Getting Great Color in Underwater Video with Your DSLR
When it comes to underwater video, nothing screams “amateur” more than footage shrouded in a veil of blue, devoid of all the warm colors of the spectrum.
Some shooters think using bigger and more powerful video lights is the singular solution for achieving improved color. Sure, this approach will be of benefit when shooting macro, but lights have limitations when shooting wide angle. Even 10,000-lumen lights will not illuminate the entire profile of a whale shark or a large wreck. So how do you get those saturated reds, oranges, and yellows?
As in underwater photography, the answer isn’t, “Just fix it later in the computer.” Adjusting color in post-production will only help to an extent. Unfortunately, it won’t transform footage that is missing basic color data. Good color is obtained in camera underwater—not at a computer.
Really want to impress your audience and grab their attention? Capture quality color underwater
Before we look at solutions, let’s discuss the problem. The issue starts with the science: Water is 800 times denser than air (think back to your scuba certification course), and when light descends the water column, it interacts with the water molecules and suspended particles, causing multiple reactions: absorption, refraction, reflection, diffusion.
Warm saltwater acts like a giant blue filter, while cold saltwater or fresh water acts like a giant green filter because of the algae growth. Even at five feet, with ideal surface and water conditions, you will record an apparent loss of red. I say “record” because digital sensors are more sensitive to this effect than the human eye. Our brains compensate and still see quite accurate color at this depth.
Crucial to our discussion of how color is recorded underwater are the issues of color temperature and white balance. In essence, setting your DSLR’s white balance ensures that objects that appear white in daylight are rendered white under the lighting conditions in which you are shooting. The procedure accounts for the color temperature of the light—its relative “warmth” or “coolness”—and thereby removes undesirable color casts in your image. DSLR video shooters have the option of automatic white balance, a white balance preset, or manually setting white balance. We’ll address the application and implementation of white balance in different scenarios.
Getting the white balance right before hitting “record” is vital for accurate colors
There are four basic strategies available to you for getting great color in camera:
- Using video lights
- Staying shallow and utilizing ambient light
- Adding a red filter
- Adjusting the camera’s white balance setting
It’s important to note that each solution should be dictated by the type of subjects you are shooting and the environments you are working in. Moreover, there are many additional variables that affect the quality of color in your footage, including depth, water color, time of day, visibility, camera, and lens type.
In the following, we discuss using these four basic strategies when shooting macro and wide-angle subjects. However, there are no concrete rules when it comes to achieving optimal color, so these are only guidelines to help minimize errors and maximize your opportunities. Don’t be afraid to experiment with a combination of techniques.
There are a variety of ways to record bold and saturated color with your video-capable DSLR (video frame grab)
Use video lights
Using constant light, or continuous light, is the best solution for shooting tiny critters. Nothing reveals a subject’s true color and detail better than a video light. Different lights vary in terms of functionality and power, ranging from less than 1,000 lumens to 10,000 lumens or more. Another specification to consider when selecting lights is the Color Rendering Index (CRI), which measures the ability of an artificial light source to reveal the colors of a given subject in relation to natural light. As with strobes, two lights are better than one: You get more power and better color, and avoid harsh shadows. (For more information about the features of video lights, check out my third article in this series, “Equipment for DSLR Underwater Video.”)
Good video lights are equipped with multiple output levels. In general, the more power, the better. Bright light allows you to lower ISO (reducing potential noise in the image), stop down the aperture (creating more depth of field), and increase the shutter speed (decreasing possible motion blur). One downside of shooting at the highest power level is that you will run out of battery power quicker. Keep your lights off while scouting, and then turn them on when you’re ready to shoot.
Only rarely will you will find a skittish macro subject that flees from bright light. Shrimp, crabs, and nudibranchs are unfazed. Some critters, like seahorses, are sensitive to bright light. In such cases, lower the output setting and adjust your ISO, shutter and/or aperture to compensate for the reduced amount of light.
