AQUARIUM PHOTOGRAPHY – HOW TO PHOTOGRAPH YOUR FISH AND YOUR TANK: PART 1

This is a comprehensive Tutorial to help you get beautiful, professional looking photographs of your fish and your aquarium.  

The first question most people ask when they see beautiful fish or aquarium tank photography is almost without fail “What camera and lens did you use?”

Unfortunately, even if you tell them, they can do little with the information gained from the answer, because really good aquarium and fish photography is not only about the camera and the lens. It has a lot to do with the aspirations and determination of person behind the lens!

Naturally, the more sophisticated your camera is, the more versatile its features are, and the higher the quality of its lenses. Point-and-shoot cameras are not suitable for aquarium photography as there are just too many limitations to what they can do. Slightly more sophisticated compact digital cameras can be manipulated to fulfil some of the parameters needed. But a proper, sophisticated camera with interchangeable lenses is best. So let us look at  what we need in terms of equipment.

What are the differences between Digital SLR’s and Digital Compacts?

There are many advantages in considering a digital single-lens-reflex (DSLR) camera rather than a compact digital. Unfortunately, the cost of a digital SLR  is still prohibiting for many photographers. There has however been a concerted move towards providing compact digital cameras with almost all the control features of DSLR cameras at acceptable prices, so do some research.  Google “full function digital cameras with interchangeable lenses at lowest prices”, and then research by reading the many reviews. You will be amazed at what is available at quite acceptable prices.

The first and most obvious advantage in a digital SLR is that it offers the possibility to interchange lenses. This means that you will be able to use different lenses for different applications, giving you greater creative freedom. Specifically, macro (close-focusing) lenses, which are essential for fish photography, are available in most brands in a number of different focal lengths, allowing you to vary your working distance with the subject, as compared with digital compacts, where their close focusing ability is usually limited to their wide angle, meaning your subject must be very close. The optical quality of a macro lens designed for an SLR is far superior to the lenses on compacts in regard to general and corner sharpness, and produces much lower levels of chromatic aberrations. They are pricy though, but the price reflects the quality of their optics and ability.

The second advantage of a sophisticated DSLR is that you have full control over all the settings. This is priceless if you aspire to produce top photography, as you will see in this discussion later.

Thirdly, the quality of the image sensor is also superior in a DSLR, mostly because it is physically much larger than those of compact cameras. This means that, for a variety of reasons, there is less image noise from the outset, which makes ISO ratings (discussed below) of 3200 and above possible, with the resultant noise levels much lower than with compacts. In other words, the sensor on a digital SLR can be eight times as sensitive as that of a compact.

The last aspect that truly deserves mention with DSLR cameras, is the ability to photograph in RAW format, rather than in JPEG. What is the difference between the two? Think of your camera as having two components, a picture capture device and a picture processing device. When you shoot a RAW file, the camera captures the image and then stops there — it does not process the image any further. This means that RAW keeps all the visual information of the image, which is why it is called a ‘loss-less’ format. The plus is that you can make all your decisions in post processing, and even override erroneous setting you may have made. For Professional photographers RAW is therefore really a no-brainer. The files are huge, but this is what they will shoot.

However, for 99% of photographers JPEG is sufficient – especially if you pre-set the format to the highest JPEG quality your camera is capable of. Even professionals use it and quite honestly, there are very few of them who can tell the difference. JPEG is fine — provided you make the correct in-camera settings and are careful when you post-process. This is why: JPEG compresses by ‘throwing away’ ‘duplicate’ information, and also processes the image in-camera  to a set of specifications you have chosen to pre-set (or possibly simply left on default); things like colour balance, colour saturation, contrast levels, etc. JPEG also tends to saturate colours as the photo is saved.

Therefore, to ensure the best possible quality when shooting JPEG images, first of all set your camera to its highest quality JPEG setting. If your final output is going to be for print (off-set printing, or even desk-top printing), set the color space to aRGB (which stands for Adobe RGB), since aRGB has a broader gamut of colors, which are similar to the CMYK colours used in off-set printing. It is also wise to turn off any in-camera processing, such as sharpening, contrast, and hue adjustments. Not only should you make these modifications in a post processing program like Photoshop or Lightroom, where you can do a more precise job, you also want as “clean” a JPEG file as possible. The reason is this: Any processing done in-camera to a JPEG file can never be undone. Most DSLRs will allow you to turn off in-camera processing, although some point-and-shoot digital cameras will not.

