Techniques for shooting underwater video films are presented. These techniques include holding the camera steady, varying the shots taken, anticipating the action and using the so-called ‘magic line’, among others. A variety of short shots is needed to give a professional look to underwater scenes.

While previous lessons gave you drills for camera handling and discussed such topics as focusing and white balance, this lesson focuses on how to shoot like a pro.

Hold The Camera Steady

If I could give only three pieces of advice to underwater videomakers, they would be: Hold the camera steady, hold the camera steady, hold the camera steady! As you learned in previous lessons, the key to a steady camera is buoyancy and body control. Think of yourself as a tripod; your job is to keep the camera motionless for still shots and smooth for moving shots. Minimizing camera movement becomes more important as you reduce picture area. When shooting close-ups with a picture area only a few inches across, one-quarter inch of camera movement will record images that jump all over your TV screen.

Vary Your Shots

A major problem with many underwater videos is that, during playback, all the scenes appear the same. At Stingray City, Grand Cayman, for example, videotaping the stingrays swooping around scuba divers is a very popular pastime. However, many of these videos soon become boring to watch. The videographers shoot 20 minutes of divers and stingrays – almost all from the same distance and camera angle.

To improve your videos – especially at Stingray City – vary your shots. Use long shots to show the overall action. Use medium shots to highlight individual rays and divers. Use close-ups to show ray mouths and diver’s faces. When you change distances, change camera angle. Get just below the surface and shoot downward views. Get on the bottom and shoot upward views. Each time you trigger the record mode, change the distance, camera angle or both.

Professional shooting techniques

Anticipate The Action

The worst thing you can do is simply follow other divers around, hoping they will do something interesting. All this technique guarantees is lots of shots showing divers’ fins and scuba tank bottoms. Listen carefully to the dive briefing and dive plan. Try to reach the destinations before the other divers, so you can videotape their approach and their actions. If they plan to feed a friendly grouper, be there when the feeding happens.

Anticipating action is an art. If you see a stingray approaching a diver from behind, start shooting. You never know how the diver will react if the ray slides down over his/her head. By shooting the ray’s approach, you now have some introductory footage. If the ray turns away, big deal – tape is reusable.

The Magic Line

Imagine an invisible line passing through your subject, such as a horizon line, except that it is much closer. This imaginary line is often called the “magic line.”

Crossing the magic line abruptly can upset the visual continuity of your video. For example, imagine you are videotaping a Japanese machine gun on a sunken wreck. After your first shot, you decide you don’t like the cluttered background. You go to the other side of the gun (cross the magic line) and continue shooting. When the two shots (one from each side of the magic line) are played back on a TV, the direction the machine gun points is abruptly reversed. The viewer will sense that something is wrong when this abrupt cut appears on the TV screen.

Crossing the magic line naturally often requires one or more intermediate shots. For example, assuming you started with the machine gun pointed left to right, move in close to the line and shoot the view from behind the gun. Then, you can cross the line and tape the gun pointing right to left.

In the above example, I used one intermediate shot to cross the line. You could have used a second intermediate shot from behind the gun just after you crossed the line. If you want a moving shot, use the circle-around technique; keep shooting as you cross the line and circle around the gun. If a diver is involved, you can use a brief close-up shot of the diver’s face. This “distraction shot” helps mask the crossing of the magic line.

Exceptions To The Magic Line

You can ignore the magic line in the following situations:

  1. After an introductory map shot – a downward view showing the respective positions of your subjects – you can cross the magic line at will.
  2. If no strong screen direction is shown or implied, you can usually cross the line at will.
  3. When shooting fast cuts to fast action, such as the swooping rays at Stingray City.
  4. When shooting overlapped action, which automatically takes you over the line.

Overlapped Action

An overlap uses two shots to join two different views of the same action. For example, imagine shooting a diver entering an open hatchway on a sunken vessel. When the diver is halfway through the hatch, you stop recording. Then, you go inside the vessel and shoot the diver coming through the hatch. The model must swim through the hatch twice: first, for the outside shot and again for the inside shot. During playback, the viewer sees two interesting views of the same action. In addition, the overlap took you over the magic line.

You don’t need a sunken vessel to shoot overlapped action. Caves and tunnels provide good settings. If you can’t find an entrance or opening for the overlap, you can use camera angle alone. Imagine shooting an over the shoulder shot of a diver offering food to a grouper. As soon as the grouper reaches the food, end the shot. Then abruptly cross the magic line to shoot the second half of the overlap from a different camera angle. Have your model offer the grouper another tidbit. When the grouper reaches the food, start shooting again. The two shots – one immediately after the other – produce an interesting overlap.

The Diver’s View

Whenever you show a diver looking at an object, you can move in for a close-up of what the diver is looking at. The idea is to show the diver’s view. If the diver is swimming toward a subject, you can use the swim-through technique. If the diver looks from one side to the other, you can use a slow pan. If you use the panning view, tell your models to turn their heads slowly.

The Revealing Shot

The revealing shot resolves suspense, such as where an action is happening. If you start with interior shots of a sunken aircraft, for example, the unanswered question is, “Where are we?” Answer the question with an outside wide angle shot to reveal the aircraft.

If you don’t have an aircraft, you could use an eel. Start with a close-up of just the eel’s face. Then, back off for a wide angle shot of the eel’s head protruding from its lair.

Simultaneous Action

The idea is to follow two separate actions that are occurring simultaneously. The technique is to go from one action to the other. For example, the actions of divers underwater and the actions of divers topside who are raiding the group’s lunch. Because you can’t be in two places at once, shoot each action sequence separately and edit them together later.

Cut-Aways And Cut-Ins

A cut-away shot cuts to related parts of the total scene. Suppose you are videotaping a diver looking at an eel. The eel is your main subject; the diver is your secondary subject. A quick cut-away close-up to the diver’s face adds variety. A quick cut-in close-up of the eel’s face shows the diver’s view. Watch commercial television – you will see cut-away and cut-in shots are popular techniques.


Variety is the key. Lots of short shots taken from a variety of distances and camera angles will give your underwater videos a professional look. Avoid long scenes that don’t show strong action.


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