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Waterworld – The Secrets of Bringing Life to Underwater Footage


Have you ever wondered what kinds of tricks you could use to give your imagery that awe-inspiring feeling that you find in underwater footage (like the ones below)? Could it really be just post-production magic? We wanted to find out, and that’s why we asked our contributor Richard Brooks to share some of his secrets with us. See what he has to say in this guest post about his work and how important post-production is (or is not!).

(Guest post by Richard Brooks)

Long before I started filming, I learned to dive in the UK, but it wasn’t until I dived in the Caribbean in clear water that I became enamored with the underwater world and realized the potential for capturing movement within it.

I love curves, you see, all sorts of curves. I’m not much of one for sharp angles and straight lines; practical they may be and good in their place, but very unnatural to me. In the context of underwater filming, I’m talking about the curve of a sinusoidal wave. The locomotive movement is used by so many of the Ocean’s inhabitants to get around. A Dolphin’s tail or a Stingray’s wing, this shape or pattern recurs over and over again, and I love it. I wanted to capture it and to do that, I needed video.

My background had always been stills, however, and most importantly for the subject of this story, film cameras. I’d never used a video camera in my life, however, and truthfully had no idea how to use one. It was only after witnessing some spectacular predator/prey interactions in Thailand and animatedly describing to someone who had a spare housing system on the boat one day that I got my first attempt. (Thank you Thomas). The long and the short of it was that I got a job filming tourists diving and started to learn the ropes.

Some 12 years of underwater filming and photography later and I am in the Republic of Palau working as a Media Producer at Lighting Strike Productions, and have my portfolio at Pond5 covering my last couple of years of filming.

Basically no post-production

I shoot using the 3-chip Sony FX7, which, whilst not the top of the range even when it was new, still manages a great output. But like most camcorders these days, it produces 8-bit data, not a 16-bit RAW file like a RED. This means I have very little latitude in post [production]. Too much tweaking, and it looks overworked. This means I have to find ways to get the best out of the camera whilst on location.

So how do I do this?

Have access to your cameras controls

The camera is kept dry in a Gates housing, a fully mechanical, nicely balanced piece of quality engineering designed specifically for this camera. It allows me full access to all the camera’s functions.

Much of the content I have with Pond 5 has been shot using natural light, a red filter if necessary, and Manual White Balance. I use the manual adjustment and find it absolutely necessary underwater due to the constantly changing spectrum of light. Red light disappears with depth, and changing surface conditions like cloud cover alter the overall color temp. This all means that I readjust the camera before every shot if possible.

Using the sky as my light source keeps things the closest to uniform as I can get. Staying relatively shallow, down to about 20m or 60 feet and having the sun behind me help massively of course.

Colorful Reef and Fish in Blue is a good example. I haven’t used any lights for this. I just manually white-balanced the camera against the sun where I am shooting. Everything is evenly lit. I would need something like 7 or 8 very powerful lights to do this artificially, and with that sort of wattage going on and time taken to set up the shot, the clownfish would have most likely gone blind and swam off to be eaten by one of the snappers in the mid-ground before they too thought better of sticking around and left me with nothing but a much less visually appealing image of a boiled anemone.

Get as close as you can to your subject.

The golden rule in underwater imaging is to “Get closer and then get closer again” and I use a Fathom Imaging lens on the front of the housing to achieve this.

It has something like a 110 degree fov and full zoom through ability. It’s a quality piece of glass engineered specifically for this camera. It allows me to halve the distance between camera and subject and still keep it in the frame. This makes the image substantially clearer, sharper and with better colours. It allows the camera to do its job better and reproduce what is there rather than what it is able to see after the photons have passed through and been scattered by twice as much water and suspended particles.
One example that shows the clarity improvement of a wider lens and the ability to keep an animal in frame as it approaches is Shark Swims At Camera (see below). The shot starts with the zoom at about 20-30% then as the shark hones in I have to open up fully with the shark getting to within about 12 inches of the lens. In slow motion the detail markedly improves the closer the shark gets.
As to how I got it to approach so close is the final and probably most important point.
After all there’s no point in have a super wide lens if your subject is way off in the distance and is appearing to be nothing much more than “unidentifiable”.

Be in control of yourself

Learn to dive well. Be safe and study your subjects. After all we are dealing with wild animals within their natural environment we have to do so in a way that won’t scare them off.

No easy thing when we are so comparatively inept at moving through water.
So the key is to know your quarry and be stealthy. Understand its behavior and operate within its comfort zone by being a good diver with excellent buoyancy control.

An example is the following clip: Manta Ray And Divers. Here I could see the Manta approaching but had to move across its path to shoot it with the divers in the background. Manta Rays are easily spooked. A sudden movement such as a clumsy diver or a large exhalation of exhaust bubbles will have them hightailing it off into the distance. So I kept low, moving slowly across it’s predicted path. I lightly exhaled once it got close enough. The ascending plume of bubbles created a gate post in effect on one side, with the divers on the other side acting as the other post between which I was aiming to direct this animal. It worked, and the result is a very large animal swimming very close towards the camera with divers watching in the background.


Summing up

To answer the title of how I bring life to underwater footage in post: The majority of clips in my portfolio have had nothing done to them. Nothing. It’s only shots where there is a lot of action such as a large number of schooling fish like Large School of Fish Scatter then Swim to Camera have I increased the contrast slightly and it’s only in clips like Barracudas in Clear Blues where I’ve clipped the highlights to mellow down the blue background and reflective parts of the fish.
So, in conclusion, I don’t have a post-processing magic remedy. It really is just about getting it right in camera first and not relying on a computer to sort it out later.

So how do I bring life to underwater footage in post?
It’s already there.