Further, once you loaded your images to computer, preserve the integrity of your original JPEG files. Once downloaded, never re-save an original, so that you will always have that original to return to. Instead make a duplicate copy and do all your post processing corrections and retouches on that, then save that file under another name, different from the original.To keep track you may want to use something like ‘Working file of image 234′. While opening and closing a JPEG file does nothing to deteriorate its quality, the ‘save as’ command potentially could. Don’t ever use it on your original and as little as possible on you worked or corrected image. ‘Saving as’ once or twice makes little difference, but when it comes to 10 or 15 times, you will lose quality.

Technically, there is indeed a vast difference between RAW and JPEG. However the information above helps to dispel many myths and should suffice to put your mind at rest on this subject.

To conclude: Essentially, although it is very possible to take great photos on a budget using a compact digital camera and external flash, a DSLR will, in no uncertain terms, always outperform digital compacts in every respect.

Affordability

If you have budget restraints, think second-hand, or steering away from the more famous brands. Many photographers upgrade when new models hit the market, but their older models still are capable of doing the perfect job for you. Do your research! Don’t just start hunting for a camera, or accept there is a second-hand model waiting for you. The good ones quickly fly off the shelf. List your name as a potential buyer with camera outlets who do trade-ins. If you buy privately, protect yourself by asking for a written disclosure statement.

However, know that even a sophisticated camera can still leave you with no more than mediocre shots if you are not willing to do the work involved in becoming a better photographer. In fact, someone with a compact digital camera who has gone to the trouble to know how to work with his/her camera may very well outstrip that expensive camera when it comes to comparing images. The person behind the camera counts!

Besides, the compact digital camera field has made great strides towards more sophistication, and there are many ways to add to your compact camera capability if you know where to look. An excellent site for researching this is http://lifehacker.com , especially if you are technically adept.

The good news is that today, with the digital age in full bloom, almost anyone can take better photographs, provided they know what they are doing and are prepared to practise the rules and develop an eye for composition.

And that is the crux.

This article can not teach you how to use your camera — it is impossible because there are so many camera models and variables. I personally use a professional Nikon and can operate it in my sleep. But you may not have the same camera, and in all likelihood, even if you own a good camera, you are probably used to setting it to auto-everything and then simply point and shoot. Auto-everything may release you from the burden of thinking, but it also deprives you of all control. It may work well for everyday photos of friends, family and general scenes, but the ‘auto’ everyday-technique does not cut the grade if you want to do decent fish photography.

Therefore, you have to know your camera and what can be done with it, inside out! You must read your camera instruction manual! I know this is a tedious chore and often gets the best of us discouraged. But here’s some brilliant help! Before you read your manual, read this excellent tutorial; it explains what your camera does and how it works.  Once you have gone through this easy to read explanation, your manual will make much more sense! (Scroll down to below point 5 and you can download the entire tutorial as a PDF!)

http://lifehacker.com/5815742/basics-of-photography-the-complete-guide

What I will do is to try to teach you in the simplest possible way what certain photography terms mean and how you can use them to achieve good fish/aquarium photography. You have to know what is meant by ‘depth of field’, ‘aperture’, ‘focus’,  ‘white balance’, ‘ISO” and ‘shutter speed’ and you must understand the concept of a ‘slave flash’. You must know how to set your camera to the manual mode, as this will give you a greater shutter speed and aperture variety. Without an understanding of these terms and techniques and how they can change your photos, you will remain lost in the world of blurry, colourless, non-distinctive aquarium photography.

The information that will help you will follow shortly, but before I go any further, let us ask the one question you really should ask instead of “what camera and lens did you use?”

What is the secret to good fish and aquarium photography?

Well, there are several secrets apart from the big and most important one: knowing your camera and lenses and what the buttons on it can do.

The first secret is LIGHT. I purposely set this in capital letters, because you need lots of light to do good fish portraits and aquarium shots. Lots of light means a lot more light than you think! Just consider: the glass of your aquarium can rob you of 20-25% of the light available to your camera; your aquarium water can rob you of 20 – 25% more! How to attain that light follows a little later.

The second secret is a TRIPOD. You must stabilise your camera. Good fish photography takes time! There is no way you can hand hold a camera steady for long enough to catch the action — and do so repeatedly, or for long periods at a time! No matter how steady you think your hand is, it’s not steady enough to capture a constantly moving fish. Keeping your camera steady helps you to avoid blur. It does not have to be an expensive tripod, but it must be secure and not wobble if you brush against it, and, of course, it must hold the weight of your camera. (If you happen to be interested in macro photography other than in your aquarium, choose your tripod wisely, so that it can later accommodate a macro rail.) If you absolutely cannot afford a tripod because you spent all your money on a camera or fish, you could use a stool of the right height, or stack some books on it to get the right height, and then balance the camera on that. Make a plan!

