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Filming whales underwater: <br class="br_visual" />Abraham Joffe and <br class="br_visual" />the EOS-1D C

Filming whales underwater:
Abraham Joffe and
the EOS-1D C

© Darren Jew

June 2014

Every type of digital filmmaking can benefit from the higher resolution of 4K. But it's particularly great for showing the beauty of the natural world in all its glory. Australian cinematographer Abraham Joffe recently worked with science, environment and nature photographer Darren Jew shooting humpback whales around the South Pacific islands of Tonga in 4K with the Canon EOS-1D C. CPN writer James Morris submerged himself in all the details...

“In 2001 I got to work with Malcolm Douglas, the original crocodile hunter,” Abraham Joffe reminisces. “He took me on an adventure and it was amazing. One day he rang me up in Sydney and asked me to come shoot with him for his new series 'Walkabout with Malcolm Douglas'. I really felt like I had stepped into the TV and was now living the adventures that I had seen and dreamed about...” Joffe's passion for shooting nature goes back some years, but his experience with capturing video on Canon DSLRs has been a lengthy one too.

© Abraham Joffe

Please click the arrow above to view Abraham Joffe’s stunning 4K film on filming humpback whales with wildlife photographer Darren Jew.

“I first picked up an EOS 5D Mark II in April 2009 at the NAB conference in Las Vegas,” he explains. “For me, like most people, it was a jaw-dropping experience. The combination of full-frame sensor and shallow depth-of-field, plus low-light capability, made it irresistible. I was an early adopter and we bought three cameras and a bunch of prime lenses right out of the gate. We were the first studio in Australia shooting multi-cam weddings with the 5D, and our business soared.”

“I had my hands on the EOS-1D C early on as well, being in the first group to get one,” he adds. “I was lucky to get a model in August 2012. There was just one in Australia [at the time]. But you couldn't edit with it in 4K at the time. I pulled stills from the 4K footage and got over 100,000 views online in the first week. Now we have four of them – it's the 'go-to' camera for everything that I do.”

Joffe forged a relationship with Canon Australia, and when Canon announced its Australian Masters programme in 2013, he was lucky enough to be chosen as the only cinematographer. Canon was intending to shoot a short biography of each Master, and chose Joffe to film these. The first was on Darren Jew, who does regular pilgrimages to Tonga to shoot humpback whales. This led to Joffe following Darren Jew to Tonga to shoot him in action for just over a week, alongside another cinematographer, Toby de Jong, who flies a camera on a drone.

Preparations and lens choice

The natural choice for the shoot was the Canon EOS-1D C. “It's a really lovely HD camera as well, shooting 50fps in HD, but its 4K abilities were the obvious attraction. I had been working with a 5D Mark II since it came out,” Joffe explains, “So I've adapted to using DSLRs to shoot motion. The 5D Mark III was a big jump from the Mark II, and the 1D C went up again, due to the dual processors. Shooting at ISO 3200 was something you never used to want to touch, but now it's an everyday option. It's clean enough, and opens up a range of options you wouldn't have considered, including slower glass, especially when filming.”

© Abraham Joffe

Abraham Joffe checks one of the Aquatech 1D Delphin Sport housings to ensure a good watertight seal. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with an EF24-70mm f/2.8L USM lens at 44mm; the exposure was 1/200sec at f/2.8, ISO 640.

“For example, the EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens on an EOS-1D C at ISO 3200 in very low light conditions gives a very nice, compressed look. A year ago you would have to go to a prime, a really fast prime, such as an 85mm f/1.2. With the 1D C you can push to ISO 6400; that's sort of the limit on it. But there are still times when I've gone to ISO 12,800 and nobody has noticed. That's pretty liberating. On a recent trip to Papua New Guinea we were shooting around firelight, and there was very little light going on, but it was just beautiful. Underwater we were shooting in good daylight, though, so we didn't need to go that far.” The two cameras used underwater were encased in Aquatech Delphin 1D Sport Housings. “These work down to 10 metres” Abraham explains. “You can't really go deep, they're not for scuba, you're snorkelling. You're not allowed to scuba with the humpbacks.”

The drone was also equipped with a Canon EOS-1D C. “Toby de Jong was using the drone for establishing shots,” explains Joffe. “He was the first to fly drones over the whales. The drone was custom-built by him. It's a hexacopter – that's six separate rotors and motors – and it's mostly made of carbon-fibre. The system is controlled by a DJI WooKong flight controller, including GPS position, hold, and return-to-base functions. The setup cost around AUS$10,000 excluding the camera. He has full live vision from the camera on a remote screen and can control the tilt of the camera on a lever as well as the yaw using the craft's orientation. Its weight is 6.5kg and it can dead lift a further 6kg. The maximum flight time with the EOS-1D C is around eight minutes.” So, not only is the 1D C capable of amazing 4K footage, it's also still light enough to be mounted on a drone...

