How not to shoot awful cave diving video
I apologise for the title of this Blog - I really couldn't think of another one!
I guess we are all struggling for a little inspiration during these Covid times. But what better opportunity to improve your cave videography - from the comfort of your own computer?
I've learned a lot over the years, mostly self taught about cave diving videography and learned many tough lessons. Some 'works of art' despite having great interviews and storylines, have been expelled to the annals of my hard drive, never to see the light of the internet - ever.
I thought I'd spare you my painful learning curve and simply offer up what I consider to be the most important pieces of advice I can think of, to help you on your way.
So without further a do, welcome to my latest article which is primarily aimed at British cave divers and UK sumps, but can easily be applied anywhere in the world.
Cave photography and videography is notoriously
difficult to get right.
Producing a watchable, enjoyable and informative piece of media whether that be a documentary, work of fiction or a simple Audio-Visual (AV) is challenging in a dry cave environment, never mind underwater in a cave.
The internet is flooded with shaky, go-pro ‘Blair Witch’ style cave diving footage, often set to a rendition of Heavy Metal and without any rhyme or reason.
Often it is a case of “Hey, I went cave diving and I survived - even better, I filmed it! All of it!”
We’ve all been through this phase (Ok, perhaps not the Metallica part).
This article is intended for those who want to take it further and create cave diving media which won’t have viewers reaching for the red button within 4 seconds (which, by the way is the amount of time it takes a typical internet viewer to decide whether to watch - or switch off). Common mistakes You know what it’s like when someone scratches their nails down a blackboard? That’s the same feeling I get when I watch most cave diving videos. Ok, mine are not perfect but they are a massive improvement on go-pro-on-helmet-with-helmet-lights-on. I mean, seriously.
I once conducted a visibility experiment in Porth Yr Ogof using a Secci disk, tape measure and a combination of helmet mounted lights and hand-held dive torches. We found, consistently with all other factors being equal, that each of the 3 divers gained 5 metres more visibility with hand-held torches alone than with helmet lights switched on.
If you must put a camera on your helmet, turn your helmet lights off and hand carry a video light. A couple of years ago I ran a 30-minute session with a bunch of non-videographer divers in Scapa Flow, as the hour-long, dark and unwatchable footage they were handing over to me on their SD cards was unusable for our charity media. Something had to change.
After a 30 minute ‘How to’ and ‘What not to do’ lecture, the footage I was receiving was not only night and day, but publishable. Much of it ended up on the BBC. Education clearly meant improvement.
Much improved video footage from Scapa Flow.
So, with that in mind, here are some do’s and don’ts ‘top tips’ to start you off with.
Why? What is the purpose to your video? Who is the intended audience? What is it about? What story are you trying to tell? What platform will it be on? Are you simply wanting to show a nice cave you went to for the benefit of your Facebook friends or family? Or are you intending to put it up on YouTube and Vimeo for the world to see? Is it to promote your expedition or your business or to promote a product? Is it for a competition at Hidden Earth National Caving Conference or is it a selection of shots to incorporate into someone else’s documentary? The intended output should define how you start planning your video shoot. You will need to give consideration at the very beginning to the following: - Length of film. Check social media platforms for optimum lengths. For example, Instagram has a maximum of 60 seconds on your feed but the most popular are around 26 seconds. Longer than a minute and you are looking at IGTV. - Aspect ratio. Make sure all cameras involved in your shoot are set to the desired aspect ratio. Most online video is 16:9 these days. If you are making a Facebook banner video, make sure you look up the odd pre-sets first and plumb them into your video editing software. - Shot list. Have this written down and planned out beforehand. You and your team
Cameras are the most dangerous pieces of diving equipment you can own. They suck up a phenomenal amount of your capacity both before and during the dive, leaving you exposed to gross errors and omissions in your regular dive planning and during the dive itself.
It is concerning that divers with limited amounts of cave diving experience and minimal capacity are taking cameras on cave dives.
This may explain the penchant for putting the camera on helmets and leaving them running.
This is a safer option for the diver, but unfortunately does not deliver good results.
As a videographer, you should be ‘dived up’ with plenty of recent dives under your harness and ideally at the intended site for your shoot. You will need excellent buoyancy and trim. Without these, you will run into problems with visibility, increased gas consumption and greater exposure to emergencies such as lost line.
