In terms of extreme shooting and lighting, dealing with shipwrecks is probably the gold standard. For the last 10 years, DP Rick Allen has been the project videographer on the BBC and Discovery Channel’s “The Blackbeard Shipwreck Project,” documenting the Queen Anne’s Revenge, the wrecked ship on which the infamous pirate ran aground off Beaufort Inlet, North Carolina in 1718. Excavating the site alongside Rick were many other entities, including salvors Intersal Inc. and nonprofits Marine Research Institute, SIDCO and the NC Underwater Archaeology Branch, as well as many other archaeologists, conservators and volunteers.
“My job is to document the archaeological work on the site and the recovery of all artifacts,” says Allen, who specializes in documentary projects dealing with underwater and military subjects, and whose credits include projects for The History Channel and National Geographic. “I also provide underwater services for all the companies who come and cover the wreck, such as the BBC, PBS and so on.”
Allen has to deal with many lighting and cinematography obstacles since the ship is a mile-and-a-quarter offshore and in 28-feet of water. “We have very low visibility because of particulates in the strong inlet currents,” he explains. “The best way to describe working conditions down there is to tell people to fill their washing machines with coffee, climb in and turn it on –– that’ll give you some sense of how extreme it is. Average visibility on site is just three feet, so it’s almost like a night dive even during the middle of the day sometimes, and lighting is very difficult because of all the reflected mass in the water, due to particulates.”
With the poor visibility, Allen uses an Amphibico Phenom underwater housing with a Sony Z1 inside. “This is a dome-port aluminum housing with a 94-degree-angle view, and I use Light & Motion HID lights on them,” he says. “They’re basically baby HMIs, about 24 watts each. I also use a Halcyon 200-watt HID, that’s equivalent to a 600-watt HMI that I’ve used all over the world.”
Allen notes that most underwater shooters tend to only use their camera lights like headlights and shine them right at the subject. “[That’s] not a good way to light a wreck,” he says, “especially with this wreck, as all you’ll get is back-scatter from all the particulates. So I’ve worked very hard to move my lights off-axis.” To this end, Allen uses Aquatica TLC arms so he can stretch out his lights on either side of the housing. “And often I’ll also sidelight whatever we’re shooting, so that the lights are almost perpendicular to the subject, and that way I avoid reflected light off the particulates,” he adds.
Allen reports that he refined his lighting approach after a dinner with Ross Lowell, inventor of Lowell lights. “He challenged me to try two-point lighting with a key and a backlight underwater,” Allen recalls. “We talked at length, and I said, ‘It may not be possible,’ but then I experimented with it and now I always try and employ that two-point lighting style underwater. So I use a front key light and stretch my arms out and backlight the subject, so I get a nice rim light and some separation. And if we have extremely bad conditions, I’ll use my lights almost as backlight to cut down reflection.”
Allen owns all of his own lights, including the Light & Motion SunRays. “I really like them as they have a nice, even beam, a good burn time, and they’re 5600K lights,” he adds. “Same with the Halcyon. It’s a 200-watt light, but it’s also got a 5600K beam too, as it’s an HMI. So that really helps with white-balancing issues underwater.”