experience. To find out more of what Venson is up to, visit www.learnunderwatervideo.com