When shooting macro using video lights, I recommend leaving your DSLR’s white balance setting on “Auto”—which should result in accurate color.
Stay shallow and utilize ambient light
Without video lights, your macro footage will be weak. If you stay shallow and get close (like 24” or less), you may get some color, but it won’t compare to video taken with lights. This is a strategy that you should only resort to if there’s no juice left in your lights, but it’s probably best to just turn off your camera and enjoy the dive.
Add a red filter
Actually, don’t. For macro, this is not a recommended technique. A red filter will warm your colors, but the bottom line is if you want to shoot macro and get vibrant, saturated color, you will need to invest in good-quality video lights.
Adjust the camera’s white balance setting
Again, this is not a viable solution for good color (if used without lights). You may be able to garner some decent colors by manually white balancing or finding a warm white balance preset in your camera menu, but your images will still lack the “pop” and contrast created when using video lights.
The best way to achieve good color when shooting macro is to use video lights—period
Use video lights
Wide-angle imaging is a delicate balance between ambient light and artificial light. The easiest way to ensure that your subjects are properly exposed and have good color is to keep a close eye on your camera’s LCD. However, bear in mind that the LCD is only a gauge and your images may look slightly different on your computer monitor or TV. The goal is to get the color close to what you want.
Video lights are very effective for medium-sized subjects like turtles, octopuses and coral heads, because dual lights can provide even coverage. Extreme wide-angle scenes can be partially lit and will result in quality colors with creative composition—think great white with illuminated teeth.
Adjusting white balance while using video lights may improve your images. However, changing this setting should be addressed in a controlled environment like a casual swim along a wall or a simple reef dive. While viewing the LCD, cycle through the white balance presets until you’re satisfied with what you see—often the “Direct Sunlight” setting works well. If the dive is challenging, like heavy current or wicked drift, leave the white balance on “Auto.”
Stay shallow and utilize ambient light
This may be the easiest technique to achieve dynamic colors when shooting wide angle—no lights, no red filter, white balance set to “Auto” or “Outdoor/Daylight.” The sweet spot for depth varies on dive conditions and dive environment, but 10–20 feet should yield solid results. Using ambient light is the best solution for shooting wide-angle images on the surface too, such as snorkeling with whale sharks, wild dolphins, and saltwater crocodiles.
Keeping it simple and staying shallow: no lights, no filter, “Auto” white balance
Add a red filter
A red filter can be mounted directly onto the camera lens (front or back) or externally onto the front of the housing port. For DSLR systems, it is best to mount the filter directly on the lens. Many wide-angle lenses have a filter thread on the front, allowing for quick and easy installation. Some lenses (especially fisheye) do not have threads on the front, including the popular Tokina 10–17mm. If you want to use a red filter with a lens that doesn’t have a filter thread, you’ll need to mount it on the back of the lens. This may require a filter gel that must be cut and taped adjacent to the rear element of the lens.
Keep in mind that a red filter mounted externally onto the port has the advantage that it can be removed underwater, but it is also easier to scratch and for air bubbles to get trapped. Conversely, when mounting directly to the lens, a filter obviously can’t be removed underwater, but it is also better protected from scratches.
Regardless of where it is mounted, however, a red filter will reduce the amount of light that strikes your sensor, so you will have to adjust your ISO, aperture, or shutter speed (or a combination of) to compensate for the light loss. Also, a red filter will not be effective in very shallow water (your images will be blood red) or in very deep water (too much light loss). Once again, results vary based on water conditions. Refer to your LCD screen to verify the effect of your changed settings.
Leaving the white balance setting on “Auto” while using a red filter is generally safe, but be aware that the color temperature may shift during recording if you initiate camera movements (pan, tilt, dolly) or if the ambient light conditions change.
This shot is clearly suffering from poor color. It’s difficult to get close to garden eels, so a red filter or adjusting the white balance would have helped the color quality
Adjust the camera’s white balance setting
DSLRs allow you to shoot in a variety of white balance modes. The following chart shows the white balance options on the Nikon D7200, which are fairly typical of those offered on DSLRs:
Color temperature is given in degrees Kelvin. The higher the number, the “cooler” or bluer the setting; the lower the number, the “warmer” or redder the setting. The most popular settings are “Auto,” “Direct Sunlight,” and “Manual.”
