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

The Best Diving in the World? 6 things to consider before you book your next dive vacation.

Given how much choice is available these key points will help you decide where to go and experience the best diving in the world.

The best diving in the World is a huge statement to make especially with so many great choices. But great diving needs to come hand in hand with great customer service and that is what sets one dive operation apart from the rest.

An example of one business that I feel is doing it right.

6 things to remember when searching for a dive vacation. What makes the best diving in the World?

For me, a good dive vacation is a blend of good diving and good customer service:

  1. Great wildlife experiences
  2. Comfortable and reliable boats.
  3. Good lunches and snacks on the boat
  4. Professional guides that bring out the best of the situation
  5. Safety
  6. The package and overall feel good experience.

Underwater Wildlife

  • Underwater wildlife is what most people scuba dive to see. There are a few that go for cave diving or wrecks but the vast majority go to see the colourful fish, corals, sharks and Manta Rays if we’re lucky. Some locations are specialised in particular animals like Malapascua in the Philippines, famous for it’s Thresher sharks or Guadalupe for it’s Great Whites. Maybe huge schools of fish are what you’re after…..
  • Other places are good specifically for Macro like Lembeh Strait. So it’s a personal choice and worth thinking about before you even start to think about what tour operators to go with….What would you like to see? The best diving in the world is not going to be the same for everyone. The best overall diving in the world with variety and quality of sites may be the compromise here.
Underwater wildlife of Palau the best diving in the world
Underwater icons found on almost every dive in Palau

Boat dive or no-boat dive?

Unless you’re a fan of the shore diving in Bonaire or the Cenote Dives in the Yucatan, most dive sites are a short or long boat ride away. This raises two questions: Do you get seasick? and… Is the boat comfortable and reliable? If the answer to #1 is yes, then maybe shore dives or Ginger supplements might be the thing for you. If the answer is no, then consider whether Liveaboards or daily tours are more your thing. Think about the comfort factor. Does it have dry areas? Is it a valet service where the staff will bring your tank to the dive step and help you gear up? The best diving in the world for you might be off the end of a jetty or might be a week of sailing away from civilisation…if you can stomach it.

Dive boat Palau Dari Divers
Fast safe reliable transport from resort to dive site and back again.

How good is the food?

Diving for all its weightless relaxation still can generate a healthy appetite, so make sure that the operator provides reasonable lunches for you. Surface interval snacks and hot beverages are always welcome, even in the tropics and it’s the little touches like this that make a big difference when you’re out for the day. Also look for operations that think about the environment. Do they use single use plastics? Are they giving you reusable bottles for water or off the supermarket shelf single use bottles? Do the lunches come in reusable lunch boxes or is everything wrapped in plastic? What about trash, how is that dealt with? Does it end up here?

plastic pollution
Think about the environment. Does your tour operator use single use plastics for lunches or are containers recyclable? And of course is the food good?

How good are the guides?

This ultimately goes together with point 5 but aside from safety the guides can make or break your dive vacation. They take responsibility for your experience. They look after you, anticipate your needs, suggest fixes to problems, show you the really cool stuff you’ve travelled so far to see, they engage with you during surface intervals, help with your gear (or don’t help if you don’t need it) they’re courteous, knowledgable but don’t brag. And lastly they deliver you back at the end of the day with a smile on your face. It’s a lot to ask or expect. (so don’t forget to tip ;-))

dive palau
Dive guides who know their stuff

Safety

Safety is always on my mind when diving. It is after all an alien and unforgiving world, and even with training accidents can and do happen. Of course it is the tour operator who should be looking after your safety but assuming that will always be the case is a mistake. It’s still your responsibility to assess a situation and make a decision. If in doubt do a refresher course. No-one will scold you for it and the tour operator will welcome a responsible (if little rusty) customer any day over one that shuns feedback and thinks they know it all. Egos can kill.

Overall experience and feedback. Tell other people why it’s the best diving in the world.

