We regularly get enthusiastic divers and nature lovers of all ages contacting us to ask for tips or advice on how to build a career in underwater filming. It’s not an easy question to answer and there is no recognised path, no ‘underwater cameraman’ qualification you can work towards which guarantees you work for the rest of your life. About the only thing most successful underwater cameramen have in common is that they have worked extremely hard, over a long period of time, to get to the stage where they can earn a living from this line of work. There are many more talented people who should be earning a living from underwater camera work but aren’t and that goes to show how hard it is to make it in this business. Anyhow, given that so many people are interested, I thought it was about time to write a blog on this, and hopefully impart some
small tiny amount of wisdom born from experience…
(You’ll note that I’ve used ‘cameraman’ throughout the article. It’s simpler than saying ‘camera operator’ or cameraman/woman and I’ve meant it to include both genders.)
1. Become an experienced diver
You could be Vincent Laforet or an Emmy winning camera operator but if you aren’t good in the water your underwater images will be awful. Mastering SCUBA diving is essential. I don’t mean just passing your open water course, I mean becoming at least a PADI Dive Master (DM) or equivalent and gaining experience diving in all kind of conditions. If you don’t have at least 300dives under your weight belt then get back in the water and leave the camera behind. Other than simply becoming comfortable in different situations, great buoyancy is vital as you’re essentially a platform for the camera and your finning and breathing will determine where the camera points and how steady it is. Unless you are a trust-fund-baby or you live somewhere you can shore dive you are probably going to need to work for those dives. Take a weekend job with your local dive store, join your university dive club or better yet go traveling for a year and work as a DM in great locations around the world. As a side note, no potential employer will be impressed if those dives were racked up hungover in Koh Tao teaching backpackers their open water course.
2. Take an interest in marine life
Ideally you will have (or be in the process of getting) a marine biology degree. If not then you’ll need to learn on the job. Having an understanding of your subject is one of the most important rules in wildlife filming and it applies beneath the waves as well. You’ll need to recognise species and predict how they’ll behave in order to get shots. Textbooks and info on the web is great but there’s no substitute for actual experience underwater with wildlife. Also make sure you talk to other divers to learn from their experience. Knowledge is power.
3. Get experience with a camera
Find yourself a camera. You don’t need to spend your life savings on a $50,000 RED Epic, just beg, borrow or steal (don’t do that actually!) something that has a good degree of manual control and an underwater housing that fits it. The best camera available to you is the best camera. People watching your showreel aren’t going to get hung up on bit-rate or dynamic range, they’re looking at the content and skills. Then get out there and shoot. Shoot people, shoot fish, shoot boats, shoot anything. Build up experience. Second hand is a great way to go – Check out this EX1R setup or this Sony Z1 for example.
4. Take a course
I say this with some hesitation. There is no true accredited underwater filming course out there so companies, and individuals, are free to produce courses of their own which will vary wildly in terms of quality, length, cost and usefulness. If you do decide to take a course hopefully it will be fun, instructive and you’ll get to meet great people and do some awesome diving along the way. Do your research on the school/instructor before you commit and make sure they are experienced in the kind of filming you want to do. A career tourist cameraman might be able to teach you the basics but can they teach you documentary style filming? Ask to see their resume and try to watch any programmes they have been involved in making. Also make sure you have the right level of dive and filming experience in order to get the most out of the course. I’m not going to recommend any specific courses here. Scubazoo have run our own ten -day filming course at Mabul and Sipadan previously and we may run more in the future if there is interest. Email email@example.com if you think you might be interested.
5. Watch documentaries
It sounds obvious (as most of this is to be honest) but watch wildlife doccos and deconstruct the sequences that make them up. Try and imagine how the cameraman might have got each shot. This is a great way to learn how cameramen tell stories through their shot selection.
6. Be prepared to work for free or very little money while you gain experience
It’s always better to be delivering a product for someone than just shooting willy-nilly. Having set goals focuses you and teaches you to be able to deliver what a client wants. You’ll need those skills throughout your career. At this stage it’s important not to be a snob. Take whatever work you can get and take pride in what you produce. Anyone can make a whale shark in the clear, blue water of the Maldives look stunning but making a great dive video for a bunch of Discover SCUBA Divers in green soupy water will challenge you to be positive, creative and innovative. All skills which will serve you well. Another good option is to work as a safety diver or camera assistant for a more experienced cameraman. That way you can learn from how he/she works, make contacts in the business and perhaps shoot some behind-the-scenes footage. The TV production business revolves around recommendations and word-of-mouth so make a good impression and do your best, even when the job stinks.
7. Learn to edit
Learning to edit your own productions on simple programs like iMovie (Final Cut or Adobe Premiere would be better) is very useful and will mean you can pick up more corporate work as well as teach you which shots are useful in an edit. Editors are the people who will work with your footage so it’s great to see things from their perspective. Editing experience will definitely improve your camera work.
8. Get production experience
If you want to work on wildlife documentaries it’s useful to get some experience in the industry. It doesn’t even have to be underwater related but learning about the roles of all the crew, how productions get put together, and a myriad of other experience will be very beneficial. Many production companies have spots for interns as researchers or runners (take a look at Scubazoo’s internship here) Some might even pay you! Try to choose a company that produces the kind of shows that you enjoy and want to work on eventually as a cameraman. Be realistic though, not everyone is going to intern for a series producer at the Natural History Unit.
9. Sell yourself
Get your best work and stitch it together into an impressive showreel (see ours above). Update it regularly and keep a copy easily accessible online and offline so you can show a potential client if the opportunity presents itself. Have a profile and credit list online on your website. Get some business cards made. Generally try and look and act like a professional!
10. Persevere and be Patient
This is key both underwater and in the business. No-one walks into a job in underwater filming. You’ll need to really want it and be prepared to stick around until your hard work gets you the break you deserve. I know lots of great cameramen who eventually chose other careers because they couldn’t catch a break.
If you are getting frustrated then lay back and blow some bubble rings!
11. Learn from your mistakes
You are going to make plenty of mistakes. In fact you’ll never stop making them. The key is to learn from them and not to make the same mistake twice.
So those are some tips to making your way towards becoming an underwater cameraman. Many of them are pretty self explanatory but hopefully there are one or two insights there for an aspiring underwater camera operator. There are no ‘ten steps’ (or 11 in this case) to success but if even one of those points above is useful then hopefully this blog has served some purpose . Thanks for reading, please follow Scubazoo on Facebook for more updates and blog posts.
About the Author: Roger Munns has been an underwater cameraman since 2001. Based in Malaysia he has filmed on documentaries such as BBC’s Life Story, Life, and Life in Cold Blood. He’s won an Emmy for cinematography and has also filmed the odd wedding or two in his time.