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How to do underwater photography with a Canon 550D

Updated on March 18, 2014

Impressive underwater photography is an art, a skill that should be developed and practiced with the correct equipment. Anybody can of course take underwater photos with cheap £20 disposable camera, or even by using cases for small underwater cameras. However, if you really want to achieve great underwater photos, easily, and without blurriness and low quality results, this article can help you on your way. Just take a look at the impressive photos in this article, which I hope will inspire you towards capturing similar photos.


This article will cover:

What equipment do I need to shoot underwater photography with a Canon 550D

What settings to I need to shoot underwater photography with a Canon 550D

What is the best waterhousing for a Canon 550D

What equipment do I need to shoot underwater photography with a Canon 550D

- Preferably DSLR camera (as mentioned before Canon 550D for example). A DSLR will allow you ease of use in an ever changing rapid environment when waves are crashing over you, surfers are gliding past you, or curious sea creatures are frightend by your presence. You will need to have the option of changing your shutter speeds, exposure and ISO to suit your environment. Additionally, the pictures produced can be a lot sharper than any other camera, making them look a lot more professional.

Canon Waterhousing

Depending on which camera you have, it is important to have the corresponding water housing. Yes, you may have noticed that these may be a little pricey, but it will last you a lifetime. They are, unarguably, the best type of waterhousing you can invest in, made specifically for each camera to match the size of both the camera and lens. Not only are they extremely easy to use, with inbuilt handles, they are specifically designed for ease of use.

3 basic principles when shooting underwater photography: ISO, shutter speed/exposure and aperture/f-stop

Depth of field can be very important during surf and underwater photography, because chances are you would lik both the subject (the surfer) and the background (the wave) to be in focus.

The depth of field is dependent upon the aperture (F-stop), which is explained in more detail below.

The aperture

The aperture, or f-stop (f-number on your canon 550D) controls how wide the lens is during a shot. A wide aperture (high f-number) means that your lens is open quite wide, allowing a lot of light in during the shot. A low f-number means that your lens is not open as wide, therefore limiting the amount of light in any given shot.

In surf photography - is is best to shoot with a wide aperture, and therefore low f-number/f-stop - as more of the picture will be in focus - for example the surfer and the wave, with the background (palm trees) in focus too. An example of what is being described here can be seen in the photo below.

As you can see, an f-stop of f/1.4 is larger than that of f/2.0, and much larger than that of f/8.0. You can also see that more light get enter when there is an f-stop of f/1.4 as opposed to f/8.0.

Back to the depth of field..

If you would prefer that the whole picture to be in focus, a bigger f-number (for example f/32), can help you capture this. A large portion of both the background and the foreground objects/details will be in focus.

A large f-number (resulting in a larger aperture) such as f/1.2 will isolate more of the foreground from details in the picture that lay more in the background, meaning the foreground will appear sharp and the background will appear blurry.

An example of this can be seen in the picture below. The picture on the top has left has a small depth of Field (meaning only the flower is in focus), and therefore has a high f-stop number and a larger aperture.

The picture in the middle has moderate depth of field, therefore a moderate aperture, and lower f-stop. The focus is therefore on the leaf, but the background is still not in focus.

Finally the picture at the has a small f-number, a very small aperture, but much more of the shot is in focus - both the flower and the background in this case.

Depth of Field


What settings do I need in order to do underwater surf photography?

This all depends on what time of day it is and how deep you are. The earlier or later in the day it is, the less ambient (surrounding) light there will be, and the deeper you are, the darker it will be and therefore, less light can penetrate through the water.

You will always need to experiment a little, but some main rules do apply.

1/ try to keep the ISO as low as possible - if you have a high ISO, the picture will not appear to be in sharp focus, due to "noise" produced by a high ISO.

2/ Try to have a relatively fast shutter speed - the surfer will be moving fast - you don't want a blurry surfer, so you need to be able to capture the surfer fast.