Happy scuba divers with Dari Divers Palau the best diving in the world
Happy divers

Your overall feel good experience is of course extremely important. It’s why so many of us take vacations. We don’t take time out and spend so much money for a bad time do we? So how you feel as you board the plane back home is crucial. Any dive shop, resort owner worth their salt is concerned about this too or should be. This is where feedback is extremely important. Websites like trip advisor are where you as a consumer can help fellow travellers by writing reviews. It is also worth noting that businesses can vet and remove bad reviews if they don’t like them and of course create ghost accounts and rate themselves highly.

Recommendations for the best diving in the world

My experience from 23 years of diving has shown me that diving and vacations are a very personal experience, that a dive shop/ business needs to be safe and show that it’s safe without over mothering their guests. The facilities, the boats, hotel, live aboard, meals everything you experience above the water also needs to be as good as can be reasonably expected given the location and price. Lastly is that parting feeling you get at the end. Was it a good experience or did the owners just want your money and for you to leave as soon as possible?

Look for this dive shop here: http://www.daridiverspalau.com

They have always impressed me, from when I walk fin to when I walk out. Friendly, courteous, good diving, great meals, great service, great guides, great attention to detail. If you’re thinking about Palau as a destination, seriously consider them. Check out the short video at the top of the page or watch it here.

Thank you for your time.

Richard

Underwater camera workshops and training in Palau

Underwater photography is a common art form these days with cameras readily available for reasonable prices. A large proportion of divers now have housed cameras ranging from a cell phone to the latest flagship behemoth “HMS Arri”. Many also find enjoyment in attending an underwater photography workshop as part of their dive vacation.

Underwater photography is art with a physical challenge too. The best photographer on land could be terrible underwater if they’re not a competent diver.

Underwater cameraman Palau
Sunbursts were the order of the day

Underwater photography should be fun

When everyone has a camera and is “happy” with what they’re doing it’s nice to be asked by someone to help them improve their shooting.

Underwater Photography workshop in Palau
A large school of fish offers the creative underwater photographer a multitude of imaging options.

On this occasion my student wanted help across a range of subjects. Here’s a run down of things we covered:

….and camera basics

Many issues that lead to dissatisfaction in underwater photographers are down to the inherent intelligence of cameras. Especially with point and shoots and the more automatic varieties. What I mean is that cameras are often thinking too much and because they are mostly not designed with underwater photography in mind, they can make it more of a challenge to get the best shots out of them. Auto focus is a big one for this.

underwater wildlife, Palau
Once you find a cooperative subject shoot it in as many ways as possible

Dissecting what the camera is trying to do for you is the first step. Turning off “intelligent” facets of it’s character often requires reading the manual and a little experimentation. Get to know your camera.

Next comes the basic shutter speed/ aperture/ISO balancing knowledge that all photographers worth their salt should have a rudimentary understanding of. It’s not always available but being able to control them in the camera is so much more rewarding….. and challenging…. but that’s what I’m here for.

underwater photography palau
Subjects that don’t move too much and will allow you multiple attempts are good to start with

What will absolutely ruin a good underwater photography dive is when the housing doesn’t perform so I always advocate spending as much time as you can on preparation. All it takes is one o-ring or one connecting rod out of place and you have a camera that won’t work on the dive or worse is flooded. Be prepared.

After that we have the lighting and strobe positioning that is so important underwater. Correct or incorrect strobe use will make or break a shot, so developing the mindset of creating a studio  and moving your lights within it and around your subject will reap great rewards.

Bespoke one on one workshops

Often the student photographer has a certain shot in mind or wants to improve on certain elements of underwater images in general. This time we were going for sun beams through the water as a background to our perfectly placed subject so we focused on that when possible.

underwater photography student palau
Spending the safety stop shooting sun bursts and beams

Overall, it comes down to patience and practice, but with an hour of preparation and coaching before the dives we had the set up and basic operations down, after a few trial shots underwater on stationary objects we have a better feel for strobe power and ball park exposure settings. Then after that it’s about looking for subjects and having fun. A few over the shoulder views by me allows a real time feedback for the student and quick adjustments when necessary. Between dives a more in depth discussion as we review results.

Certainly a faster learning curve than the old slide film days………

Contact Lightning Strikes for availability of courses or workshops, individuals or groups are welcome.

Read this article on my perspective of being a professional underwater cameraman.

For more underwater media articles follow this link

Cheers

Richard