How Can I Become An Underwater Filmmaker? 

In Part 2 of “Getting Started,” I discussed a bit about my background and how I got started as a professional still photographer, then cinematographer. You may feel that it seems impossible to break into the commercial underwater film business as a still photographer or cinematographer, especially in today’s depressed and highly competitive market.

Tom during his still photography years, in Palau, off Avi Klapher's first charter boat, the Sun Tameron (photo by Roy Zbinden), circa early 1980s. 

There isn’t one successful professional out there who started at the top. Each and every pro has a story of their own on how they got started. Surprisingly enough, many of their stories are very similar. One big difference people entering the business today have that few of us old guys had is this: today, there are experienced professionals who “walk the walk and talk the talk” and are willing to share their expertise. When I was starting out, there were few people I could turn to for advice. Access to pros offers a monumental jump in the process of learning how to become a professional.

Remember there are people out there who have done it and there are those who will continue to do it. You could be one of them. I always try to look on the positive side and give every effort I can to keeping my goals aimed at what I want to do. If I wanted to be an astronaut, it would be ridiculous for me to attempt that, so I know that’s not a goal I should aspire to. Take the right steps, steps that you learn from professionals and personal experience, line things up, and do the best you can.

If you maintain the highest possible quality with the skills you have and word gets out to the right people in the right places at the right time, you may not work full-time in the industry but you may be one of the people who gets to work from time to time. That can be very rewarding. In the meantime, continue to dive and travel as much as you can to acquire high-quality images. Label, file, and log them correctly, and market them properly and you should be able to make some kind of income. There’s always a need for pictures for print media, and there’s always a need for footage for TV and other media, and somebody has to shoot it.

One of the things I would advise, if you want to be in this business, is to start the way most of us did: at the bottom. You may get lucky and get a jump start because of someone you meet, or are at the right place at the right time, but that doesn’t happen often. To best help yourself out, I’d offer a few suggestions:


First: It’s important to invest in yourself!




Tom conducts a filmmaking/ marketing seminar at the BLUE Ocean Film Festival

Most people are not willing to do this; they want a magic bullet that will shoot them right to the top. It doesn’t happen that way. You need to invest your time, energy, and dedication to reach the top, or advance your skills to the level you aspire. If you are not willing to do that, then this is probably not the right business for you. Just because you’ve been to film school doesn’t mean you’re entitled to be a pro! When you attend film school, each class needs to be stretched across a semester. I’ve yet to meet any film school graduate who can tell me how much to charge for an image, or how much to charge for a day rate of shooting! You could get the same information and perhaps more, crammed into a couple of weeks of intensive learning, by spending time with professionals whose work you admire.



Tom swims into Three Sisters Springs, Crystal River, FL, to film manatees


How can you do that? There are a few ways. One way, for example, is to join a pro on location. You’ll have the chance to watch them in action, ask questions, have them critique your work, and listen to their advice on shooting and possibly marketing. I lead two or more dive trips a year and on each one I offer seminars, both in basic and advanced cinematography, shooting techniques, and marketing. It’s not uncommon for people to join me who have a keen interest in shooting and who want to learn more. Some of the people who join me have, over their years of taking a camera underwater, picked up bad shooting habits. They love shooting underwater, but wish their images came out better. They simply may have never had the opportunity to have someone look at their work to critique it and offer suggestions, or they may have been too proud, or shy, or unwilling to show their work to a pro. I can’t stress enough that one of the best ways to learn is to shoot something, have someone you respect critique it, then take their advice on how to improve the next time you shoot. It’s rewarding for me to see how someone’s work can improve with just a few tips after their work is reviewed.

It might be something as small as one tip that can change the way your images come out! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had people come on trips who are still using autofocus with their video cameras all the time, or still photographers who have not learned the art of finding the anthropomorphic value in photographs, which is a big selling factor. Once they start shooting on manual focus, and learn to film a creature as though they are having a conversation with it at eyeball level, their images improve measurably.

