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Fully Immersed: Shooting 360-Degree Underwater Video
By Jack Henry Adams, February 22, 2019 @ 03:00 AM (EST)

Immersive underwater films transport the viewer in a way that traditional films cannot
 

My personal journey with 360-degree filmmaking started at the booth of a virtual reality company called Hiverlab at the 2016 ADEX dive show in Singapore. I put on a headset for the first time and watched a five-minute documentary about a group of disabled divers taking their first dives in Malaysia.

I would go on to become the Creative Director of Hiverlab with a goal of telling stories by transporting people into the narrative. In particular, my mission was to use this new technology to raise awareness of the underwater world so people might see that it is not only well worth exploring but also protecting.

Let me give you a brief introduction to how 360-degree video—otherwise known as immersive or spherical video—is captured and how it can be watched. Along the way, I will provide some tips and tricks for getting effective footage for your own projects, to wow family and friends, and perhaps even inspire someone to go diving for the first time.
 

Mounting GoPros back to back allows us to create a high-resolution 360-degree video—with the help of some software trickery

 

Creating 360-Degree Video

Every 360-degree camera system is made up of two or more cameras. These face different directions to ensure everything, absolutely everything, is captured. After filming, the footage captured by each camera is stitched together using stitching software. By combining all the images into a single image, you end up with an all encompassing panorama of aspect ratio 2:1. This is called an equirectangular panorama and within it is your entire scene.
 

An underwater equirectangular panorama
 

The magic of 360-degree video is to then take this flat panorama and wrap it around the viewer so they are immersed in the image, the edges coming together to form one continuous scene. The viewer can explore the image either by looking around if using a headset or scrolling around with their mouse or finger if viewing on a desktop or mobile device.
 

An example 360-degree video shot off Sipadan on a recent trip supported by Seaventures—see if you can spot our finned friend and a very relaxed turtle
 

To capture the above video, a camera system comprising six GoPros was used
 

My 360-degree rig consists of a cage in which six GoPros are mounted, each facing in a different direction. Each camera has a customised dome added to the housing. As well as making the rig look as awesome as possible, the domes are essential for correcting for refraction caused by the water. In traditional imaging, refraction narrows your field of view; in 360-degree film, it would render all your hard work “unstitchable.”

The stitching software works by finding similar points in the overlapping areas that each camera is capturing. For this to work though, each camera must overlap its image with the one next to it. If you don’t have the domes restoring the camera’s wide field of view, there will be no overlaps, and you and your stitching software will be left scratching your heads.
 

Dome ports are needed to give the fields of view of adjacent cameras sufficient overlap to enable successful software stitching

 

360-Degree Camera Systems

Of course, you don’t have to buy a rig with six GoPros to capture 360-degree footage. There are now various options for capturing spherical video underwater, which is making the medium much more accessible.

For people starting out in immersive video, there are systems such as the GoPro Fusion combined with a 360 Bubble, which allow you to capture footage with minimal hassle and see results quickly for as little as $1000. These are fantastic little cameras and are only limited by their sensor size and resolution. In most cases, though, these are great if you just want to experiment.

Multiple-camera rigs like the one I use require a lot more patience, but your efforts are rewarded with higher resolutions of 8K or more. Still, changing six GoPro batteries and six SD cards on every surface interval often has me repeating “It’ll be worth it. It’ll be worth it” over and over in my head. It usually is, especially for projects requiring the highest resolution.

Then there are the high-end professional systems such as the Boxfish 360, which uses larger sensors, perfectly synced cameras and professional controls—accompanied, of course, by a professional price tag.

Each option has its own particular workflow and quirks. It is just about doing the research and choosing the right camera for you based on your project and budget.
 

Systems for capturing immersive video range from affordable two-lens cameras like the GoPro Fusion to large, expensive rigs featuring multiple cameras

 

360-Degree Filming Tips and Tricks

Shooting 360-degree videos is a different beast to traditional filmmaking and another fun skill to learn, but it’s not without its challenges. The following tips and tricks, based on my personal experiences, will hopefully help you get better and more immersive footage.


Tip 1: Safe Filming Distance

When using multiple cameras in 360-degree rigs, there is what’s known as the parallax effect between them, in the same way that we have between our eyes. If you look at an object with your left eye open and then switch to your right eye open with the left closed, you’ll see the object appears to shift slightly. The closer you bring the object to your eyes, the more dramatic the shift. The same thing happens with a subject being captured by two cameras.

At a certain point, the stitching software will be unable to match the two different images and you will end up with what is called “ghosting”—a repetition of the same fish. Even closer and you’ll end up in the blind spot between what the cameras are capturing—as shown in the figure in the previous section—with a break in the image where the stitch line is very obvious. To avoid this, try and keep any action 3–6 feet from the camera. In other words, swim alongside that turtle but keep her at a safe distance to ensure a good stitch later.
 

Making successful 360-degree underwater videos requires following some basic guidelines
 

Tip 2: No Panning

The most exciting part about immersive video is allowing the user to explore by moving their head (or finger) around. In traditional video, we direct the viewer’s attention by panning the shot from one area of interest to another, while in 360-degree video, the viewer “pans” by moving their head (or finger). If we pan during filming, this can get very confusing for the viewer—and is the easiest way to lead to motion sickness. So, pick your direction and go for it; the viewer will do the rest by exploring themselves.


Tip 3: Depth

Lighting Considerations

When shooting spherical video, artificial lighting is rarely an option. You’ll generally be working with ambient light in shallow water, so you’ll want to set white balance appropriately for accurate colors.

