Why use a Cinema camera underwater?

Nauticam underwater housing for the Canon C200 Cinema camera
The Nauticam underwater housing for the Canon C200

Why do I need to use a cinema camera underwater?

In a world of action cameras and point and shoots capable of 4K and all the rest, why would you opt to use a cinema camera underwater?

Given that “cinema cameras” can cost upwards of $7500, why bother?

Attaining the very best cinematic footage of underwater subjects has kept me motivated for my entire underwater filming career. Camera choice is one of the hardest things especially when I am paying for it myself. It takes a very special combination of factors for me to take the plunge….

I have been using cinema cameras on and off for particular projects for many years. I have not owned one, that is until Canon announced the C200, and then my ears pricked up. Firstly the camera is capable of outputting 4K 12 bit Raw Lite footage, it has a great canon processor and that canon colour, auto focus is leagues ahead, great glass is already available…….. When Nauticam announced they would be making a housing for it, I decided right there and then that this would be my next camera.

All in, the complete system with camera, lenses, housing, monitor, monitor housing, batteries, media etc cost about $30K. So it had better work and what I mean by that is it had better blow my bloody socks off.

The 12 bit Raw lite codec produced internally by the C200 comes as a CLOG2 file that can be processed in many non linear editors as either a log 2 or log 3 and a variety of other flavours. But how well does it work in the underwater environment?

Initial testing

It was very much in at the deep end. I had a filming gig in Bermuda for Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. This was going to be the C200’s 2nd dive… (I had initially tested it for trim and overall ergonomics in Palau before heading out to BMD). First dives were very encouraging. The size of the camera and therefore the housing required made the setup quite bulky. A large system possesses inherent inertia and therefore makes the camera quite stable. A big plus in comparison to a GoPro.

Underwater cinema camera C200
The Nauticam system allows access to all camera functions and is a nicely balanced unit underwater.

I was pleasantly surprised with the dynamic range available as well as the colours that could be recovered from the 12 bit LOG media. My main gripe was that the file sizes are huge and only the very fastest of computers will be able to handle the editing and colour correction process. But again color correction is quite possible as opposed to a lower bit rate point and shoot.

Some initial shots from Bermuda are here: https://www.facebook.com/lspfilm/videos/2519660171458599/

You can see that there is virtually no noise on the blacks and the rolloff in the whites and highlights is smooth.

Real world usage of an underwater cinema camera

Setting correct White Balance underwater is important. If it’s not done the image needs to be manipulated in post and too much of this can lead to visual artefacts and noise. Don’t start degrading the image straight away…get the right white balance in camera.

The camera allows you to monitor the waveform so that you can avoid crushing the blacks and clipping the highlights too much. This is hugely helpful in acquiring the right exposure. It also makes you think about the camera movement of the shot… If the shot will tilt up to the surface, will the highlights be getting clipped? How far can I tilt before that happens? Being able to see the waveform in the external monitor is huge..

One thing that is also hugely helpful is the internal ND filter system on the C200. If I am shooting into the sun for a silhouette shot I can quickly apply and ND+2 and avoid that clipping before I start rolling. This is something even more expensive cinema cameras like the RED do not have.

What other benefits does a cinema camera offer to an underwater cameraman?

Did I mention data rate? Yes the 12 bit Raw lite is a monster. It’s approximately 1 GB/second….If we switch to 60fps it drops to a 10 bit version but this is still huge.

Big data gives you more flexibility to adjust the image in post.

Another huge plus for cinema cameras is the output options via cabling. There are multiple bulkheads on the housing that can be plumbed with either SDI or HDMI cables. If need be these can be routed to a directors monitor so that they can give directions to the camera operator and talent via coms as they watch what the camera is filming live.

Colour Correction

colour checker underwater
Using a colour checker underwater can help you get close to a target colour grade

You can see in the above example, I have used a colour checker prior to starting shooting in a particular area. It allows me later in post to have an idea about white balance, exposure and my colour spectrum. There are plenty of videos on YouTube describing this process, check this one out for some good colour theory and instructions: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xJjY3Djj0Wg

This above example is not an ideal situation as the colour checker is only 10 cm in front of the camera and not the 3m away where the subject is, however it is a good start. Utilise your waveform guide to ensure you’re not clipping either the blacks or the whites.

