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Underwater Video

Video at Night: 12 Steps to Success

By Jill Heinerth

Leaving your video lights on at all times make it easier to find your buddy, and should you ever loose your camera getting back onboard a dive boat (this happened recently – Ed.)
it will be easier to find and recover! Photo: Russell Clark

When the sun drops below the horizon, vacationers often grab a cocktail and start sharing dive stories at the beach bar. Yet, if you only dive in the full light of day, you might be missing some extraordinary experiences. Night, dusk, and dawn dives bring fresh opportunities to swim with the ocean’s nocturnal marauders. Under the pale light of a new moon, unique characters inhabit the reef, and if you have your lights and camera ready, you’ll be rewarded for staying up past bedtime!


Before you leap into night diving with your camera, make sure you are properly trained, experienced, and carrying the proper equipment. Your first night dive should not be a video dive. It is a good idea to have a few night dives logged before you jump in with your camera. When your head is buried in the viewfinder, you can easily lose track of the descent line. You need a solid safety and navigation plan. Take a high quality primary and backup light(s) in addition to your video lights so that you can signal a boat on the surface. The burn time of your lights should greatly exceed the dive time. You will be using your light on deck, and if you get separated from the boat, you’ll wish for a light that lasts all night.

Start with Sunset

A dusk dive is a great way to transition into night shooting. With a dusk dive, you will arrive on-site in the evening light and jump in as it starts to get dark. You’ll see the transition from day creatures to night crawlers, and  might also catch some interesting low-angled sun on the surface before you start your descent.

You Can Leave the Light On

You and your buddy should leave lights on at all times. It is easy to lose track of your partner when she turns off her light, and an extinguished light may not always reactivate. Some divers like to wear strobes, but the continuous blinking will ruin your footage. Skip the strobe and stick with hand held lighting that looks natural.

Can You Lend Me a Hand?

Bright lights will lure some marine life and repel others. I have found myself in a school of baitfish, unable to see anything else. The small, darting fish make me feel like I’m being swarmed by flies, but they can also offer opportunities when larger fish come to feed. I have been brushed by large tarpon while I was in a bait ball. On one occasion, the tarpon hit me hard enough that I saw large scales glitter as they dropped to the seafloor like dimes flipped in a coin toss. Ask your buddy to carry one of your large video lights. Fish will swarm the most prominent light, and if your buddy tolerates the swarm, the footage can be beautiful.

School Your Buddy

Working together in the dark may be challenging, so make a solid plan for your dive. Rehearse your communication signals on the boat. Ensure that your partner knows the scale of what you are shooting. There is no point in having them grab your attention to film a tiny seahorse if you use a wide-angle lens. Let them know the size of things you hope to shoot, and ask them to be patient and allow you to finish your shot before signaling you with light. A good buddy will be on hand to light an octopus den for you or find an angle where they can be in a shot without flaring a light into your lens.

Sounding Good

Ask your buddy to use sound to gain your attention rather than light. A shaker, horn, or tank banger can inform you that they have something to share without ruining your shot. Let them know before the dive that you might need to finish a shot before checking out the next discovery. Ask them to be patient and never put a hand on you to gain your attention unless it is an emergency. Sometimes, my model assumes that I am ignoring his desperate pleas for attention. In reality, I am just trying to ensure that I have what I need at my current position before moving on to a new sequence.

Close to Home

There is so much activity underwater at night that there is little need to swim a great distance and risk getting lost. Stay close to the boat. Settle in and give the marine life time to get accustomed to your presence. Your patience will be rewarded. But don’t kneel on the bottom. You might be on top of somebody’s house.

A Red Wave

Some animals are very sensitive to light and will dart away, beyond the edge of your glow. If you are searching for animals, consider using a red light. If you don’t have a red light, use a plastic brake-light cover secured to the light’s face. You might get close to an octopus or sleeping fish since most night dwellers won’t see the red light as a threat.

Use Fresh Eyes

Stay alert for new subjects and utterly different behaviours. Some less-than-stellar daytime sites come alive with a new cast at night. You may witness things you have never seen before. I recall the first time I saw a swimming mollusk, walking brittlestar, and a bioluminescent sea pen. Even familiar animals seem like better video subjects at night. Lobsters are out walking. Octopus are actively feeding on the reef, and eels are swimming in the open.

New Dive Partners

Some marine life will use your light for hunting. A fish may follow you around or take the opportunity to feed on worms and fish that are attracted to your camera lights. Rather than fight it, film it. Pass off your biggest lights to your partner and film them with their new friends.

Look Close

Consider macro videography for night dives. With all the action, you might want to focus on the smaller stuff. You can spend an hour in 10 sqft (1m2) of reef, shooting filter feeders, fish, and the rich textures of coral. You might get close enough to a sleeping parrotfish to pan from his eyeball to his fluctuating gills or see a lionfish hunting for tasty juveniles.

Blackwater and Bonfires

Blackwater photography is one of the newest trends in diving. With no bottom in sight, a photographer uses light to attract diminutive deepwater denizens. Jellies, ctenophores, larval creatures, and pelagics are interesting in stills and even more fun as a video sequence. Bonfire diving is a similar concept but on a wall. The videographer keeps their back to the wall and shoots out into blackness to capture the open water animals. Using a reference line makes this more manageable, but dress warm and be patient. Stillness is critical for the shot and essential for protecting small animals that can be harmed with an errant kick. Focusing is hard, so let your buddy spotlight a critter for you, illuminating it from the side.

Night diving is a great chance to record life that you have never seen before, and if you run out of memory space or air, enjoy the light show from the boat deck. The glow of blue lights beneath the surface is a worthy film subject, too. 

Into The Planet Jill’s biography can be purchased now through Amazon. For more visit:

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