A Cute Jellyfish off the coast of China. A sample image taken with a similar rig.
Hey there Gents,
I’ve been doing a lot of diving lately and i’m building towards my dive-master certification. However, diving alone it’s not enough fun for me and I don’t really want to hunt (kill things) so the natural option is to go into underwater photography or filming.
For this, obviously, you need a waterproof camera rig, which -incredibly-, is even more expensive than normal photography rig!
Now, I don’t really mind paying top dollars for the right equipment and I’m all about getting the best gear, because I rather pay once high than being constantly on the upgrading road.
The problem is, I don’t want to spend 10k or 12k without having built enough experience or finding if I really like it. I also don’t want to spend 400 euro and then be completely unhappy with the results and start thinking I should have invested more.
In this post I will tell you how to fabricate-assemble the best possible rig without breaking the bank and get the most out of your bucks.
A close-up to a young turtle in the Caribbean. A sample image taken with a similar rig.
1.- The purpose of the setup
There are tons of waterproof camera options out there but, the best one -in my opinion-, is the camera that you can also use for other purpose, because I don’t plan to be diving every damn weekend.
Somehow, the same happens with clothing. Here's an article about layering that talks about that. If you're interested.
Image credits: GoPro Shop
With this in mind, the best way to go is to GoPro :) No, seriously, the GoPro hero 7 is the best option out there for several reasons:
You can get your hands on one for mere 399 eu (VAT included)
It comes with hypersmooth stabilization (I will get into more details later)
It’s lightweight and has a minimal profile (helps keep everything streamlined)
It’s a plug-and-play system and delivers awesome quality
You can use it for every other “sport” activity
The housing is a mere 60eu investment and will go down to 60m
Of course, someone could say that a GoPro doesn’t really give you a professional look because you can’t get RAW footage. Well, not true. You don’t need RAW to make a quality clip and you definitely do not need this format unless you’re shooting at a completely professional level. Even at that level, most professionals rely on an action cam for POV footage. The rest, is just music.
2.- You have your waterproof camera, but, are you ready?
No. A waterproof camera is just the core of your rig but, as you will discover, underwater photography is quite complex in many aspects, one of them being the loss of color depending on how deep you go.
If you’re not aware of this fact, you can read a bit more in-depth posts about this here. But, to make matters very simple, red is the first color you start losing as you go deep.
This is because water absorbs different wavelengths of light to different degrees. The longest wavelengths, with the lowest energy, are absorbed first.
Even water at 5ft depth will have a noticeable loss of red. For this reason, strobes and filters are usually used to add color back to subjects.
Here's a good explanation video made by a professional underwater photograph that shows clear examples of "with" and "without" lights.
3.- So, do I use a filter on the light? Or do I use it over my waterproof camera? Or both?
Well, there’s not straight answer to that. It normally depends on a combination of factors related to your budget.
While you could just take a simple waterproof lantern and stick a red plastic on top or you could just stick the same red (transparent) plastic in front of you camera, this won’t really produce a quality result.
Shot of LumeCube in use by jakemarote
4.- So, without further ado, let’s talk about filters and lights!
Waterproof lights are expensive. Simple as that. Nonetheless, they are crucial to bringing back color underwater.
You will notice that even if you have the best of filters on top of your camera, you still need light to bring back the brightness and color of your subjects. No light, no color.
This means that, no matter how good your camera is, you will find yourself having a dull, green-blueish footage at the end of the day.
There is hope when it comes to lighting solutions for those who don’t want to break the bank. Enter, the Lume Cube.
I first got to know this cool solution at photokina a few years back when I had the chance of meeting the owner of the brand.
I never really expected I would be finding it so incredibly appropriate for diving until a month ago when I started working on my own rig.
Lume cubes are small, easy to fix, super-waterproof and delivers 1500 lumens of bright light each!
The whole thing is that a normal 2500 Lumen waterproof light will set you back a hefty 1500 eu while lume cubes retails for 189 eu in a set of two!
For my particular setup I’m attaching 4 of them but, two should be enough for filming at a relative “close distance” from the subject. Say, 2 meters away.
If you're aiming for Macro-images then you surely have enough light available.