The third secret is PATIENCE. I cannot emphasise this enough. Photographing fish well is not a ten minute snapshot session, so you that you can post images on the fish forum tomorrow. (And with very few exceptions, how tedious those posted photos usually are!) Plan to dedicate a good few undisturbed hours to fish photography, and only marginally less if you want to do proper whole-aquarium photography. Also plan to repeat the process many times over, whenever you have a spare moment. Make it a hobby! After all,Rome was not built…..

The fourth secret is PREPARATION and SET-UP. You need to prepare your photographic ‘stage’ — your aquarium — before you can start photographing. In most cases this means doing certain things a day or so before you intend to shoot. We will discuss these steps as we go along.

The fifth secret is to take LOTS OF SHOTS from which to select. Quantity leads to quality! Even the masters of photography take close to between 200 and 300 shots before they even contemplate selecting the one that is best. With film it used to be expensive. With digital cameras it has become a breeze. All you might need is a second, perhaps even a third fully charged battery. We are talking about taking a lot of pictures at different camera settings.  By taking multiple shots at different shutter speeds, aperture settings, and white balance settings, you will be soon be able to find the shot that most accurately depicts your subject.  The plus of taking many shots is that you get practise, while at the same time gaining the opportunity to see what methods and angles work for you. Also, the more pictures you take, the more likely it is that you’ll get a good one. Many cameras have some or other ‘continuous’ or ‘sports continuous’ mode which can take up to around 13 frames per second. If your camera has this setting, I recommend you try using it to photograph your fish. You can always delete the duds! Apart from that, digital photography also affords you the opportunity to “fix” otherwise less than perfect pictures in post production! Do not see less than perfect shots as failures — they may not be fit for public consumption, but they are wonderful schooling tools! They simply tell you what to do differently!

The sixth secret is to have FUN. If photographing your fish, plants or tanks becomes a chore, you will not enjoy gaining photographic expertise. Challenge yourself, challenge your buddies too, stick with it and you will very soon reap the benefits. Believe me, it feels great if you finally managed that perfect shot!And once you get there, your success rate goes up exponentially, because you will have figured out what works!

To complete this section, and not classed as a secret per se, I want to say a few words about post production, otherwise known as computer enhancement.

Using various computer enhancing programs can greatly increase the final quality of your photos. You can crop, adjust the white balance or contrast, and add backlight and more to your shots. If you don’t have Adobe Photoshop, there are many free programs that operate in a very similar way if your camera pack did not include one — I have for instance heard great things about programs like picnik, picasa, gimp, and paint.net. Just avoid over-correcting and over—saturation, as these distort the truth of the reality.

Let us now turn out attention to understanding what our cameras can do.

 PHOTOGRAPHY SCHOOL

I promise to cut out all the technical stuff and explain in the simplest of terms what your camera does when you do photography. I will also use the photographs of one of the most fantastic fish photographers I have come across,  Hristo Hristov, to demonstrate.

However, you have to do something first — because, to photograph well, you have to know your camera. To photograph fish or aquariums, you need to know your camera inside out. I really meant it when I said you need to work through your camera owner’s manual. You need to know what the functions of the buttons on your camera are and what the different symbols on the turning knob on top of the camera mean. You also need to know how to navigate the menu system and set certain functions.

Most cameras today have at least 4 different modes for you to choose from. These usually include a fully automatic mode, a portrait mode, a sports/action or continuous shooting mode, a landscape mode, and a close-up or macro mode. Some cameras also incorporate a manual mode. There are four modes that typically work well for aquarium photography: manual, fully automatic, sports/action mode, and macro mode. For all of these modes you may have to change settings in order to take fish or aquarium photographs. Top photographers will seldom work on anything but manual mode, but not all cameras have it.

Also, nothing is more frustrating than setting up to take a lot of photographs, only to discover that your batteries are dead! It is wise to have at least two sets of fully charged camera batteries ready before every single shoot. I will soon explain a focusing mode that will help you maximize your chances to get your shots, but the technique ‘eats’ battery power, as do continuous shots. With two sets you can at least have the first spent set on charge while you carry on shooting, using the second set of charged batteries.

