Shooting for the TV Screen

By Jim Church

In years past, showing underwater pictures often meant setting up a slide projector and a large screen. Today, many photographers are shooting video and have copied their 35mm slides to video. Although TV screens have increased in size during recent years, most are smaller than those used to project slides. Also, the projected images are sharper and brighter. Thus, our goal is to create images on a television screen that viewers can see clearly and identify quickly.


Shoot video scenes tighter than you would for a 35mm slide show. Shoot long shots (LS) and medium shots (MS) as close as you can. For example, a video LS may show the same picture area as a slide show MS and a video MS as much as a slide show CU (close-up). The idea is to fill the frame (the picture area) to give the viewer a closer view of your subjects.

Filling the TV screen with subjects requires special techniques that will seem unnatural at first. Pose divers closer together than they would normally be. Urging them to get closer to each other and to other objects will be a task. For an LS, frame at the ankles or higher. For an MS, frame just above the knees or higher. For a CU, use a head and shoulder's view or just a diver's face. To see what I mean, watch how close the actors on TV sitcoms stand to each other. Getting close underwater will seem unnatural to your diver models because they tend to maintain their topside distances from each other. Topside distances force you to use a larger picture area, which makes divers' images appear smaller on the TV screen. Remember these three rules: get close, get close and get close.


If only part of a diver's body is in frame (in the picture area), you must decide where to cut the diver's image. A good rule of thumb is: don't cut at the joints. For example, cut just above or below the knees or elbows, or the bustline for female divers. Don't be afraid to amputate lower bodies; viewers are accustomed to seeing only the upper bodies of divers. You can also amputate tops of heads in diver face close-ups and fish bodies in fish face close-ups.


Wide angle lenses make near subjects appear larger and far subjects look smaller than they really are. This is why a grouper close to the camera looks so large when compared to divers behind it. If you wish to show distant divers behind a large sponge, the divers could be as close as four or five feet. Conversely, to keep a diver's image large in relation to the sponge, the diver must move in close to the sponge.


A close-up of a grouper, eel, hermit crab or a diver's face is what the viewer wants to see; views of a featherduster worm slowly extending its tentacles shows interesting action. Use long and medium shots to lead the viewer to the close-ups and to reestablish locations, but use CUs to emphasize details.

Shoot several slightly different camera angles, even if the subject is sedentary. If you will be editing later, don't cut these shots too short; give yourself the option of editing out the best footage later.


Avoid competitive backgrounds that draw viewers' eyes away from the subjects. The background is the stage for your underwater subjects and should support and draw attention to your subjects. Busy backgrounds show locations, such as a wreck, reef or an eel's lair. Neutral backgrounds, such as sandy bottoms or mid-water blue and black at night, lead viewers' eyes directly to the subject. To sum up, the image's brightness, color, contrast, sharpness and action should lead the viewer's eye to the subject.