So you’ve got your GoPro Hero4 Silver or Black with our recommended settings sealed up with a fresh battery, memory card, mounted to a stabilizing tray, a pole, or your DSLR. And you’ve got your color correction filters mounted to your GoPro housing, and maybe you’ve got a set of video lights charged and ready to go. Let’s go diving and film some wide-angle video!
To shoot compelling wide angle, it’s really important to understand the importance of stability, color, camera movement, and composition. The following techniques apply to shooting with GoPro cameras underwater whether you are using available light only or shooting with video lights.
Camera Stability and Underwater Color
In our GoPro Out of the Box: Settings and Stability Options article, we discussed the importance of using some form of stabilization to prevent the capture of dizzying footage that will undoubtedly make your video look amateur. Unstable footage is probably the worst of the four most important elements of good wide angle. Make sure you have a Double Handle Tray or some other form of stabilization mentioned in our previous article.
In our How to Get Amazing Underwater Color with Your GoPro article, we explained that there are three critical things that need to be implemented to get good underwater color: (i) filters, (ii) sun position and lights, and (iii) shooting angle. Mastering the balance of filter choice, remembering the importance of the sun positioned behind your back, and awareness of your camera’s shooting angle will help you achieve stunning, accurate color in your videos.
We generally don’t have large stable tripods, sliders, dollies, jibs or cranes underwater. However, your viewers still expect your video to have these cinematic camera movements. The most common simulated cinematic film movements underwater are as follows.
We don’t have a dolly, but we do have our fins to reposition the camera from point A to point B in a (somewhat) linear fashion. While recording, hold the camera as stable as possible and with slow minimal fin kicking, reduce the distance between the camera and your primary subject. You can also use a backwards kick to slowly create more distance from your subject. Sometimes this can also be achieved by inhaling while backwards kicking, but remember your scuba diving 101 safety here.
Probably one of the most common types of shots when filming turtles or other large moving subjects, this shot is executed by getting the subject properly framed in your camera and then maintaining the exact same distance for the duration of the recorded clip. The subject is in motion. This requires you to constantly evaluate the distance between you and the subject, holding the camera as steady as possible, and using your fins to maintain the same distance. Stingrays, cuttlefish, squid, turtles, divers, and so on are all subjects that you would track while recording.
Locked off Shot
When shooting in sandy areas free of fragile reef habitat, you can set up your GoPro on an underwater tripod. This can be useful for filming a bommie that has a lot of fish swarming around it. But beware, this shot can get boring really fast if there’s not any movement from the subject you’re filming. Additionally, if you are filming a scene that has a lot of action, try to hold the camera as steady as possible to simulate a locked off shot like in the example below, where Joel is stationary and the school of fish is swimming rapidly through the frame.
Although this shot is generally difficult to achieve with a GoPro unless you have it mounted to a larger camera system, the panning shot can be accomplished by starting the camera to the right of a scene and moving the camera slowly to the left, or moving left to right. It’s tricky to keep the camera level and pretty challenging to pan at a consistent speed. With practice as well as multiple takes, you might be able to get a usable clip. We find that most of the time these shots don’t look as good with a GoPro due to the fisheye look of the camera and the inherent imperfections in the shot.
You can also do up and down moves that are similar to pans but move directly up to down or down to up with the camera staying level. This is an achievable move! We find that tilts can be accomplished by exhaling slowly or inhaling slowly (please remember your scuba diving 101 safety here). We like to use this technique when there’s a tall structure of reef or wreck that we’d like to film but which doesn’t fit in the vertical frame. You start the shot at either the top or bottom and keep the camera level and straight, while either inhaling or exhaling slowly. This is an advanced shooting technique, and not recommended for the beginning diver.
This type of shot is achieved using similar techniques to the dolly shot, but you are holding the camera to the side while slowly fin kicking by the subject to the left or to the right. You can create depth and even more interest in your shots when combining the dolly technique with the trucking technique. This works best for a subject that isn’t moving around much.
