Into the deep: filming the underwater world

German filmmaker and cameraman Nicolai Deutsch explains how he combines his diving and filmmaking expertise to create standout footage of life beneath the waves.
A diver swims into the wreck of a ship deep underwater. A light attached to their wrist illuminates the shot.

From filming wrecks and divers to cuttlefish and sharks, underwater filmmaker Nicolai Deutsch combines technical knowledge of diving and cameras to create incredible footage of the deep, including a commercial for Swedish brand, Poseidon Diving Systems. "We dived three wrecks in total," says Nicolai of the shoot, a still from which is pictured here. "One is the P31, which is off Comino Island, in between the two islands of Malta and Gozo. Everyone in the dive industry knows this wreck if they see it."

Canon Ambassador Nicolai Deutsch is a cameraman unafraid to go to great depths to achieve breathtaking footage, having filmed underwater content for major international brands including watch manufacturers, dive wear companies and for Netflix's 2021 documentary, Seaspiracy.

Nicolai relishes the range of work he does, including dealing with the logistical and practical demands it offers. "I like to have technical challenges," he says. "I'm generally more of a nerdy, technical person. I love gear."

Alongside a genuine passion for diving and his craft, Nicolai's creative eye and filmmaking technique was what Swedish brand Poseidon Diving Systems required when creating a commercial to demonstrate the technology of their rebreather diving apparatus. This type of equipment allows advanced divers to stay underwater much longer by recycling the gas divers would usually exhale into the water as bubbles, so they can stay beneath the waves for hours at a time.

"They wanted the commercial to focus on the recreational part of rebreather diving, as everyone always thinks it is so technical when you want to begin doing it," says Nicolai. "But their machine is very simple and modern, so it's easier to get into it. A bit like a new car with all the driving assistance programmes, that parks by itself. So that's what they wanted me to promote."

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Two figures in diving suits stand in shallow waters framed by rocky outcrops.

Nicolai filmed the Poseidon Diving Systems commercial with his partner Sarah [pictured left]. As she says in the film: "The ocean is mysterious. There is always something new to discover."

A broad brief meets cinematic filmmaking

Such an open brief allowed Nicolai to bring his own vision to life when filming in the waters off the Mediterranean island of Gozo, but he required a little more imagination since its coastline isn't known for abundant marine life. The German filmmaker decided on a cinematic look to inspire divers in each frame, with well-known shipwrecks such as the 52-metre long P31, a patrol boat built in the 1960s, part of his underwater set.

Nicolai opted to film with his Canon EOS C200 beneath the surface and the Canon EOS C70 on land, with additional footage shot on a drone. Part of the reason for not using the EOS C70 underwater was that it didn't shoot in RAW at that time, although a recent firmware update means the camera now has this capability.

"When we chose Gozo, I knew there was little marine life, so I tried to focus on very strong images, to give this epic feeling and to try to get no bubbles," Nicolai says. "My approach was to be able to stop and pause the video at any time and be like: 'That's a great picture!' And that's not just an approach that I have for this project, but for many others. You want to make it exciting and look epic."

A diver's head and shoulders emerge above water with rocky coastline in the background.

Sarah had wanted to try rebreather diving for a while and the shoot offered both her and Nicolai the opportunity to explore this new world. "Rebreather diving is just amazing for filming. You can stay underwater for a very long time and you don't produce bubbles," Nicolai says.

The commercial includes Nicolai's partner, Sarah, a diving instructor and underwater model, who had always wanted to try rebreather diving but had been fearful, due to its reputation of having more risks associated with it.

"We had this idea that you have to be male and strong or dive technically to use a rebreather," Nicolai continues. "The idea for the commercial was that Sarah doesn't need to go into extreme depths and can have the advantages. Anyone can do it. For us, it was a completely new type of diving, even though we are both experienced divers, which added to the challenge of the shoot."

A diver approaches the top of a shipwreck, small fish swimming in the clear blue sea around them.

"On this shoot I always used a custom white balance, which is very important. I do custom white balance all the time every few metres in the water. Every day, every dive, you have to customise your white balance. And for that I either use the white slate or my buddy's dive tank," says Nicolai.

