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Getting Started in Underwater Video

By Steven M. Barsky

Underwater video is one of the most exciting ways to capture the action and excitement that takes place wherever people enjoy diving. Whether you are exploring shipwrecks, coral reefs, or kelp forests, there are numerous subjects to capture and stories to tell. Today's underwater digital video equipment makes it easier than ever for anyone who dives to be an underwater filmmaker.

To enjoy making underwater videos successfully, there are several fundamental things that you will need. These include experience snorkeling or scuba diving, an underwater video "housing," a digital video camera, and a computer with video-editing software. Here's a closer look at how to get started making your own underwater movies.

  • Gain experience snorkeling or scuba diving.

Anyone who snorkels can make underwater videos, but your camera work will be limited to the depth to which you can hold your breath. However, you'll have access to more subjects and your fun will be increased greatly, if you become a certified scuba diver. Like any adventure sport, scuba diving has some risks, but millions of people of all ages enjoy this sport safely each year.

  • What is an Underwater Video Housing?

You will need a waterproof underwater case, known as a "housing," to take your video camera into the water and operate it properly. The housing is designed to keep your camera dry, and provides external controls to allow you to access most camera functions. You should select your camera and housing together, because not every housing manufacturer makes housings for every camera on the market.

The size of your housing will be directly proportional to the size of your camera
The size of your housing will be directly proportional to the size of your camera.

  • Digital Video Camera

Today's choice of video cameras is staggering. If you're buying a new video camera, you'll probably want to select a high-definition video camera that shoots 1080 lines of resolution (see the B&H web site for how users rate their cameras). This type of camera will produce images that look great on today's widescreen televisions. One key issue to check is how the camera responds to low light conditions—this is crucial in many situations underwater.

One of the added benefits of selecting an HDV camera is that many such models also shoot good still images, eliminating the need for a dedicated underwater still camera. With most video-editing software, you can also "grab" frames of very good quality from HDV footage. Many newspapers currently use this method of collecting video and still images simultaneously.

If you already own a video camera, your choice of housings may be more limited. Like camera manufacturers, companies that build underwater housings discontinue building cases for older cameras.

  • Computer and Software for Editing Video

If you already own a computer, you'll need to purchase video-editing software, and you may need some additional hardware. Check the software to make sure your computer model meets the specifications for the software to run properly.

How to Select a Housing

You can find a housing for most cameras on the market, although you will want to evaluate the size of the housing, materials from which it is made, and type of controls carefully. In most situations, a housing made for a specific camera will usually be more compact than a housing that accepts many different cameras. The size of the housing is important, because it directly affects whether you can not only carry the housing on a plane, but also how you can handle the bulk of it when you are trying to swim through the water. Of course, a housing that is made for one particular camera model will usually cost more than a universal housing. Here are some of the features you will want to consider when selecting a housing:

  • What type of material was used to make the housing?
  • Housings are made from a variety of materials, but the most popular are aluminum, fiberglass, and plastic. Aluminum housings tend to be more expensive, but are usually selected for their ruggedness. Fiberglass and plastic housings are generally less expensive.

  • What type of controls does the housing use to operate the camera inside of it?
  • Video housings may have either electronic, magnetic, or manual controls, or some combination of these types. Some divers prefer electronic controls because they allow you to access all of the camera functions from the hand grips. This type of housing also has fewer fittings (penetrators) that go through the wall of the housing. The downside of electronic housings is if the electronics fail, you probably won't be able to use the housing until it is repaired.

    Some divers prefer mechanical controls for their simplicity. Mechanical controls consist of levers or buttons that go through the wall of the housing and physically operate the camera. If you have mechanical aptitude, you can perform most of the maintenance on a mechanical housing by yourself. This is especially important if you will be operating in remote locations for extended periods of time.

  • How does the camera mount in the housing?
  • Virtually every video housing will require your camera to be mounted on some sort of "tray" before the camera is inserted into the housing. The camera is normally mounted with a screw that connects the tray to the camera tripod mount. Most trays require a screwdriver for assembly, but some are easier to assemble than others, and are also easier to install in the housing.

      Almost all video cameras require the use of a "tray" to mount your camera prior to installing it in the housing. For a camera with electronic controls, the tray will usually also provide a connecting point for some, or all, of the electronics

  • What are the buoyancy characteristics of the housing?
  • Large video cameras require even larger underwater housings. When you add high-quality glass wide-angle ports, lights, brackets, and batteries to power the lights, these systems can become somewhat cumbersome to push through the water. With larger housings, the buoyancy and trim of the housing underwater can become critical. On the plus side, larger housings give you a certain amount of stability underwater. You'll want to read the reviews on the B&H website to see how other divers rate the housings you are considering for purchase.

      By the time you add an external monitor, lights, brackets, and a battery pack, your housing can become quite bulky and heavy. As a diver, you must be prepared to adjust your buoyancy to compensate for this equipment.

  • Does the housing have a water alarm?
  • Ideally, your housing should be equipped with a sensitive audio and visual water alarm that will alert you in the event the housing develops a leak. Some manufacturers also offer accessory systems that allow you to pre-check your housing prior to entering the water, to help ensure there are no leaks.

  • What type of optical "ports" are available for the housing?
  • Most manufacturers offer a good variety of optical "ports" to complement the lens on your video camera. While the standard port offered with most housings will cover many shooting situations, you will need a "macro" port if you want to shoot tiny creatures, or a wide-angle port if you want to shoot large objects like wrecks or whales.

  • What type of viewfinder or external monitor is available?
  • Different manufacturers use a variety of methods to allow you to see through the viewfinder and compose your images. Some housings are equipped with a small glass window in the rear that allows you to see the action through the camera.

      An external monitor, like the one on the top of this housing, is essential to ensure good exposures.

    Some companies have designed their housings to include an LCD monitor at the rear of the case so you can see what the camera is recording, or have designed wider housings so that you can use the swing-out monitor on the camera, visible through a separate port. Still other manufacturers offer a combination of a conventional window and an external monitor. An LCD will give you the most accurate picture of what the camera is recording, and it's a worthwhile investment if you are serious about producing quality video.

  • What type of lighting system is available?
  • In order to restore color underwater at depths below 33 feet, or if you are inside a wreck or cave, you will need some type of artificial lighting system to get the best results with your video camera. Most underwater lighting systems today are either HID (High Intensity Discharge) lights or LED (Light Emitting Diode) lights.

      Without lights, colors at depth will be muted. Learning to use your lights properly takes practice.

    HID lights produce very pleasing light and you'll get very long "burn times" from the battery packs that are available. However, compared to LED lights, the bulb life of HID lights may be somewhat shorter, and it takes HID lights a little time to reach full intensity.

    LED lights also provide excellent lighting. The bulbs on LED lights last a long time, although the "burn time" for an LED battery pack is somewhat shorter on a single charge. LED lights also power on instantly and charge quickly.

  • Select a package for the best value!
  • Most underwater housing manufacturers offer packages that include complete systems including housings, lights, monitors, brackets for the lights, and a carrying case. These types of "kit" systems will frequently save you hundreds of dollars, and not compel you to select all of your components individually.

    About the author

    Author and underwater cameraman Steven M. Barsky
      Author and underwater cameraman Steven M. Barsky

    Steven M. Barsky is a professional underwater cameraman and author who shoots both stills and video. Steve works as a consultant for many manufacturers in the diving business. He has produced and shot six 45-minute underwater video programs and is currently editing a video on diving in Chuuk (Truk) Lagoon and Palau. His book, Underwater Digital Video Made Easy, is available from B&H.

    © 2008 Steven M. Barsky. All rights reserved.

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