Underwater challenges

The underwater environment did pose some constraints on shooting with the 1D C. “The 1D C has a 1.3x crop,” explains Joffe. “So this can be a problem underwater. Shooting whales, that's a lot of animal to get in the picture! When we were shooting with a 14mm f/2.8 L-series lens, it was effectively a 19mm lens with the crop. That was really nice for this work. Most of the scenes in the film were shot with the 14mm, and some with the 16-35mm f/2.8L zoom. You need to use a wide lens because you're cropping in. We didn't use a fisheye or tilt and shift. When I have used an 8-15mm fisheye in the past, I've used it at 11mm. The barrelling is discarded once you cut into the frame. But we didn't really need wider than 14mm for this shoot. The picture is still incredibly square, not very distorted. You can strip the edges away, crop into it, and there's virtually no distortion at all.”

© Darren Jew

Abraham Joffe was able to get incredible footage of the humpback whales, using the EOS-1D C and Aquatech 1D Delphin Sport housings. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X with an EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 23mm; the exposure was 1/160sec at f/6.3, ISO 1600.

Shooting in 4K posed other complications as well. “In 4K, correct focus becomes even more critical,” advises Abraham Joffe. “In the past, getting a subject just slightly out of focus could sometimes be included in a scene and go unnoticed. Not in 4K. Even the slightest degree out will strike the eye very quickly. So practising your focus pulling has never been more crucial.” Although he wasn't particularly shooting audio, Abraham did capture atmospheric sounds within the housing. In particular, the whale song in film was recorded with the 1D C, in its housing, using its internal microphone.

Getting it right in post

Abraham Joffe is also disciplined when it comes to post-production. “I didn't use Canon Log,” he explains. “I understand the idea behind it, but it could never recover the colour and sharpness I required. Grading skills couldn't bring footage back to where I wanted it, so I make the contrast as wide as I could, and pulled the saturation down a notch. This gave good in-between results. With the 1D C you can only record 4K internally, and the codec being 8-bit means the dynamic range isn't huge. Shooting for years on DSLRs, where you really need to nail exposure and white balance in camera, has trained me to never shoot sloppily. These days I mostly shoot as flat as I can internally to squeeze out the most detail in the footage. You could say that most of the post work is to do with grading rather than too much colour correction. Today we are spoilt, with software like DaVinci Resolve, so there can be no excuse not to work on the look of your productions.”

© Abraham Joffe

Abraham Joffe worked closely with wildlife photographer Darren Jew (above) for his underwater film of humpback whales.

Abraham Joffe has chosen carefully when it comes to post production software, too. “EDIUS has been the only software I could find that would edit the M-JPEG 4K footage seamlessly, in real time,” he argues. “It is able to edit RAW HD files from the 5D Mark II and III, too. EDIUS edited this and edits 4K natively as well, so you can ingest the footage straight into the timeline. We just did light adjustments to YUV (the filmmaking term given to luma and chroma) and a little bit of colour work within EDIUS. I'm a big advocate of getting it right in-camera. However, shooting 4K creates a lot of data. In Papua New Guinea, over 18 days, I shot 8000 GB, and I always make a duplicate...”

“I've been shooting with Canon for 15 years,” Joffe concludes. “I do like the security of knowing that Canon just continues to innovate and push the technology forwards. In terms of the cameras they just continue to evolve, and that's supported by a huge variety of stunning optics. I'm a huge fan of having the variety and also the quality. The lens technology continues to evolve, too, so I'll have an increasing choice of lenses. Once you've bought into a system it's reassuring to know that it will continue to grow – and ultimately that fulfils my needs as a filmmaker.”


Abraham Joffe’s underwater filmmaking kitbag

3x EOS-1D C

EF14mm f/2.8L II USM
EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM
EF24mm f/1.4L II USM
EF35mm f/1.4L USM
EF50mm f/1.2L USM

2x Aquatech 1D Delphin Sport housings
Hexacopter drone

Biographie: Abraham Joffe

Abraham Joffe

Abraham Joffe is an award-winning cinematographer and regarded by many as one of Australia’s top DSLR filmmakers, with a great passion for storytelling and filmmaking in the real world. He is also an experienced underwater cameraman, with several documentary films to his credit. Joffe spearheaded the DSLR revolution in the wedding market, shooting the first multi-camera DSLR weddings in Australia. His company, Untitled Film Works, is regularly booked for both interstate and international weddings. In 2012 Abraham Joffe and his team won a record seven Australian Video Producers awards at the national awards in Melbourne, including the coveted Wedding Highlights of the Year Award for the fourth year in a row.


Abraham Joffe inspects his camera equipment and makes preparations to his EOS-1D C housing before embarking on his underwater filming mission. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with an EF35mm f/1.4L USM lens; the exposure was 1/125sec at f/2.8, ISO 800.