Now let us get to work!

Focus

If your image is not in focus, it is essentially worthless — however sentimental or forgiving you may be about photographs. By focus we mean sharp eyes and perfect fin detail in fish, and perfect resolution in full aquarium photography. In fact, being a perfectionist, I would even venture as far as to say that if an image is not in sharp focus, it probably belongs on the discard pile. Don’t clutter your computer or your memory cards with blurry photographs! Nobody enjoys or admires them, least of all do you!

Just remember, getting focus at all depends on light. If you do not have sufficient light n your tank, both you and your camera will find it difficult to focus.

Good sharp focus is hard to attain if you do not know what to do. So, let us first deal with the problems.

The first problem is aquarium glass distortion. It is important that you always try to position the camera lens perpendicular to the glass and the subject. If you place the camera and its lens at an unfortunate angle to the glass, the glass will distort the light and you will not get a clean focus.  Also, at angles any light travelling to the lens is passing through more glass than if you shot as near as possible to straight-on. The greater the angle, the more the distortion will be. Particularly automatic focusing cameras frequently can not properly focus if the lens is at an angle to the glass — quite simply because it does not ‘know’ what to focus on.

You  have to keep in mind that water  can also distort. The less the water there is between the camera and the subject, the more likely you are to get focused shots. Wide tanks are thus not ideal!

The second problem is to focus in such a way as to attain the greatest depth of field. Depth of field refers to the amount and quality of focus from front to back. While the camera can actually only focus on one tiny point in space, the depth of field determines how much of the image is in “acceptable focus” to the human eye. I call that ‘in-focus’ range the depth of field ‘slice’.

Think about this logically. When you shoot a fish facing you head on, its body extends toward the back. Since its face and eyes are nearest to your lens, this is where your sharp focus needs to and will be — but this also means that the body of the fish is further away from the lens, and thus the focus will gradually blur out more and more towards the back. Does this mean the image is ruined? Not necessarily. It depends on how deep your depth of field is — this depends on both lens and aperture — and on how much you have filled your frame with your subject. If the face of your subject is pin sharp, the viewer’s brain will fill in the details.

In the photograph below, taken by fish photographer supreme, Hristo Hristov, we can clearly see how depth of field behaves in a head-on shot. Nevertheless, because the focus is perfect on the most important part of the image, we accept the photograph as stunning, and our brains automatically fills in the details of the blurrier parts.

Please note that to help you we are using the brilliant work of Hristo Hristov with his permission – but that all his photographs are copyrighted. Therefore kindly refrain from copying these photographs from our site!

In contrast,  if you shoot your fish posing more or less sideways, its body is aligned with the plane of your lens, and your depth of field, even when narrow (posed sideways your fish is also narrow)  will usually give you an equally sharp focus and clear detail across the entire body, including the delicate, semi-translucent fins. Take note that we have not removed the depth of field problem. What we have done is use one of the best ways to address a lack of depth of field – by waiting until our subject is sideways inside the sharp focus plane, and is parallel to the front of your lens and  therefore all its parts are equidistant from the lens.

Depth of field is usually difficult to attain if you are working with auto focus. Automatic focus cameras alter distances between critical lens elements to hunt for areas of contrast, or focus, in a shot. This takes time and is not always reliable. And when a fish is darting wildly about, is totally ineffective.

This effect is especially pronounced in macro photography where close proximity to the subject and high focal lengths result in depths of field that are sometimes just one or two centimetres deep and frequently just a tiny fraction of that!

Depth of field can be manipulated to give you certain ‘creative’ results. More about that later. Just make sure you understand what depth of field is. Understand that depth of field is NOT an intrinsic property of a lens, irrespective of which lens you use. Depth of Field is NOT  a  well defined zone over which everything is in sharp focus. Many people are under the impression that an image has only two zones: In focus, or out of focus. In fact there is only one single point, actually a plane, where the camera obtains true, sharp imageing. Everything else is to some extent out of focus, even those parts inside the depth of field ‘slice’ that seem crisp to the human eye. It may help you to think of a sandwich made up of many very thin films, each of which becomes progressively less sharp as they stack up in front of or behind the the sharp focus plane.

