Deep darkness: filming underwater at night with the Canon ME20F-SH and EOS R5

Underwater specialist DoP Peter Zuccarini was able to film a rare wildlife event in near-total darkness using Canon's speciality low-light video camera, the ME20F-SH.
An underwater image of a cluster of dark yellow coral.

DoP Peter Zuccarini is an underwater specialist who has worked on some of Hollywood's biggest hit films. For a recent night shoot for the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, he chose to use the Canon ME20F-SH video camera. "This camera thrives when you are limited in how much light you can bring into an environment," he explains. In this image, the ME20F-SH beautifully captures the bright colours and textures of the reef life. Taken on a Canon ME20F-SH. © Peter Zuccarini / The University of Miami Rosenstiel School

DoP Peter Zuccarini was just 12 when he started taking photographs underwater. Growing up in Key Biscayne, Florida, he spent his childhood exploring the island's beaches and learned to free dive to catch lobsters when he was 11.

"I'd decided I didn't want to just pull things out of the sea and thought photography was a good alternative," he explains. "I saved all my money from odd jobs and bought an underwater camera, housing and scuba gear and started shooting at a very young age."

It was the beginning of a lifelong passion for documenting marine life. After graduating from Brown University, Peter worked as a staff videographer at a shark research lab. After specialising in filming sharks for several years, he'd made contacts in the wildlife filmmaking world and moved into more general underwater wildlife work, then into the motion picture industry.

Peter has since become one of the world's most sought-after underwater specialists, with a string of Hollywood blockbusters to his name, including Life of Pi, Jurassic World, Venom, the Pirates of the Caribbean series and the upcoming Avatar sequels.

When the Covid-19 pandemic put Peter's busy shooting schedule on pause, he went home to Key Biscayne, where he had the opportunity to return to his roots, filming the sea life on his doorstep. Here, he shares how the Canon ME20F-SH video camera enabled him to document rare coral spawning in almost total darkness, and how the Canon EOS R5's compact size has revolutionised underwater videography for him.

A coral reef at night, illuminated only by the red beam of light emanating from a diver's torch.

The night shoot, combined with the light-sensitivity of the coral, meant the reef stayed in total darkness apart from the small sections illuminated with torches or glowsticks. "The ME20F-SH's most useful application is situations like this where light is a problem," says Peter, "whether you can't get light to the place you're going, or it interferes with what you're doing, because of the type of observation you're doing." Taken on a Canon ME20F-SH. © Peter Zuccarini / The University of Miami Rosenstiel School

A Canon ME20F-SH cine camera.

Peter used a Canon ME20F-SH video camera (in an underwater housing, not shown here) for his underwater shoot off the coast of Florida. With an unrivalled sensitivity of over ISO 4 million and the capability to clearly capture colours even in extreme low light conditions and high gain settings, it's the ultimate low-light performer and was the ideal choice for the pitch-black conditions.

Seeing in the dark with the Canon ME20F-SH

During the early months of the pandemic, Peter was keeping himself busy gardening and photographing the many iguanas that visited his family's swimming pool. When the University of Miami asked if he could help them capture a time-sensitive underwater event, he jumped at the chance.

The team wanted to document rare spawning of coral on a reef site a couple of miles offshore from the island where Peter lives. Scientists at the university had been growing coral in the lab for a couple of years and when the coral reached sexual maturity, introduced them to the reef site. This year would be the first time the coral would spawn in the wild.

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"That was a very successful way to introduce coral back into the sea and encourage more growth out on these reef sites," says Peter. "The challenge was that the coral are so sensitive to light, the team wanted to work in the dark, with very little extra light."

Peter turned to a camera he'd used before, the Canon ME20F-SH, which is built for low-light videography. With an ultra-high sensitivity 35mm Full Frame CMOS sensor, the ME20F-SH can shoot Full HD video in light levels less than 0.0005 lux at the maximum 75dB gain setting, which is the equivalent of 4.5 million ISO.

Peter shot test footage of the iguanas in his pool at night using the ME20F-SH in underwater housing. "The sensitivity was so great that I could work with it with no light, really, just the light in the sky," he says. "I was dialling back from the super digital gain that can see in virtually total darkness, to see what happens if I add just one handheld torch light or a proper underwater movie light. I wanted to learn what I could do with the camera in the different intensities of light. I worked through all that in my pool."

A coral reef at night, illuminated only by the pale yellow beam of light emanating from a diver's torch.

"The scientists did allow me to use a little bit of light, and I had another diver that had a small light mounted on his camera and another one handheld," says Peter. "But they had a lot of concerns with any extra light on the site," and the reef was filmed in light levels so low that other cameras would have struggled to pick out any detail, never mind capturing colour. Taken on a Canon ME20F-SH. © Peter Zuccarini / The University of Miami Rosenstiel School

An underwater image of a freediver swimming along the sea floor, with a dolphin nearer the camera and another dolphin in the distance.

As well as underwater filmmaking, Peter has carved out a niche in the freediving community. "Through my commercial work, I met some competitive freedivers, and seeing how they move in the water reminds me of things I aspired to do when I first started to learn how to freedive," he says. In this image a freediver is at first glance indistinguishable from the dolphins among which he is swimming. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D C (now succeeded by the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III) with a Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 16mm, 1/250 sec, f/9 and ISO400. © Peter Zuccarini

Shooting high ISO with low noise

During the day, the scientists working on the reef set up underwater paths marked out with chemical glowsticks emitting low-level phosphorescent light, so they could find their way to the corals once night fell.

