The GoPro HERO is a great underwater camera. All the recent models shoot beautiful video and photos in a number of different formats and useful underwater settings. The camera syncs easily with the GoPro mobile app and the body is even waterproof down to 33ft (10m) before adding the protective dive housing.
I recommend GoPros to a range of scuba divers: those looking for affordable one-button video, pros looking for multiple camera angles, and divers with macro rigs who also want to be ready for that passing manta ray. But what are the best GoPro underwater settings? Naturally, this depends on the diver, and I’ve written the recommendations below with beginner videographers in mind.
Are you sacrificing quality? See my Buyer’s Guide below for the Best Underwater Accessories.
Which GoPro is Best for Underwater Video?
The GoPro HERO9 Black is the newest camera with some great features for underwater video, including larger rear LCD screen and new front LCD screen.
The GoPro HERO8 Black included several new features, built using the same sensor as the HERO7 Black and HERO6 Black. While all three of these cameras will do great underwater, I think the new HERO9 Black is your best choice.
GoPro Best Settings for Underwater Video
GoPro Mobile App
I give the mobile app it’s own section here because it makes setting up the GoPro really easy. You can update capture settings and camera preferences through the app, which is much easier than navigating the settings by tapping and swiping on the rear LCD screen.
Note, of course, that the app is not used underwater!
I find the settings and preferences menus much easier to navigate on the app when preparing for the dive and can’t recommend it enough.
The GoPro app is also used to update firmware and if you Subscribe to GoPro for cloud backup, camera replacement and product discounts.
GoPro Modes Explained
Here we discuss the different GoPro HERO9 Black modes and how they can be used for underwater video, photos and other creative content during your dive trip.
By default, turning on your GoPro will enable video mode. Pressing the side Mode Button will navigate to the Photo capture mode, Time Lapse capture mode and then back to video. You can also swipe sideways on the rear LCD if the GoPro is not yet in the dive housing.
Video mode is the default shooting mode on the camera. The video settings are controlled through Presets that make it easy to quickly switch styles of shooting. The default presets are Standard, Activity, Cinematic and Slo-Mo.
GoPro Presets were introduced with the HERO8 and are very useful since you can adjust settings while underwater with the Protective Dive Housing. This was an issue for scuba divers and freedivers for a while, especially those who wanted to use different settings for different shots.
Generally I recommend Standard as a quick way to begin shooting underwater video, but let’s look at each preset in more detail.
Learn more about what these combos mean in the Settings section of this guide.
Standard Preset: 1080p / 60fps / Wide Lens
This is the best setting for GoPro underwater video, at least as a beginner.
Activity Preset: 2.7k / 60fps / SuperView
The Activity preset simply increases the resolution from 1080p to 2.7k and uses a wider field of view.
Cinematic Preset: 4K / 30fps / Linear Lens
The Cinematic preset increases resolution to 4K, lowers the shutter speed (no more slow motion ability) and uses a narrow lens. This preset is more geared towards bloggers and vloggers.
Slo-Mo Preset: 1080p / 240fps / Wide Lens
The Slo-Mo preset is designed for exactly that: Slow Motion. The fast shutter speed allows you to slow down footage 8x – great for fast subjects like sharks and sea lions.
The GoPro HERO9 and HERO8 allow you to create custom presets – really nice for when you know your settings, subjects and editing workflow.
Changing GoPro Settings
A nice thing about the GoPro HERO9 Presets is that they can be changed inside the dive housing while underwater (see Presets section for instructions). This is a huge advantage, since the last couple models did not allow for settings changes underwater.
Why does this matter? Because you might want one preset for regular filming and another for fast action (e.g. using a faster frame rate) or for scenes where you might anticipate cropping the footage (e.g. shooting at 2.7K and then cropping in for a close up while editing).
Outside of the dive housing, you can use the GoPro app or the rear LCD touchscreen menu to change all the presets, settings, lenses and more.
Additional GoPro Video Settings
The GoPro has a number of other video settings, most of which we will not use for filming underwater. These include interval (looping), low light (on by default but should be turned off by experienced video shooters), zoom, clips shooting, and Protune (off by default but should be used by experienced video shooters).
The GoPro HERO9 now shoots 20MP still photos (compared to 12MP for the 8 and below). This is great news for those shooting stills with GoPro.
Note that you can also pull 14.7MP screengrabs from video, so you have the possibility of capturing photo and video.
The default photo mode is single image capture using a Wide lens – the Photo preset. Other presets include LiveBurst, Burst, and Night.