Hopefully the image below will help you understand depth of field better:

Much like lens strength, lens to subject distance also plays a big part in determining the possible size of depth of field. The closer you are to your focal point, or subject, the less depth of field is possible. To illustrate this effect, hold your hand at arm’s length in front of your face. Even when focusing on your hand you can probably see a good bit of the surrounding environment in reasonably clear focus. Slowly move your hand towards your face until you reach the half-way point. Notice how much less of the area surrounding your hand is in focus. Continue moving your hand towards your face until it is as close as your eyes can focus on it. Very little of the area surrounding your hand can now be seen.

This same effect occurs with your camera lens. This effect, combined with high magnification factors, results in the tiny depth of fields seen in macro photography.  (It also makes the huge depths of field in many expansive landscapes possible when using a lower magnification factor lens.)

So try holding your camera close to the glass, and also try standing back and zooming in. A manually focused camera is much more useful when working with a shallow depth of field. However, one can manipulate camera settings to get a deeper depth of field. We will get to that later.

Most digital SLRs have a ‘depth of field preview’ button, which when depressed, adjusts the aperture to the required setting, which, provided that the setting is smaller than the lens’ maximum, would mean that the image in the viewfinder would dim down a little and that a larger part of the image will come into focus, allowing the photographer a live preview of what the final image will look like.

The third problem is focusing on small objects. For sophisticated cameras, this is best attained in manual focus mode. For other cameras, look for and engage the close-up or macro mode setting — it is usually depicted by a little tulip picture. Once selected, that automatically adjusts the camera settings to take close-up shots. (Just remember to dis-engage this mode once you have finished with your close-up shots, otherwise all your subsequent shots will turn out blurry!)

With full control cameras the focus is usually not a problem, but you should ideally be operating in manual mode, so you need to learn how to quickly re-focus manually. If you find it difficult to find perfect focus, try zooming in on your subject, and then slowly rock back and forth until you achieve perfect focus. You can use the same method to attain perfect focus, simply by moving yourself, rather than to let the autofocus hunt. It not only is more intuitive, it is a lot faster!

The advantage of more sophisticated cameras is that they offer the option of changing to a macro lens that provides superior optics for extreme close ranges. It is a pricey solution, I know, but in my opinion definitely a must for any serious fish photographer.

For the budget-challenged photographer with a camera with interchangeable lenses, there is also the option of adding extension tubes and close-up optical diopters (which can be stacked)  that will allow you to increase the magnification of your set-up. They are cheaper than macro lenses. There is a slight drawback, though, because by putting additional space and glass between the camera and the subject, you often harvest less light and you can potentially decrease the quality of your photographs.Yet another inexpensive option is to reverse a prime lens by way of a lens reversal adaptor ring, as this turns the lens into a ‘macro’ lens. Research this option and also be aware of the fact that a reversed lens cannot communicate with your camera, so it leaves you with everything in manual mode.

The Focus trick

There is an auto-focus trick you can use to help you focus. I know that it can be done with the more sophisticated cameras, as I use it often, but I am not sure whether less sophisticated cameras will allow it. Your camera manual should have that information.  The method is called ‘locking focus’. It involves pressing the shutter release halfway down, at which point the camera will focus…on whatever is clear and within sight. But what are you really focusing on?

Most cameras consider the centre of the picture to be the most important part, but this may not be true if you want to set your subject a little to the right or left of centre in your composition. Sophisticated cameras allow you to select and program a specific focus zone. Without this ability, focus lock is a handy tool that allows you to focus on the most important part of your scene and then holds that focus while you recompose the shot, ensuring your final image has the correct parts in focus.

There are a couple of different ways to use focus lock, depending on the situation.

In the case of the fish which you want to compose slightly to the side of the centre of your picture, you may end up with a sharp background, but a blurred or partially blurred foreground subject,  if you rely on your camera. Clearly this is not what you want; you want the subject to be in focus, as that is the most important part of the shot. So you focus lock!

To use it, point your camera at the subject (or a non moving stand-in subject ) and half press the shutter button. You should hear a beep and see a light come on in the viewfinder, to let you know the camera has focused. The focus will now remain locked for as long as your finger is holding the shutter button halfway down. With the focus locked you can now moive and recompose your shot and wait for your subject to enter the frame, before taking the final photo.

Pressing the shutter button halfway down locks focus and pressing it all the way down takes the picture

This sort of focus lock is quick and easy to use, and gives you a lot of flexibility without having to mess around with focus settings.  However, it only lasts for one shot – as soon as you take a photo the focus is lost, and you will need to repeat the process. There is a remedy to this, though.

If you’d like to re-use your focus point for many shots, you can use the next method, which is Focus Locking for Multiple Photos.

