White Balancing Your Sony Video Camera for Underwater

© Copyright 2011 Arcturus ProductionsAfter several years working with underwater video cameras I could not make the consumer Sony CX550V perform with the Light and Motion Bluefin housing. But after two weeks of testing we were finally able to achieve the results we were looking for.

So if you’re having problems with color on your video camera, below are some tips and recommendations that will help you get quality moving images from your Sony system.

#1
We assume you’ve already done a dive with an empty housing leaving your camera safely locked in your room. Any new camera system that has never seen water needs a pressure check down to 60’, 18m for leaks. It is also recommended that if you only use your camera housing a couple times a year, you take it for a dive without the camera when you do the first dive of your trip. You’ve been planning for this all year. If there is a flood, you may lose your housing which can be repaired but not your camera. A systems pressure check dive is always recommended.

#2
Before sliding your camera inside the housing you need to make several menu changes. But first, make sure the L&M electronics is set Arcturus Productionscorrectly for your camera, for either the Sony CX550V/CX560V or the Canon S10-S21. This should come preset from Light and Motion when you purchased the housing. But sometimes things happen. If in question contact L&M and they will walk you through the setup.

#3
It gets down to the details. We used the Sony CX550V. These recommendations should also work for the new CX560V. While the camera performs well on land and focuses quickly underwater our biggest challenge was getting the correct color with the ½ inch “Exmor R” CMOS sensor and AVCHD codec. The color capabilities of this Sony camera are very sensitive, so having the correct white balance is of utmost importance. After testing different settings, this is what worked best for us.

Next, open the LCD viewer to the menu settings. Scroll through the menu and make the following adjustments.

#4
Make sure you’re in the right record mode. We used the HD HQ (the default setting) most of the time. The HD FH setting also works.

#5
WHITE BALANCE: White balance is a method of color correction in your camera. Manual white balance is whereby you tell the cameraEric Pautz what the color temperature is. Without getting into the finer details of color temperature we found that the auto white balance will only work in very shallow water above 15’/3 meters depending on water visibility. The camera will not AUTO WHITE BALANCE with the red correction filter flipped on. The Light and Motion Bluefin is made for manual white balance adjustment. We’ll have more on setting the white balance in a minute but for now, make sure the camera is set to ONE PUSH.

#6
AE SHIFT: Auto Exposure Shift controls the amount of light coming through the lens. We found that it was easy to over expose underwater footage due to the camera’s large censor and wide angle lens. Set the AUTO EXPOSURE SHIFT to -3.

#7
WB SHIFT: The White Balance Shift is a function that lets you universally apply a slight touch of color correction over all your settings. We found with the Sony CX550V our footage was constantly over saturated and our highlights where blown out. By also turning the WB SHIFT to -3 this helped alleviate the problem. The camera memory should store the WB SHIFT and AE SHIFT when the camera is turned off and the battery is removed. There is no need to reset it once you’ve got it calibrated.

#8
Once these settings are selected, flip the LCD screen so that it’s facing out, leave the camera on and carefully slide camera and tray back into the housing making sure the o-rings are clean.

#9
The color correction filter is located at the front of the housing and should be flipped on when shooting in ambient light. Once again it Arcturus Productionsshould be flipped off in shallow water less than 15’, 5 meters when using the auto white balance. The camera will not auto white balance with the filter on. When using lights, flip the filter off and manually white balance. This works best when shooting at night, lighting close-ups and macro shots.

#10
Before getting in the water, you will need to decide which method of manually white balancing is going to work best for you. We found that after trying three different color variations of white balance slates that a light gray slate worked the best for us. An all white slate tended to blow-out the highlights while a darker gray slate over saturated the colors. So we used the light gray slate made by PADI. Porta Brace also makes a white balance slate for underwater. I’ve seen some videographers also use a slate attached to their arm or white tape wrapped around a fin.

#11
Setting your white balance manually underwater will take some practice. Try working with the controls on land first (without the Light and Motion Bluefinunderwater correction filter flipped on). While diving, manually white balance every 1 meter, 3 to 5 feet as your depth changes.  Using a white balance card, hold it at approximately arms length away in bright light. Zoom in slightly. It is important to get a full frame shot of the card or you will get an erroneous reading and your colors may be slightly off. Do not hold the ONE PUSH White Balance Button on the L&M handle down for more than one second or it will default to auto white balance. Quickly push the ONE PUSH white balance button and release it while holding the camera focused on the slate. We found this may take anywhere from 12 to 15 seconds for the camera to scroll through the menu settings before the camera manually sets the correct white balance to the slate.

We repeated this step all the way down to a depth of 40’. Past this, there was little color change until we once again manually white balanced at 80’. But due to changing water and light conditions, always manually white balance for best results.

We hope these suggestions help. By using proper buoyancy and not touching the corals, your skills will help preserve coral reefs for future generations.  With proper maintenance, the Sony CX550V and CX560V should give you high quality underwater video images for years to come.

Special thanks to Tim Peters at Fish-Eye Photo and Bori Olla for contributing to this post.
Rubik’s Cube Light Lamp by Eric Pautz.

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10 comments

  1. Great article!!! I just purchased the Sony CX550V w/Light and Motion Bluefin housing and have been experiencing white balancing problems underwater. I recently came back from vacation very frustrated with the results I was getting. This article has been extremely helpful and can’t wait to get in the water and try again using this set up. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Thanks Joe. If you have any questions, let me know.

