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A Guide to Underwater Wildlife Video & Editing: Part 5

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focus

Read Part 4 here.

A part serialisation of a book by Jeff Goodman

PART 5: Focus

Most cameras will have an auto focus mode with the option of switching to manual if desired.  Unfortunately not all underwater housings will have the controls to let you access this. Some give you a choice of being able to manually change either focus or exposure. If this is the case then I would highly recommend leaving focus on auto and having full manual control over exposure.

Focus is critical to get right.

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Sharp – in focus

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Soft – out of focus

A picture can be a little too dark or a little too light, or even a little oddly framed, and still be acceptable to most audiences. But a picture that is even slightly out of focus is very hard to accept.

Auto focus

Professional cameras don’t have this option but most others do. Auto focus is a wonderful piece of technology, but no matter how wonderful, it still doesn’t know what you, as a camera person, actually want to focus on. It will take its ‘best guess’ as to what’s right and that generally is what is biggest and most central to your picture frame.

Let’s look at an example of when auto focus can really mess up your videoing.

You are in open water with a dolphin or two. There are no well defined images in the water except the dolphins themselves. Unless the dolphin is large in the frame the auto focus will have a terrible time trying to find an image to resolve itself on. Without the dolphin as a reference in your monitor you may notice that the auto focus is ‘hunting’ in and out trying to find a subject.  Often it will settle on focusing on the small bits of dirt or bubbles on your lens port. (Note  –  always keep your port clean and check it constantly.)

Then a dolphin comes into frame. Will it be sharp? Who knows, it’s pot luck. If you then stay framed on the dolphin long enough, maybe just a few seconds, the auto focus will recognize the image and be happy. Sadly in those first few seconds of video, which may be the most important, the dolphin may not be sharp. Then as soon as the dolphin leaves frame the auto focus will become worried again and may start looking for a new focal point.

This may seem only a minor problem at the time, but believe me, when you get back into the edit room  and look at the video, the first few seconds of out-of focus images will drive you crazy.  Hence the advantage here of manual focus which you can set yourself.

For this type of shot with the dolphins it usually works out that wide angle framing is best and thus will have a good depth of field. Preset the focus to around 1 to 2 metres. This will generally give sharp images from the lens port to infinity. A point of reference for the pre-focal point could be one of your fins. Simply point the camera down to you feet and focus on the tip of your fin. A brightly coloured one would be most effective. Perhaps use your dive buddy’s bright tank.  This pre focus trick can also work quite well for the auto focus especially if you do it moments before the dolphin enters frame.

With manual focus, although you do have greater control over what is sharp, the difficulty arises when you want to zoom in and alter the frame size. Now the 1-2 meter focal point won’t have enough depth of field and so you will have to adjust your focus to compensate. On zooming in the focus becomes much more critical and will have to reflect the true distance of the subject as the depth of field will now be quite small. We look at depth of field later.

With auto focus, zooming in, as long as you remain on the subject, can be very good, but if you are not already framed up on the subject the auto focus will have a devil of a time trying to resolve the image.

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Ideally your image should be crisp and sharp. Even if the visibility or light values are bad.

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A ‘hunting’ auto focus may give you a ‘soft’ unusable image while all the action is going on regardless.

Here, the auto focus has almost resolved the image for you but not quite in time.

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A clown fish in an anemone

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Here again, as with the dolphin, the auto focus would work very well in a wide angle shot, but as soon as you zoom in to get some close-ups and the depth of field becomes very small, then the clever auto focus is not going to know which part of the frame needs to be kept sharp. The constantly moving fish and also the tentacles of the anemone could keep the auto focus ‘hunting’ throughout your entire shot. Here certainly, the best option is manual focus. If you do not have the option of easily adjusting focus through the housing controls, then keep to the manual option and move the camera in and out slightly as the fish moves, thus keeping it at the correct focal distance. i.e. sharp.  There will be many occasions when the auto focus will work just fine and do a brilliant job, but, you are giving over control to an electronic chip. Know it’s limitations.

Not all housings allow you to have full manual control of focus and many don’t allow you to have any control at all. If you only have the auto focus option it’s no problem as long as you are aware of what is going on.  With a good clear monitor you can see when a shot is losing focus or not and if it is, then re-think what you are doing and perhaps something as simple as adjusting your shot size will cure the problem.

As we will see later when we discuss editing, it is often desirable to let your subject leave or enter your  frame, in this case the clown fish. The downside to this with auto focus is, that as soon as the fish does leave frame, the focus will start hunting for the next best thing to be sharp on. This ‘searching’ even be it for a few moments can look awful and is very different from deliberately changing focus.

So all in all, auto focus is generally very good but can occasionally cause problems which may be acceptable in an amateur video but certainly not in a professional production.

For the lucky ones, some cameras and housings will allow you to change from auto to manual and back again with the flick of a switch or press of a button. Here you have the best of both worlds.  Let’s suppose we are filming a turtle on a reef. The first shot you may want to do could be a wide angle and then, adjust shot size, for a close up or two.  If there is time, try to zoom right into the turtle and let the auto focus do it’s thing, then flick over to manual focus. The focal distance of the lens will then be locked in place. Now zoom out to the shot size you want and you can be confident that the picture is as sharp as it can possibly be. As the turtle moves you can occasionally, momentarily, flick the auto focus option just to ensure that all is well. How many times you do this is entirely down to your discretion, and lots of practice.