If you want to take several photos all with the same focus distance, normal focus lock won’t work because it does not ‘remember’ its settings between photos. However, if you own a digital SLR there’s a simple trick you can use to keep your focus constant for as long as you’d like.

Start by focusing on your subject or its stand-in, using your camera’s autofocus as normal. The stand-in can effectively be anywhere in the tank, as long as it is the same distace away from the front glass as your subject will be when it swims into your framed stage. Once you are happy, flick your lens into manual focus mode (most lenses have a switch on the side). This disables the autofocus feature and keeps the focus distance fixed where it is, ensuring that all subsequent shots are focused the same. You can now move back to where you want to take your photograph, and compose your frame, and simply wait for your subject. When you’re done, simply switch back to autofocus mode.

Remember that this only works in situations where the subject is always at a constant distance from the camera. So it is perfect for shots at a place where fish are guaranteed to repeatedly come into the frame because of curiosity and where you have set up,  to take advantage of that.

But even moving fish often move along the same paths, and on the same plane, so this method may very well work for you in such a situation too. Just study the behaviour of your fishes! If you are also in ‘continuous shot’ mode, or ‘sport action’ mode, you can press down fully as soon as soon as you have your subject on the correct plane and then follow along, firing shot after shot. Provided your subject and your camera stay on the same relative planes, your focus is locked in and you will end up with several shots from which to choose the best.

So take the time to learn it. It can be an invaluable technique for improving both the composition and clarity of your photographs. Both techniques work well, but you need to practice to perfect them.

There is another focus option with sophisticated cameras. It is called servo focus. Normally focus locks when you press the shutter button halfway down. If the subject moves toward or away from the camera, it goes out of critical focus. However, if your camera has servo focus, focus is adjusted as long as you hold the shutter button halfway down. This mode is designed to keep a moving subject in focus and is great for sports and nature photography, or any other situations where you are photographing moving subjects. If the subject moves after you have focused on it, it remains in focus as long as it’s covered by one of the AF points.

Exposure:

The first and most important aspect of all photography is always exposure, because without it there is no photograph. Exposure is how the final picture turns out and is the result of a combination of shutter speed and aperture.

A properly exposed image not only should be in focus, but also should retain details in shadows, mid-tones and highlights, as it does in Hristo Hristov’s photograph above. Note that he chose to expose for the upper three quarters  of his subject to emphasise scale detail, at the price of a slightly lower exposure in the bottom quarter.

The metering systems of most cameras take good care of calculating lighting conditions to let us achieve perfect exposure. However, there are situations where the camera can be fooled  to make incorrect exposures — and this will need your intervention to adjust the exposure.

Exposure compensation is one way to override a camera’s metering system and it comes in handy when cameras have problems with properly exposing the scene. One example is when you want to photograph your subject on a uniformly dark background. If your subject does not fill the frame, the metering system of your camera, while taking information from the whole scene, will make greater allowances for capturing detail in the dark background and will thus force the shutter to  ‘open up’ to let in more light. The image resulting from this will be over-exposed, or in ordinary language, too bright, sometimes even totally blown out. On the other hand, if your background is very bright (like well-lit white sand for instance) exactly the opposite happens and your image will be under-exposed, or too dark. I am sure most of you have come across this phenomenon while photographing people against bright windows and doorways!

There is a remedy. Your camera may have an exposure compensation function. It can usually be found on the camera body as a dedicated button or dial, or as a function in the menu, and is represented by a plus/minus (+/-) icon.  By adjusting the exposure compensation to the left or right of the scale (in numbers represented as – or +, as in – 1 or + 1) you can manually correct over- or under-exposure.

Another more precise way to control exposure is something called spot metering. For cameras with this feature, we can ‘tell’ the camera exactly which part of an image its metering system should measure. This almost always creates the best effect in a final image.

Photographing in an aquarium challenges our cameras even more, frequently  leaving us with photos  in which only part of the image is over- or under—exposed — because there are some situations where using exposure compensation does not really work.  There are two options to remedy this. You can adjust the brightness in image editing software afterwards, or you can ‘bracket’ your exposures while you photograph. Be warned though, this method  cannot be used for moving fish! Bracketing the simple way means taking several exposures (minimum 3) one with exposure compensation set at  – to underexpose, for example -1, one with correct exposure at 0 and one to overexpose set at +, for example +1  — then later stacking them into one final image in image editing software. The images must however be identical, which means nothing must change from frame to frame, which explains why moving fish are out of the question. The technique is limited and therefore better used on non-moving subjects such as corals, coral polyps and plants, and even then the constantly moving aquarium environment makes it hard to use.