The diving should very much be second nature. Habits such as cheating on your lungs for buoyancy and using your hands to turn, stay off the floor, manage buoyancy or reverse, should be eradicated. There is nothing like holding a camera tray steady with both hands to expose problems with your finer underwater skills!
Your feet and fins become your accelerator, brakes, steering wheel and reverse gear. For high quality shots, your hands need to be holding and operating the camera while your back end does all the manoeuvring. In the event of an emergency, you should be able to manage it quietly and calmly without letting the extra equipment trouble you. Equipment First off, don’t even think about going on a shoot with diving gear that is new to you. Use the gear you are 100% familiar with. Give consideration to gas. Rather than going from A to B with the usual 3rds, you will be taking longer to set up the shot, get the camera settings right and staying in the same spot for longer. If you can take more gas, do. Stages are perfect for this. Wrap up warm. Both you and your team will get colder than usual.
Cameras are often down to personal preference and budget.
For me, investing money in decent lighting for cave diving videography is more critical than the amount you spend on a camera.
Throwing money at cameras will not make you a better diver and will not light the cave up more.
The latter two are the most critical elements in ‘getting the shot’. Size is important depending on where you are shooting. I have no issues taking a mammoth DSLR set up into Wookey Hole or even Dip Sump with a team of sherpas, but I would not be keen on taking it down Swildons Hole. There is a natural trade-off here too. A DSLR would not make Swildons sumps look much better than a go pro.
The latest Paralenz™ comes with an LCD screen so that you can see what you are shooting, and this is important when you are framing video shots. Likewise, if you are a fan of Go Pro, anything from a Hero 5 onwards and its housing is fine if you have a back live view screen. Beware that these screens eat into your available battery time. This is further decreased in cold water.
Expect to spend upwards of £300 on a new action camera. If you are new to videography, second hand is fine as it won’t hurt so much of you break or flood it.
But you really do need one of these...
You will need a tray.
Secondhand options are out there but a new standard camera tray should cost in the region of £100. It should be fairly heavy and solid with hand grips and ball attachments at each end.
Too light weight and flimsy and you’ll get camera shake, especially with lightweight cameras.
Don’t go too narrow or you’ll have to buy another one when you upgrade to a bigger camera housing! You will need 2 arms and 4 clamps as a minimum. These are pricey. Look for secondhand set ups and create an alert on eBay.
Lighting This is where you need to spend your money.
I’m a fan of Light and Motion Dive Sola Pro 3800 video lights.
They are small, lightweight but they do not like being knocked around. Keep them in bubble wrap in a daren drum for transportation through dry cave.
Big Blue wide beam video lights are also excellent, but much heavier than the Light and Motions and a little more robust. Expect to spend around £1200 on front lighting to begin with, if you want to make a big difference to your videos. Don’t forget, you’ll need powerful back lights as well for shots with more depth.
Choreography and planning Make sure you are 100% comfortable with your camera before you get into the water and you know the settings inside out. ‘Winging it’ will only result in a film with gaps which you wish you had filled and disappointment that you didn’t get the shots you hoped for.
Getting the ‘money shot’ requires planning and choreography. Write a check list and make sure your team have a copy of it too. I strongly recommend spending a day of your time with the team acting out how you are going to take the shot, where you want them, what you want them to do, where to look, where to place off board video lights etc. If you try this communication just before the dive in the sump pool or even underwater, it will only end in disappointment and frustration. Get it right on the surface first where you can talk to each other, make and correct mistakes and go through the shoot in detail.
Your check list should include all diving gear for each diver (nothing like someone forgetting their hood or a malfunctioning regulator to spoil the day) and a list of all your videography equipment.
Is it all charged and working?
Did you put the SD card in the camera? Techniques Your videography will only be as good as the subject.
Make sure there is nothing distracting about them, that they are tidy with no dangling belts or loopy hoses.
They should be sufficiently familiar with the cave that they can operate comfortably when blinded by the video lights, end up momentarily in complete darkness and can stay still for long periods of time without sinking, disappearing into the ceiling, creeping towards you or trashing the visibility.
Brightly coloured yellow or green lead weights look awful on video, likewise brightly coloured fins. Use black or grey lead if you can. Red suits tend to look best in video; blue can also look good. Completely black is hard to contrast but can still look good with plenty of lighting. Avoid anything luminous or garish.
The easiest, beginner shots to take are the ‘bum shots’. They are bum shots in every sense of the word as all you see is the divers behind while they swim along the passage in front of you. They are dull and it’s a bit like being stuck behind the same car for 20 miles. At some point, you want a change of scenery.