"I embraced the parameters the scientists gave me, which were not to take any chances of interfering with the coral spawning," says Peter. "That allowed me to say I wasn't going to worry too much about the challenges of lighting, and to swim in the dark and make frames of their work with limited to no light, letting the camera do the heavy lifting of being able to see what they were doing."

A Canon ME20F-SH cinema camera attached to a tripod beside a mountain lake.

The Emmy Award winning Canon ME20F-SH

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Filming in near darkness, with just the smallest of lights, the ME20F-SH came into its own. With larger pixel sizes, its 2.26MP sensor maximises light-gathering capabilities to deliver ultra-low-light images with low noise.

"We shot at the equivalent of ISO 80,000, maybe even one stop faster, and the footage was fantastic," says Peter. "It was so clean. When you hear of a camera which 'sees in the dark', you picture those grainy monochrome wildlife films of lions. But the ME20F-SH footage has colour." Many people who viewed his footage didn't realise how difficult the shooting conditions had been, he says. "You can really see what the scientists were doing. It looks like a normal image, but it's just done with incredibly low amounts of light."

The footage Peter captured is being used to get the local community involved with coral restoration. "Everybody who lives in a place like South Florida knows how valuable coral is to the local wildlife and environment. The university is using this to show what can be done to save the coral."

A blue plastic glove sits wedged among seagrass on the sea bed.

When conducting an ocean floor plastic survey for an NGO, Peter turned to the Canon EOS R5, with its breakthrough 8K video capability. "They needed high resolution images of the survey, so they could literally count the occurrence of plastics and have their scientists analyse what the plastics are," he says. "They're creating a database of what plastics are in what parts of the world with what frequency. So, I needed a super-high-resolution video for their analysis." Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon EF 28-70mm f/3.5-4.5 lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 24-105mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM) at 28mm, 1/60 sec, f/13 and ISO800. © Peter Zuccarini

Leaving bubbles in his wake, a freediver ascends towards the surface, with the silhouette of a dolphin visible in the beams of light shining from above.

Peter's experience photographing freedivers has given him a deep appreciation of the unique pleasures of underwater photography. "Swimming with the camera in the water, with the weightlessness that allows you to move from a backlit shot to a front-lit shot in one smooth move, is something that, as a camera person, I love." Taken on a Canon EOS-1D C (now succeeded by the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III) with a Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 16mm, 1/250 sec, f/14 and ISO400. © Peter Zuccarini

Vivid renders with Canon's colour science

Throughout his career, Peter has shot on a range of Canon cameras, from the EOS 5D Mark II (now succeeded by the EOS 5D Mark IV) through to the EOS-1D C (now succeeded by the EOS-1D X Mark III) and the Canon EOS R. "As I've moved from Canon camera to Canon camera, I've always felt that the sensors have an incredible range of colour available," he enthuses. "The sensors are so colour sensitive."

Most recently, Peter has seen this in action on the Canon EOS R5. "To me as a motion picture person, the EOS R5 felt like the next iteration of the EOS 5D Mark II," he says. "When that came out, DoPs for motion pictures really jumped on it because of its small size. It filled that need for a small camera that you could easily mount onto something or use when running down a line to capture action.

"It had been a while since I had used small form factor cameras, until the EOS R5 came along with 8K RAW video capture. To be able to squeeze that much resolution and dynamic range into such a small object is an incredibly useful tool for me. The size of a Canon DSLR in an underwater housing is also great for shooting while freediving. Diving without scuba gear with a small but powerful camera allows for rapid ascent and repositioning to compose fleeting moments with animals."

Two large manatees swim through murky water. Beams of sunlight can be seen above and around them.

While conducting an underwater survey, Peter happened upon a family of manatees, and says he was really excited by the capabilities of the EOS R5 he was using. "To be able to have 45MP still images with the new updated Canon RAW was just incredible," he says. "For me," he adds, "the colour sensitivity of the Canon sensors is the real power of Canon camera systems. The sensors just have such an incredible range of colour available, even compared to the cameras we use in motion pictures." Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon EF 28-70mm f/3.5-4.5 lens at 28mm, 1/400 sec, f/13 and ISO800. © Peter Zuccarini

A large manatee feeds on seagrass on a sandy sea bed. A second manatee can be seen in the background.

The manatees were grazing on seagrass, and Peter didn't want to disturb them, "but if the manatees came into the area where I was doing my survey of seafloor plastics, they would swim by and I could hold my breath and sneak around with this little housing and literally lie on the bottom of the sea. They would lie right on top of me and still feed – with this tiny little camera getting 8K footage." Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon EF 28-70mm f/3.5-4.5 lens at 28mm, 1/160 sec, f/13 and ISO800. © Peter Zuccarini

During a recent job for an NGO conducting a survey of plastics on ocean floors, Peter came across a family of manatees eating seagrass. "I didn't want to disturb them – I didn't even want them to know I was there," he says. "With the EOS R5 I could easily sneak around them and used this tiny camera to get incredible 8K images of them grazing. The colour is just really beautiful."

For Peter the underwater world holds a kind of magic, encapsulated by the unique spectrum of colour and light. "If you've grown up learning about the world through your relationship with water or spent a lot of time in the water, it's something that gets into you that is very difficult to describe in words," he says. "It's the colour palette, that everything is super saturated in greens and blues, and the way that light comes out of the dark."

Lucy Fulford

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