Like the video mode presets, the photo mode presets make it quick to change settings underwater using the dive housing.
LiveBurst records 1.5 seconds before and after your shot. You can choose the best photo from the 90 photo burst, ensuring you capture the best action.
LiveBurst will prove useful for things like marine life behavior (think yawning frogfish), although I’d say that anyone interested in still photos of this sort of quick behavior will be shooting a regular camera with strobes.
The Burst preset shoots a rapid series of photos, while the Night preset incorporates the timer (press the shutter and 3 seconds later the camera takes the picture).
I recommend shooting with the Photo preset, which captures one frame at a time. This allows you to really think about capturing each image. That said, if you’re capturing fast action, like a back roll off a boat or a breaking wave, then Burst is the way to go.
Time Lapse Mode
Time-lapses can be used in two ways. The most popular is to record a series of still images over a long interval (during a sunset, for instance) that are then used as a time-lapse transition in a dive vacation video. Time-lapses are a nice way to incorporate the landscape and show the passage of time.
I love using time-lapse mode to help capture photos at the perfect moments without worrying about specific GoPro underwater settings. Time-lapse mode will keep shooting photos every half or full second, which is ideal when freediving down to swim alongside a quick subject like a manta or whale shark. With this method, you can simply keep the camera pointed at the subject and capture all the movements and angles at full photo resolution.
The GoPro will record a photo at the interval in your Preset. You even have the option to have this time-lapse turned into a video automatically. This allows you to build your own time-lapse in an editing sequence or to simply use the time lapse clip that the GoPro software creates (great for quick sharing).
Change Presets in the Dive Housing
The great thing about GoPro presets is that once they’re set up, and even fully customized, you can quickly toggle between them – even when using the dive housing.
How do you change Presets in the Dive Housing?
To change presets, click the mode and shutter buttons at the same time (or mode just before shutter). The presets menu will appear on the GoPro HERO9 front LCD screen. Press the mode button to cycle between these presets, then the shutter button to select the desired preset.
Note that you need to make sure you’ve set up your desired presets before the dive.
Best GoPro Underwater Video Settings
The GoPro HERO9 Black, HERO8, HERO7 and HERO6 have great default settings right out of the box. I generally recommend these settings but have included more logic, details and updates below. Be prepared to charge the camera before you use it – don’t assume your battery will have a full charge.
Underwater Video Settings
- 1080p (referred to as Full HD), is the digital standard and the perfect resolution for sharing your videos on social media, YouTube, and other platforms. Most video editing software can also play this back while editing with no issues (versus jumpy, frustrating playback that hinders your ability to see what you’re doing while editing).
- 1440 – 2.7K – 4K – 5K. Why not shoot these? First, video at this resolution will most likely need to be scaled down to 1080 when uploaded to share with your friends. Second, depending on your mobile phone, you might run into compatibility issues trying to play back the footage (your phone must support HEVC). Third, these higher resolutions make editing very difficult unless your computer is super duper suped up. When I shoot 4K (and now 5K video with the Hero 9), I convert all footage into 1080p proxy files just so I can see and edit them. This is complicated and takes time.
- Note: Of course there are many benefits to the higher resolutions, but stick with 1080p unless you’re a savvy editor.
Frames Per Second: 60
- I recommend 60fps if you’re not interested in editing your footage; if you prefer to simply post the clips from your dive online for friends. 60fps is easy to work with and also allows you to slow down the footage by 50% for slow motion if desired.
- I recommend shooting up to 240fps (at 1080p) for anyone who understands and doesn’t mind editing. The reason is that you can still render video at 30 or 60fps, but with the ability to slow down that 240fps footage for amazing slow motion. You might as well shoot this high frame rate so that you’re ready for any fast action that might create a great slow motion clips (e.g. a sea lion jumping out of the water).
Digital Lens: Wide
Note that GoPro ‘Lenses’ on the HERO9 and HERO8 are the same thing as Field of View on previous camera models.
- I prefer using the GoPro’s Wide Lens for most video shooting, however there are certain scenes that benefit from Superview (big subjects and reefs) and Linear (macro and small scenes).
- Feel free to experiment with other Lenses / fields of view for specific subjects. SuperView is very wide and would be nice for shipwrecks, kelp forests and other large subjects where you’re close. Linear is best for smaller scenes like fish and sea fans. Try zooming in with Linear for even smaller subjects (but remember not to be any closer than 12″ or the GoPro won’t be able to focus).
- For focusing closer than 12″, check out my article on GoPro Filters.