So once you have your white balance and exposure/contrast in the right ball park you can start to refine your colour edit. Adding a LUT or using the HSL secondary colour corrector in Premiere Pro to fine tune the image to your liking or the Directors particular colour preferences .

Colour correction for underwater footage
The HSL secondary colour correction (right hand side) can be used to isolate and enhance certain wavelengths.
Underwater Footage Before and After colour correction
Underwater Footage Before and After colour correction. CLOG 2 12 Bit Raw Lite.

The above example shows what can be accomplished. I’m no expert either but because I can adjust many aspects of the camera and I have a reference slate I can correct the footage so it really pops.

So why use a cinematic camera underwater?

A cinema camera underwater provides the perfect combination of quality and adjustability that I’m looking for. It’s extremely adaptable: I can change lenses and ports, I can output a signal to an external monitor for viewing by a 3rd party live. It shoots in a codec that allows a colourist to manipulate the image far further than if it was a simple low bit rate codec. It’s size and mass provide stability.

Overall it’s the best tool for the job, that’s the fundamental reason, the best tools that your budget can afford. Getting the best out of those tools though…..That’s up to you.

View this long static shot using the C200 Underwater:https://youtu.be/3mgYZGk1IOU

Cameraman for Scientific Expedition to Phoenix Islands, Kanton Atoll

Expedition Cameraman

First quarter 2018 and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute asked me to work as an Expedition Cameraman for their trip to the Phoenix Islands of Kiribati.

Fast forward  and we arrive on Christmas island and board the “Sea Dragon” a 72 ft sailing boat. That afternoon we set sail for our first destination; the Atoll of Kanton.

Aerial photo of sailing boat, Kiribati
The Sea Dragon at anchor near the main dock of Christmas Island, Kiribati

For a week we sailed along a 240 degree heading, crossing the equator. Sampling water from the Equatorial Under Current as we went.

Underwater cameraman expedition
Getting in the water when you are hundreds of miles from the nearest land…..

Kanton

The atoll of Kanton has 56 residents. They live a quiet peaceful life but long for visitors and welcomed us warmly. During WW2 it was very different. Kanton was a US and British air base with over 1200 servicemen present. The abandoned wreckage from that era still litters the atoll.

Aerial Photography, Kanton Atoll, Phoenix islands, Kiribati.
The Atoll of Kanton

To work

We went to work almost immediately in a baptism of fire. My first task as underwater cameraman on this expedition was documenting the deployment of scientific instruments. The site in a tidal channel to the inner lagoon. Easier said than done when the current barely stops moving and can get as fast as 6 knots….

Marine Scientists deploying underwater instruments, underwater cameraman
The heavy instruments were deliberately placed in an area subject to the strongest current. Slack tide lasted 10 minutes.

Diving in a Pristine environment.

Working in strong currents is as any diver who has experienced it, a struggle. Filming stable footage is especially challenging, but after two dives we had achieved our goal. A large and heavy scientific package was positioned and activated, gathering important data on the tidal dynamics of this near pristine environment.

The SS President Taylor. Ship wreck. Kenton Atoll, Phoenix islands, Kiribati, World war 2, underwater photographer,underwater cameraman,
The SS President Taylor looms large in shallow water. Kanton Island.

The next few days flew by as we dived on some of the most pristine reefs on the planet. The Phoenix Islands are in one of the largest marine protected areas of the world.  It’s obvious as soon as you slip beneath the waves. It’s likely that these reefs are only dived maybe once every two years by a handful of people. In that situation the local fish find divers very interesting. Within seconds the fish start arriving and continue to follow you, circling for the whole dive.