Many modern DSLR cameras perform incredibly well in the “Auto” white balance mode. If you keep your camera still and the lighting conditions do not change, it is unlikely that your “Auto” white balance will shift while recording. If you prefer to select your white balance mode, I suggest the “Direct Sunlight” setting, also called “Outdoor” or “Daylight” setting (around 5200 K) to match the color temperature of your lights.
- Auto: “Auto” white balance (without a red filter) is generally a viable option, but the results will depend on your DSLR’s capability as well as the other factors we’ve discussed. Remember also that the setting will be affected by camera movements as well as changes in ambient light.
- Direct Sunlight: A common practice is to match the color temperature to the primary light source. If you are shooting in ambient light, you may want to select “Direct Sunlight” (5200 K). If you are using video lights, you may also want to select “Direct Sunlight” because chances are your lights have a similar Kelvin temperature rating. That said, if you want to add a little more “red” to your images, you can select a white balance preset that is lower than 5200 K.
A correctly executed manual white balance is an important way of achieving accurate color underwater—for both photographers and videographers
- Manual: When shooting in ambient light, manual white balance will result in the most accurate color reproduction—if done properly. Ideally, this requires a white balance “slate”—a white or gray colored piece of plastic about the size of a paperback—to be placed in front of the camera and executing a white balance measurement off of the slate. Basically, you are telling the camera what white should look like at your given depth—and it’s important that you do it every time you change depth.
- A manual white balance is a little tricky to perform, especially with DSLRs, and often requires you to either place the slate on the ground or have your dive buddy hold it. Note also that the further away the slate is from the camera, the more blue will be removed from the image. Some shooters don’t like the inconvenience of carrying around a white balance slate, so they white balance off other neutral-colored objects, like sand or even their hand. That generally works, but isn’t quite as reliable.
- If you’re shooting using video lights and want to manually white balance, make sure your lights are illuminating the slate when you do it. Failure to do so will create a dramatic shift in your colors when you finally turn your lights on. White balancing manually and using video lights in tandem will not only improve your color but can also help your exposure and contrast.
Modern software like Adobe Premiere Pro CC and Apple Final Cut Pro can enhance colors during the post-production process—it only takes a couple of clicks of the mouse to improve the color of your footage. But that’s only if the color information is there in the first place. If you capture color accurately in camera while shooting, not only will your footage look more impressive, it will save you countless hours in post-production.
But if you really want your clips to look professional, don’t over do it. Never oversaturate your colors. Novices tend to increase the saturation levels in their footage to the point where everything looks like a bag of Skittles. It’s not lifelike and it’s not necessary.
Ultimately, there is no single solution for achieving great color when shooting video with a DSLR, and often a combination of techniques gives the best result. Use your LCD screen as a guide, experiment, and be creative.
Creative use of different techniques—lights, filters, and white balancing—will allow you to create an underwater film with colors that really “pop” (video frame grab)
About the Author: Evan Sherman is the owner of Seasick Productions, a full-service multimedia company that specializes in underwater imaging. Based out of Orange County, California, Seasick Productions provides on-location and studio production services around the world. His professional underwater credits include television networks, Fortune 500 companies, and numerous entities within the dive industry. Evan’s recent film, “Bali Close Up,” earned top honors at the World ShootOut Underwater Photo Grand Prix in Germany, Video of the Year at the ADEX Voice of the Ocean Competition in Singapore, Best of Show and Stan Waterman Legacy Award at the Turquoise Bay International Underwater Film Festival in Roatán, and Silver in the video category of Our World Underwater 2016. He is a contributor to DivePhotoGuide and a Sea & Sea Alpha ambassador. Throughout the year, Evan conducts dive expeditions and imaging workshops.