The Art of Underwater Video

by Roger Roth

Since video captures movement, this is where videographers can surpass some still photography limitations. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a good video shot could be worth millions! But this video story still needs to be told in a creative and planned way.

Swimming towards a subject must be quite controlled, and is more pleasing than using a zoom. Making a faster swim will make the shot more usable and pleasant by not leaving the viewer waiting and waiting to get there. Obviously, if the swim takes too long, editing into shorter sections with the subject in the same place on the viewfinder will also accomplish this.

Sometimes combining a swim with a slow zoom can quicken this type of shot making it seem to be in real time. A great time to do this might be when swimming towards an overhang. This will allow for the combination of a Long Shot (LS), Medium Shot (MS), and finally a Close-up Shot (CU) all in the same sequence and also keeps the time of the shot short for editing and viewing purposes. Concentration on holding the camera still, is imperative. Jiggly shots are pretty much worthless as they can make a viewer seasick just watching them. This is where a relatively larger housing can be advantageous, lending more stability in the water.

When shooting, the subject needs to be near the center of our viewfinder, and if it's swimming, a little extra room should be kept in front of the nose of the swimming animal. This technique gives the subject room to move on the TV screen when used in a production. Care should be taken to not cut off any part of the animal, like a tail or dorsal fin. The loss of much of the subject may result in a cut in the editing process.

At the end of this shot, allowing the swimming subject to swim out of the picture will allow another creature to enter the picture in the next shot from the direction the last one exited. This lends to a flowing consistency in a production, and the subjects are the motion in the shots.

When the subjects are sessile objects from wide-angle reef shots to a single elephant ear sponge, our own motion can create the necessary movement to keep the video flowing. For wide angle, we must remember that panning too fast will ruin a shot, but yet panning too slow will make for boring footage. A simple swim around a sponge or coral head, maybe with a diver entering the picture at the end, will not only keep the movement going, but also lend perspective.

Subjects that do move, but don't move often, can be somewhat prodded into their acts. Steadily approaching a featherduster worm will usually eventually result in its withdrawal into its tube. The same may be true of a skittish hermit crab, a tube blenny or hovering jawfish.

Other creatures that might react similarly would include a flounder buried in the sand, a scorpionfish, or a hawkfish posing in some coral. Sometimes when critters do move quickly, these can be great shots to allow the subjects to leave the picture, so we hold our cameras still and capture a shot of where they were…but just for an extra second, or so.

Using currents and surges for motion shots can be quite illustrative in themselves. For example, flowing fields of gorgonians in a current, or the back and forth swings of kelpfish in a surge will both give a viewer the feel of being there. Relative amounts of current and/or surge will also be quite evident and tell their own story.

Now that we've talked about our subjects moving and our own moving around our subjects, it's time to consider other "moving" things that still photographers cannot capture. These include the camouflage acts that marine creatures portray for their protection and also their respective individual behaviors.

Color changes of an octopus, squid, or cuttlefish are breathtaking to watch! (This can also aid in holding one's breath to hold the camera still .) The drab to bright displays on the fins of a scorpionfish as they begin swimming, or vice versa when they land is another example. Again, the same would be true of the flounder, hogfish, and many types of groupers that all change their body patterns at will.

Other camouflage acts can be just as intriguing. Consider the way a flounder, stingray, or devil scorpionfish can bury themselves in the sand. Think about how a trumpetfish or harlequin ghost pipefish drifts into a gorgonian and poses. Schools of silversides glisten and flow in their ever-changing fireworks clouds while a posse of barracuda can circle a diver in a whirlwind of a vortex.

Courting behaviors are sometimes more obscure and unrecognizable to an untrained eye. Seeing domino damselfish or golden anthias dance up and down in the water column to attract a mate is a worthy behavior to shoot, as are some types of surgeonfish that swim circles around their wanted. A hamlet or pair of orangespine unicornfish shivering and trembling to each other is a sure sign of love, and can become a highlight shot!

Hunting and feeding behaviors can many times lend their own climax to each scene. The sight of an eel stalking its prey or a grouper hunting at night tells a story in itself, and imagine seeing the final capture! But then, what about when the eel swallows its prey whole and you watch the lump move through its body?

Knowing what to shoot and how to shoot it to include motion is the art of video that can take things a step further than still photography. We have the ability to document Nature in its purest sense in a dimension above still photography. That dimension is time. Since we're using a moving environment why not strive to capture that movement in all of its reality? Sea Ya!

Critter corner: The camouflage acts of the mimic octopus will not only give color changes, but also shape changes to effectively imitate numerous other marine creatures' shapes. Next month: Tricks and Props.

copyright © Roger Roth, 2002 - 2011

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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