That having been said, with digital cameras it is frequently better to expose for the highlights and pull detail out of the shadows as necessary in post production.

And that brings us to what I call:

The big quad

Shutter speed, aperture (f-stop) and ISO values are the three most important settings one needs to understand to produce a good picture. The reason is that those three settings are inextricably related to each other and need to be in equilibrium in order to achieve really satisfying results. The fourth element of the quad is important for all three previous settings, as well as for a perfect exposure:  It is setting the white balance, which is necessary if you wish to attain natural colours.

Understanding aperture and its related f-stop numbers means understanding the very basics of how a camera works. A mechanical element inside the camera’s lens, called a diaphragm, moves in a circular fashion, widening or narrowing a small hole, called the aperture, through which light then passes inside the camera, hitting some light-sensitive element. In traditional film cameras that element is the photographic emulsion of the film. In digital cameras it is an electronic sensor that detects light and converts it to binary code. When you press the shutter button the diaphragm opens up for a period, allowing the light to enter the camera, and then closes again.

The question is: How wide does the diaphragm open (and for how long)?

The aperture is the diameter of the hole the diaphragm creates to let the light in, while shutter speed determines the length of time the diaphragm stays open. Aperture is measured in units called f-stops and shutter speed is measured in seconds. And both shutter speed and aperture can be manipulated to give you certain desired results. In more sophisticated cameras you can choose to shoot in ‘aperture priority’ mode, which means you allow the camera to automatically calculate the ‘complimentary’ shutter speed at which the image is taken. On the other hand, you could also choose to shoot ‘shutter speed priority’ mode, in which case the calculation of the ‘complimentary’ aperture is automatically done in camera. The same thing happens if you manually choose a specific aperture or shutter speed. The point I want you to understand is that if you change one, the other one changes too.

Believe me when I say that each setting you choose has a certain price attached to it, and you need to understand how to manipulate them to get to that position of equilibrium that will allow you to get great photographs.

So pay attention as we look at them one by one.

Shutter Speed determines the length of time the camera shutter is left open to allow light to enter into the sensor (or film) to capture the image. Depending on your camera, shutter speed can vary from a thousandth of a second to a few minutes (and even more for long exposures such as is used for tracking stars).  The longer the shutter stays open, the more light hits the film/sensor. Thus a shutter speed of 1 second lets in twice the amount of light as would a ½ second shutter speed.

Shutter speed also affects the sharpness of a photograph, and especially so if a camera is hand-held, or the subject being photographed is moving. A fast shutter speed  literally ‘freezes’ the subject and thus prevents blurry pictures, because in either case, the camera and subject has no time to move, relative to each other, in the very short period the shutter is open.

However, a fast shutter speed also limits the length of time in which light can enter the camera — and therefore you might end up with dark, under-exposed images. The logical remedy is to provide much more light on the subject, so that even the briefest slurp of light will be enough to give you a great exposure. We will explain later how.

Since fish are almost constantly in motion, a fast shutter speed is a must. The speed you should be using is at least 1/125 and preferably 1/150 or 1/200 — the latter two being my personal preference. In order to accomplish this you will in all likelihood need to switch your camera to manual mode, as an auto setting will usually give you a much lower shutter speed in low light situations.

You can now begin to understand why a lot of light is required for successful aquarium shots — and why light is even more important if you do not have a sophisticated camera on which you can manipulate these settings!

Irrespective of which camera you use, more light gives you the ability to use faster shutter speeds and therefore sharply rendered images. The problem is that in aquariums with standard lighting fixtures, there is not always enough light to be able to use these fast shutter speeds. We will discuss the remedies a little later.

Aperture is the next important aspect of exposure.  Aperture, which is also known as the F-stop, is a term that describes how wide the camera lens opens. This is very similar to how the human iris functions when moving from light into dark or vice versa. The aperture can be set wide to create a large opening for light to enter the camera, or it can be closed down, allowing only a little light to enter.

But here is the conundrum: Too much light and the image is washed out and over-exposed. Too little light and it is dim and under-exposed. Although a larger aperture opening seems like the better choice, the more open the aperture is, the shallower will the depth of field become.  In other words, while opening the aperture helps to let in more light, it also makes less of the picture in focus.

So where do we find equilibrium?

Let us begin by looking at the image below.

