Tips and Tools for Scuba Diving with the GoPro HERO4

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Nick Woodman, a young American surfer, desperately wanted images of himself surfing, personal and up close, and there seemed to be no camera available to exactly fulfill his requirements. He set about creating a solution. Slightly more than a decade later, his camera company has invaded the market with the small, waterproof, and extremely high-quality unit we know as the GoPro. Popular because of its size, price, and the quality of the video files it is capable of producing, the GoPro HERO, in its waterproof housing, has become an enormous asset to outdoor sports enthusiasts and all kinds of filmmakers—from the producers of Breaking Bad to youngsters making their first film in a neighbor’s pool.


 

Since the HERO3 was released in 2012, the world has witnessed some of the most jaw-dropping action footage in history. The frame rates and resolutions this camera brought to videography were double and triple what the competitors were offering. After ironing out a few bugs and bringing out the HERO3+ with improvements, the engineers put a new processor into what we now know as the HERO4, doubling—again—the frame rates of most of its previous resolutions.

The groundbreaking HERO4 Black offers, among its numerous settings, 120 frames per second in 1080p resolution, which is invaluable to filmmakers wanting smooth, crystal-clear footage with the ability to slow down the action, whether it’s a base jumper in a wing suit or the jaws of a hammerhead shark skimming past the lens. 1080, which refers to the height of the frame in “pixels,” is a convenient and popular resolution that looks great on anything from a smartphone or flat screen TV, to a large projected image. It is still the go-to resolution for most underwater GoPro users.



 

The larger resolutions of 2.7k and 4k put GoPro at the crest of a breaking wave of higher-quality footage, and keep the HERO4 Black Edition in the professional filmmaking market. Most of us do not need these higher resolutions, and besides, the larger file sizes and lack of processing power on the average computer make it less practical than 1080, for the moment. People with time on their hands and an interest in editing are starting to dabble with higher resolutions, cropping, and down-converting to 1080, but life is too short for most of us to bother with this.

Which model should a diver buy: Black or Silver?

The HERO4 Silver has essentially replaced the HERO3+, but now includes a built-in rear LCD monitor for the same price. The newer model is a slightly nicer camera, too, in terms of ease of use and functionality. There are a couple of useful software improvements, such as “Auto Rotate,” which tells the camera to rotate an upside down image in real time. There’s a noticeable increase in image quality over the 3+.

The HERO4 Black has higher available frame rates: in 4K resolution you can shoot at 30 frames per second (which is more useful than the almost useless 15 fps offered on the Silver model), and in 2.7K resolution you can shoot at 60 frames per second. If those frame rates are important to you, buy the Black and add an LCD Touch BacPac(this accessory is compatible with the HERO3, the HERO3+, and the HERO4).

There is also an entry-level model, simply named "HERO,” which is a useable option if you don’t want to spend very much money. The engineers at GoPro streamlined it for people who don’t need all the options. This model still offers a resolution of 1080 at thirty frames per second, which is totally useable for diving, but the major downside is that there are no “Protune” settings, which is an enhanced mode that increases the data intensity of the footage, and allows for greater scope in color correction when editing—which is very important with underwater footage. So buy this model for your kids if they just need something to get their underwater videography hobby revved up.



 

The GoPro is a point-and-shoot camera, but for divers in particular, results can vary drastically depending on who is pointing and shooting, and what other gear is involved. Divers need to remember that the more water light must pass through, the more color is stripped away, starting with the reds, followed by the other colors of the rainbow. This results in footage with a very blue or green cast. Easily remedied with the purchase of a filter and a video light or two, the resulting footage can be astoundingly different. A red filter will reduce the blue tint of an ocean environment, and a magenta filter will serve to cut back the green tint that tends to dominate footage shot in lakes, quarries, caves, and certain oceans. GoPro makes filters that are reasonably priced and will do the job. Make sure to buy the correct size, of which there are two: for either the standard housing (red or magenta) or the dive housing (red or magenta). Other brands include the Polar Pro and Flip Filter, which all do the same job in different ways. The Flip Filter is beautifully machined and convenient to use and gives the option of a macro lens attachment, which is very effective when used together with a tripod, once you learn to use it. It is all a little more expensive. The Polar Pro offers a price advantage, but is not as rugged.



 

The Auto White Balance (AWB) on the GoPro is extremely accurate—better, in fact, than many larger and more expensive cameras. It is possible to shoot without a filter if you are using good video lights, but I recommend using lights and a filter in conjunction with each other, especially when there is a lack of abundant sunlight. In a cave environment, the camera will react faster in terms of correct color if you use a magenta filter. Without a filter, the GoPro has to “think” for a moment before extracting the offending green tint and, when cave diving, let’s face it, time is of the essence.

Video lights are essential if you want to preserve the color of your subject. Another thing to be wary of with the GoPro is that without sufficient light, the camera will amplify the video signal and produce a grainy image. There are settings that you can change to put limits on this amplification, which can be useful if you are shooting something out of range of your lights, such as a wreck or an eagle ray, for instance.



 

Make no mistake—there is no substitute for a powerful, wide-beamed video light. Regular dive lights will just put a hotspot in the middle of your shot and the results will be unwatchable for all but your most caring relatives. SeaLifeiTorchTovatech, and Bigblue make great video lights. In terms of power, I recommend a 2,000-lumen light. The Tovatech Galaxy Video Dive Light is a strong contender at a reasonable price.

Remember that these lights are good for any camera, so if you upgrade what you shoot with in the future, the light will still be useable. Batteries have a limited life, and might surprise you with a higher price tag than your average battery replacement, but they are cheaper to replace than the entire light.

The GoPro is tiny, which works to its disadvantage underwater when it comes to capturing a steady shot. This is the rule: the smaller the rig, the tougher it is to hold steady. Thankfully, external lights that you attach using a mounting system will make the rig steadier in the water and you will be afforded a less wobbly shot.


 

A good solution to mounting your lights is the Equinox GoPro Tray with Double Handle Combo Pack, or the Beneath The Surface Model #3 GoPro Tray and Flex Arms with YS.





 

If you're only shooting with one light, check out the Beneath the Surface Model #2.


An extremely useful and versatile mount for divers is the GoPro Jaws Flex Clamp. It’s light, for travel, and you can use it on land to clamp to a solid object, in lieu of a tripod. It can also be used to clamp the GoPro to the diver’s equipment or to a larger camera, if you happen to be diving with two cameras, as many of us do these days.


Once you have set up your GoPro for underwater use with a filter, lights, and mount, the remaining problem is holding steady while you shoot. This takes practice and a little know-how. Work on remaining motionless while the camera is rolling. Even a small movement of a fin can bump your shot. Take a buoyancy class or the Underwater GoPro Class that I teach in New York City.

Another tip that will save your time is to plan your shots. Aim at getting a wide, medium and close-up shot of the subject, each shot being ten to twenty seconds long (unless something really compelling is happening). Shooting this way will give you the coverage to tell a more concise story when the time comes to edit. Don’t be the diver who hits the Record button at the beginning of a dive and lets the camera run. No one wants to sit through that kind of footage.

Peter Bucknell is an avid scuba diver, writer, and teacher. He is the author of the Underwater GoPro Book, which is specifically for divers. The book is designed to solve the problems that are evident in so many of the GoPro underwater videos found online.

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Underwater GoPro Group on Facebook for questions and to share your videos.

Nice.  Very nice.  Still hoping (at 77) for a trip to Bonaire one last time