A Guide to Underwater Wildlife Video & Editing: Part 2

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Read Part 1 here.

A part serialisation of a book by Jeff Goodman

PART 2: How to choose the right camera and housing

Choosing the right camera can be an absolute minefield so it is worth looking closely at various models before parting with your hard-earned cash. Not all cameras have a suitable housing made for them although this is becoming less the case as time goes on.

Let’s first of all think about what your expectations are.

Are you thinking of becoming a professional or would you simply like to make extremely good videos yet remain an enthusiast? Are the films you are about to make for TV broadcast, for home movies, or something in-between? Either way, the product wants to be aesthetically good and often could be shot on a range of camera types. But when it comes to technical quality and versatility, then you simply get what you pay for. A camera with enough specifications for TV broadcast is going to cost anything between £6,000 to £60,000. The underwater housing on top of that may cost up to £20,000 extra. A good amateur camera is going to cost somewhere in the region of £150 to £1,000.  There are then good semi professional cameras that fall in between..

Let’s have a look at a few choices.

Video really has come into it’s own over the past few years. Even your mobile phone is capable of taking fun images. But as we are going to take the art of underwater filming a little more seriously let’s start by looking at some serious equipment that will give us a degree of control and flexibility

Choosing your camera really is difficult as there are so many different types in the market place. As well as the standard dedicated video cameras there are also now excellent video capabilities on SLR’s such as the Canon 7D. I am sure that as this book goes to publication, there will be new models of cameras out that do even more amazing things. But what ever they do and how ever they do them, the basic principles of good videography remain the same. This also applies to editing software which we will cover later.

In general video cameras with underwater housings come in three very broad categories. At the lower end there are the ‘easy shot’ consumer cameras such as the Canon Ixus, which are pretty well fully automatic with a few manual menu driven choices. The quality of this small camera is excellent.

Next are the middle range such the HDR-XR550 or the HDR-CX730 with the Gates housing which will give more manual control over things such as exposure and focus, although it must be said that in this middle range of housings not all camera functions may be available through the housing controls. Finally semi professional rigs such as the Gates housing for the Sony PMW-EX1R.  Now we are getting towards fully functional cameras and housings with very good through housing access to all the camera features.

I won’t be able to cover all cameras and how their functions are accessed, but generically they are mostly the same. This book will go through that generic camera and leave the individual reader to consult their owners manual for precise layout and functions.

Just as a guide for you, the camera and housing I use when teaching students is the Sony HDR-XR550 in a moulded metal Gates housing. (At least it is at the time of writing this. It’s not possible to keep up with new products for the purposes of a book, but on-line reviews or specialist magazines will certainly be doing this.) With this camera/housing combination, I get a very good quality camera with a good range of manual/auto controls through the housing. Having said that, housings are very personal things and I highly recommend you to get your hands on a few before buying.

Camera Format  – Tape or hard drive?

I have always loved shooting on tape. It is a solid tangible piece that I can physically hold and know with confidence that all my hard earned material is on it and in my hands……safe!

The quality is good and reliable, images and sound transfer easily to any edit software, and I always have a physical backup to put away in the filing cabinet.  Tapes are small and are no real problem to carry. In an emergency, most countries have a shop somewhere that will sell them. Should the real horror happen and the housing flood, then the tape inside is still retrievable.

Hard drives however, are taking over and it’s no good burying my head in the sand and trying to ignore the digital take over, so I will embrace it with good grace. Probably the most common format used by the non professional is AVCHD (Advanced Video Coding High Definition). I must confess that the quality of the newer cameras using this format is amazingly good and the playback through the camera results in some very fine images. The hard drive on the Sony HDR-XR550 which I’m using for the purposes of this book, is to say at the least, big.  The 240GB’s  give around 101 hours of full HD movie. That is a lot of movie. It is also a lot of movie to loose should your hard drive go down. So the most important thing when using none tape formats is to make sure you download to a separate hard drive after each and every dive. Not to do so is foolish and may result in tears.

Hard Drive or Card Capture means you need to take a laptop or backup device on location with you. Not such a big problem really but then again it all depends on the local electricity supply. But, as most people take laptops with them everywhere now………..

The AVCHD format is good but difficulties can occur when trying to play and edit the material on a computer or laptop that is not fully up to spec. Dual drive and plenty of memory are essential. With older laptops the files do not readily play well and are prone to crash or jitter.

Things are getting better but if you are having trouble, keep the original AVCHD files in backup and trans-code them to something like mpeg4 for easy editing. This still gives good quality especially if you are uploading to the web.  As technologies change and advance so quickly, I can only say that a web search on how best to deal with your video and audio files is always crucial.

Which Housing?

Just because you have a camera you like, doesn’t mean that there is a commercially built housing available for it. You can build your own, but that’s for another book. When looking at cameras, look to see what housings are available. OR, do it the other way round and look at housings and see what cameras they facilitate. Often companies such as Cameras Underwater will sell a package of camera and housing together. This in fact is probably the better way of doing it because you can rely on the knowledge that a manufacturer has built a housing for a suitably good camera.

Three main types of housing are acrylic see-through housings, moulded metal ones and circular tubular ones

The acrylic types have the advantage of letting you see into the housing to make sure that all the controls are working, as well as being able to see if there are any leaks. The moulded metal types are robust and pleasing to look at. The cylindrical ones have been the most common type over the years as it is easy to adapt the internal controls to many types of camera. As long as it fits inside of course. All of these types should be able to take interchangeable ports which we will discuss later on.

There are pros and cons to all these housings, but one important factor to be considered is, how much control you have of the camera through the housing. Some housings will only give you on/off and zoom control and leave all other functions to automatic settings. Others will give a much more comprehensive range of manual/auto controls such as focus, exposure, white balance, zoom, on/off and more. Decide carefully on your wants and needs before falling for any luring sales pitch that may leave you frustrated later on.

Mechanical or Electrical Housings

Let’s look closer at the way in which you can operate the camera controls through the housing. The Gates housing I am using for this demo has mechanical controls. This is where a control rod passes through the body of the housing itself and directly makes contact with the camera controls. This is a very reliable system and easily maintained or repaired in the field. The slight downside to this is that on the bigger housings the push rods or gear wheels can become loose and not engage fully. So, a bit more maintenance is needed.

The other type, such as the Amphibico, uses the camera electronics to operate the functions, removing any need for holes or control rods in the housing.  I find this type of control very good and precise, until that is, some sort of electrical fault manifests itself through salt corrosion. It must be said that most units are very well sealed against this happening, but, you are working in a marine and salt environment and electronics do suffer. As with the mechanical controls, regular maintenance is essential.

Next time we look at Underwater Camera Monitors and how to minimise the risk of leaks in your housings.

Jeff Goodman

Jeff Goodman

Jeff Goodman is the Conservation editor and also the Underwater Videography Editor for Scubaverse.com. Jeff is an award winning TV wildlife and underwater cameraman and film maker. With over 10,000 dives to his credit he has dived in many different environments around the world.

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