Hero Under Water Basic Equipment

So what equipment does it need in addition to a GoPro HD Hero 3/3+ to shoot good videos below the water line? Apart from that it takes a different camera, that is? Of course, it depends: on your demands and standards. However, if you want more than just shooting some short and shaky fun clips à la smart phone quality: please read on for my highly subjective suggestions. From my own experience, these suggestions proved to be practical so far to improve my standards.

But of course, equipment is just one part of the overall equation. Without any skill, competence, and pain even the best equipment never cuts the mustard. But one step after the other...

Arguably, action cams such as the GoPro HD Hero 3/3+ may not exactly be suitable for good footage. However, I rather like to get any half-decent footage after all than no footage from a high-rank video cam when footage is difficult to shoot under water due to barely working white balancing, et cetera. More than once I came out of water with fine GoPro footage, while others didn't get any decent footage from their expensive video cams. Go figure. Of course, the lenses and the overall optical system including the dive housing still leaves room for necessary improvement, even for the GoPro HD Heros 3/3+. But that's the price I'm willing to pay for a small cam.

Based on my experience with filming under water this is what I recommend:
  1. Learn and master buoyancy control. No joke. I'm deadly serious about this first recommendation.
  2. GoPro HD Hero 3/3+ Black Edition with the standard housing and with LCD bacpac.
  3. A cam rail (tray) with two (floating) handles.
  4. Top quality lighting, preferably at least two LED torches for video with at least 90° beams and homogeneous intensity beams. Forget about those cheap few-hundred-bucks torches. For the moment, really good torches are still expensive.
  5. Film with Protune on and WB set to Raw (never set to automatic).
  6. Grade your footage.

1. Learn & Master Buoyancy Control

Before you may event think about filming under water, please, for Paul's sake, learn and master buoyancy control. It's for your own safety and that of the environment. And without proper buoyancy control you will end up with terribly shaky footage.

2. GoPro HD Hero 3/3+ Black Edition

Hero bare basic equipment set.
Next, get the GoPro HD Hero with the best video sensor available: the less color noise it shows in low light conditions, the better. At the time of this writing, only the HD Hero 3 or 3+ Black Editions are satisfying in this respect. To my knowledge, there is no difference between the 3+ and 3 sensor-wise, you you may perfectly get away with just a HD Hero 3. Make sure you get the Black Edition. Everything else is a waste of money for our purpose.

In particular, avoid the Silver and White Editions. I've used the corresponding HD Hero and Hero 2 for a long time to know their limitations: the difference in the price tag isn't worth the visibly color noise compared to the Black Edition in many diving situations.

For the housing, the standard GoPro Hero 3 Housing is just fine. I would rather not suggest to try any modifications to the optical system or housing, it doesn't seem to be worth the effort. Especially for beginners, go with the base equipment.

But in any case, get yourself the LCD bacpac. It's the only way to ensure that you are properly framing your shots. The money spent on the LCD bacpac is very well spent. Without the LCD you will probably end up with a lot of clipped fish and shaky footage.

Next, get the protection cap for the housing. Besides avoiding expensive scratches on the front pane the protection caps also protects against unintentionally switching on the cam during transport.

Something you typically really don't need: color filters. They are good for absorbing light, a great deal of light. This just causes more sensor noise to become visible due to the sensor electronics needing to ramp up the gain. There are some special situations where a color filter might be helpful, but in general, don't use them unless you really know what you are doing. For most situations, avoid filters and save the money for your underwater video torches. You will need to grade your shoots anyway, even with filters: you'll find useful real-world information how to grade Protune footage in my blog.

There is another type of GoPro third party gadgets I don't see any real use in: shoulder mounts and similar. Unless you want to torture your audience with shaky shoots into the nowhere. If you need to, better go for the GoPro head strap. With some training, you'll be able to shoot comparably stable footage. Eventually, get a camera rail (tray), so you can properly hold and point your camera.

3. Cam Rail

Camera rail (tray).
So that you can properly point and shot a camera rail is something you may want to get for your basic equipment.

The rail helps you to not only fix your camera but also your lights ... which you will need sooner than later. The rail will also help reducing any shaking considerably, which is an important plus of a rail.

With respect to needing torches for proper scene lighting anyway, better immediately go for a proper rail and not for some special GoPro-only solution, which may be of limited use later when you cannot properly fix your lights. Better spent your money on one of the many available rails that are not special GoPro solutions.

As I can tell you from my own experience, an ordinary rail is much better than rails especially designed for GoPro HD Heros. While I found my acrylic glass rails to be quite useful (which I used for quite a time) in the end I had to replace it with a more flexible universal camera rail. In the end, these universal rails are much cheaper and more versatile. Don't make the same mistake I did and save you some money.

As you can see in the picture above I'm using a 300mm rail. Connected to it are two floating handles (strobe arms) that reduce the preceived weight while in water. The handles (arms) come with balls to which you can clamp your torches. There are other mounting systems as well, such as sliding blocks (slot nut), and other. If you visit a few Internet shops selling cam rails and associated equipment, you will surely get a feeling for the different mounting options available.

While the picture above shows a special-made metal GoPro mount, I have come to the conclusion to avoid such metal mounts. The reason is that the GoPro housings feature quite some manufacturing tolerances. One of my housing barely fits into the metal mount, while the other one cannot be safely fixed and keeps wiggling. In contrast, the standard GoPro self-adhesive mounts work flawlessly ... and are much cheaper too.

4. Light / Torches

Good light ... good footage.
In the end, I carved in. There was no other way than getting decent video torches. Even in tropical waters, you don't get any decent scene light from above in a few meters depth ... everything gets incredibly bluish.

So, good light makes good pictures. Well, almost. Of course, we are not including skill for the moment. As sun light quickly gets filtered in water, you often will need to bring in your own scene light.

For this reason, color filters are often useless. They filter valuable light just to trick non-working cam white balancing into somehow working. At least they try, but more than often, people end up with discolored footage that barely can be graded at all. In the end, you will need to bring your own light, like it or not.

The GoPro cams are well-known for their wide angle field of view. This creates slight complications, as you typically won't find a suitable video torch that is capable of homogenously illuminating a wide angle field without hot spots and dark corners. In the end, you will probably need two video torches. Yes. Make sure to really get decent video LED torches. Most cheaper torches are not worth the several hundred bucks they cost as they don't produce a decent homogenous beam. I can tell from experience. There's no way around: you'll need to spend a sum on your video torches for which you can buy several GoPro HD Hero 3/3+.

Your video torch should feature a beam angle of 90° and more. With two torches, slightly overlap the beams to get your desired wide angle scene illumination. I get very decent results from my two Light & Motion Sola Video 2000 lights I upgraded two after mixed results from my previous LED torch. If you want more details, then please read my separate blog article about the L&M Sola Video 2000s.

5. Protune and WB Raw

There is no other way: if you want to get decent underwater footage from your GoPro HD Hero 3/3+, use Protune. And switch off the broken GoPro white balancing. They call it WB RAW, I call it WB OFF. You'll find more details in a separate blog article.

6. (Color) Grading

No pain, no gain. If you want to show your family and friend decent footage, you need to post process your footage: this means, for instance, grading the colors. So far, I still have to find a decent automatic white balancing that works for underwater footage. But don't be afraid: grading is a simple process you can quickly learn and that is fast to carry out. But the increase of quality of the final video is more than worth the effort of grading. That's for sure!