Additional Underwater Settings
All the other GoPro settings can be adjusted based on personal preference. Hypersmooth 3.0 video stabilization does a great job underwater. The GoPro HERO 9 also now offers Boost thanks to its larger sensor. My first thought is that the 25% crop to the field of view isn’t ideal underwater, but I’ll test and update this soon.
Auto Low Light is useful underwater if you’re not concerned about manually controlling frame rates for editing.
QuikCapture allows you to power on and begin recording underwater video with a single button push. This allows you to have the screen and camera turn off sooner to save battery, knowing that at any point you can press the shutter button and be recording within seconds.
Hindsight is new with the GoPro HERO9. While the idea of recording 15 or 30 seconds before you press the shutter (never missing the action) sounds great, it’s not practical for underwater video for two reasons.
First, the camera is always shooting, meaning you’re draining battery power quickly. Second, since the camera is always filming, you would need to move very carefully and deliberately as if filming every second of your dive, which simply isn’t practical.
Related Video Tutorial
GoPro Underwater Gear & Accessories
You need a small variety of accessories to take your GoPro underwater. I’ve created the list of essential accessories below as a starting point for any scuba diver, freediver or snorkeler who would like to spend some fun days filming in the ocean.
Below the essential accessories, I’ve shared links to several of my other GoPro guides, which each have their specific buyer’s guides for filters, lights, handles and trays and much more.
GoPro HERO9 Black
The latest and greatest from GoPro. If you’re getting your first GoPro, I would go for the HERO9 if only for the larger screens.
$399 | Amazon Prime
GoPro HERO9 Black Bundle
This bundle has it all: padded case, extra batteries to film all day long, fast memory card and more.
$569.95 | Amazon Prime
GoPro HERO8 Black Ultimate Bundle
This bundle includes a GoPro HERO8 Black, SanDisk 64GB memory card, and the dual battery charger with extra battery (2 batteries total)!
GoPro HERO9 Protective Dive Housing
Anyone scuba diving or freediving past 30ft (10m) will need the dive housing. Underwater filters for the HERO8 will work on the HERO9 housing.
GoPro Dual Battery Charger
The GoPro battery lasts about one dive if you’re actively using it, so I recommend owning one battery per dive during the day. You could pick up an extra single battery and charge each battery by itself using the GoPro, or get this handy Dual Battery Charger + Battery for quicker charging workflow. This, plus the battery you got with your GoPro puts you at two batteries total.
GoPro Filters & Video Lights
GoPro filters are an easy way to bring great color into your underwater video and photos. These filters can be popped on and off of the Dive Housing, making them versatile in most dive situations.
Underwater video lights can deliver spectacular color for subjects that are relatively close to the camera. The article below discusses GoPro underwater filters, video lights, their differences, and even shares a Buyer’s Guide with my favorite filter and light combos.
Video Tutorial – Article – Buyer’s Guide
GoPro Tray & Handle Systems
The best way to carry your GoPro underwater is with a tray and handle system. If you hand-hold your GoPro or mount it to a selfie stick it becomes very difficult to keep the camera steady. The fact that you can use two hands with a tray enables you to smooth out this camera shake and capture crystal clear footage.
The article below shares tips to keep your GoPro steady underwater, plus a Buyer’s Guide with high-quality, affordable tray and handle systems.
Video Tutorial – Article – Buyer’s Guide
GoPro Underwater Video Tips
Ready to head out on your next scuba or freedive with your GoPro? Try to be cognizant of these three tips to help bring home some great underwater video.
Hold the Camera Steady
This sounds much easier than it actually is. We’re trying to create video, so that should be our number one thought. Each time we press record, we should be stable in the water and breathing calmly. This will help to keep the GoPro as steady as possible while filming the scene. Even gentle swimming will result in a sway back and forth with each fin kick. Learn more in my article on how to keep your GoPro steady.
Get Close to Your Subject
As we film through more water, subjects become more hazy and smaller in the frame. By getting as close as possible to the subject (but no closer than GoPro’s 12″ minimum focus distance), we fill more of the frame with the subject. Since we’re shooting through less water, the image appears crisper. The HERO6 has a built-in LCD display, which greatly helps with composition.
If you’re interested in marine life, be sure to read my Tips for Underwater Portraits.
Shoot with the Sun at Your Back
This tip is to take advantage of the ambient sunlight on the reef. If you shoot into the sun, everything will be a dark shadow (backlit). With the sun at your back, that light illuminates the reef, resulting in a much better image. Watch my video tutorial 5 Basic Composition Tips.