These 5 Tips Will Help Keep Your Head Above Water with Underwater Shooting

Published on in Advice / Tips & Tricks

As a NAUI (National Association of Underwater Instructors) trainer for 25 years, I have been fortunate to combine my passion of diving with my career as a cinematographer. I love to create new worlds that take the viewer on a journey, and one way I accomplish this is by bringing my camera and lighting skills from dry land to the pool, shooting tank, or the depths of the ocean. I’m Vance, a cinematographer of 35 years and an underwater enthusiast.

Leave your ego at the door

When it comes to underwater shooting, one of my top recommendations is to leave your ego at the door. Though it’s easier said than done, it’s crucial to lean on the experiences of others as you get started, because underwater shooting is a different animal.

Work with people who are experienced in the underwater environment

Build yourself a team who understands water safety, especially when it comes to lighting and electricity, and what the implications of an aquatic environment will do to your equipment. You don’t know what you don’t know, so don’t be too proud to ask an expert. A particular shoot comes to mind when I didn’t have the control I normally have. Instead of the underwater blacks that I requested, an ultra bounce was put in place by someone on set, black side up on the bottom of a pool. The white coating came off and turned the clear pool into a milk bath in a matter of minutes. Not this person’s fault; the knowledge just wasn’t there. My point is, it’s important to work with people who are experienced in an underwater environment because their expertise is going to be invaluable.

What gear to use (the fun part!) 

Now that we have that out of the way, here’s the fun part: Gear, particularly cameras. I have a few go-to camera setups. First, I love the Blackmagic URSA Mini Pro 12K in the Hydroflex RemoteAquaCam Mk5 housing. The image quality and functionality of this camera have been incredible and the ability to shoot multiple formats without sensor crop is huge. Also, having the ability to change camera settings via the Bluetooth+ app without opening the housing is fantastic. While the cost for this camera is quite affordable for its capabilities, I’ve encountered many jobs with a tighter budget when we would only have a few underwater shots or we simply need a smaller, more compact underwater package without losing quality. That’s where the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera 6K, which I use with Nauticam housings, really comes into its own. This package is available at the Hollywood Divers camera rental department, the shop I teach at, and is rented frequently. With this package, I use either 14-24mm or 18-35mm Sigma art lenses. They look amazing on this camera and I am able to shoot footage that rivals high-end cinema camera at an affordable cost.

Underwater time is different than on land

While the right gear for the job is invaluable, and cameras can be real workhorses in this environment, working underwater is a slow process. Time is one of the most overlooked factors for people starting out in underwater shooting. A general guide would be that for however long it takes on land, it will take at least three times as long in the water – and that’s just in a pool or shooting tank. In the ocean, be prepared to double that and keep your talent’s level of comfort in mind. It can be very demanding on talent doing water work and is often outside of their comfort zone, so proper support in the water is critical.

Set yourself up for success; Expand your knowledge

At the end of the day, skill will come with experience once you dive in but I would also recommend professional underwater cinematography courses. There is a course I wrote, which is sanctioned by the NAUI, to help you prepare and to gain a better understanding of what you’re getting into. For those looking to bring their craft below the surface, it’s important to set yourself up for success by preparing adequately, surrounding yourself with a knowledgeable team, and understanding the opportunities and limitations of your gear.  For all the years I have been doing this, the learning never stops. That is partly what is so exciting about being a cinematographer – there is always something new to learn.

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About the Author

Vance Burberry
Vance Burberry
Vance, an Australia native, found his passion for light while working as a stage hand at a theater company in Sydney. To make a living, which was difficult in theater at that time, he started lighting for local rock bands, eventually lighting concert tours for major Australian artists, including Cold Chisel and INXS before he was hired on what would be the final tour of the GoGo’s. His passion eventually led him to the world of film as a gaffer and to music videos as DP where he shot videos for Guns N’ Roses, Tesla, Extreme, Alice Cooper and many more. For Vance, cinematography is not only a craft, but a spiritual journey. The light must serve the story, regardless of whether it’s a commercial, feature film or music video.

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