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Underwater with a GoPro: Experiments in Lake Michigan

It’s a shame to spend $200 on a dress you’re only going to wear once. Especially for a minimalist like myself. So when a cousin’s wedding came and went a few weeks ago, I knew I just had to do something more with my blue full-length bridesmaid’s gown. An underwater photoshoot was in order.

Fellow photographer Ruben Lammerink and I headed up to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula with camera equipment in tow, including one shiny new GoPro HERO3: Black Edition. The GoPro is a neat little high-quality adventure video camera built with tightly-sealed underwater housing. We couldn’t wait to get it in the water.

Lake Michigan is a great location for an underwater photoshoot. Towards the far north near the Upper Peninsula, the water is exceptionally clear. Unlike smaller inland lakes often clogged with lake weed, the northern great lakes have a clean rippled-sand floor. Perfect for reflecting sunlight.

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Setting Up For The Shoot

We planned to shoot on the first sunny day of our visit. Hot weather in the U.P. doesn’t come often, but we got lucky. Aside from some wind and waves, the conditions were just right. I slathered on bold makeup to help stand out underwater while Ruben readied the gear. He brought along a pair of goggles and I wore nothing but the dress and a matching blue wrap.

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Just before stepping into Lake Michigan. (No doubt the neighbors think we’re nuts!)

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Wading out into the water in a bulky full-length gown felt weird, but the long layers actually kept me warm in the chilly Michigan waters.

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Cameraman Ruben dove right in. The GoPro’s extreme wide-angle gives a fish-eye lens appearance.

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Here you can see the texture of the lake floor and the relative clarity of the water.

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There were major “dust” problems caused by the kicked-up sand that might have been solved by shooting on a calmer day, or swimming to a greater depth. We performed the shoot within 4-6 feet of water.

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A few final selections, processed to minimize dust and defects and increase saturation and contrast.

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Cold and tired after the shoot and wishing I was shooting with Elena Kalis in the beautiful Bahamas!

Reflections After The GoPro Shoot

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Get a Viewfinder

The GoPro is most commonly used as a point-of-view (POV) video camera and fixed directly on a person or helmet to record extreme sports. It does not come standard with a viewfinder or LCD screen, although you can buy a GoPro LCD BacPac for about $70. We hadn’t yet picked up an LCD back, so Ruben was shooting blindly, waving the GoPro around underwater, alternating between video and burst mode (10 frames/sec) to shoot stills. Out of nearly 1,000 stills, we managed to capture some stellar shots, but a viewfinder would have made the shoot much easier to control.

Post-Process Less

The 12MP still photos from the GoPro of course do not compare to shooting with a professional DSLR with underwater housing. Grain and artifacts were bigger problems than I expected, and images cannot be pushed as hard without quickly losing quality. For controlled shoots with the GoPro, use proper lighting and capture as much as possible in-camera to minimize post-processing quality loss. In our case, we should have waited out the conditions until the waters were still, and swam into a greater depth to minimize interference with sand. Later this month we will redo the shoot in a pool and compare results.

Watch for Defects

The GoPro was purchased from a local big-box retailer just a few days before the shoot. Little did we know, it had a glaring defect that affected every single exposure—a dark and light halo on the right side of each frame which I had to clone out from the final photos. We returned the GoPro for a replacement model. Be sure to check your own GoPro for this defect.

Accommodate Your Model

One thing I didn’t account for was how the dress would fit differently underwater, and without the requisite push-up bra. The upper-half should have been pinned tightly against my body because it continually drifted around my torso, looking bulky and ill-fitting. Also, a pair of invisible nose plugs are a must! I avoided breathing out of my nose underwater to limit bubbles around my face, which ended up burning my sinuses and resulted in a lot of unintentional wincing underwater. Finally, heavy makeup did the trick, as without the bold contrast my facial features would have been hard to distinguish underwater.

The GoPro underwater housing remained perfectly sealed, just as expected, and we had a great time experimenting on this shoot. I’m looking forward to using this little camera on all sorts of shoots during an upcoming cross-country road trip. Watch for more GoPro fun in the coming weeks!

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