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Shooting Video With Basic dSLR Equipment - Manual settings, Improving color, and Stabilization
By Steve De Neef, April 19, 2011 @ 01:19 PM (EST)

By Steve De Neef
In the first part of this series we looked at some of the terminology and equipment used in DSLR video -- how to get color back by white balancing, how to focus, and discussed the big differences between shooting
stills and motion. In this installment we will focus on wide-angle video and look at:

  • Taking control of your footage with manual settings
  • Using filters and color modes
  • How to stabilize your camera to avoid shaky footage

Video shot by the author using the techniques described below

Manual settings

All DSLRs, and even many higher end compact cameras, have manual settings. Just like when shooting stills, manual settings are usually the best for underwater use. The auto setting was designed for shooting on land and doesn’t always know how to act in an underwater environment.

Most SLRs only have two options - full manual or full automatic - and lack the shutter or aperture priority settings available for stills. If you want to have complete control of the look of your footage, you’ll need to shoot in manual mode. Don’t worry, it’s not that hard and if you’re used to shooting stills,  there’s only a few adjustments you’ll have to make.

For a refresher on manual settings in photography and a review of the terminology, you can read our Getting Started primer here.

Aperture: Choosing your aperture is not any different then when shooting stills. When shooting wide-angle, I find f9 or greater to be acceptable in terms of depth of field (DOF). If there is enough light, working with apertures of f11 to even f20 will give you lots of depth of field and very crisp looking reef scenes.
In general, fisheye lenses and ultra wide-angle (UWA) lenses have great DOF and shooting at f9 and up will be good for most situations. When shooting macro you’ll need a bit more DOF but we’ll talk more about macro settings in the next installment.

Shutter speed/frame rate:  Even though shutter speeds work quite differently when shooting stills and video, the end results are essentially the same – the faster the shutter speed the more motion is frozen in your footage. When shooting video, the shutter opens once for every frame of video. . For example, when shooting at 30 fps and a shutter speed of 1/60s, the shutter will open for 1/60th of a second 30 times per second.

So technically if you are shooting with a shutter of 1/30s or slower the shutter will be open all the time giving you blurrier footage. Therefore shooting at slower speeds then 1/30s while your frame rate is 30fps is not possible. When shooting at higher shutter speeds you’ll get a strobe effect. Experimenting with these settings is fine, but your footage won’t look “normal.”

For best results and a fluid video, put the shutter speed at double the frame rate you’re using. So if you’re shooting at 30fps, you will need to use a shutter speed of 1/60s. When shooting at 25 fps or 24 fps you need a shutter speed of 1/50s of a second.

I find that it’s quite hard to judge the right exposure when shooting full manual by just looking at the LCD screen. After shooting a small clip you can check the histogram, but for me the best option has been to set the ISO to auto.

I know, this is not really shooting full manual anymore, but it works great. When you’re focusing before starting to record you can check which ISO setting the camera is planning to use.
Keep an eye on what the camera selects to make sure it hasn’t chosen a very high ISO. Just like with stills, a high ISO setting will give you noisy images. For my camera, anything up to ISO 800 is very acceptable. You can get your camera to select a lower ISO  by opening up your aperture a bit -- I’d rather have less DOF then a very noisy video.

Improving color with filters and picture styles
As discussed in part 1, to get good color for wide-angle footage you have to use custom white balance. The only way around this would be if you’d have powerful lights, but even then I feel custom white balance would give you a more natural look.

So why use filters if you’re adjusting all the colors using custom white balance already? Well, filters like the magic filter or UR pro filters are made for underwater use and give your camera an easier job at finding the right color balance. From my experience they also make the background blues look nicer and improve overall color. They work amazing on a fisheye or UWA lens.

One downside is that they do take some light away so you need a higher ISO setting or wider aperture then without one. If you’re shooting in the tropics this shouldn’t be a big problem as there’s plenty of light, but when the visibility isn’t great you will need to watch your ISO. 


Filters for green water are slightly different then for the tropical blue water but are used in the same way.

Picture styles: Many cameras have the ability to change contrast, sharpness, vibrancy and saturation in camera. When shooting stills I find this not necessary as everything can be done in postproduction and it usually works better that way. In video, however, playing around with these settings can give amazing color right out of the camera. I’ve tried a few different settings and am very happy with slightly more saturation, vibrancy and sharpness. Of course, if you’re an experienced post processer then it’s optimal to make changes in post,  but for all the footage shot in the videos I did no color adjustments.

Stabilizing your camera for wide angle shooting
Stabilization is where the DSLR’s are far worse then dedicated video cameras. The housings are not made to be neutral and perfectly balanced underwater and this is why holding a DSLR steady is very tricky. A tripod or gorillapod is an easy solution but isn’t that practical for wide-angle footage when you want to be moving around.

When I’m shooting wide-angle I leave my strobe arms attached to the housing.  I use my strobe arms to stabilize my camera in three ways.

Put the end of the arms on my own arms, around my biceps. This helps support the camera.

Spread the arms out wide (similar to the position they would be in for wide angle photography) and hold on to the ends of the arms instead of the housing itself. 

Hold on to the housing handle with one hand to control the camera, and hold on to another strobe arm to steady the housing

Shooting in the surge? It is really hard and near impossible to get stable footage so just try to avoid it. If you have some nice footage that’s a little shaky, you can try and use software to stabilize your footage a bit, but this is one area where you want to rely on post as little as possible.

Shooting manual is the way to go - it is the only way to get control over DOF and keep your ISO settings normal to avoid noisy footage. Finding just the right white balance, filter and color settings will make your footage look great right out of the camera. Last but not least, don’t leave your strobe arms at home; they’ll come in really handy when you’re trying to get steady footage.

I’m no video expert, and these are just my experiences in switching from stills to motion. In the next parts we’ll look at using lights, tripods, macro lenses and editing. Go diving and try out some video using manual settings - I think you will be surprised by the results! 


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