The Art of UW Video
Basics First

by Roger Roth

From time to time, I've heard UW still photographers question the "difficulty" of shooting and editing UW video and attempt to debate how much art is really involved in the video process. Not being a still photographer, I couldn't begin to boast of much knowledge in that art. But being an UW videographer I can attest to a long learning curve to shooting and creating good, pleasing productions that will keep one's attention without showing naked bodies.

Our first attempts at capturing marine life in action underwater always seem to turn out wonderfully, at least in our own eyes. We see the actual movements and behaviors in real time, mirroring our experiences. Reliving dives becomes much easier and going back to the footage years later can still remind us of things we'd forgotten about those dives.

But just how easy is it to shoot underwater video well? As time goes on and we review our earlier footage, we begin to pick out huge discrepancies in what we used to think was a great shot. This is a normal growth curve, even with still photography. What makes the difference?

Underwater video can be quite easy in the beginning, just as shooting a still close-up shot with a framer and the camera set for a specific depth of field. Just point and shoot using auto focus. Capture the ocean in movement. No problem.

For any photographer, knowing what you are shooting is important. If it's a specific species of animal, knowing its behavioral tendencies will help the photographer be able to follow a predictable action and know where to be next. Take for instance, the shy seahorses who always seem to turn their heads away from cameras. If this is known, then an appropriate reaction can be planned like having two photographers try to shoot at once from different angles, thus possibly giving at least one of them a good shot.

If shooting a sponge or coral spawning, or fish courting and mating, recognizing this can allow one to take advantage of a rare occurrence to the fullest. This is also an excellent time to realize that one should concentrate on the shot they have, and not leave to see if there might be something different elsewhere on the reef. Many fish mate numerous times, only minutes apart, so remaining in place may lead to a second and third opportunity!

If your subject is a reef shot that might be compared to the same reef years later, choosing larger and more evident "landmarks" to include in the shot would be important. For videographers, this is an important tool in the study of the evolution of a healthy reef. Seeing divers inspecting different parts of this reef, or seeing them photographing different subjects will add to the composition of wide-angle video.

Don't forget to shoot the trouble some still photographers have in getting ready for their shots. Positioning their lights and arms, waiting for the critter to face them, or even their attempts at being perfectly buoyant at 135' while shooting a pygmy seahorse that's only the size of a couple grains of rice! Having video of a photographer getting his great shot is fun to watch, especially for the photographer you filmed!

Little by little, we will become aware of the need to turn the camera on earlier in an action and leave it running longer through the end of that action. Turning on the camera too late will result in an eel and fish frantically swimming about, but will not portray the original stalking process of the eel. Turning off the camera too early can cause one to miss some exciting behaviors like a mating after a courting dance. If nothing does happen after a certain behavior, we can still edit out the useless footage.

More artistic talent comes in later when reviewing the quality of what we've filmed and when we decide to take this art to the next level. At this point, our goals somewhat merge with still photography when we begin to consider composition of our shots. What critters and movements are key to our shots and which ones will detract from them? In other words, what depths of field will we be using to tell what story?

We then begin considering many more of the same things a still photographer takes into account in their shots. Do we want to show perspective of a large barrel sponge with a diver? Do we want to shoot up towards the sky for a total silhouette shot, or illuminate the front of the sponge for more color? Would the diver holding a light give a more realistic picture? Do we want to capture the diver studying something around the barrel sponge with their light so we can next zoom in to a close-up in order to see a seahorse at the base of the sponge that the diver was looking at?

In considering our storyline and the subsequent editing process, what angles and motion will we need to capture to keep a production flowing smoothly? A smart videographer will attempt to get numerous shots from different angles with critters entering and leaving our viewfinders in various directions. This will give us choices in our editing processes later.

Numerous shots will also serve to give various backgrounds and colors to choose from when editing. Keeping similar colors and backgrounds in a video production is very important to the discerning videographer's eye. It helps tremendously in keeping consistency and a flowing nature in a production.

Panning shots must be done slowly and smoothly. If shooting with auto-focus, a fast pan will cause the camera to "search" for the correct focal point, thus making the shot go in and out of focus until the camera grabs it right. Even if shooting in manual focus, a fast, bouncy pan is useless, and too much of this in a production can cause a very real seasickness to the viewer!

The art of shooting good UW video goes beyond the basics and is definitely multi-faceted, from the water, to the boat, to the edit room. Future articles will cover more of the artistic needs for videographers in more detail. Next month, I'll discuss the art of effective lighting for UW video. Sea Ya!

Critter corner: When photographing turtles, many times if you ignore them, they will approach closer to see why you are ignoring them. The more you ignore them, the closer they will come. And once you do start shooting, they tend to stay longer, as you were not a threat from the beginning.

copyright © Roger Roth, 2002 - 2011

Photo Competition

Roger Roth is a roofer by trade and lives in Cincinnati, Ohio. But his passion is underwater videography and after several decades of learning how to shoot and edit he has evolved into a teacher and a photographic philanthropist. Roger is the founder of the annual international Underwater Images Photo and Video Competition. You may contact Roger at