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With a very small depth of field, the focus is critical

focus

This wide angle image of a reef is spoilt because the auto focus concentrated on the background reef. The red foreground coral is out of focus, even though it is in the key part of the frame.

In the previous example of the coral wide angle, it isn’t of course the fault of the auto focus that the foreground coral is not sharp. You are in charge. Look carefully at what the auto focus is doing. If you don’t like it then turn to manual, re-frame, or don’t do the shot. In this instance it would have been better to have had the red foreground coral sharp, at the expense of the background

Pulling Focus

Pulling focus from one subject to another can be very dramatic, but is mostly effective on long lens shots or at the longer end of your zoom. As we are underwater and most of our videoing is done with a wide angle, pulling focus is not something that is used much at all. However, it can be effective when shooting in close up or macro mode. Here auto focus is next to useless as the shot size and framing will remain constant throughout and the auto focus has no idea that you want to alter the focal point from one part of the frame to another. We definitely want the manual focus option, which needs to be very smooth in its operation, otherwise it will look amateurish.

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With small subjects the point of focus is critical for a good image.

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Next month we look at Lenses, Depth of Field and Angle of Coverage.

Jeff Goodman is the Editor-at-Large for Scubaverse.com with responsibility for conservation and underwater videography. Jeff is an award-winning TV wildlife and underwater cameraman and film maker who lives in Cornwall, UK. With over 10,000 dives to his credit he has dived in many different environments around the world.

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Frontline workers honoured with free dive trip to Yap

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The remote island of Yap in the Federated States of Micronesia is among the few places in the world that remains free of Covid-19 thanks to its ocean border and a strict travel ban that has kept its residents safe.

Nonetheless, Yap has been affected, too. As one of the world’s premier, award-winning destinations for divers, this paradisiacal location in the western Pacific Ocean has had no outside visitors to its rich shores and reef for nearly a year. But while there may be no virus, the island hasn’t been cut off from the economic impact experienced around the globe.

Manta Ray Bay Resort and Yap Divers by A. Tareg

That didn’t stop Bill Acker, CEO and founder of the Manta Ray Bay Resort and Yap Divers, from doing something, though.

Last March, soon after the island went into lockdown, Bill began to realize the effect of the virus on daily life beyond the island. “Yes, we are closed, have no divers, had to send our employees home and prepare for difficult times,” he said. “But we’re lucky in that we have, for the most part, avoided the human suffering and death this pandemic has caused.”

Thinking about the problems faced by his family business, they paled when he compared them to those endured by the healthcare workers who have been fighting selflessly around the clock for months on end for the well-being and lives of others.

“One evening, while checking the news online, I saw pictures of frontline workers who were tending to desperately ill and dying people when families and friends could not be with their loved ones. It was heartbreaking,” he added.

The next day, a meeting was held with the resort’s staff and Bill invited suggestions for ways they could do something to honor healthcare workers. The result was the idea to award twenty divers who are working on the frontline to save other’s lives during this pandemic while risking their own, with a free week at the resort.

Manta ray, Manta birostris, gliding over a cleaning station in M’il Channel, Yap, Micronesia by David Fleetham

Divers around the world who had been guests at Manta Ray Bay in the past were invited to submit the names of candidates for the award by December 31, 2020. “We received nominations for 126 individuals from as far away as Germany, the U.S., Australia and Canada,” he said. “It was not easy choosing the winners but our committee of staff members took on the job and selected the 20 finalists.”

“While trying to choose the people to reward for their hard work during this Covid-19 crisis,” Bill added, “by reading the nominations we saw that every one of the nominees was doing things above and beyond the call of duty. Sadly, we don’t have the finances to offer over 100 free weeks in Yap, but we do want to recognize the contributions all of them are making to our world. So, we are offering the rest of the nominees a free week of diving in Yap which includes room, hotel tax, airport transfers, breakfast, diving and Wi-Fi.  The only requirement is that they travel with at least three other people and stay in two rooms or more.”

“We do not yet know when Yap will open its borders,” said Bill, “but when it does, we will welcome these important guests to Yap to relax and dive with the manta rays and the other beautiful denizens of the ocean surrounding our island home. They are the true heroes of this devastating, historic time and we look forward to honoring them with a well-deserved dive vacation.”

Watch out for our exclusive trip report from a healthcare worker from the UK who is one of the 20 to have been awarded this amazing dive trip!

For more information on Manta Ray Bay and Yap Divers visit their website by clicking here.

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Dive Training Blogs

Dream Dive Locker Build Out. Part I: Demolition (Watch Video)

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It’s finally here! Time to start building the greatest dive locker the world has ever seen! Part I: Demolition! #dreamdivelocker

This is the first of a series of videos showing the evolution of building out my dream dive locker. My dream dive locker needs to be dive gear drying and storage, dry storage, workshop, office, editing suite, You Tube studio and classroom. That’s a lot of functions for a small space!

The first step is planning out the space and demolishing the laminate flooring. Then I taped up the walls to get a feel for the space. We have a lot of work to do!

But finally we will have a purpose built space to house all of our dive equipment! Subscribe to our channel to follow our progress! 

Thanks for watching, Team!

James


Subscribe here: http://bit.ly/DiversReady

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