A few months ago, I embarked on a remarkable journey, joining an ocean conservation vessel on a mission to combat illegal fishing in the South Atlantic Ocean. As a member of the ship’s media team, my responsibilities involved capturing the beauty and challenges of the open sea. This entailed quite a few challenges: One was filming from a small boat, often in turbulent conditions. Another was the complexity of flying a drone from a constantly moving ship.
While at sea, you witness extreme contradictions. On soft and foggy mornings, the waters enveloped the ship’s hull in a gentle embrace, making the ocean seem kind and inviting. On other days, we were hit with the violent rage of the waves that reminded us of Mother Nature’s indomitable force, humbling our place in the world.
Despite the prospect of a great adventure, beautiful scenery, and abundant wildlife, I knew I would face many challenges (and not just the impending threat of seasickness).
My role on the ship sometimes required me to film on incredibly short notice. I had to keep my equipment minimal. A fancy underwater housing was out of the question. Instead, I had a grab bag ready to go with equipment set up for versatile styles of shooting.
I only filmed above water, but that doesn’t mean that my gear was safe from the salty waters.
I faced three main challenges:
- keeping my gear safe from the corrosive effects of salty seawater
- Keeping the camera stable, and
- Landing the drone safely on unstable, moving ground.
All in all, I spent about seven months filming on ships. I found different methods to get the best possible shots while keeping my equipment safe and dry.
Here are a few tips to help you keep your gear safe at sea-
Waterproof bags and rain covers
This sounds like a given, but it’s important to start with the basics. When you are close to the water, placing your unused gear in dry bags is the best way to keep it dry. Likewise, when you are using your camera, a rain cover is a great protector against the ocean spray. Rain covers are usually much larger than the camera and have a long sleeve. You can also use them to protect your camera from water while changing lenses. This is not something you can do with underwater housing.
Saltwater is especially damaging to electronics, and you don’t want to leave any drops on your equipment for too long. Having lens cleaner fluid and cloth on hand will be handy in case you get some drops on your lens (or any other equipment). A cloth alone isn’t enough to remove the saltwater. You will need the cleaning fluid as well. Towels will be a great help. You can use them to dry your hands before touching your equipment or drying the equipment itself.
When it comes to stabilizing your camera on boats, there is no short answer. It depends on many factors: what you are filming, how rough the waters are, how big the boat is, and the gear you are using. For this tip – I will refer to the type of situations that I was filming in. I was mostly on a small boat in rough seas. In cases like this, a gimbal would be more of a nuisance than an aid. Going handheld, and having another person hold you for stabilization is your best option. This is true both for filming inside the boat and for shooting far away objects, like other boats.
On larger, more stable ships, using a gimbal attached to the ship can produce smoother footage and reduce seasickness risk.
Pro tip: when you are standing at the center of the ship, the camera will move from side to side. When you are standing closer to the edges of the ship, the camera movement will be up and down
Out at sea, conditions can get windy. If you must use a shotgun mic, a mic cover (or deadcat) will help cancel out wind sound to some extent. But for dialog, using a Lavalier mic and placing it underneath the subject’s clothes will give you much better results.
A polarising filter reduces glare and reflections on water or rocks, it can also make water appear transparent. This may or may not be a good thing, depending on whether the reflections are wanted or not. When you rotate a polarising filter, you adjust the amount of polarised light you block out.
Catching the drone
A boat is not an ideal landing surface. There is a good chance you will need to hand-catch the drone. Here are some tips for helping both you and the drone stay safe.
Disable obstacle avoidance
You will most likely have to catch the drone by hand when landing it on the ship. Especially if the boat is moving. If obstacle avoidance is turned on, the sensors will “see” your hand and try to avoid it. So every time you reach to catch the drone, it will escape. Turn off obstacle avoidance!
The drone propellers may seem small and harmless, but they can cause some serious cuts if the get your fingers. Make sure the person catching the drone (you?) is wearing gloves.
Disable max distance and return to home
The boat is moving, so the drone thinks it is getting further away from its home point (where you launched it). The drone will want to return to the coordinates of where it took off vs. flying to where you actually are.
The “return to home” feature allows the drone to land where it was launched from. But if you are on a moving vessel, that drone will just land in the open ocean, and we don’t want that. Either use the “smart return to home” feature or disable it completely.
Launch the drone where there is nothing behind you
The boat is moving forward, but the drone hovers in place. It tries to remain stationary relative to its launch point, not relative to the ship. This means that the boat is moving forward relative to the drone. Any high object behind you will hit the drone the boat moves. Launch the drone when there is nothing behind you to avoid collisions.
Rotate the drone away from you
The moment of truth has come – and it is time to land the drone. When the drone is close enough to the boat and within sight, make sure the drone is facing away from you. This way, when you move the joystick to the right, the drone will go right, and when you move the stick to the left, the drone moves to the left. For boat landing, you have to be focused and think fast, so having the drone move intuitively will make landing much easier.
In conclusion, filming and flying a drone at sea presents exhilarating challenges and unparalleled opportunities for capturing awe-inspiring footage. By following these tips and adapting to the ever-changing marine environment, you can ensure the safety of your equipment and create captivating visuals that showcase the grandeur and unpredictability of the ocean.
About the author
Noam Sol Azouz is a photographer, videographer, and visual storyteller from Tel Aviv, Israel. Noam is a world traveler, collecting beautiful stories from far parts of the earth. You can see more of her work on her website, Vimeo, and Instagram feed.