Opportunities for shooting shipwrecks and other sunken, man-made objects are increasing for two reasons: More underwater videographers are traveling to locations that feature wrecks and more wrecks are being created. Ships, aircraft, surplus army tanks and large vehicles are becoming artificial reefs.
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EXTERIORS VS. INTERIORS
A large wreck offers two totally different dive sites: the exterior and the interior. If you decide to shoot only exteriors, the bow, midships and stern sections can often be treated as separate (but related) sites. A wreck exterior and the marine life that may live on and around it, often provide enough subject matter for an interesting video.
Wreck interiors are often dark, interesting and mysterious places. Aircraft and vehicles deep in cargo holds. dark engine rooms and submerged machine shops can provide exciting footage. Dishes and other small artifacts provide a glimpse into the lives of the crew. Even if the wreck’s interior is your main interest, shoot some exterior shots to introduce your viewers to the wreck.
HAVE A BASIC PLAN
Elaborate plans usually lead to confusion underwater; therefore, formulate and stick to a simple plan. For example, you can choose from the following list of suggested goals:
- Establish the location
- Show major features
- Take them on a tour
- Show marine life
- Show artifacts
- Interior shots
Each goal will require several shots. Keep in mind, however, that you can’t always shoot in a desirable sequence. Even if you do, you may repeat some shots for a better take. Expect to do some basic editing later.
ESTABLISH THE LOCATION
Your viewers will want to know where they are and what they are seeing. Is the subject a sunken ship, aircraft or is it a surplus army tank that has become part of an artificial reef? Establish the underwater location and subject with wide-angle shots that introduce your viewers to the wreck.
The basic technique is to start with wide view establishing shots before moving closer. However, you can start with close-ups and then move to a side revealing shot to establish the location. Establish quickly, however, so viewers can relax and enjoy the closer shots.
Downward camera angles provide a map-like zoom view. Start shooting early and let the wreck loom larger and larger in the viewfinder as you descend, The key to a good downward angle shot is contrast, such as dark wreckage against a sandy bottom. Without contrast, the image on a TV screen will be flat.
Level camera angles can be effective if the wreckage doesn’t merge into a cluttered background. Look for camera angles that feature an identifiable part of the wreck, such as a bow-on view. To eliminate mergers, silhouette the subject against a midwater background.
Upward camera angles are great for introductory shots of divers heading down to the wreck, as transition shots showing divers swimming from one area of the wreck to another and for ending shots showing divers swimming to the surface. Be careful, however, not to aim your camcorder so it records both a bright ball of overhead sun and a dark shadow area. If so, the sun will overexpose and appear as a bright orange patch in the image.
Don’t think of colors and fine details when you shoot upward, downward or level wide angle introductory shots. You Should concentrate on capturing moods, pleasing shapes and contrast.
SHOW THE MAJOR FEATURES
Most wrecks will have one or more major feature viewers can identify, for example, the wheelhouse of a sunken tugboat or the propeller of a larger vessel. With large wrecks, such as the Fujikawa Maru in Truk Lagoon, the bow gun is one of the large features most commonly videotaped and photographed.
The key idea is to concentrate on the most photogenic features of the wreck. If, for example, it lacks the forms and shapes for good wide angle shots but is covered with corals and fish, concentrate on those. If the wreck has a photogenic wheelhouse and superstructure but is devoid of marine life, concentrate on wide angle shots.
TAKE THEM ON A TOUR
Use touring scenes to give your viewers a closer look at specific artifacts, corals or fish. One touring technique is to videotape a diver exploring. Shoot the diver entering an area. If the diver stops to examine something, move in and shoot the diver’s view – over the shoulder shots are especially effective. You can also show the diver’s view by slow panning or shooting as you glide over the wreck. To take your viewer to a new part of the wreck, first show the diver swimming out of the frame, then show him/her swimming into the frame at the new location.
Look for air pockets trapped in over-heads. Sometimes you can shoot both a diver’s head and shoulders and the diver’s reflection from the undisturbed underside of the air pocket.
Shooting the touring diver or divers can be difficult. Unless they are specifically posing for you, you can’t control their movements. Even if they agreed to follow a plan, don’t expect inexperienced models to remember planned poses. Once they see the wreck, their brains will turn to mush!
If the divers in your group aren’t interested in touring or posing, listen as they plan their dives. Find out when they will enter the water and what parts of the wreck they will visit first. Then, get to the destinations before they do and start shooting as they enter the scene. Otherwise, you will soon learn that divers instinctively turn away and give you a view of their scuba tanks.
SHOW THEM MARINE LIFE
To add interest and variety to your wreck video, include a few close-ups of marine life. Shoot a clownfish hiding in the tentacles of an anemone or the Barracuda that lurks over the wreck. Include the angelfish that glides gracefully by and the colorful corals and sponges that grow on the wreck.
The amount of marine life you shoot naturally depends on what is present. Given the subjects and opportunity, plan a dive just to capture marine life on tape. Shooting close-up video requires a different mind-set than wide angle video. You must move slowly and hold the camera extremely steady. A camera movement that would hardly be noticed in a wide angle shot will be magnified during macro.
SHOW THEM ARTIFACTS
Close-up shots of artifacts, such as utensils on the sunken ship’s galley range, remind us of the people who were once on board. The key technique for these shots is stealth, which involves moving into position slowly so you don’t stir up loose sediment and controlling your breathing. When working in the galley of the Fujikawa Maru, for example, exhale outside the galley door. If you exhale inside debris will rain down from the ceiling.
Specific parts of a wreck, such as the bridge telegraph (used to transmit commands to the engine room) of the Shinkoku Maru in Truk Lagoon, are also challenging subjects. Before you begin shooting, look at the telegraph – through your viewfinder – from a variety of angles. The best camera angle will depend on the picture angle of the lens used.
A wreck’s cargo may contain interesting artifacts. Some examples include Japanese tanks on the decks of the Nippo Maru and San Francisco Maru. Other vessels have aircraft, trucks and other photogenic equipment on their decks or in their holds.
Unless shooting an establishing shot to show the setting, get close. Fill the viewfinder with subject! Getting close directs the attention to your principal subject, enhances its color and detail if you have a video light and reduces distracting backgrounds.
Artifacts may require several shots. A variety of shorter shots – taken at long, medium and close-up distances – will be more interesting to view than a single shot lasting 20 or 30 seconds.
PENETRATING A WRECK
Videotaping wreck interiors, such as dark engine rooms, requires the skills of cave diving, night diving and night videography.
Never swim so far into a wreck that you can’t see your way out if your dive light should fail. Watch out for protruding wires and debris from bulkheads and overheads. Never go in alone and make sure someone outside knows your dive plan.
Whenever possible, make an exploratory dive first to preview subjects and decide what you want to videotape: (I sometimes swim through with the camera recording everything at random. I view this exploratory tape to decide what I want to shoot later.) Preset video light angles, white balance and other camera settings before entering the wreck. Move slowly to avoid kicking up loose sediment – otherwise your video will look as if you were in a sand storm.
The narrow beam of a dive light can show up in your video even if you use one or two video lights. Therefore, ask your dive buddy not to shine his/her dive light on a subject you are taping. However, in dim conditions, when you are shooting without a video light, a narrow-beam dive light can be pleasing. The beam of light – especially if you are doing an over the shoulder Shot of another diver – can provide an exciting effect.