What equipment do you use?
I own and operate a Gates Deep Weapon underwater housing with a Red Epic-W 8K cinema camera. The bulk of my work is for high-end blue-chip natural history productions and this camera fits my needs for high resolution and high frame rates and the all-important cache function. It a reliable setup and produces stunning images. The Deep Weapon housing has the advantage that it fits almost any Red camera, past or present, if the Epic-W is not the right camera for the job. There is no such thing as the perfect setup though and I replace and upgrade my gear regularly to stay current. If I need different tools for a certain type of job then I will rent them in.
My SCUBA gear is from Dive-Rite who have the right blend of reliability, durability, adaptability and comfort for me. When I need to stay down longer or be silent I use a rEVO hybrid Closed Circuit Rebreather. My equipment is valuable so I use tough, reliable cases and bags from North Face, Lowepro and Pelican.
What’s the most dangerous thing that’s happened during your career.
I have had a handful of heart-in-the-mouth moments. Very few have been from marine life encounters. Sharks are generally scared of divers, unless they are being fed, and large cetaceans like sperm whales, humpback whales etc are very sensitive to humans in the water and will do their best to get out of your way. Most of my life-threatening moments have been on recklessly driven minibus transfers in developing countries and I also came within a couple of inches of losing some toes or my foot to a boat propeller during some whale filming in Sri Lanka. The worst marine-life encounter I’ve had was when I stupidly put my hand down on a stone fish. I got a spine in my finger and was in absolute agony for about an hour. ‘Crying like a baby’ agony!
How did you get into underwater filming?
After leaving University with my Maths degree in hand I traveled around surfing and snowboarding for a few years. I got casual work in surf shops, bars and restaurants to pay my way. At one point during a flat surf spell in Byron Bay I convinced a dive centre to give me an open water course for free in exchange for helping out around the shop. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say I fell in love with diving in Byron Bay. I swiftly became a PADI divemaster and then got a job working in a dive resort in Borneo filming tourists. I honed my skills during tourist dives and solo diving in the afternoons. That led to getting some footage in some smaller TV shows like travel shows, children’s shows (BBC’s Really Wild Show), and my career slowly took shape after that. I was fortunate in that it’s quite hard to break out of the ‘resort cameraman’ situation. The company I worked for, Scubazoo, were ambitious and broke into corporate and broadcast work and I had the opportunity to get involved. I ended up becoming a partner in the company and worked with them for 15 years before going freelance in 2015.
Are there any formal qualifications I should get to be an underwater Cameraman?
There are a number of routes into underwater filming. None that I know of involve getting an underwater cameraman degree and you’ll never be asked for one to get a job. Unless you’re focusing on working in tanks on theatrical productions then I would advise against a degree in Film. Understanding your subject is one of the key aspects to being able to successfully film it. Many wildlife cameramen who ply their trade either on land or in the water have degrees in the natural sciences. Biology, marine biology, zoology are all good choices. Obviously marine biology would be the ideal choice for an underwater career as it focuses on marine species and will probably get you some time in the water as well. However if you’ve already done your degree in something unrelated then never fear. I have a BSc Hons in Mathematics from the University of Nottingham and I make a living from filming underwater.
How good a diver do I need to be to start filming?
In my opinion you need to be able to look after yourself in whatever type of diving situation you find yourself in. At the very minimum you should be a rescue diver or equivalent. Becoming a divemaster is a great experience and will teach you some important dive theory. More importantly you’ll be trained to work underwater. I wouldn’t take on an assistant that had less than 300 logged dives and I’d want to have them be able to look after themselves and help me. Experience in different types of diving is useful as working in calm tropical reef is a world apart from drysuit diving in temperate coastal waters or in a cave.
Should I take an underwater filming course?
This is a tough one. Course quality varies, costs are often high, and the paper qualification is essentially worthless. If you decide to go this route do your research and make sure you are getting relevant tuition from someone with a good level of experience. Many of these courses are designed to take you to a level where you can film tourists and make a saleable video. That may be of interest or it may not. My main advice is to ask to speak to people who have done the course before you commit. Currently I don’t have any recommendations but if I hear good things about certain courses then I will update this post.
How do I gain experience filming?
This is a tricky one. Diving is generally expensive and simply traveling around diving great spots and filming is not financially viable for most people. If you live in an area with great shore diving then it’s a little easier but otherwise you are probably going to have to find a way to get free diving somehow! Divemasters and instructors often have spare time to get in the water with a camera. Research assistants often shoot images, one of my friends from Scubazoo worked as a hostess, cooking and cleaning on a dive boat in exchange for free diving.
Can I make a living as an underwater cameraman?
A career in wildlife film-making, and specifically underwater filming, can be every bit the dream job that you might imagine it to be. It can also be incredibly challenging and competitive. Whereas it was a very niche job when I started out 20 years ago it is much more accessible now and the competition, and quality, is much higher. You will need to draw on multiple qualities to carve out a living. Just being a good cameraman is not enough, you’ll need to be a good businessman and be flexible, patient and good natured in often tough circumstances!
What camera should I buy?
There are so many cameras on the market now that take amazing images. It’s a great time to be in the motion picture acquisition business. The downside is that cameras are improving so quickly they are often obsolete within a short period of time. Assuming that a full-blown Red Weapon and Gates housing is out of your financial reach then just buy the best camera and housing that you can afford. Broadly speaking you can separate cameras into cinema cameras (with large sensors – usually super 35mm -and a shallow depth of field) and video cameras (with smaller sensors and a larger depth of field). Many small format cameras now have big cinema sized sensors and take amazing images for around $1000.
As of writing this (April 2017) I think the best value for money is in compact mirrorless or DSLR cameras. Something like the Sony a6500 or Panasonic GH5. You can often find last years model with a housing for a reasonable price on eBay or the excellent Wetpixel classifieds.
John Brown has an excellent blog with advice for wannabe wildlife camera operators on his website. Much of what he has to say is good general advice for underwater shooters as well.
Chris Burkard is a successful and well known adventure photographer and social influencer. He has a very well thought out and interesting FAQ which is worth taking a look at for anyone with an interest in wildlife or adventure photography and cinematography.
I wrote an article for Scubazoo a few years ago which is still valid today. You can find it here.
If there is anything I haven’t covered or you’d like me to go into in more detail then please contact me. I am often in the field but I’ll do my best to answer your questions.