3/ If you want the WHOLE picture in focus, try to have a wide aperture/ lower f-stop (>f/8/0)

These three settings; ISO, aperture and shutter speed need to be experimented with, in order to capture the perfect surf shot. Obviously sometimes you will have to increase the ISO, due to low light issues, and you won't always be able to have the ideal aperture or depth of field - but that is the beauty of surf photography - all shots are unique!

Lighting in underwater photography

The most problematic obstacle faced in underwater photography is the potential loss of colour and contrast, due to the wavelengths of sunlight being absorbed by water. This loss of colour decreases both vertically and horizontally, so if the subject/surfer is further away from the camera, the resulting photo can also appear colourless and dull. This effect can also occur even if the water is totally clear. The effect of absorption can be seen in the diagram below.

As you can see in the diagram, the amount of light penetrating the water decreases as you get deeper. Not only does the amount of light decrease, but the different colours (which have different wavelengths) penetrating the water decreases also. This means that as you descend, light Levels become progressively blue, and the vivid colours you were initially trying to capture, also decrease. These colour cannot be added in post processing.

There are two ways in which this problem can be reduced. The obvious is to get as close to the subject as possible, either by physically being closer, or by using a wide angle, or zoom lens which will allow closer focus.

The second technique is to use flash, preferably an external flash. This will Ensure that the full Spectrum of light is captured in the overall exposure

Why use external flash in underwater photography with a Canon 550D?

It is not often possible to use the internal camera flash, because the camera's flash will reflect against the waterproof housing, creating over exposed and unclear photos, which certainly wont win many admirers.

It is therefore best to use and external flash, which will produce fantastic well exposed photos, with vivid colours and sharp focus.

What settings do I need in order to capture surfers underwater and on waves?

The surfers, or inviduals doing action sports, will be moving relatively fast. You will therefore need to have a fast shutter speed (for example 1/4000) in order to prevent blurring your subject in the photo. In order to have a fast shutter speed, you may need to increase your ISO, but if it is the middle of the day, try not to increase your ISO over more than 400. You still want to achieve those sharp professional looking photos)

As mentioned earlier, it is important to experiement. If you pictures seem too dark, but your subject is very sharp, you can lower the shutter speed which will allow more light to come into the shot. If you can’t adjust your shutter speed beyond that in which there is too much light or a blurry surfer, then adjust your ISO whilst only slightly adjusting your shutter speed.

With regard to f-stop (or aperture), the higher the f-stop/aperture (f/3.5) the more light can enter during one expsosure (see f-stop/aperture diagram above), but the lower the depth of field will be, meaning that only one part of the photo can be focussed on, for example: only the surfer or only the wave will be in focus, whilst the rest of the picture will appear blurry. The lower the aperture (f/22), the wider the depth of field will be, but less light will be able to enter during one exposure. Generally, choose a mid range aperture (for example f-16) and analyse your pictures after. You may also need to adjust your exposure or ISO, in achieve a brighter picture.

You will eventually find the perfect combination – you wont leave the water all day, and you’ll be superstoked with the results!


What settings do I need in order to capture sea creatures underwater?

Again, the following priciples must be followed as those for shooting surfers. A fine balance must be achieved between exposure, aperture (f-stop) and ISO.


If you would like only the sea creature in focus, and not any background elements, try using an f-stop lower than f/8.0 . This will also allow you to have a relatively low ISO, and a good aperture which will mean the photo will appear brighter and more colorful.

Apply the same rules as those explained for underwater photography. Sometimes sea creatures are fast moving, and it is therefore advisable to use fast shutter speed, low f-stop and low-medium ISO (100-400).

Experiment with your settings. If you are not too deep below water Level (about 4-5m max) you probably won't need a flash but it is also likely you will be a lot deeper. It is a good idea to invest in an external flash, which will illuminate your picture and increase contrast and colour.

Example of surf photography settings 1


Settings: f/7.0, 1/1250 second, ISO 200,

Example of surf photography settings 2


Settings: 1/1250 second, f/7.1, ISO 200.


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