You can read more on Marine Protected Areas here

Expedition Kiribati Underwater cameraman Kanton Atoll
The reefs of Kanton Atoll are especially healthy and colourful

Expedition Cameraman

Being the underwater cameraman on this expedition meant I was charged with documenting everything the scientists did. This meant diving sometimes 9 times a day, retrieving scientific instruments, conducting scientific surveys, shooting everything in fact. The end products will be used to promote the work done by WHOI.

With there being so much diving, battery management and data wrangling was especially important and by the end of the trip I had over 3 GB of data which I had been backing up daily. On top of that I was also flying a drone and shooting anything happening on the boat too….Much of what I shot is still under wraps so what I have been able to release so far is a tiny fraction.

At this stage I should mention how good the crew were on Sea Dragon. Eric, Shanlee, Charles, Shannon and  Jess were there for us the entire time. They tended the boats, cooked, filled our tanks and remained positive throughout. It made our jobs that much easier and the experience onboard wholly enjoyable. I can’t thank you enough!

Onwards to new horizons

After 5 days in Kanton we set sail again, this time for Nikumororo.  Two more days pass.

This small atoll was where Amelia Earhart hopefully ended her round the world attempt in 1937. The romantic end to her valiant effort has yet to be verified and what we find is nothing short of miraculous.

Aerial photo Nikumororo Atoll Phoenix islands, Kiribati
Nikumororo Atoll. The lagoon is full of very hungry Black-tip reef sharks

We arrived to be greeted by Sperm Whales, and on almost every dive by Dolphins who immediately disappeared as soon as we hit the water…. We even were escorted by a Killer Whale at one stage….

Orca
The female was tail slapping to warn her calf to keep away. She was around 18 feet long and dwarfed the RIB. Pic by Mike Fox

Isolation

The reefs here are again incredible. The isolation palpable.

The fish take turns to swim around you and check you out. Even in environments devoid of corals and only covered with algae there are still thousands of herbivorous fish.

One morning we locate the one reasonable landing spot on the island and go ashore. Beforehand we have to have our clothes sprayed with heavy duty disinfectant to minimize the chance of taking any invasive species with us.

What strikes me is that there is no plastic on the beaches. Compared to somewhere like Palau where there is huge amounts on practically every coastline, here at last we are free from it.

The inner lagoon supports a huge number of Black-tip reef sharks. The scientists take water samples but it quickly becomes apparent that this is a dangerous activity. Numerous sharks come in very close to check them out. One scientist even gets a nip on his heel. The love bite opens up 3 surgical cuts on his heel. We decide that it’s not worth trying to retrieve a logger submerged in the middle of the lagoon….

One of the nicest aspects that highlighted our isolation was how tame the birds are. Boobies nest on the beach here and are completely unafraid of us.

expedition cameraman
The nesting Boobies were easily approachable.

Orona

We again departed before we had really scratched the surface and after another day of sailing we approached Orona. This atoll had a different feel to it. It had been inhabited up until only 15 or so years ago but the colonists disliked being there so much they left. When we made landfall, there were still buildings in good condition but the amount of trash and leftover rubbish from those inhabitants really bought home how isolated they were and yet how much of an impact humans have, even just 30 people….. The reefs too had seen better days and were still recovering from the most recent warm water event.

In preparation for this trip I had looked at maps of the proposed atolls and of them all, I wanted to fly the drone over Orona the most. It has what is called “Hoa and Motu”, Polynesian words for channels and small islands sometimes found on Pacific Atolls.

Drone photography
The Motu and Hoa of Orona Atoll, Kiribati

Rawaki

Our next island was Rawaki, about 1km square, treeless and covered in seabirds. We dived and cored here for two days before making our way back to Kanton.

Drone view of Rawaki, Phoenix islands, Kiribati
A drone’s eye view of Rawaki. It’s amazing it wasn’t attacked by the thousands of Frigate Birds that were also there…..

Homeward bound

After a couple more days we are back in Kanton to pick up the scientific instruments we had left there previously, it goes without a hitch but the feeling we are on our way home is both happy and sad. Sad to be leaving this incredible place that we have only just scratched the surface of, happy knowing that in about 10 days we will be home again with our families. And so we say goodbye to the our friends on Kanton and set sail for Christmas Island and our flights back to civilization.