White balance can be set on a GoPro pre-dive, while some professional rigs allow for in-water white balance adjustments. The most important factor is that the same white balance setting is chosen for all the cameras in the rig.

The Boxfish rig has a clever design that allows lights to be attached in the blind spots so they don’t appear in the final image.

Another option is building lights into your scene: Having a diver carrying a light illuminating an area of interest can work as long as you don’t mind having the diver in the shot.

Because they use small cameras with small sensors, most 360-degree systems don’t have mind-blowing dynamic range, so consider where the most light is, i.e., in the shallows. The vast majority of the best shots I’ve filmed have been shot above 30 feet, where you’ll get nicely exposed shots and vibrant colors. If you want to film a deeper-dwelling critter, just be aware that as the light falls away, the image quality will also start to fall apart.
 

Tip 4: Action Blocking

Between each camera’s field of view, you will have a stitch line—this is the basic premise that allows us to capture 360-degree video. At this line, there will always be a chance for artifacts and less-than-seamless stitching. One way to minimize this is to “block” the action within the view of one camera. This is simple to do for a static shot of an anemone, for example: You can place the rig with one camera covering the whole scene. For moving shots, you will need to anticipate what is the most interesting part of the scene, whether it be a shark or a diver, and then predict their movement and smoothly match it to keep one camera concentrated on them.
 

With one camera positioned to capture a static subject, any artifacts in the stitch line aren’t noticeable
 

Tip 4: Leave the Camera

With 360-degree video, we are capturing everything, which means that we cannot frame ourselves out of the scene. We literally need to leave the scene if we want a diver-free shot. For this, you’ll need an underwater tripod (I just use a cheap tripod with a dive weight zip-tied to it) placed carefully on a sandy area, rock, or dead patch of coral (never on the living reef).

Now comes the fun part: where to hide. If you can find a bommie or a large rock, that works; off the drop-off is another favorite of mine. Be aware of your bubbles giving you away, though, so more often than not it’s better to just swim until you can’t see the camera anymore, leave it for the amount of time you want the shot, (I do a minute minimum), and then swim back to collect.

I didn’t consider this when I first starting filming in 360, but the act of swimming away from the camera removes the big, bulky, noisy, bubble-releasing human from the area. As a result all the other organisms can relax and go about their business whilst the camera is rolling. This has led to some nice surprises in post-production, where a shark glides around the camera or a turtle lazily settles down for a nap right next to it. As well as creating some hidden gems, if you’re careful, you can plan for these types of shots by anticipating where an animal may swim past or rest. You never know if it worked until you get the footage back on the computer—I love that thrill.
 

Post-Production

I won’t go into any detail on the stitching process, as this differs considerably from one system to the next. It’s also becoming more and more automated, so that in lots of systems you simply hit “stitch.” For example, Go Pro Fusion users have GoPro Fusion Studio, and many professionals with multiple-camera rigs use Mistika. As a general rule for every system, the raw footage needs to be input into the appropriate stitching software and a final stitched equirectangular panorama exported. Once you have this, you’re ready to view.
 

With 360-degree video, you never really know what you’ve got until you stitch it all together in your software of choice—that’s all part of the fun!

 

How to Watch 360 Content

After all that hard work it’s time to show off your video, but how? If you can get your hands on a VR headset I would highly recommend it—this is the piece of kit that makes you feel like you’re there. The other option is publishing your 360-degree content on video-sharing platforms like YouTube, Facebook and Vimeo.

Now let me give you the secret sauce to make sure you upload your videos correctly, and watch those views and likes flood in. If you have ever watched a 360-degree video that looked like a warped, trippy 2D video that didn’t make any sense, that’s because the spatial metadata hadn’t been put into the video. This is the final crucial step and thankfully, it’s incredibly easy to do. In short, it is the metadata that allows the playback device to recognize your video as 360 and show it correctly.
 

Before uploading to a video-sharing platform, be sure to “inject” the spatial metadata so your film is recognizable as spherical video
 

Download any spatial metadata tool online (I use Spatial Media Metadata Injector), open it up and find your 360 video, select “My video is spherical (360)” and hit go. There, you’re done. The program will create a file with all the metadata needed in it to allow Facebook, YouTube or Vimeo to play the video in all its 360-degree glory.

If the viewer is watching it on a phone or tablet, they will be able to wave their device around to explore the video, and on a desktop, a click and a drag of the mouse has the same effect. If you are just viewing it yourself on your desktop, this metadata will also allow your standalone player to recognise it.
 

Final Thoughts

With new cameras and housings coming out all the time and software becoming simpler to use, 360-degree underwater video is more accessible now than ever. I still get a buzz each time I hand my phone over to someone who has hasn’t experienced an immersive video before—seeing the “wow” moment when they are transported to where it was filmed.

So get out there and get filming with your spherical rig. You might just inspire the next person to get into the water and share our passion for the underwater realm.
 

After trying your hand at creating a 360-degree film, you may just find it impossible to shoot traditional underwater video ever again
 


 

About Jack Henry Adams: Jack is a passionate filmmaker and VR content creator inspired by wildlife, people and places. Originally from Norfolk, England, he first moved to the Caribbean to teach marine biology and then to Asia, linking his passions for science and film through working at Emmy Award-winning Scubazoo for three years. Now the Creative Director of Hiverlab, a leading VR company in Singapore, Jack works with NGOs, educators and government agencies to make stunning 360-degree films that aim to have maximum impact and make a difference. www.jackhenryadams.com

 

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