It’s easy to be excited while scuba diving and just start recording without any thought about where the best angle might be, what the most important part of the scene is, and how you position the primary subject in your frame. These decisions all have to do with composition and are almost as important as getting good color or stability. For example, you could get a really stable shot on a sandy bottom with a stingray out in the distance, but if the stingray is super small in the frame and dead center, it will most likely be a boring composition without enough interest to keep the viewer engaged. Here are some general rules for good composition.
Some critters are skittish, and others will hang around awhile. This trumpetfish was very cooperative as Joel moved into position to capture this behavior with a blue water background
Try not to place your primary subject against a busy or congested background.
It’s beneficial to get as close to a subject as possible but there is such a thing as “too close”! First off, the GoPro Hero4 will be blurry less than 10 inches away from the subject without any kind of corrective lens. Secondly, there’s a concept in composition called “head room,” the relative vertical position of the subject within the frame of the image. Using the turtle as an analogy again, this means framing to allow for the turtle’s head and flippers to be in the frame.
Think of this like breathing room in the frame for where you predict the action is going to go. This takes practice and being “in the moment,” but ideally, you’re anticipating where the underwater subject is going to go next. Make sure that part of your frame has plenty of breathing room for the subject to move into as you’re recording.
This green sea turtle was framed with both head room and lead room in mind
Rule of Thirds
This is the same as in photography. The human brain finds compositions framed in the rule of thirds more interesting than a subject that is always dead center. There are times to break these rules, but nine times out of 10, putting an interesting part of your background off to one side, while having your subject’s eye intersect with one of the intersection points, is going to make for the most compelling framing.
If your primary subject has an eye or eyes in your frame, the eye(s) must be sharp. The diagonal orientation of the trumpetfish with its eye in a lower thirds placement makes for a pleasing composition
Interesting Primary Subject
Lastly, it may seem obvious, but make sure you have an interesting subject to film. There’s nothing worse than watching video from a camera mounted to the top of a mask, recording 45 minutes of swimming through a pack of divers blowing bubbles (unless that’s the purpose of your video!), while any interesting subjects are far away. Think about your shot before you hit record, and then while recording, think about whether it still looks interesting. Stop recording if it doesn’t meet your criteria, and seek out other wide-angle subjects to engage your audience.
Holding the camera steady while filming is critical to obtaining good underwater video
Tips for Wide Angle
- Use the appropriate color correction filter for your depth
- Break the rules: Use your lights with your color filter
- Evaluate the color in your monitor: If things look too warm, choose a less intense filter strength
- Use an LCD monitor
- Bring extra batteries and change batteries between each dive
- Make sure the sun is always at your back
- Get close to your subject to achieve the best underwater color
- If using lights, it’s best to use two of them spread out wide enough that you cover the whole area you’re filming, but not too wide that there’s a “cone of darkness” in the middle
- If using lights, it’s generally best to run them on full power
- While recording, adopt the mantra, “steady camera, steady camera, steady camera”
- When recording rare or really amazing action scenes, ask yourself regularly, “Am I recording?” Double check that the record light is on and the record seconds are increasing.
Future installments to our “Underwater Photographer’s Guide to GoPro” will include macro shooting techniques, post-production color correction and much more! In case you missed it, start from the beginning of our GoPro series with our first article in the series, Which GoPro Hero4 Is Best for Me?
About the Authors: Joel and Jennifer Penner are avid scuba divers and award-winning underwater image-makers. Their images have been published in many magazines, such as Scuba Diving, Sport Diver, Underwater Journal and Scuba Diver. Joel and Jennifer are frequent presenters at scuba industry trade shows, and they are also staff at the annual Digital Shootout and Monterey Shootout events. When the ocean is not their office, they run a multimedia company called Newmediasoup, specializing in design and development for the Web.
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