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Underwater Videography - Enabling Your Creativity

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Similans Experience on Pro Underwater Videography Course

Towards the end of my training as an underwater cinematographer, I had the opportunity to work on a livaboard in the Similan Islands. Combining my passion for diving and new found love for videography was a dream come true. I was about four weeks into my training with The Film Company on Koh Tao when I heard there was a possibility of work experience in the Similans. I was nervous at first, only having had a little work experience filming open water courses and having not yet completed my training, I was in for challenge. I was equally excited to do some incredible diving.

As the course neared it's end, I was confident with my training and Sharky and Rosie felt I was ready for the challenge due to both my previous dive experience andhow they felt I had progressed through the course. Throughout the course I learned everything from how to dive and perfect my buoyancy, how to take great technical shots to editing using Final Cut Pro. I spent about 6 weeks training with one on one tutoring. Doing over 30 dives I learned different filming techniques underwater like how to use sunlight and different camera angles to my advantage. I learned how to relax and control my breathing to create nice steady shots. Staying relaxed helped me to interact better with the wildlife and get closer to fish. Not only did I learn how to film and take great underwater shots but I learned about all the different kinds of equipment and proper maintenance on camera housings to prevent any problems or how to fix any problems if they were to occur. I also learned everything about pre-production and all the preparation that goes into creating films.

On the livaboard, my job was to combine my newly learned skills of filming and editing to make movies for divers on the livaboard. I had a fellow videographer to show me the ropes which was helpful because I had no idea how things worked on the boat. I got tips on where to set up my equipment to stay out of the way and how to manage my time when it came to editing. I also learned what time of day and which dive sites were the best to film at. Knowing how things worked on the boat made it easier for me when I was on my own. Having Sharky and Rosie only a phone call away incase I ran into any problems made it less worrying as well. After the first trip it was time to be on my own. After all the hard work and preparation I was ready to find my own style in my movie making and to gain valuable work experience.

Living on a boat for three weeks sounded like a long time at first, but by the end I wish I had more time. After talking to people who worked on the boat and experiencing that kind of lifestyle, I could see how one could spend a whole season there. Just being cut off from the rest of the world, waking up everyday anchored next to a remote island, getting to see amazing reefs and fish, every day was new and exciting.

Accommodations weren't much, but you don't need much when every day consists of eating, sleeping and diving. I got fed three meals a day and had to sleep on the sun deck which was no problem, unless it started raining, then you knew it was going to be a rough night. I was there just as the rainy season was starting so there were many nights where you would have to bury yourself in your sleeping bag and brave the weather. Not having a studio or room to work in was probably the hardest part for me as a videographer. I made a little workspace for myself in the dining area where I could set up my laptop and equipment. Time management was essential. With a limited workspace, finding good times to edit were key to finishing my work in time to show it on the last night of the trip. It could get distracting when you were trying to edit and people would look over your shoulder to see what you were doing, but it was also cool to show them if they were interested so when it came to show the movie they would be more likely to buy one.


Every day consisted of 4 dives. One in the morning, two in the afternoon, and one at sunset. Most dives averaged around 25 meters so sometimes if it was overcast it made it hard to film because it was so dark, especially for the morning and sunset dives. In that case I found that skipping a dive and using that time to edit was useful. The Similans can be a challenging place to dive. Being so deep and kicking against currents, it was important to keep an eye on your air. A lot of the dive sites have strong currents which made it hard to keep the camera steady. With my previous dive experience I knew that staying low and close to walls to hide from the current would help. After the first trip I began to familiarize myself with the dive sites and how to navigate through the currents. It was helpful to know what you could film at each dive site. Places like Anita's Reef and West of Eden are home to beautiful reefs with a variety of marine life, where other places like North Point and Elephant Head Rock are known for its huge boulders and cool swim throughs.

As part of the livaboard trip, not only did I get to go to the Similan Islands, but I also had the privilege of diving at Koh Bon and Richelieu Rock. Located just north of the Similans is Koh Bon Island. About 25 meters underwater is Koh Bon Ridge which is best known for its manta rays. The ridge is a popular cleaning station where giant manta rays come to get cleaned and to feed on plankton. There's nothing like seeing a giant manta ray for the first time. The sheer size alone is enough to take your breath away. You never expect to look up and see a creature six meters wide gracefully hovering toward you out of the blue water. Sometimes we would see two or three at a time which was a rush. Filming the mantas was challenging. It was important to remember to stay calm because if you let your excitement take over it could ruin your shot. I learned to never chase the mantas because they get frightened easily. So if you just stay in one spot, they become curious and slowly circle around you getting closer and closer.

