Panning Shots… Sinker Shots… Slider Shots… Close Up Shots… Flyover Shots… Wave shots… Whitewater shots… Flat-On-Back Shots… The great ones look smooth and fluid. The lousy ones… not so much.
I’m often asked how I get my underwater footage to look so smooth. Short answer? Practice smooth swimming.
Longer answer? After spending hundreds hours of swimming with a camera, much of it ‘fighting the flow’ in frustration, a few techniques have risen to the top of my list.
Much of my improvement is centered on the 5 essential tips listed below. Hold your breath and dive on in. 1) WEIGHTS:
The ideal weight for a camera carrying free diver? ZERO. Whatever ‘lump sum of lead’ allows for neutrally buoyancy in ten or less feet of water with a partial exhale.
What you’re shooting is below the surface. If you’re under weight, you can’t get down, stay down, and be still. Kicking upside-down to maintain your depth jerks the camera around and ruins the shot. Too much weight? You sink to the bottom and stir up silt by frantically finning and – you guessed it – ruining the shot.
Every added ounce of neoprene makes a diver more cork-like. A vest, a shortie, a light suit, a thick suit – all increase buoyancy. Take the time to find your ‘neutral sweet spot’ by adding or removing weights. If a large camera and housing adds to your net weight, hold it while you check. If available, neck weights are a great addition too. A two or three pounder will help you stay level when you are finning horizontally as it helps keep the legs from sinking.
When the water’s really warm? Rejoice! Go naked! (Maybe a rash guard to avoid sunburn.) If it’s barely-cool? A 3mm vest will keep your core warm and increase physical comfort. Cool-ish water? Switch to a 3mm shortie. Cooler-still? The same shortie with a vest over it. Heading-toward-cold? Maybe a 3mm full suit. Cold? 5mm full suit. Cold as a bastard? Break out the heavyweight stuff. 7mm, thick hood, gloves, booties…
One ‘thermal’ issue specific to breath hold filming: The key to longer dive times is to exert as little effort as possible when finning. Relaxing conserves oxygen, but exertion warms the body. If you don’t ‘turn up the furnace’ in cold waters through vigorous finning, you will chill more quickly. Dress with this in mind.
Regarding wetsuit design: You burn an incredible amount of oxygen and energy ‘fighting’ a constrictive suit and it’s harder to take a full breath when wearing one. If you can afford it, invest in a supple wetsuit that allows for ease of body movement. They aren’t cheap, but they’re well worth the investment.
Regarding the head: Neoprene hoods cut off sensory input from the surrounding environment – which drives me crazy. For a while I wouldn’t wear one. Then I had my friends at Oceaner Wetsuits custom make a 3mm skull cap (that looks like what Aussie life guards wear), but a bit ‘longer’, so it covers most of the ear. The mask strap holds it on securely.
Note: It may be purely psychological, but covering my head seems to fool my brain into thinking: “I’m warm… so man-up! Let’s stay in a while longer.”
Here’s the truth about smooth swimming: You will often look ridiculous. A bit like the love child of a “Noodle Dancing Dead Head” and the founder of “The Ministry of Silly Walks”. It’s hard to describe with words. You just have to experiment – and be willing to look like a rubber-limbed, fan-kicking fool.
Invent your very own weird and wacky ‘camera finning strokes’. Do whatever it takes get good at 1) S-l-o-w-l-y turning your body and your camera 2) Slowly panning up toward that ‘heavenly light’ as you control your ‘sink speed’ 3) Slowly moving into a space and backing out again while maintaining the desired frame (extra points for not stirring up silt) 4) Slowly exhaling and sinking with you camera pointed straight down while keeping your fins out of the shot. (Note: You will gain speed as your lungs compress over the course of the descent – and you’ll need a free hand to ‘pinch and blow’.)
I hate getting the chills. They’re hard to control. Shaky body equals shaky camera. Nothing brings on the chills faster than a furnace with no fuel. I eat more in a ten hour day of diving (which includes equal parts kayaking and diving) than I do in two ‘dry’ days. Whatever your energy foods are, have them handy and eat them often.
Also, drink lots of water when diving. We dehydrate much more rapidly under water than we do above it, and dehydration is the primary cause of muscle cramping, (not eating a hot dog before swimming, as some worrywart probably told you…)
When I get totally lost in the fun of what I’m doing, something shifts inside. There have been times when I’ve decided “I’m cold!” – and headed for shore. Then out of nowhere a huge school of fish shows up (or a whale, or a turtle, or a loon). Suddenly I’m excited! I get focused on the fun and end up staying in for another half hour and bagging lots of great footage. It’s like I’ve turned into a ten year old. I’m not cold. The ‘inner furnace’ kicks into high gear. It seems to me that adventurous play can delay the “I’m cold” response for quite a while.
6) BONUS TIP:
Pakpod can easily be transformed into a slick GoPro camera rig. A wide “two-hand grip” setup helps keep your camera steady as you swim. Bonus? If you want to reconfigure it as a tripod for use on the ocean floor, it’s a quick and easy adjustment. (Tip: An ankle weight tossed over the legs will stabilize Pakpod in strong currents.)
It’s a fantastic feeling exiting the water with a camera full of great underwater video and photos: even more so knowing you did it while holding your breath!
See you in the water… ~ Steve Underwood