National marine sanctuary offices and visitor centers closed to the public; waters remain open

NOAA's national marine sanctuary offices and visitor centers are closed to the public while the waters remain open for responsible use in accordance with CDC guidance and local regulations. More information on the response from NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries can be found on

  Weather & Sea
  Virtual Tours
  Ocean Etiquette
  Bird Watching
      Fish & Invert ID
  Fishing Recreational
  Whale Watching

U/W Video Techniques for Cold, Dark Water

by Bob Michelson

Successful underwater video in areas of less-than-Caribbean clarity should be approached in much the same manner as still photography. The only major differences between the two are that in photography, one waits for just the right second to take the picture to freeze a particular moment in time.

In video you try to capture an entire sequence of events to tell a story in motion and sound. If you wait for just the right second a mood setting or dramatic scene will be lost.

As in still photography, underwater video in turbid areas requires excellent buoyancy control to avoid churning up a silt, or mud-covered bottom by plopping to the ocean floor.

  Underwater Video Taping

Wear the same amount of weight you might for still photography - possible two or three pounds more than usual. Practice buoyancy control with the video system in a pool or in a shallow estuary before attempting open-water video. You should be able to fin towards a subject while remaining neutrally buoyant and at the same time keep the video camera rock-steady. This prevents the video from looking like a roller coaster ride and yet helps you to get situated in surgy areas to obtain good shots of both marine life and diver alike. And as always, practice makes perfect.

Unlike shooting in areas with 100- to 200-foot visibility, working with an average of 10 to 15 feet means that you cannot always start underwater sequences with a long distance shot of divers hitting the water. Instead, descend on the anchor line first and direct the other divers to stay right next to the line while descending - right to the anchor on the bottom. This becomes your establishing shot at the beginning of your dive and does not require tremendous visibility to acquire.

Because you cannot tape divers 100 feet away to establish where they are and what they are doing, stage shots of divers finning by the camera from right to left and at the end reverse the process. Back home you can edit this just before a shot of a shipwreck, for example, to establish that the diver has moved from the anchor to his/her dive destination. Your diving buddies can be as close as visibility permits, and you can still move your story along as you would by tracking them in clear water.

  Don't forget to tell a story underwater. Get wide-angle shots to establish where you are and what you are doing, and closer shots to focus attention onto a subject. Spend most of your time taking close-up shots of the wreck or marine life you are shooting.

This technique in cold waters tends to focus attention into a much smaller area and will allow pleasing results in telling a story, as if you really could see 200 feet underwater

Get as many angles of each shot as possible in sequence - again, to tell a story. Stop and restart recording between moving to different angles. This will make your video appear to have been shot with more than one camera.

Move in as close as is possible to all subjects, to reduce the amount of suspended particles in the water column. You will see more subject and less sediment-strewn water. You will also be amazed at how most of today's highly light-sensitive video camcorders can "see" further than the human eye while diving. Try to keep what sunlight there is, coming from behind you at all times -otherwise in turbid waters, a video camera will see the sunlight and expose for that instead of your subjects underwater.

Set the video camera "white balance" to the daylight setting for waters up to 30 feet deep. When utilizing video lights or in deeper water, set this switch to the indoor setting.

A magenta or pinkish-colored correction filter placed in front of the video camera lens will help substantially to acquire all-around good color at any given depth in "green" waters without the need of a video light. Keep the white balance on outdoor when using this filter.

When using video lights to highlight or bring out colors of marine life and divers, mount the light so it sits between a 45 and 90-degree angle to the subject. This will prevent having backscatter that would render the lights useless. Using arms and brackets works well for placing the lights at the prescribed angles. The alternative is to have the lights mounted directly next to the camera, looking straight at the subject and illuminating all of the suspended particles between you and your target of interest.

Keep in mind that there is only one sun and we try to mimic this form of natural lighting underwater with artificial light. A miss-placed light will give the video an unnatural look and make the viewer feel uncomfortable when viewing your work.  

There are several digital recording formats available to novice and broadcast professionals alike including Mini-DV, DVCAM, DVC-Pro and HD-TV. There are also many manufacturers of cameras, housings and lighting for underwater video. Chose a level of video production that fits your budget and your needs. Take the time and research what is available and learn about the features that you would like to have in a video system. Purchase the best equipment that you can afford and properly maintain that gear for many years of successful underwater TV production.

Bob Michelson is the president of Photography by Michelson, located in Braintree, Mass. He has been photographing and videotaping underwater images for over 25 years. His video footage has appeared on the Science Channel, History Channel, Discovery Channel and major network affiliates, including ABC, CBS, NBC and CNN.


Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary Web Group
Website Owner: Department of Commerce
Many links leave the National Marine Sanctuary Web Site (often indicated with External Website Image) - please view our Disclaimer for more information
National Marine Sanctuaries |National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration | National Ocean Service | Privacy Policy | User Survey
Contact Us |
Photo Credits for Section Pages