The Lume Cube has 10 positions to regulate the intensity and will provide 30 mins of light at full-power. Considering that a normal dive at, say 20m, will last for about 45 mins, you have enough juice to film.
Lume Cube also provides a wide range of filters to throw on top but I’m not using any of those for this particular setup. Just to keep it under the 1K mark.
5.- But you said you need filter!
Indeed, filters are an important factor in this equation. Although you could go both ways and use filter on lights and camera, if I had to choose (which I had) I rather put a quality filter on the camera because don’t want to rely on the reach of the light beam alone and I obviously won’t be able to filter the sunlight. Duh!
Being knowledgeable enough in the world of regular photography, you understand that you can have the best quality lens in the planet but if you throw a shit-quality (pardon my french) filter on top of it, then you have a shit-quality image as a result.
Flip Filters by Backscatter
While you have to understand that the housing of your waterproof camera is already a filter, whatever you throw on top will continue to diminish the quality of your images. Therefore, investing in high-end filters is mandatory.
I did quite of research on this topic and while GoPro offers their own line of filters (I assume good ones) the have one small inconvenient.
Different depths, require different tones of red for different absorbed wavelengths. Now imagine you need to be swapping the tiny filter while operating the rest of your gear and trying not to lose any parts. You have maybe gloves on and you need to store, reach and bla bla. Uncomfortable.
The solution: backscatter filters. Backscatter has a pretty dope filterset that comes with a machined frame (roughed) with two different filters already mounted that allows you to go from one grade to the other with just one flip.
The quality of the filter is neat and the fix to the Hero 7 is just flawless. It has a stop system to avoid the unused filter to flap around and when you buy the set, comes with a shallow water filter that will allow you to bring back the magenta tones.
6.- Are we done yet?
Almost, but, so far so good. We just need a few more pieces and your waterproof camera rig is turning into a pro-level underwater filming setup.
For the finishing, we have to add a few pieces of hardware to have the maximum performance.
In order for your rig to be a rig, we need a frame to mount everything. There are several options and I chose one from backscatter but, when it comes to this I would respect only one thing: comfortability.
A sample rig, you should choose the most comfortable for your hands
It is important that you look at measurements and grips and understand what you think will best fit your hands and style of diving. There is not much more to this point than that, as your choice should be based on “the feel” of it.
7.- The last piece of the puzzle are the flex-arms.
First, they look cool. Second they look cool (lol). But for real, if you want to make the most out of your light setup, you will need to adjust the relative position to your subject.
From my four Lume Cube configuration I’m having two fixed to the GoPro sides and two on the flex arms. Now, like I wrote at the beginning, you should be fine with just two but I have a tendency to overkill it (just feels good and as a climber I love redundant systems).
There are multiple choices of flex-arms but I found a pretty good one in Amazon for a cheap price.
I will be updating this post with some 3D printed pieces, in case you want to go that way. I just modified some things to have it more customized to my hands, but you definitely do not need to follow this option.
8.- Small note on the hypersmooth stabilization
one of the reasons why I chose the Hero 7 over a Hero 6 which is much cheaper is the new feature. Although GoPro claims it will kill all gimbals out there (this is not true at all), when it comes to underwater filming, it does add a tremendous difference.
This is because underwater, images tend to be already steadier then above water and if you add this feature, you will get pretty smooth footage. In my opinion, a decisive factor.
Now remember that you can use hypersmooth stabilization only up to 60fps which eliminates the possibility of hyper slo-mo (the camera goes up to 120fps.)
9.- Here's the price summary (and what the rig looks like)
- GoPro Hero 7 (399€)
- Lume Cube set (189€) - Remember I'm using 4, just because I want a bit more light.
- Backscatter FLIP6 3 Filters (120€)
- 2 Flexarm YS Adapter M8 (42€)
- Lume Cube Two Light Mounting bar for GoPro (39€)
- Backscatter Diving Rig Pro (79€)
Grand total = 868€
I also want to remind you guys (as written on my about page) that I'm not bought by any of these brands and that's why I'm not putting any link to the products. I paid full price for all of them and I don't have any affiliation whatsoever. That being said, feel free to copy paste the name of the products in google and find the best deal near your location.
I hope this was useful and I’ll be making a post about a trip to the Maldives, where I plan to test this rig!
Until the next one :)