It’s always amazing to see the simple mistakes people make with both still and video cameras, but in the beginning, I made them all myself! The first time I look at their material, of which they are quite proud, it is almost painful to see amateur mistakes because they’ve spent tens of thousands of dollars traveling to locations where opportunities are abundant, but they lack the basic skills to capture what is necessary to lead them down the path to becoming pros. By putting a few tips (backed up by being able to show them examples) into practice, I find it very satisfying to see the next round of material they shoot and hear them say, “I never heard that before,” or “I never tried that before,” and their material gets better and better! Even in the course of a short trip, it is remarkable how much improvement I witness and how happy the people are as their work improves. One couple, on a recent trip to Lembeh Straits, wrote down 17 tips from a seminar, and when they put them to use, couldn’t believe how much nicer their work looked! Another fellow, who attended the seminar, learned a few things so that on the last day he perfectly captured a sequence of incredible behavior. So again, I stress that you need to invest in yourself! Check out our website ( for our upcoming trips, as well as for comments from seminar attendees.

Whether you read a book or take a seminar, or travel with a professional, having your work critiqued is simply one of the most valuable things you can do. When I first began shooting underwater there were limited opportunities to ask pros questions, or have my work critiqued because there were so few people shooting underwater, much less making a living doing so. Take advantage of the opportunities out there and invest in yourself!





Nearly 40 years ago I was going to top vacation spots like Bonaire and Grand Cayman when they were first being discovered as good diving areas. I kept the thousands of images I shot on those trips thinking they were very well done. As I continued to travel and shoot stills, I looked at photos in magazines and books and tried to envision how the photographer obtained that image. I wasted a lot of time and film experimenting. But over time, my skills improved, and my early images that I thought were so great became part of my massive throwaway file.

Another aspect of investing in yourself is to think ahead, which is something I’ve always done with my business and my professional life, like playing a game of chess. If I can’t think three or four moves ahead, then I’m always jumping through somebody else’s hoops. But by thinking and looking ahead to where you think the future is going to go and by listening to people and watching things, you can often judge trends. Direct your actions in that manner. If you do so, you are liable to make more money and keep more of it.

As an example, I took a huge risk in 1999. At the time, I was shooting the highest quality standard definition 4x3 video camera, Betacam and the new three-chip Sony. A friend of mine, Richard Anderson from VidFilm in Los Angeles, invited my second cameraman, Dennis, and me to come down to look at a high definition film, which at that time was new. I was literally blown away with what I saw! The crisp sharpness of the 16x9 picture and the vibrant colors were overwhelming. I could not imagine why the entire world would not want to embrace that quality of image. I thought about it for a day and decided I was going to move into the HD arena. So I sold everything I could—as much of my camera equipment as possible, my still library, and threw away my last dollars—and managed to get enough money to buy the very expensive Sony 700A large format HD camera. Amphibico made a beautiful housing for the camera and I scrounged up enough money to buy that, too, instead of the new sports car I’d been dreaming about buying!



Tom films topside in Durban, South Africa, during the sardine run


I contacted all the major production companies I’d worked with in the past, such as National Geographic, Discovery, BBC, and several others. With much enthusiasm and high hopes I told them that everything I’d provide them from that day forward would be large format HD. I was shocked by all of their replies! People from Nat Geo said “High Definition is probably never going to happen. It’s too expensive to switch over. We’ll continue to buy stock footage that you shoot, but it will be necessary to put it into a 4x3 format on standard definition.” I remember distinctly talking to an official (who shall remain nameless) from the BBC and she said, “We have DigiBeta. We’ll never need to go any higher. We are already at the top.”

