Five Ways to Improve Your Shipwreck Videos

by: Ron Johns

It’s not difficult to significantly improve the shipwreck videos you’re shooting to share with friends or relatives; it just takes a little planning.  As technical divers, we are used to “Plan Your Dive, Dive Your Plan,” so why not “Plan Your Video, Video Your Plan?”  Before splashing in, always make a shot list—all the shots that you need for your video.  Divide them up and decide what you can accomplish on that dive.  Of course, this only works if you follow the shot list.  Pre-planning like this is even more important with deep dives and short bottom times.

First:  Use at least three basic movie-making techniques.

  1. Your video must tell a story to be understandable. This doesn’t have to be complicated.  It can be as simple and easy to follow as this:
    • Entry: Shoot that giant stride or back roll entry.
    • Descent: Follow the diver down the mooring line or descend ahead and shoot them from below as they descend.
    • Dive: Show the features of the wreck you want to highlight such as the compass binnacle, wheel, artifacts, etc.
    • Ascent: Shoot your buddy flashing you the thumbs-up signal and/or ascending the mooring line.
    • Exit: Climbing the boarding ladder from water level or from the boat.
  1. Next, use these standard shot sequences:
    • Wide-angle establishing shot: This could be the ship as it comes into view on the descent or it could be a shot from the bow or the stern to reveal the magnitude of the ship.
    • Medium shot: Move closer to be able to show more detail.
    • Close-up: An example could be a tight shot of the markings on a ship’s telegraph.
    • Medium to wide-angle closing shot: A shot that would indicate moving on to the next subject.
  1. Lastly, and most importantly, EDIT.
    • Keep it short. The modern viewer has a very short attention span.  20 to 30-minute videos are only interesting to someone who shared the dive with you.  This takes real discipline.  Try it.  Making a 3-minute video is much more difficult than making a 20-minute video.
    • Only use your best shots. All those marginal shots must be left on the cutting room floor.  Think professionals don’t shoot any junk?  Think again.  They shoot plenty, but you never see it because they edit out that stuff.  Your reward will be a tight, interesting video that your viewers truly enjoy.

Second:  Use titles.

Of course, any movie should have a title and ending credits.  For shipwreck diving, I like to add some basic information at the beginning:

  • Vessel Name
  • Vessel Type
  • Length
  • Beam
  • Built (Year)
  • Wrecked (Year)
  • Location
  • Depth

Using captions for objects on the wreck is also very helpful for your viewer.  Examples may include labeling the spare propeller blade on the deck or the engine room gauges.

Third:  Shoot wide-angle vistas.

Shipwrecks, even artificial wrecks, have a sense of mystery about them.   Move away from the wreck for as wide a shot as visibility allows.  No other shot is quite as clear and sharp, adding to the sense of adventure the diver is experiencing.  You will also establish the enormity of the disaster of the wreck.  Even small ships are huge, especially to landlubbers like most of your audience.  For deep technical dives, you’re sure to encounter lower light levels on the wreck as well; this only adds to the sense of adventure.

Fourth:  Use a model.

Whether you’re shooting on a coral reef or a Great Lakes shipwreck, using a model is advantageous because a model adds human interest.  Modeling is difficult, so choose carefully.  Choose an accomplished diver with impeccable skills.  Plan with your model before the dive so they know what you need.  The best models also shoot video (not on the same dive) because they understand the shots you are trying to get.  A model is also essential to add scale to the wreck so the viewer understands the magnitude of the machinery and the ship.

Fifth:  Use adequate lighting.

Light is more important for your shipwreck videos than an expensive camera.  Your super-powerful, super-expensive wreck/cave light with an 8-degree beam just won’t be adequate for lighting your video.  I’ve watched many potentially exciting or interesting videos ruined by trying to light them with a handheld light intended for penetration.  Video lights used to be prohibitively expensive, but the opposite is true today; they are so inexpensive that a diver has no good excuse for not having a pair of good video lights.  The bulk and weight also disappeared with the exorbitant cost.  Modern lights, with batteries included, weigh merely ounces while producing ten times the light.

Deep technical dives and any penetration inside the wreck exaggerate the need for adequate lighting.  It’s not as dark as a cave, but if you want any detail to show up, you’ll need the light.  Some years ago, my technical/cave instructor posted a short cave video and received raving reviews for it.  One of his replies was “It’s amazing what $2,000 worth of lights will do for a $400 camera.”  If you are on a budget, spend your money on the lights first.  You will be amazed what those lights will do for a GoPro.   Later, when your budget allows, move up to the $10,000 camera and housing that you’ve always wanted. Your lights will work fine with that camera too.

On a related topic, handling the video camera during long deco hangs can be problematic.  My background is Great Lakes wreck diving (think 37-degree water).  I found that holding my camera during those 60-120-minute hangs made my fingers so cold that they became inoperable.  A sling made from nylon line and a bolt snap to attach to my scooter ring solved the problem.  It hangs underneath, out of the way—you won’t even know it’s there.

Make the effort to improve your videos by following the previous five tips; they are endlessly fascinating and will be even better with just a few adjustments.  Keep sharing those videos!

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