There’s something about water that fascinates us. We’re drawn to it, for travel, food, and entertainment.
Being immersed in water fascinates us because it changes our physical world, giving us another direction to travel the third dimension previously reserved to birds and butterflies. As Jacques Cousteau said to Time magazine in March of 1960: “Buoyed by water, [a human] can fly in any direction – up, down, sideways – by merely flipping his hand. Underwater, man becomes an archangel.”
Water is also mysterious. It’s hostile. We can’t live in it. Its pressures are crushing. Its atmosphere is unbreathable. Beneath its surface are strange and marvelous creatures and the wreckage and remains of others who have dared to explore before us.
But how do you get your video camera down there? And to what end?
As video cameras get cheaper, and underwater housings as well, we’re seeing lots more of them in the field, says Brad Hafford, Ph.D., a PADI certified diver who teaches Underwater Archeology at the University of Pennsylvania and has also spent time making underwater videos of Florida’s manatees. Getting a camera underwater on an archeology dig used to be a big deal; now many digs have a dedicated videographer. Having videotape of a complicated and meticulous operation made more arduous by being underwater can be very useful. Most of the shallow wrecks have already been looted, says Dr. Hafford, so the wrecks that are being excavated are usually fairly deep, which means you don’t have much time on the bottom. You’re all business when you get down there, and that can save you time on the surface. Dr. Hafford continues: When archaeologists raised Henry VIII’s flagship, the Mary Rose, beginning in 1982, they took more than seventy hours of video footage, which helped, in conjunction with notes and drawings, to reconstruct it on the surface.
Simple Underwater Video
For years, filmmakers have been capturing images beneath the surface of ponds and lakes with nothing more sophisticated than an old fish tank.
Set your camera down inside a empty ten- or twenty-gallon aquarium, weight it down with a couple of bricks and set it on the surface of a pond. This technique is especially useful for capturing the heads and shoulders of swimmers above the water, while also revealing the sea monster beneath that’s about to pull one of them below. This will also work for videotaping someone diving into a pool. Do not get your camera wet.
While some professional models guard against splashing and rain, many consumer models do not. If you’re in an environment where you suspect your camera may get some spray, wrap it in a towel first, exposing only the lens. If you think your camera may get more than a few drops of water, it’s time to put it in something waterproof.
Water Resistant Bags
Your camcorder has four natural enemies: sand, water, toddlers and dogs, all of which may be present at the beach.
If you’re not planning on taking your camera deep underwater, you can use something like an Ewa-Marine bag. Basically, it’s a heavy-duty Ziplock bag with a glass filter attached that you put your camcorder into while snorkeling or diving to shallow depths. Their rating is about ten meters, and they cost between $250 and $350. Ewa-Marine bags limit access to the camera controls, although some models have a fitted “finger” built into the side of the bag. It’s a bit awkward at first but, apart from zoom and power, you don’t normally need to fiddle with too much. For your coral reef snorkeling adventure, it should do nicely. Some modern camcorders are so small you can fit them in a waterproof bag made for a 35mm camera. It’s more awkward, as you have to hold or tape the glass filter to the front of your video camera, but it also means you might be able to find a used one cheap on an auction site or the for-sale bulletin board at the local dive or surf shop.
Custom housings suitable for taking your camera to significant depths can run thousands of dollars and are pricey even at the low end. The Stingray III Sport from Light and Motion retails for about $900 and will fit a number of small modern video cameras, whereas ones dedicated for high-end HD cameras can run as high as $5,000.
Depending on what you want to be videotaping, there are also dedicated systems such as the Aqua-vu (www.aquavu.com), which is basically a steerable, fish-shaped (no foolin’), underwater security camera designed for fishermen and people who are curious as to what’s at the bottom of a lake but don’t want to get wet finding out. The camera trails behind your boat on a cable, investigating the briny depths. The cameras range from about $250 to about $2000, are available in color or black-and-white and will interface with a recording device.
People love to be in and around the water and they love to watch video. It makes sense to bring the two together and share your underwater activities with others. Your camcorder doesn’t belong underwater, so you’ll need to keep it dry. There is a variety of commercial devices that do this, from bags to hard-shell cases.
Kyle Cassidy is a visual artist who writes extensively about technology.
Side Bar – Pressure: How Much Can You Take?
With depth comes pressure; the weight of the water above squeezes things beneath it. For this reason, something that’s watertight on the surface will leak (or even crush) at depth. Things that go underwater, like wristwatches and camera housings, are rated to a particular depth. Static pressure is different from dynamic pressure, meaning that, while a case may be watertight at 40 feet, the pressure might actually be the same as being at sixty feet if you move the case quickly through the water. (Fashion wristwatches, for example, are usually rated for static pressure, which means you can lower one slowly on a string to 100 feet and it might not leak, but if you put it on your wrist and swim with it, it will quickly fill with water.) As a general rule, don’t take anything snorkeling (your watch included) that’s rated for a static pressure of less than 100 meters.
Also, salt water and fresh water have different densities; salt water is heavier. This means being 50 feet down in the ocean is not the same as being 50 feet down in Lake Gitche Gumee. Professional equipment is rated either FSW (feet of salt water) or FFW (feet of fresh water). If you take a camera housing rated in FFW into the ocean, you could end up with a wet camcorder.