Even further north is Richelieu Rock. Known for the some of the best diving in the world, what looks like a small rock jutting out of the water seemingly in the middle of nowhere is home to one of healthiest reefs I have ever seen. Teeming with life, the ground is covered in a field of anenomes and purple corals. Huge schools of barracuda and trevallies hunting other schools of fish make for awesome shots. I got to film things that I have never seen before like the exotic pineapple fish or the tiny harlequin shrimp.

All this life made me think about how all the dive sites would have looked 20 years ago before all the tourism and fishing boats. At night it was heartbreaking to see all the fishing boats so close to one of the best dive sites in the world. Overfishing is a big problem in Thailand and it is getting worse around the world. Being a huge fan of sharks, its disappointing to hear about things like shark finning. Now your lucky to see a shark a couple times a season at dive sites where shark sightings used to be common. And to hear that manta ray finning is becoming more common is unsettling, especially after witnessing the beauty of such a graceful animal first hand. As a videographer, I think that its important to bring an awareness to people of whats going on. Some people will never get the chance to see the underwater world so being able to capture it on video to show them is part of why I love this job.

My overall experience working on a livaboard was incredible.Theres nothing better than making a living doing something you love, and being able to sell some of my movies was a big confidence boost and it felt good that I was able to create a memory for people to show to their family and friends. Not only did I get to do some of the best diving of my life and see amazing things underwater, I also got to meet people from all around the world and I gained valuable experience as a videographer and as a diver.


My thanks to Eden Divers and Tony Lowe


Skills management for underwater video - shot preparation

One of the skills required of an Underwater Videographer is the mastery of task loading and skills management. Whilst the range of considerations and specific tasks you will have to perform are vary dependent on the type diving and camera equipment you use the fundamental principles of practice prior to putting the camera into position and shooting can be distilled to 5 key stages in the preparation;

1, THINK about what your shooting and what path you will take whilst recording, perform your safety checks, visualise your composition.

2, POSITION, always think about where the light source is coming from, ensure that you are in a stable and neutrally buoyant position well clear of the marine environment.

3, remember to control and use your BREATH to assist you in taking the shot, for example if you're taking a panning shot breathe out as your body moves through the movement in order to get a smooth shot.

4,COMPOSITION is very important, visualise the framing of your shot, ensure the elements will work in harmony with your intentions and anticipate, after all we are dealing with wildlife if their natural environment.

5, FINALLY  bring your rig up ready to take your shot.

As I prefaced before this list is not the final word but it's a useful list, run through all of these points in your head before then taking the shot and life as an underwater videographer will become a lot easier.

Of course there are many other things to keep in mind while taking a shot. When shooting underwater and most important is respecting and protecting the natural inhabitants and environment. One of the roles of a videographer is as an underwater ambassador;  it is important to show the these natural environments on camera, this helps the viewer feel  a part of what they are watching,  and brings  them understanding of things that they may never have experienced. For example shots of  feeding, cleaning stations, mating, mimicking, fish fighting are always great behaviors to shoot to show the underwater world in it's true glory.

But remember just because one way worked for someone else it may not be how you want to present your images and you may take an entirely different view point. You should always try and nurture your own creative approach to film. One way to develop  your own style is to consider your use of different camera angles and shot types.  You have on offer  a entire language where each word depends on the words around for its meaning,  so you can evoke different feelings and reactions by its use. Using the basic grammar of this language the shot, the close medium and wide you can experiment with your use of this language. Cousteau didn't become the worlds pre-eminent underwater explorer by following the rule book, rules are made to be broken, sometimes you will get it completely wrong but when you get it right, it will stand out from the rest.

In summary before taking a shot think about what you need to do, how you want to tell the story and what emotion you are trying to create. Returning to the basics regularly makes you readdress how you look at scenes, shots, post and your creativity as a filmmaker,  it continually helps me to consider the way I film and how to look at things anew.


Proper preparation is the key to success. When you are making a video, the more planning ahead you do the better. As a videographer, one of the most important tools for preparation and planning ahead is storyboarding. A storyboard is a graphic organiser displayed in sequence for the purpose of pre-visualizing. Kind of like a large comic strip, a storyboard is a visual layout of events as they are meant to be seen through the camera lens. They let you know what camera angles to shoot and whether to take a close up or wide angle shot. As well as knowing what type of shots you need, storyboards can also depict camera movement, like panning or zooming.

One of the advantages of seeing what your project looks like is that you can make any adjustments before you film anything. Then when you go back to the studio you won't have to waste any time searching through hours of footage because you've shot exactly what you needed. Being able to figure out exactly what you'll be doing during a shoot will save time, labor, and a whole lot of stress when it comes to editing.

Storyboards have other advantages as well. If your working with a team having a good storyboard will show the crew exactly what you have in mind. Its easier to get your point across with a visual aid rather than try to explain everything with confusing descriptions or hand gestures. Storyboards can also be useful if you are trying to pitch your idea to investors. To prove that your right for the job, not only will a storyboard show them what your finished project will look like, it will show professionalism and that you are prepared.

