One of my favorite ways to make a break from the normal daily routine is to grab the kids and a GoPro Hero and head for the hills in search of water. Fortunately, here in the Blue Ridge mountains of SW Virginia this is but a matter of choosing a direction and within minutes we’re rock-hopping down a mountain stream, exploring the shallow climbs for vibrant color and life.
If you have access to a GoPro Hero or similar compact waterproof camera and like the idea of adding a variety of aquatic color to the library, here are a few simple tips to aid in making cleaner underwater photographs (or video) without alerting resident fish and aquatic life.
Far be it for me to tell you such a thing, but wet rock is incredibly slick and can leave both us and our gear soaking (if not hurting) before we get the first shot. Due to the potential for lost or discarded fishing hooks and sharp objects of all kinds, it’s best to always wear sandals or shoes in any creek, stream or river of any size.
I recommend choosing a wide, shallow spot with solid footing and plenty of room. This is a great way to get a feel for volume, and to practice moving the camera smoothly both with and against flow. The more shallow the water, the more our available light is allowed to penetrate and expose the creek bed, adding interest and perspective.
Going deeper than 3 or 4 feet will cause our light to drop off rapidly, fading to a deep green (blue, or red) and eventually to black. Naturally, this can vary widely depending on topography and time of day. For example, our shooting depth in the above image is around 3-1/2 feet under a late-afternoon sun.
Position Yourself Downstream
If you find yourself standing mid-stream, keep in mind the direction of flow. Remember that any pebbles or silt stirred by walking will flow either into or away from our shot or scene. While this stirring action can add a sense of motion and depth, I generally prefer to keep the flow moving towards me with debris flowing behind and away from the scene. If this is not an option, all we can do is get in position and pause a few for any stirred particles to settle before shooting.
Also, by any means possible, try to keep the camera between yourself and the sun at all times to eliminate any chance of reflecting your shadow into the scene. Some of us have to learn this the hard way.
Turn Off LED (GoPro)
The flash of a GoPro Hero LED can alert any fish or aquatic life in the area and spook them into hiding. For this reason, I would highly recommend locating the LED options in the Settings menu and turning this feature OFF for the best result. We’re using a GoPro Hero 3 Black for this post, but the information can be equally applied to any compact waterproof camera on the market today.
Using a Monopod
A monopod, for those unaware, is a single staff-like device that extends for quick and stable shooting. Typically used by sports photographers in lieu of a tripod for stable panning in full-sun, a decent monopod of 48-60″ or longer is ideal for reaching into small pools and rapids. It’s easy to carry while walking and moving the camera to emulate a natural flow, or to add sweeping overhead and surface-level pans.
To practice tracking a subject, toss in a leaf or a small piece of wood upstream and have fun experimenting with various angles. A friend and I recently learned while attempting to track an object continuously in a mild current (with two cameras) that even in low volume it was a challenge to safely keep up without eventually taking a swim.
Yet in all of it’s usefulness, the presence of a monopod protruding unnaturally into a native stream will also alarm any aquatic life present and cause our fish to again take cover. So, how do you photograph these guys? The key is to approach them at surface level, with the camera upside down. With a few bucks and a little back yard engineering, it’s as easy as shooting fish in a barrel.
Making a GoPro PFD
What we’re seeing here is my own humble version of a make-shift GoPro PFD (Personal Floatation Device) fashioned from a old mid-weight Frisbee packed with stryo-foam and wrapped with duct tape. The GoPro is mounted with a gooseneck extension and stuck right to the plastic (fortified with more duct tape) using a flat GoPro sticky-mount. By no means a sophisticated design, this model confidently ran several small-to-midsize rapids and stayed upright in the majority of our tests. But the magic happens when it’s upside-down.
Fish and aquatic life are accustomed to objects traveling downstream on the water’s surface, such as ducks and other birds as well as even sticks and debris that do not alert the habitat. As mentioned earlier, any curious protrusion from the outside-in constitutes a threat and our fish will seek shelter, especially in native streams where human contact is at a minimum.
If you do try this project, I recommend doing so by starting with a friend in a smaller stream. Have them release it upstream, with yourself downstream to catch the camera before it goes bye-bye. Adding a small D-ring or eyelet to the outer surface of the PFD will allow further control via monopod or even a fishing pole to be cast or lowered into remote areas.
If you enjoy shooting underwater and would like to see a little more life in your images, consider giving this a try. Having initially started this venture to seek a filming solution for my paddling friends, I inadvertently ended up here. But I stand impressed as more of my underwater images are enjoying a rapid transition from lifeless…
If you’d like to see a video sample or two of how this works, you can do so here and here. If you’d like to learn more in regard to editing an underwater image in Photoshop, please check out the following tutorial on Aquatic Color Zoning & Shooting with the GoPro Hero.
Thank you for stopping by, I hope you found it useful. If you have any questions, please feel free to leave them in the comments section below, or drop me a line at [email protected].