Mark Burkey's bum. The next step up is to get in front of the subject, turn around and shoot them diving towards you. If you are confident enough, getting up into the roof and shooting down as they swim under you can be quite atmospheric. At this point, they are your line reference. If there is just two of you, you can import a tripod with video lights mounted on it for backlighting. This means quite a lot of back and forth and patience to preserve the visibility. Place the tripod and lights on the line, get the diver to swim towards you and the camera along the line and adjust your position to keep the video lights hidden by the diver.
Swimming ahead and turning to get a head on/side on shot.
If there are 3 of you, you have more dynamic options but the divers do need to be very solid and capable of being completely still in the water. You now have 3 moving parts to line up. The last thing you want is your lighting person photobombing the shot each time they breathe in! Beware of helmet mounted lights. You will need yours on a low setting and tilted downwards to see the camera controls. Once rolling, turn it off and just use the video lights on your rig. Your subject will look odd without a light on. Low power settings on caving lights or dive torches can cause strobing effects in the output so test this with your camera first.
By far the laziest form of underwater videography is strapping a camera and lights to your scooter and going for a ride.
Beware of the all boring bum shots and use your turbo boost on the trigger to run ahead of your subjects and film them oncoming towards you, above you and beneath you.
There are lots of scooter camera mounts out there but I prefer the Suex all purpose support for action cam.
Do some dry test shots first with the camera mounted. We don't want to see your nose cone...
Post processing You’ve taken days maybe even months and a lot of effort and money into getting some great shots. Don’t spoil it by using cheap or even free editing software. Invest in something decent that will do your hard work justice.
Personally I love Adobe Premiere Pro and you can get some really good pay monthly package deals from Adobe, which can also include Lightroom and Illustrator which may come in handy if you want to import logos. Most good editing software comes with free tutorials and there are plenty on YouTube to learn your programme. Be organised and put your files into folders to make searching for them easier. You’ll need one for audio, one for topside shots, one for underwater etc. Audio can make or break your film. I learned this lesson very early on when a film I made had such poor audio it ruined the whole thing. I had not paid attention to background noise, not invested in a decent microphone and not planned properly. For a simple AV you’ll want some music. Whilst heavy metal may be to your taste, it likely isn’t to most folk watching. Also, remember anything you want to produce you must have a license for. This will almost certainly preclude you from mainstream music unless you want to have your film covered in adverts and warnings or even muted on YouTube - or pulled completely by Facebook. There are plenty of licensing websites such as Envato, Audio Jungle etc. Choose ‘wallpaper’ music that the majority of viewers can tolerate. You can get decent tracks for about £15. Much better than being sued for copyright infringement. “Kill your darlings” Sometimes you get that amazing shot - it looks great - but it has no place in your story. Resist the temptation to put shots into your film that have no meaning, just because they look good. Keep them aside and save them for something else, or just put them in another AV along with all your other random ‘darlings’. Here, JP Bresser demonstrates how to combine those 'darlings' into a superb AV.
Underground 2017 by JP Bresser
Output You should have a good idea of what sort of output you want from the initial set up and intended output. Go for the highest quality render you can, H264 or export as YouTube 2160p 4K if you are shooting in 4K. Export several versions of several different types for different platforms. I usually do at least one of MP4, H264 and MOV.
Some final thoughts Make no mistake, underwater cave videography is extremely difficult to get even mediocre results. You will be learning all the time, making mistakes all the time and each time you finish a film you will never be happy with it!
Always aim for genuine output, by following these rules:
Don't ever film one cave and claim it is another (unless it is fiction/sci fi)
Don't ever call it 'exploration' unless it actually is (note: fiction)
Don't ever produce anything without the permission of those in the footage and consider the landowners.
Always credit your divers, music and helpers.
You need a passion for both the caves and the whole process around videography and editing. You need capable, patient cave diving friends who want to see the end results as much as you do. The results can be extremely rewarding and definitely something to be proud of. Make sure you have a beer budget to thank them with. For inspiration, head over to the channel of someone who I consider to be one of the best cave videographers in the world. Look closely at how the shots are set up, the length of the shots and where the lighting is.
Underground 2015 - by JP Bresser
I hope this article has been of some help and you are better prepared for giving it a go. You might never look at a cave diving film the same way again!
Enjoy my latest effort in the Yucatan, Mexico.
Christine Grosart is an amateur photographer and videographer.