Sometimes you get it, sometimes you don’t. There have been moments, sitting in the dark in a backwoods Maine motel room – the dank smell of wetsuit wafting from the bathroom – that I’ve stared at my laptop and wanted to cry. “Totally out of focus!” If the clip is similar to one I’ve bagged before? I might curse. If it’s a close up of a huge snapping turtle or a gracefully swimming loon? I want to cry. But I don’t. (sniff) Comes with the territory.
1-min movie from HEART POND, near Bar Harbor. One of my favorite of Maine’s 10,000 gems. (Note: When a fish swims up to your camera and bumps his nose on the lens? It’s not going to be in focus…)
Over the past six years, I’ve filmed in more than one hundred of Maine’s most beautiful lakes, ponds, rivers and streams. A typical day includes: shooting beauty from shore as the sun rises; suiting up for free-dive filming; launching a sit-on-top kayak laden with camera gear, food and water; kayaking the shoreline ready to “roll out and roll tape”; capturing as many magical liquid moments as possible; and finally, ditching the wetsuit, loading the kayak, and shooting from shore as the sun sets.
Then it’s back to the motel room with a massive sub sandwich and piles of wet gear. Wiped out. Shower… Bed… No, wait! Today’s footage! Let’s look! Sometimes it’s… Wow! Sometimes… Ow! Out of focus! Framing is off! And, we’re back to that “wanting to cry” thing. The worst part? It’s always user error. So, what have I learned through the years and tears?
PREPPING YOUR DIVE MASK
LOST IN THE FOG? Prep your mask. Scrubbing with toothpaste or baby shampoo works well. So does SEA BUFF followed by SEA GOLD. If a mask still fogs after repeated cleanings, tilt the mask straight up and hold a lighter near the inside glass for three seconds or less. It will burn away the coating they put on at the factory. I’ve tried it and it works.
PRE-FOCUSING YOUR CAMERA
CAN’T FIND AN OBJECT TO PRE-FOCUS ON? Use your fin. For many fisheye (super wide) lenses, a four-foot focal point is the optimum distance for “everything in focus” (using f-8 as a starting point). You know where your fin is. Point, focus, go. For shooting close-ups, you can focus on your tucked-up knee, about one foot away. BUT… remember you did that! If you suddenly see a “wide shot” opportunity and don’t remember to refocus, you won’t be able to tell by looking at that tiny LCD screen. The rest of your clips from there on out will be blurry. Virtually every shot I’ve ruined is because I forgot to refocus from close-up to wide (or vice versa) in the midst of all the excitement.
TIP FOR FRAMING YOUR SUBJECT EFFECTIVELY
CAN’T SEE THE SUBTLE DETAILS? With a DSLR in a housing, clearly seeing what you’re shooting is a challenge. You’re looking through a mask lens, possibly a “reader” lens, then through the housing’s glass window, hoping to get a good look at the 2” x 3” LCD screen inside. Detail is elusive. Framing becomes more of an intuitive game of “overall balance”. Light, shape, foreground elements and distant elements all factor into what will hopefully become a well-balanced shot. Worse yet, when you’re behind the camera, a tiny fish can swim into a scene and do something really wonderful – but you won’t be aware of it. When you review the clip later, you may find you stopped rolling in the middle of a sweet moment.
CAN’T AFFORD A VIEWFINDER? Hello GoPro Hero. (Actually, there is a “Bakpak LCD screen” available, but it’s so tiny I find it kind of useless underwater.) The Hero has a minimum focusing distance of about one foot and beyond that distance everything is in focus – which makes things easy. Framing is the bigger challenge. Here’s a tip for better framing in post. Shoot using a “taller” frame size (1920w x 1440h) instead of the “standard frame” (1920w x 1080h). You’ll have vertical crop room when editing. If you were aiming too low or high, you can hopefully fix it in the mix.
SHOOTING AT CHALLENGING ANGLES
CAN’T SEE THE VIEWFINDER CUZ OF THE ANGLE? Some of my most dramatic clips are shot from the “belly on the bottom angle”, the camera tilted up to include the shimmering surface. When it’s calm, the mirror effect is stunning. This often leaves the viewfinder in a position that makes it hard or impossible to see. Another means for framing is required. Steady the camera on the bottom, then lean out to the side a bit and check to see where the camera is actually aiming. Shoot the clip, then review it immediately in the viewfinder (if your camera has one) to see if you got the shot.
FOR THOSE WHO WEAR EYEGLASSES
CAN’T SEE THE VIEWFINDER CUZ YOU’RE FIFTY? It means you wear readers. Solution? Get one stick-on “reader” lens and place it up high in the mask window. It won’t obscure your overall field of vision, but if you tilt your head downward and look upward you can see the LCD screen clearly through the lens. Tip: Buy the strongest (+3 strength) even if your “land readers” are of lower power. It allows you to pull the LCD in super-close so you can see image details more accurately.
Focusing your camera and framing accurately while free diving can be a major challenge, but it gets easier with practice. Practice with your camera on dry land until you can make critical menu and button choices with very little thought or effort. Then… just dive in!
See you in the water! ~ Steve Underwood