      1. Hi Michael
        Nice article, thanks for putting in the time. im not sure pixelating is even a word so bear with me:)

        I have the exact same set up (Bluefin pro+CX550) which has been performing extremely well for the past 3-4 years now – specifically at 12 meters and above where there is enough ambient light. I use a cyan filter as I dive in green water this part of the world – it tends to be merky with bad visibility most of the time – so there is just not enough ambient light to avoid pixelated shots…even with lights (Sola 1200) the results are coming out pixelated on wide angle shots.

        During early evenings or early mornings where the ambient light is almost non-existent – despite the green water the shots are coming out very nicely since there is no ambient light to get much of the background – so its a good way to avoid pixelated shots. Here’s an example of a 6am dive at 28 meters with the sola lights , still has a bit of pixelation but very acceptable considering the depth : https://vimeo.com/67473121

        Its frustrating and I am convinced that the camera reaches its limit at around that depth during day dives , and probably upto 15-16 meters when diving in tropical blue water with good viz. I havent tried playing around the setting as you’ve described above (WB shift and AE shift to -3) just yet…

        but DO you think it will really think it will have noticeable impact on the results ?
        Also, you didnt mention how your camera performed beyond 40 feet ?

        What i typically end up doing is if the manual WB ends up pixelating the image, i usually white balance with the lights on towards the sand….it cleans up the image, but obviously when i end up shooting wide , it’s pretty monotonous and plain (color wise)

        1. Hi Khaled.
          Really enjoyed your Mola Mola video. That’s one ocean fish I haven’t had the privilege of seeing, yet. Someday. Your choice of edits, camera control, music and video length was spot on. I was wishing to see more so that’s always a good place to be. Once again, very nice clip. Really enjoyed it.

          About your question concerning changing the WB shift and AE shift–we found it had a noticeable difference in the saturation. Not sure how but must be something with Sony’s censor that when making those adjustments it flattened the image just enough that we had more latitude in post with color correction. The WB and AE factory settings from Sony were great for above water but below the footage was often over saturated with blown out highlights.

          We often use the sand when shooting in the shallows. It’s quick and as long as the sun is behind you works well.

          Below 40 ft the lights would come on. If not, no matter what we did the colors were off and the footage pixilated.

          I hope this helps in some way. Changing the WB and AE setting are definitely worth a try.

          Cheers.

  2. John Casey · · Reply

    Great info.
    I have been very frustrated with the manual WB using Sola lights giving me purple blues and constantly re manual WB but it is way more hassle than any of my prior Sony/Bluefin combinations (and this is my fourth).
    Seem a little touchier about setting the focus as well. My old A1U or PD 100 I would focus on something about 3 feet away and hit momentary autofocus and everything from close to the lens to infinity would be in focus.
    This setup some things are clearly out of focus with that method and I have to do more auto focus, it is weird.

    1. I understand your frustration John. We spent over two weeks testing and tweaking the settings to get the proper white balance in ambient light. We haven’t had a chance to work with the Sola lights yet. I also have a A1U that is very forgiving compared to the CX550V. Contrary to popular belief when focusing with most underwater video camera’s, the auto focus on the Sony CX550V works amazingly well.

  3. RITA GANZ · · Reply

    Aloha Everyone! Came across this little conversation by accident. I am so glad I did! I am having the same issue with the Sola lights giving me purple hues! Very frustrating. I have the Sony cx700 in a HD WAVE Amphibico housing. I have been struggling with this issue for a while.I did however today, for the first time, use the Amphibico white balance slate with the black star burst. First time I have seen true blue in days past 60 feet! We have been diving in so-so vis and I notice that deep plus bad vis is when I experience the purple the most! btw…Thanks so much for the tips John! I will give them a go as well. Hope you guys don’t mind if I popped in. Any feed back you can offer would be appreciated!
    Aloha!
    Rita

  4. Michael,
    I recently came accross this article since apparently this problems still exists with the newer Sony camcorders. I recently switched to a PJ810 from an older TRV HC9. I have been using housed Sony camcorders for close to 15 years without the problems I am experiencing now. Your article was most helpful and I have had better success with the settings that you suggested. I do have one question concerning the exposure settings. The AE Shift on the PJ810 has different settings than the WB Shift. There is a -3 setting on the WB Shift. The AE shift looks something like this:

    -1.0 -0.7 -0.5 -0.2 0 +0.2 +0.5 -0.7 +1.0

    Zero is, of course, the default setting. What would AE Shift -3 be in this configuration.? If I go back 3 settings, the AE Shift is -0.7 OE. Is this the setting that you would suggest? I would appreciate any help you might be able to give me. Thanks again.

    Bob

    1. Hi Bob,

      I haven’t had a chance to try the Sony PJ810 underwater but I noticed the spec’s are very similar to the CX550/560. Since it also uses the AVCHD codec, I’d start at -1.0 and check the footage in post where you can adjust the exposure back to what looks best. If it looks as though the footage is consistently under exposed then adjust to -0.7.

      Let us know if this works. I’m sure others would be interested in knowing your exposure setting for the Sony PJ810.

      -Michael

      1. Thanks for the advice. I will give it a try later this week when I go diving. I will post the results.

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