That was the easy part

For the next 7 days we sailed into a steadily increasing wind. The sea state worsened, the progress slowed. The Sea Dragon, whilst having been designed to do just this sort of passage handled it all in the capable hands of the crew and Skipper it was still a struggle. The main sail developed a tear and had to be replaced with a storm sail, and for about 5 days we were tacking into 25+ knot winds meaning the whole boat was heeling over at an impressive angle. Squalls hit us and night watches were particularly hard especially for a Green horn with practically no sailing experience. Our spirits were challenged by our slow hard going but camaraderie prevailed.

Sailing the Pacific
With the storm sail up and squalls bearing down on us

It’s Christmas

And finally after a week of bad weather and hard sailing we finally arrive at Christmas Island. Almost as soon as we drop anchor we crack open a celebratory beer. Even now I’m laughing at that moment of relief. Damn that beer tasted good.

We had a couple more days of filming and diving and coring left as we were joined by the Laboratory head Dr Anne Cohen. So the very next day we were out again, rounding off the research and ensuring the money shots were in the bag. For all the basic amenities available on Christmas island the diving was still phenomenal and the Dolphin population huge.

Pacific Dolphins
Huge numbers of Dolphins rode the Sea Dragon’s bow at Christmas Island.

It looks idyllic…

Looks nice doesn’t it and postcards do, but what doesn’t come across is the heat, the flies, the heavy pack on your back, the blisters on your feet, did I mention the heat? Being an expedition cameraman is hard especially if you are a sole shooter. Even if you do have a team of sherpas to help carry your gear, you are still concerned about that gear. Is it packed properly? What if it gets dropped, will it survive that drop? Is that packing case properly waterproof? Insurance for your gear is of course something only a fool would avoid, but a busted camera in the middle of nowhere is still busted without a hope of being replaced for weeks. So, taking two of everything important is something you really need to consider doing. I had two drones, 4 cameras, extras of so many things just in case….

Expedition filming
Carry on. Filled with your most precious possessions (cameras and lenses)

Extra Luggage

It means you don’t travel light, it’s impossible. If you are aiming to get aerial, underwater and topside shots at a professional level and have backups in case of accidents or failures…that’s a lot of equipment.

On this trip I nearly lost a drone, and one of the Underwater camera sensors had an obvious dust speck that I couldn’t clean. As it was I had a backup for both. Things could have been worse but thankfully the gear was packed well and stowed well on board a boat that was heeling over by 30 degrees at times.

Making it home

I approached this project with extreme caution, I made sure (as much as possible) that my personal gear was safe, that I was safe, that I would be able to bring home the footage (and duplicates) and that my client would be happy with the results. It was not easy, but then the best things in life are never easy. But it is one of the best things I have ever done and something I would jump at again.

Expedition to Phoenix Islands Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute Cameraman
The team from WHOI left to right: Pat Lohmann, Anne Cohen, Richard Brooks, Nathaniel Mollica, Mike Fox.

I wish I could show you more of what I did on this trip and one day I may be able to but for now it’s still in the process of being edited so patience is key.

If you’ve made it this far, I’m impressed, it’s a marathon post! I hope it’s given you some insight into both what we experienced and what it took for me to film this expedition in what was literally the middle of nowhere.

If you’d like to read more about what it takes to be an underwater cameraman this post might be of some interest.

If you like to contact me about any filming opportunities please find me at this address.

Cheers

Richard

New Directory listing in Photography Network

Lightning Strike Productions has joined a new¬†photography network . This is a global directory of photographers where I’ve added a new account page.

Photography network
Advertising photographers

Please check it out and see for yourselves. It lists hundreds of photographers from around the world and is a great resource for finding talented media producers in a huge variety of locations

Photography services for Palau and Micronesia

Please contact us for more information regarding our photographic services. We shoot everything from underwater wildlife to weddings, Aerials to Antennas, Wide to Macro, slow motion to time-lapse, RED to GoPro, 600mm lens to Virtual Reality…..

you get the gist!

Cheers

Richard