Video & Filmmaking


How Laura James Captures 360˚ Video Underwater

October 26, 2017

By Holly Stuart Hughes

Laura James, a maker of underwater videos for 20 years and a committed conservationist, says that the first time she saw 360-video, she was eager to try it. “It is the most powerful medium I’ve found for ocean advocacy,” says James, who is based in Seattle. She likes the “transparency” of 360-video, she says, which allows viewers to look all around the spot where she has placed her camera. For example, James often dives and captures videos where storm drains spew pollutants into Puget Sound. “When someone looks around, they see that what I’m sharing is not an editorial. They can look around and see for themselves that the damage to the underwater world by our hand is exactly as bad as it looks, if not worse.”

A self-described “do-it-yourself geek,” James has built her own underwater housings for consumer-level 360-cameras, and taken apart GoPro action camera lenses to adjust the focus for her needs. She regularly shares her experiments on her website (diverlaura.me), on social media and on forums for underwater photographers and 360-video creators. Her goal is to encourage both filmmakers and amateurs to try making high-quality 360-video. “People can see that with time and persistence you can get better,” she says. “I don’t think that it should be limited to people with loads of money, or people who want to be bigtime professionals. The only way to move the medium forward is if other people can shoot reasonable footage.”

Laura James on dry land using the OpenROV Trident underwater drone. © Laura James

James has now created 360-video for corporate and broadcast clients, and she’s been hired by Mechanical Dreams, a local production company that specializes in 360-degree and immersive storytelling. She has typically used two techniques when working with camera arrays set up to capture 360-video. “There’s a static shot, where you set it down and you leave it,” and allow the array to capture the entire scene. If she wants to avoid being seen in the shot, she’ll dive behind a rock, swim away or position herself in what will become the stitch line of the finished video.

Her second technique is to create “a great big tracking shot” by attaching the camera rig to the front of her underwater scooter with a pole about one meter long. The scooter is heavy and has a stabilizing rig to prevent the wobble or yaw that tends to make VR viewers seasick, especially when looking at footage on a headset. In these 360-videos, James is usually visible as she pilots the scooter. To the viewer, she says, “It looks like I’m swimming behind you.”

Recently she’s tested a third technique that uses a Remote Operated Vehicle, “mounting the 360 cameras on the OpenROV Trident underwater drone which makes the propulsion invisible.” The underwater drone allows her to get underwater shots without a diver in the shot, she says: “Quite magical, actually.”

Moving from regular video documentaries to making 360-videos required experimentation and some adaptation of the gear available. Working with a limited budget, she accumulated the gear she needed over time by shopping on eBay and Craigslist. About two and a half years ago, a friend lent her an array made up of six GoPros, and gave her a “one-hour tutorial” on how to use autopan to capture 360 views. After leak-testing the array in an underwater housing, James took it to the mouth of a storm drain in the Puget Sound. When she checked the footage, she recalls, “It was out of focus. I was heartbroken.”

The problem, she says, was that many of the early versions of small action cameras “were not designed to focus close.” Less than tack-sharp footage could be overlooked if the underwater footage were spectacular. “But I’m in the Northwest, and I don’t have 300-foot visibility, I have more like 10- to 15-foot visibility on a good day, so I need things to be in focus.” To solve the issue, she says, “You can either change the focus of the lens or put a tiny little diopter in front of the lens.” Because the used GoPros she had purchased were no longer on warranty, she decided to take them apart, readjust the lenses and shorten the focus. Using her reconfigured GoPros, she managed to get a short, in-focus video. She next put a 2016 model of the Samsung Gear 360 in a two-dome housing that she had built. The footage looked sharp.

But once the footage was in focus, she knew she had more work to do. “You fix one thing and then you realize you have to fix another thing,” she says. “Lighting became the next challenge.”

© Laura James

James holds a 360 camera during a dive. © Laura James

Working at depths of up to 100 feet, James uses Light & Motion’s Sola dive lights. Her dive buddies act as her lighting assistants, either carrying the lights or helping place them on the sea floor or clamping them to objects underwater before she lets the camera pan. She strives for a “museum” lighting effect: spotlighting the subjects she wants the viewer to notice as they pan around the 360 view. She scouts the area and plans her shots first, with the camera array’s field of view in mind, in order to eliminate back scatter. When shooting with a 360 camera array, she notes, she isn’t worrying about lens flare in just one camera, “You have to worry about lens flare with six cameras.”

James taught herself to stitch her videos together “because part of what I do is offer a ‘one stop shop’ and also fast turnaround,” she says. Learning how to process the footage also helped her learn to shoot better, she says: “How parallax will impact your shot, how to set up the camera to hide stitch lines, how to shoot for a successful stitch.” Stitching time depends on the complexity of the footage and the amount of post needed. However, when a humpback whale entered the shallows of Seattle’s Fauntleroy Cove and died in August 2016, James shot footage with a six-camera array, stitched it overnight and was able to send it to local media outlets before the next day’s news cycle.

Most of her commissions come through word of mouth. “I do a significant amount of subtle promotion,” she says. She posts her tests on YouTube and on Facebook. “The angle I took was: I’ll just push out this 360 and make it available so everyone can watch it.” She realized that via Facebook she was able to reach people who had never seen 360-video before. The autoplay function on Facebook “has expanded my reach massively.”

People browsing her YouTube and Vimeo pages can see how much her skills have improved in the past two years, and that she continues to push herself while using the gear she has acquired on a freelance filmmaker’s budget.

What equipment would she use if a dream client offered her an unlimited budget? That depends on the client’s needs, she says. “If they want the highest quality 2D in low light or deeper water, I’d probably recommend we reach out to the Korean company that makes the beautiful housing for three mirrorless cameras,” such as the Sony a7S II or the Panasonic GH5. She would use these with Entaniya Fisheye 250 lenses, which are compatible with several mounts. If the client needed a smaller array with fully synced cameras, she says, “I am becoming quite the fan of the all-inclusive Boxfish unit out of New Zealand which uses Z-cams.” For a less expensive and more readily available option, she might choose “the six-camera GoPro Arrays…but for these I really recommend making sure to use a diopter or modified GoPros for sharp, crisp footage.” For good quality on a budget, she likes using the Kodak Pixpro SP360 4K system with underwater housings; there’s a mount for these from Shapeways that was designed and 3-D printed by Sebastian Hagemeister who, like James, has tinkered with making several of his own designs.

James encourages others to try shooting 360 with a consumer camera, and “be willing to start small.” She notes, “At least getting a walkthrough on how to stitch can help you understand more clearly how to shoot as well.” She also recommends seeking advice from video and underwater groups and forums that are open to mentoring. She adds, “Be open-minded. Be prepared for frustration. Be prepared to ask for help.”

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