To quote one of my favorite early 20th century photographers, Henri Cartier-Bresson, “To photograph is to hold one’s breath, when all faculties converge to capture fleeting reality. It’s at that precise moment that mastering an image becomes a great physical and intellectual joy.” I’m sure Monsieur Bresson didn’t have aquarium photography in mind when expressed this sentiment, but the essence of his statement is true for even a highly controlled activity like photographing fish! Anyone who owns fish knows these aquatic animals possess unique personalities, are amusing to watch, and offer endless variety of color and form.
Here are five tips I discovered while making photos of my aquarium fish. These guidelines are intended for indoor home aquariums and not for large public aquariums—a topic for another blog post.
1. Clean your tank – For best results, I recommend you perform a thorough water change and carefully clean your tank’s glass and all tank accessories Dingy water and algae build up not only detracts from the beauty of your aquatic life, but even small amounts of algae on the tank glass can create contrast that will fool your autofocus, resulting in an out-of-focus subject.
Allow a couple of hours for your fish to stabilize in their newly cleaned environment. Some species may require more time to relax and assume their normal routine. Adding a small amount of aquarium salt is a stress-reducing tonic for your fish. It adds beneficial electrolytes and restores the bright hues of colorful tropical fish. A few fish cannot tolerate aquarium salt, so be sure to follow the advice of a knowledgeable aquatic pet store owner.
2. Use a fast lens – A prime or fixed-focal-length lens is an excellent choice when photographing aquarium flora and fauna. Prime lenses have large aperture openings (f2.8 or wider) and offer superb sharpness, minimal distortion and lack the annoying chromatic aberration that is common with zoom lenses. For my aquarium shots, I used the inexpensive Canon “thrifty-fifty,” the 50mm f1.8 prime lens. This is Canon’s most affordable prime lens (about $100), yet the clarity is comparable to professional lenses that are more than 10x the cost. Despite the cheap plastic body and noisy motor mechanism, you’ll be pleased with how sharp your subjects are against a soft depth-of-field backdrop. The 50mm prime is a must-have in any photographer’s camera bag.
Because prime lenses are a fixed-focal-length, you must place the camera lens at the precise location where your desired subject is in focus, give or take the focus adjustment you can obtain with the manual or auto-focus. The closest focusing distance for the 50mm f1.8 is about 20 inches (1.64 feet or 0.5 meters to be precise). The 50mm lens’s field of view is 40°. This means you’ll need to crop your subject for best framing and composition. The images shown here are tightly cropped, yet the clarity and detail are not diminished when displayed at full-size—again, thanks to the amazing sharpness of the 50mm lens.
3. Fast shutter, small aperture – Fish are fast little critters, so you’ll need a sturdy tripod and fast shutter speed to freeze the motion. My images are taken at 1/250 second or faster. At this speed, ambient light won’t be sufficient to light your subjects, so a flash is required (see Tip #4). For optimal depth of field, you’ll have to close down your aperture. The photos featured here were taken at f7.1 and f8.0 These settings will make the detail of your fish come alive while creating nice separation with a softer background. Experiment with different aperture settings for your desired depth of field.
4. Know your family (of angles) – Because you’re shooting with a fast shutter, you’ll need an external flash or strobe to illuminate your aquarium. Do not use your on-camera flash. On-camera flashes are too harsh due to the small light source—and more to the point, your results will be nothing short of 100% reflection from your aquarium glass! I recommend using an IR trigger to activate an external flash. Long flash cords are cumbersome and radio transmitters, while highly versatile, are pricey. The Wein Sync-Link Universal IR Flash Trigger is high quality and inexpensive (about $65). You can illuminate from the side of the aquarium (90° from your camera lens), from the top, or from a shallow angle to the front of the tank. These positions adhere to the family of angles rule in photography. The family of angles is the set of lighting angles (at a specific distance from the subject) that produce direct reflection. If your light source is positioned within the family of angles, you will produce direct reflection (Figure 1).
Conversely, a light source positioned outside the family of angles will never produce direct reflection, as seen by the camera lens (Figure 2).
I’ve not been successful in finding a formula to calculate the precise degrees for the family of angles, but the concept is intuitive and quickly proven as you locate your reflection-free sweet spot. For further reading on photography lighting, I highly recommend Light: Science & Magic by Fil Hunter, Steven Biver, and Paul Fuqua.
The 50mm f1.8 lens harvests a lot of light, so my flash power intensity was dialed back to ¼ power. I encourage you to experiment with different lighting angles, but remember the family of angles to avoid direct reflection.
By the way, your external flash won’t harm or spook your fish. They carry on about their fishy business unabated.
5. Patience, patience, patience – This rule is true of most photographic activity. You have to study your subject in its environment (even if your shooting an inanimate object). Study the actions and interactions of your fish. Then carefully move your tripod into position, once you have a composition in mind.
Move slowly and deliberately with your camera setup. Remember, fish can clearly see you and sudden motion can startle them and ruin your portrait opportunity. Ideally, shoot in a darkened room with the aquarium light on. This will provide enough light to focus on your subject while minimizing the fishes’ visual contact with you. Let the fish come into view, then use the autofocus (AF) points on your DSLR. By selecting a suitable AF point, you can shoot with autofocus while framing the subject. This prevents you from having to move the camera and maintains your focal length at the desired distance from your subject.
Happy shooting and please comment with links to your aquarium shots!
Gear used in this photo shoot:
- Canon 50D DLSR
- Canon 50mm f1.8 lens
- Wein Sync-Link Universal IR Flash Trigger
- Canon remote shutter release RS-80N3
- Vivitar power Zoom DF-383 AF Flash
- Manfrotto 190XProB tripod with 496RC2 head
- A cheap, no-name tripod suitable as a flash stand.