When it comes to underwater videography, sometimes I need to improvise. With the underwater world being highly unpredictable, it can become tricky to create a storyboard. You can only plan things to a certain extent, so when I am going to film underwater I have a mental note of what I want to shoot. I try and use things like wide angle shots of the reef to establish a setting, letting the viewer know where the scene is taking place. Then I can get middle and close up shots of fish to use as insert shots between scenes. Varying the type of shots you take will make the movie more interesting and appealing to the viewer. Some things will always be there, like the silhouette of the boat or the divers. But with the other things, I never know what I am going to see or film. Everyday is different with currents and visibility constantly changing. The fish I filmed the day before isn't going to be in the same spot or doing the same thing. One day I could look up and see a whale shark. Thats the exciting part about this job, everyday is something new.

Preparing to film with the fish - Jeani Oosthuyzen

The life of an underwater videographer is an unpredictable and challenging one as we attempt to capture what are essentially undirected, spontaneous moments. Specifically, the task of filming an Open-Water course as an underwater filmmaker on Koh Tao is filled with many variables and unforeseen challenges.

For any videographer or documentarian, being organized, on time, well prepared and fresh for your day is not all you can do to limit the number of difficulties you encounter but its a massive start.  Have no doubt something will go wrong at some point, it's like an unspoken law of the universe, there will be curve balls. But by taking control of the things that are within our control, and making peace and understanding the things we cannot control, we can avoid unnecessary problems and risks, and more often than not hit that curved ball right out of the park.

As a victim of my own personal chaos I write this with first hand experience of how as a videographer rushed equipment maintenance/assembly, poor time keeping and miscommunication can ruin that perfect shot, destroy a days work, or worse lead to costly damage to your equipment. So, in the truest sense of "learning from your mistakes" I have put together my formula to battle through my personal challenges of working in a paradise where the only constant is change, in the hopes that it informs your practice. Whether on land or underwater the principles I adhere to will change little, the context in which they may be applied will.

Always be ahead of schedule, this will not only allows you enough time to do proper equipment checks and ensure you have all the gear you need but that additional spare time you allowed can be your saviour when you encounter a flat tire, oversleep, misplace your keys or any other variable of the kinds of thing I am likely to do!!!. (In faster paced world than the one I currently inhabit, this might mean your train, is late, your stuck in traffic, the heel of your shoe broke) Planning your day and visualising what your needs and time constraints will be, can only help to ensure that you allow more time than you need.

Check your equipment thoroughly, then check it again. Have you planned for the shots that you need have you made contingency plans, do you have enough spare batteries and tapes/memory cards, chargers. In other words do you have the right equipment for the right job and have you ensured that it is all ready to be used at a moments notice? A dirty lens at the moment you want to capture a whale breaching out of the water is not good news!

Specific to underwater videography is the need to check that all your seals and o-rings are clean and flush, even the smallest breach can spell disaster for your shoot and your pocket, systematic checks should be built into your dive plan.

Learning  to roll with the punches is another key skill to master, on any shoot things are gonna change. When filming open waters the weather, logistics, power cuts, course size, instructor all change at a moments notice. The ability to stay level headed and more importantly to remain creative when things don't go quite to plan is the most important tool we have.

Know your limits. This is so important when diving, and with any other shoot. When diving with your camera and an undefined amount of ever changing and unpredictable students as your subject, we as underwater videographers need to be constantly aware of our surroundings depth, buoyancy control and light are just a few of the considerations we need to make not once, but a hundred times during each dive, not only to capture the best shot possible but to avoid the dangers of decompression sickness. Health and safety should always be paramount on any videography shoot.

Make sure you have a plan, and with that be flexible. By story-boarding our days or event, knowing your dives sites/location and the "creatures" that inhabit them we can begin to form our movies while still sunning on the boat. But as turtles move and tides change we often need to realize that both planning and the ability to "wing it" are equally important as we need to be ready for anything.

And lastly communicate, many people may assume being an underwater videographer is a rather solitary job as we dive, then edit with nothing but our own thoughts and music, it actually takes a team to get the job done, so ask for help when you need it!

Having learnt all these skills and so much more during my underwater film makers course with The Film Co, there are certain things in life that can only be absorbed through experience. No hand book could have prepared me for the months past while working on Koh Tao, these stressful, challenging, beautiful and breathtaking moments which ultimately have taught me what maybe the most important lesson of all is; who i am, what I'm capable of and of course, that you can't stop the rain, but you can pack an umbrella!


"Action and reaction, ebb and flow, trial and error, change - this is the rhythm of living. Out of our over-confidence, fear; out of our fear, clearer vision, fresh hope. And out of hope, progress."

Bruce Barton


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