Still, I figured if people like George Lucas had embraced HD, it had to be the future! I felt that, in thinking a few moves ahead, I was ahead of the curve. So the overwhelming negative responses I received from the industry were very discouraging and made me question my decision to get into HD. But I held fast to my gut feeling that HD was the future and I continued to build a library. For more than two years I accumulated stock footage starting with the Sony 700, then switching to the first Sony F900s that became available. The material was all carefully logged and labeled (which is boring and tedious) but if you don’t do it, your library has little value. Then one day, the industry suddenly woke up to HD! Everyone who had told me it would never happen was switching to HD and now they needed material for their shows. I had lots of it, and it went flying out the door...and not at the bargain prices the networks wanted! My risk had paid off. But I had to invest in myself and what I thought was the right move. The entire kit soon paid for itself, and stock requests were coming in regularly. To this day, the HD stock library (marketed by BBC Motion Gallery and a few other agencies) makes a substantial income every year. 


Second: never oversell yourself!

I think one of the most common mistakes made is to oversell yourself to the degree that you cannot live up to the standards that you’ve claimed. If you are lucky enough to get a job, and you show up on site, you are expected to do what you said you could. And if you can’t, you don’t have to worry about the next phone call!

Once upon a time, for example, there was a young, aspiring cinematographer who had just graduated from film school. He sold himself as an experienced certified divemaster. He wanted to work with us, and came highly recommended by my office manager and a few other people. However, my gut told me otherwise. But against my better judgment, I hired him for an upcoming shoot for Discovery Channel, Hong Kong, that included Truk, Palau, and Japan to film in high definition using the Sony F900 cameras. On the very first leg of the trip, after logging videotape for 15 minutes, he said, “I can’t do this!” Of course we asked why and he answered, “Because I don’t like it.” All he wanted to do was have the camera in his hand to film. Even though he had no experience in the field, or with using the F900 camera, he still felt he should be one of the main cameramen. (My second cameraman, Dennis, had 17 years of experience working with me and using the equipment, so why would I waste a client’s money on someone with no experience at all?)




Tom and Dennis filming giant manta rays at San Benedicto, Mexico

Our first location was Truk Lagoon, Micronesia, and the first sequence was a ship in 200 feet of water. When confronted with carrying some lighting equipment down, our recent graduate (who, remember, had claimed to be a experienced divemaster) was mortified and said there was no way he could dive past 130 feet! And he’d only made one dive to that depth before. Needless to say, for that portion of the assignment, he sat on the boat. It turned out his only contribution was in carrying boxes. My instinct had proved correct: it was a waste of the client’s time and money to have brought him along, and I was sorry I’d brought him on the job. Word gets around in the industry, and people like that, who sell themselves as being experienced and skilled, will find it difficult to get another shot at working in the production community.

Once, I was working for the BBC as a dive guide when renowned cinematographer Peter Scoones was the director of photography. He was using a Sony BetaCam in a very large housing, towing a battery pack. He asked me if I had ever used a system that size before. I said, “No, but I’d be willing to learn.” Peter gave me the first opportunity to use the camera and housing on a shoot and that somewhat set the pace for me wanting to go with bigger and higher quality camera systems. Had I lied and said, “sure, I know how to use it,” and he put it in my hands, I would have looked pretty damned stupid asking him, “How do you turn it on?” To this day, I have a high regard for Peter and consider him one the most accomplished cinematographers in the business.

You owe it to the production company that offers you employment to be honest and up front about your skill levels. Doing so will make them respect you more and they will be more willing to teach you— and they may even call you back for another job! 


Third: Always think of what the person on the other side of the table wants to hear!

When talking to clients or production people who have the ability to hire you, the best advice I can offer is not to spend time talking about yourself! While you, of course, need to relay your qualifications for a job position, it is not about you, and what you want out of the job. It is about what you can offer the person sitting opposite you. One of the common themes in the many letters I receive are offers from people who tell me that, for no pay at all, they will travel with us just to help out so they can learn everything they can from me so they can further their own career. Unfortunately, that is a very common attitude. Imagine you come into my office and say, “Tom, I will travel with you, carry your bags, and you do not have to pay me anything! I will learn everything I can from you to help my future in this business.” I promise you that I will not hire you!

