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4K at 4,000 meters: Custom underwater camera records highly-detailed 4K video: Digital Photography Review


The Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) collaborated with DeepSea Power & Light to create the MxD SeaCam underwater 4K camera. The early results from the custom-built camera are amazing. MBARI just published exquisitely detailed 4K videos captured thousands of meters below the ocean’s surface.

‘Seeing the rapid adoption of 4K imaging and recognizing the scientific value that increased resolution brings to our research team, MBARI began evaluating opportunities to upgrade the HD camera systems on our ROVs to 4K in 2018,’ explained MBARI Electrical Engineer Mark Chaffey. ‘The new MxD SeaCam that we developed with DeepSea Power & Light captures life in the deep sea in astonishing detail.’

As MBARI points out, video is a hugely important research tool for the institute. In 34 years of deep-sea research, MBARI’s remotely-operated vehicles have conducted more than 5,800 dives, recording more than 27,600 hours of video. The new MxD SeaCam is installed in the ROV Doc Ricketts, which can dive to 4,000 meters beneath the surface. The videos captured by cameras like the MxD SeaCam are useful for more than research. They’re also important outreach tools.

‘At MBARI, we annotate all of the video captured by our ROVs and permanently archive these discoveries into our one-of-a-kind Video Annotation and Reference Systems, or VARS. As we accumulate these highly valuable details, the bigger picture starts to come into clearer view and enriches our understanding about the different communities of deep-sea animals, the environments that they inhabit, and how things might be changing over time,’ explained Video Laboratory Manager Nancy Jacobsen Stout. ‘And, of course, this stunning imagery is simply mesmerizing and we enjoy sharing these inspirations with the public.’

The move to 4K has been a long time coming. MBARI had previously been recording in 1080i format for the last two decades. The move to HD was huge at the time, of course, allowing researchers and the public to see deep sea video with more clarity. The move to 4K is a similarly large leap. The MxD SeaCam takes ‘full advantage of the higher resolution, color rendition, dynamic range, and frame rates that this format offers.’

The new underwater camera has been in the works since October 2019. DeepSea Power & Light worked on creating a special, custom glass camera dome to withstand the pressures of the deep sea while maintaining 4K quality. Reliability is paramount, as MBARI orchestrates hundreds of dives per year. Inside the camera is the same imaging unit as in the Sony HDC-50 broadcast camera.

DeepSea Power & Light enlisted the help of another organization, Fathom Imaging, to help with the optical design. Fathom Imaging was able to help the team achieve a high-quality, high-resolution 4K image with minimal distortion throughout the camera’s focal length range. Fathom Imaging also crafted a bespoke optical adapter.

‘Each partner’s area of specialization addressed the three major technical challenges: packaging the camera, designing the necessary optical lenses, and designing the deep-sea pressure housing and glass dome systems,’ explained Chaffey.

‘4K gives us much higher resolution for studying the structure of the animals we investigate, particularly the transparent species,’ said MBARI Senior Scientist Bruce Robison, who studies life in the midwater. Many of the creatures that live in this vast expanse of water deep beneath the surface and far above the seafloor are notoriously difficult to film. ‘4K lets us see the fine details of how these animals are put together and how all the individual parts work, individually and together.’

Robison continued, ‘Because of the high resolution, we can stand off, farther away from the animal we are investigating, than was the case with our former HD cameras. This is important because our proximity to the animals can bias their behavior, so the farther away we can be and still see clearly, the better.’

4K video shot with the MxD SeaCam will be featured in an upcoming exhibition at the Monterey Bay Aquarium titled ‘Into the Deep: Exploring our Undiscovered Ocean.’ The exhibition will open on April 9 and showcase never-before-seen 4K footage.


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