How to become an underwater cameraman

How to become an underwater cameraman (and make a living from it)

Underwater Cameraman Palau
Underwater filmmaking needs you! Photo courtesy Eric Goh

I get a lot of e-mails asking me how I became an underwater cameraman or how I’ve got to where I am as a media producer, so I thought I’d put together a short blog to help all those aspiring shooters.

There is no one course or definite route. The more successful underwater camera operators you meet the more varied the stories  you’ll get. For the sake of this, here are some recurring similarities.

Most of it may seem like common sense but hopefully my contribution offers you some insight.

Underwater camera
Waiting for the sun to set before filming a Grouper spawning aggregation, Little Cayman, circa 2005

Diving Experience

If you are not at the stage where your diving is instinctive then you should not be burdening yourself with a camera and expecting great results. Personally speaking I was already a Divemaster working full time with around 500 dives before I took a video camera underwater. I continued to guide and teach for many years before switching over to full-time underwater filming and photography. Operating a camera underwater keeps your hands full and mind busy, and there is no room for an inexperienced diver. I would thoroughly recommend going and doing a Divemaster or equivalent internship and making dive experience your first priority as this really is the base of your metaphorical pyramid, your foundations if you will. If for whatever reason you find diving is not the thing for you then at least you know. Shaky underwater footage from not being in control of yourself, is only good for low budget dramatizations and your aim should be for the smoothest filming possible.

Have a love for imaging

Kind of a given really but still important because if you are not passionate about it you may find your enthusiasm wanes when things start to get hard. If you just love large cameras because you like people’s admiring glances, then maybe buy yourself another mirror.

Underwater Cameraman
Know your camera underwater with your eyes closed.

A love of imaging shows. It shows in what you produce and it shows in how long you can do it for and what lengths you will go to to get those images. Your eyes should light up when you talk about a particular shot or sequence, people will see your love of your craft and your dedication to it’s production. Develop your passion too, dare to dream about the next shot, think about how you can achieve your vision. A big camera does not make you a good cameraman, good shots do.

Freediving and filming underwater in Jellyfish Lake

Learn your subjects

This goes for both wildlife and people..

Different animals have different behaviors and different comfort zones. Even the same species in different locations will behave differently based on what interactions they have locally. A great example are the fish, sharks and turtles in Palau who will approach you in some locations or swim away as fast as possible in others.

Aim to understand their biology, some successful underwater camera operators have degrees in Marine Biology or a similar subject. I went to Plymouth University and studied Environmental Science, it gave me a huge appreciation for the complexities of ecosystems and helps in understanding their interconnections.

Being able to get as close as possible to your subjects is vital for underwater imagery and this relies on you being able to “read” your subject’s behavior. Empathize with them, and if you can’t, learn how to. Different species have different comfort zones.

Degree or not, love life in all it’s forms.

Do you see a deadly shark or a beautiful animal?

Learn to tell a story

This might seem like a no brainer, of course you need to tell a story….but when you think about it ….How do you tell a story? This is where watching other people’s work can help. Pick your favorite part of any underwater wildlife documentary and analyze what is the story and visually how it is being presented. Is it a softer introduction with an establishing wide shot or more of a cryptic intro with a surrealistic opening shot that makes the viewer ask “What am I looking at?” The subject becomes clear, but now what is it doing? How does the story play out and how does it conclude? Building a sequence and telling a story is one of the hardest parts of filming wildlife, sometimes you get one chance to nail it, other times the subject is available for a longer period of time.

Learn to edit

The last few years have seen an enormous increase in ways to edit and share your media productions, be it a selfie or a short film. There are plenty of editing programs that come as standard on computers these days. iMovie was my introduction to a Mac system some 16 + years ago..… The good ones are intuitive and come with loads of templates that add creative flair to a project. The skills and disciplines involved however have not changed that much from when I started. Learning to edit is crucial for the next step in developing your career as a professional underwater cameraman.

The Show Reel

The best way to advertise yourself is to compile a short film of your favorite and best shots. It should be something that shows your range and expertise and also edited in a way that ensures that it doesn’t get used as a cure for insomnia. My mantra has always been “Keep it interesting”.

Being top of Google for “underwater cameraman” but having a website with just pictures of yourself holding your big camera is one way to advertise yourself but if you’ve got nothing to back it up with you’re just a poser.

Advertising yourself is key to making people aware of your existence and what you can do. Social media has made everyone potentially a star, it’s up to you to shine bright enough for the people that matter to notice.

See the latest show reel for Lightning Strike Productions here:

Get experience with production work

There is no better way to educate yourself than to gain some work experience. If you don’t actually get to film, join a crew and see what goes into a production. Be the safety diver, be a lighting assistant, be the runner or cable wrangler even. You will learn the lingo and get insight into the various roles that are commonly found in a production. Not only will you learn but you may even get to hang out with industry professionals and this immersion will teach you more than reading any blog or book. The networking potential is priceless.

Similarly, watch the behind-the-scenes parts of documentaries will show you the people behind the images and the (sometimes) surprising amount of effort that goes into one very short sequence.

Filming Manta aggregations in the north of Palau for a cinematic documentary with the RED Dragon. (image: Pete Zuccarini)
I had the incredible experience of working with underwater film legend Valerie Taylor for an assignment back in 2010. She could read my mind and knew exactly how I wanted to film the scene. She was also incredible with the wildlife, so calm and friendly.

Realize that success doesn’t come overnight

No matter how much you might want for something to happen it often takes years to accomplish and sometimes it might not happen at all. You may have to volunteer, beg or borrow cameras to get started. I worked for years using other people’s cameras before I had the confidence to invest in my own. I learnt the ropes, I worked hard and I didn’t earn much money whilst I was doing it. It was my love of underwater filming that kept me going. Only now I have my own company and own equipment do I really feel like I have reached a point of self sustainability. It has taken years (close to 20) to get where I am today and I still have a long way to go.

Keep fit

Diving can be a very physical occupation, and the fitter you are the better you will be in the water. Good cardio fitness will give you better air consumption. Underwater camera work is not just about using breathing apparatus it’s also often about free diving, so the longer you can hold your breath the better too. Stay fit, swim, run. Believe me it pays off.

Freediving is an essential skill

Aim for quality and be professional

Do the best job possible. Be honest with yourself and your clients. If you feel you could do better then aim to do better if you have the chance. Work your arse off when you do. Learn your camera inside out so you can be sure it’s working at it’s full potential.

Be sure to prep your camera well. There is nothing more apparent to show the difference between an amateur and a pro by a lack of preparation. I know a self declared professional who operates a RED camera that left the lens cap on inside the housing….more than once…. and only realized his mistakes once he was sitting on the bottom. Talk about good equipment being wasted!

Underwater camera
Make sure that everything is ready to go before you get in the water

One of the biggest eye-openers for me when working with industry professionals was how intensively they worked once we got underwater. The old adage  “time is money” was never driven home so hard. Every second counts. There’s no such thing as a fun dive when you’re a professional and earning your money by filming underwater.

Another thing I’ve learnt along the way is to go that extra mile for your client but be humble about it. Good customer service is vital if you are to impress in this extremely competitive field, but don’t be a suck up. People who are constantly trying to impress me get boring very quickly and end up impressing me less.

Remain Optimistic

The clouds you see from where you are, may not be there when you get to where you are aiming to be.

The bad weather passes, wait it out, move somewhere better, don’t waste your breath on negative conditions.

Richard Brooks is the founder of Lightning Strike Productions.

Photo courtesy Carlos Villoch
Photo Courtesy Wendy Capili-Wilkie

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