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 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 but the more insight 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.
If you are not at the stage where your diving is instinctive then you should not be burdening yourself with a camera and expect 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, 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.
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 underwater cameraman, good shots do.
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. The reasons? Spearfishing by locals and conversely the lack of or exposure to (and therefore familiarity with) humans and tourists.
Aim to understand their biology, some successful underwater camera operators have degrees in Marine Biology or a similar subject.
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.
Degree or not, love life in all it’s forms.
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. Continuity is also important, if it’s obvious that different shots were filmed on different days then the story won’t work otherwise the editing has to lead the viewer to that conclusion.
See this example:
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. Edit it 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: https://youtu.be/Ykuajc_5tho
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. This immersion will teach you more than reading any blog or book, the networking potential is priceless. Find the underwater cameraman and introduce yourself.
Similarly watch the behind-the-scenes parts of documentaries to give yourself an idea about the people behind the images. And the (sometimes) surprising amount of effort that goes into one very short sequence.
Realize that success doesn’t come overnight
No matter how much you might want for something to happen, it often takes years to accomplish. 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 to get where I am today and I still have a long way to go. You can read more about what I’ve learnt in other aspects of media production over the years.
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.
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.
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 working as an underwater cameraman.
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.
Never stop learning
Realise that if you stand still you will start going backwards. That’s the nature of things in almost every technology and skill based trade. So use your down time to read and learn about what’s happening within your industry. You will see new filmmakers emerging, new nature documentaries that showcase new types of shots. How were they accomplished? Research the rigs used to attain these new boundaries in underwater imaging.
Go big or go home?
This is a big question. Just how much do you want to achieve the best possible? How far will you go to be a professional underwater cameraman? Only you will find out the answer to those questions.
For me personally it’s been a pursuit for my entire working career. Keep getting better, keep investing.
The big thing for me that has drastically changed my filming is when I got my CCR training. It’s another big investment as it’s really only practical if you also own a unit. Once you are comfortable diving with a CCR however, it will get you to places you just couldn’t reach before with SCUBA.
A CCR operates without venting bubbles into the water, it makes you much much quieter and less obtrusive to underwater wildlife. It is also much more efficient at minimising decompression obligations.
However this is not a game and this is not a toy. A rebreather could potentially kill you, so you need to be responsible when you use it, it’s not for beginners and it won’t help your underwater filming unless you are competent using it. You can read this post which goes into the pros and cons of Rebreather underwater filming.
Never give up. Perseverance is key.
The bad weather passes, wait it out, move somewhere better, don’t waste your breath on negative conditions.
You can read more on what projects I’ve been working on recently here.