Challenges of framing underwater

To achieve a cinematic look underwater for this commercial, Nicolai used the compact Canon EOS C200, which captures sharp 4K 50p images in Cinema RAW Light for flexibility in post-production. The filmmaker says that framing is paramount for shoots such as this.

"An image that looks cinematic underwater is harder to achieve than on land because you are more limited in your focal lengths," he says. "For example, to create an easy cinematic look you can use a longer lens and a wide aperture to get a shallow depth of field. But underwater, you usually tend to use wide-angle lenses, firstly because of the visibility and the loss of light, and you also need to be fairly close to your subjects. That's why framing is very important."

The fact that Nicolai can achieve any angle for his scenes due to the nature of diving underwater ramps up creativity. "The nice thing about working underwater is that there are three dimensions that you can be in, and you're not limited to the gravity on the ground. You're floating around so you can find your framing. Framing and lighting are the two key factors in creating a cinematic image," he adds.

A diver reaches towards their own reflection, framed by coral and plant life.

"Underwater, every few metres, the light completely changes, because you have a very high loss of colour. So you lose, for example, the red in the first few metres, then you lose the oranges and yellows, and you end up just having green and blue at the end. And it varies – if you were at five or 15 metres, the white balance is completely different. So that's very important – and the water temperature also plays a role. All of these things affect the colour of the water," says Nicolai.

Planning lighting effectively

The shoot involved wreck diving alongside a night dive with small fish that reflected Nicolai's lights. The scenarios in the film needed intelligent planning of light. "Sarah wore a warm ambient light on her wrist in pretty much every shot, because it just gives extra feeling and without it the image would look completely different," says Nicolai.

"When she arrives in the frame down the stairs of the wreck, I put another light at the bottom of the stairway that makes it so much more interesting. On top of all of this, I still have my lights on the front of my camera to get some colour in the wreck, otherwise everything would just be washed out green and blue.

A woman dressed all in black stares to her left. Blurred in the background is the sea and a large, rocky outcrop.

"So there is a lot of planning when we do these types of shots. Before we went to do this one, we spoke on land about exactly how I wanted this shot to look. I've dived this spot two or three times before and I knew that I wanted to place the light there. It's 40 metres deep, so we had to be quick because we didn't want to waste too much time on those shots."

For this project, Nicolai used a base rate of ISO800 (with the exception of filming the wreck, when he used up to ISO6400). He shot all footage in Canon Log 2. "When filming underwater try to keep the light in, so don't shoot downwards," he recommends. "If you don't have underwater lights, stay shallow. You can shoot at five to 10 metres and still get excellent colours."

Two figures in diving gear walk across the sand with dunes and a sand-coloured structure in the background.

Nicolai and his team talked about shots and equipment on land before going underwater. At some points his camera setup weighed up to 20 kilos and he had to think carefully in order to maximise his equipment. "RAW is something that is super-important for me when filming underwater, because the white balance is difficult to fix in post-production if you don't have a high bitrate and RAW recording. So now with the Canon EOS C70 having RAW capability, I'm really considering using this as my main underwater camera," he says.

Unconventional lens pairing, surprising results

Alongside the Canon EOS C200, Nicolai also shoots with the Canon EOS R5 and uses EF lenses with the Canon Mount Adapter EF-EOS R. For underwater shooting, he has found an unconventional method that offers surprisingly effective results.

"For this film, I used a Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM combined with a wide-angle 'wet lens' designed for underwater work, which goes in front of the housing," he says. "I used the 18-55mm, which is super-sharp in its standard range, to film the rear of that conversion lens."

"For example, if I were to use a more professional wide-angle lens from Canon and put a dome port in front, those lenses are not designed to work with the wavelength on the water," he explains. "The corners aren't as sharp, you have to stop down and you get a lot of vignetting. So the way I use it [by combining the two lenses] is relatively new and it's only been out there for maybe four or five years."

Nicolai has had an underwater camera in his hands since the age of 12, so is well-versed with the ocean, an environment that despite the challenges, keeps him returning for more.

"In this shoot we had so many difficulties – diving with a bunch of lights in your pocket and at one point having two cameras with me, the Canon EOS R5 strapped to my back so I could use that for still images and having a spare tank," he says. "All of this gives me joy and I know that there are not many people who have those skills. It's very rewarding to know that I managed to pull off this challenging shoot in a very short amount of time."

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