Why use a Cinema camera underwater?

Underwater cinema camera canon C200 camera operator scuba diving
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

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