First of all, it is very expensive with airfare, excess baggage, boat charters, and other travel logistics to bring someone on a trip. If it is a shoot off a boat, I often charter the vessel so that I can have some say in the itinerary, which allows us more control with the boat locations to fit our production needs. I always ensure that the client, who has hired us for the production, gets the best bang for their buck! Bringing someone along who does not pay their way eats into our budget. Second, why would I (or any other professional) want to hire someone who is only there to take what they can get, after we’ve put in decades of hard work to get where we are, then disappear?

Instead, when you are sitting at that table, or writing me that letter asking me if you can be part of my team, think of what I want to hear: I want to know how you can help me. What skills do you bring to the team that can help make it successful? Are you willing to put in some time and money (i.e. invest in yourself) to learn the ropes? Are you willing to do anything to make the mission a success and ensure the client gets the best return for his or her money? If you can answer those questions in your query letter, you have a much greater shot at a second look.

If you have the chance to work with a crew, give it your all, and you will be remembered. Keep in mind that most professionals work with crews who have been together for many years. I’m loyal to my crew, and they are loyal to me. We work as a well-oiled team, each person knowing their job intimately, and what it takes to get the mission accomplished. From time to time, we do need an extra hand, and we’ve brought someone on board for a short time. I like to do that because it gives someone a chance to learn and find out what this trade is all about. In this business you work from time to time and in between there are no jobs.



Tom with a friendly sea lion that boarded his boat during a dive trip in the Channel Islands


It is not all fun and glory and diving in exciting locations. Most of the time, you’re in the office, playing catch-up, working on footage, marketing, and doing all the grunt work it takes to make a business successful. I’d say that at least 70 percent of our time is spent in the office and 30 percent in the field. That’s not what most people envision! They want to spend 100 percent of their time traveling to exotic locations, filming under water, and having a great time. Sure, we do that. But it is hard work with long tedious hours and you must keep in mind that you are spending someone else’s money. You have to give them more bang for their buck, do so in a timely manner, under budget, if at all possible, and with better quality than expected. That is how you get hired again and again. However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t an opportunity for you to learn and get better at the trade and find work in the field. 


Some other thoughts:

Another thing to keep in mind: when my crew is working for a client, we are always cognizant of keeping their budget in mind. None of us drink (but even if we did) we would not be buying alcohol or other non-essentials, or adding any expenses to the client’s tab. While other crew members are partying on the client’s nickel, my crew is preparing equipment for the next day, logging footage, and making sure we are ready to go!

As you climb the ladder and become better known, you’ll find people may dislike you for no other reason than jealousy over what you’ve accomplished. Unfortunately, sometimes that happens and you will hear comments made about you that are negative. My best advice when you encounter this situation is for you not to stoop to that level. Remember, bad mouthing someone else doesn’t make you a better person. And bad mouthing someone else’s work doesn’t make yours any better.

One of the best things you can do, in my opinion, is to decide what you want to do and specialize in it. Not everybody specializes. Many shooters like to think they are a jack-of-all-trades. I don’t know any of the top pros that would say they are a jack-of-all-trades. Most of us in this business have selected a specialty and that is what we are known for. Sure, we can go out and shoot other things and do a pretty damn good job of it, but it’s not what we specialize in. You don’t go to a brain surgeon to get your knee fixed or an orthopedist to get your brain worked on—it boils down to something that simple. We occasionally get calls to do a topside job, but 98 percent of the calls are for underwater filming.

Speaking for myself, I could go shoot bears, birds, and insects and have a good time with it. But I don’t want to compete with people who specialize in bears, birds, and insects because they are very good at it. And they don’t want to compete with those of us who shoot under water. I personally feel that specializing is important to the level of success you’ll achieve.

There are always opportunities for people who are willing to work hard and provide a service. If you keep some of these tips that I’ve mentioned in mind, it will no doubt help you. Keep diving, shooting, and learning—just don’t give up your day job right away.