Since photographers want to be able to work consistently with aperture settings and also have the ability to repeat those settings if they worked out well, there needs to be a pre-calculated standard. There is. Thus, apertures, or f-stops are each given a number, for example 2.8, 4, 5.6, 8, 11, 16, 22. What these numbers mean,  is that the amount of light entering the lens either doubles, or halves as you go up one  “stop”, or down one “stop”. That is easy enough to understand. What is confusing is this:  A small f-stop (say 2.8) means a large opening, while a larger f-stop (say 22) means a small opening. I am not going to explain why that is so, because it has to do with f-stop being a ratio based on a logarithmic scale, and is unnecessarily complex for your specific purposes. (If you are technically minded, and thirst to know the ratio, you must find this information for yourself.)

All you need to remember is this: As the F-stop numbers get bigger, the opening gets smaller.

As I have briefly mentioned before, the amount of light that enters the lens also determines your depth of field — the area from front to back that will appear ‘in focus’ in your photo. A low f-stop, like f2.8, meaning a larger opening, allows more light in, but will have less of your photo in focus. A high f-stop, like f 22, being a smaller opening, will reduce the light entering the camera, but will show more detail in front of and behind of your subject as ‘in focus’. (However, I use these numbers just as means of demonstration; you will not be shooting with them!)

This is easy to remember if you imagine this as ‘squinting’. When you cannot see something properly with wide open eyes, you squint. By squinting, you are making your eye-opening smaller (literally setting a higher f-stop), and this brings what you are looking at into better focus.

ISO

ISO or Film Speed is a carryover term from the days of traditional film cameras, and was used to describe the ‘speed’ or light sensitivity of a roll of film. In modern digital cameras the roll of film has been replaced with a digital sensor.

So, ISO is just another setting that can be tweaked on your camera or in your camera menu. In short, when you change the ISO value, you are telling the camera how sensitive to light its sensor should be. The higher the ISO number, the more sensitive it is. A typical ISO setting starts at ISO 100 or 200, which usually suffices for most everyday photographic situations. But it can go up to 6400 or more in professional cameras.

ISO can change the way we control exposure drastically. To explain how to use this tool, let us use and example:

Our subject is a relatively slow moving fish. Our camera is set to ‘aperture priority’ mode and we have set our aperture to f/8, so the fish in its entirety is in focus. Our metering system now automatically measures the light levels and then chooses a shutter speed of 1/25s. The shutter opens and closes and the image appears on our camera screen.

What is the result? Although it’s a good exposure, since our picture is neither too dark, nor excessively bright, the subject is unfortunately blurry, because the shutter was open for too long and sensor was therefore unable to ‘freeze’ the fish in the frame.

Here’s where ISO comes into play. Instead of changing the aperture and risking a shallow depth of field, we can change ISO value to a higher sensitivity and preserve the aperture.

Therefore, raising the ISO allows us to shoot in lower light situations. Cool, is it not?

But as we already know, everything comes at a price!

Yes, ISO is a great tool to use, but it is not magic, for ISO comes with certain physical limitations that cannot be overcome. Raising the ISO value always reflects on image quality. It causes a graininess which in the photographical world is called ‘noise’. The plus is that with digital cameras the effect of noise, while still there, is much less noticeable than it used to be for 35mm film. This means that we can use higher ISO numbers before we get caught by visible noise.

In digital images ‘noise’ shows up as grainy, coloured dots, especially when you zoom in on the image. As stated before, raising ISO values increases the sensor’s sensitivity to light. The more sensitive it is, the less light is needed to produce an image. However, while more sensitive to light, the sensor can no longer ‘save’ all of the information contained in the light that enters the camera — or more correctly, there is not enough light for the sensor to save! As a result, the overall quality of an image decreases.

In the two full frame photographs below, one can clearly see that Hristo Hristov bumped up his ISO for his tiny Killifish  subjects.  In the first image, the typical graininess that results from increasing  ISO sensitivity is quite evident. In the second image, ISO has also been raised, but the result is much more ‘acceptable’.

So, how does one decide between getting the shot or not, and how much should you care about image quality?

It all depends on what you want to do with your images. A small to medium sized picture for web purposes can be taken at higher ISO settings, because, even if noisy, a viewer won’t really see the imperfections. To the contrary, if you want an artwork for large format printing, or for publishing, the option of bumping the  ISO too much completely falls away, because in this case visible noise is just not acceptable.

The computer-savvy amongst you may now want to point out that image enhancing software offers the possibility to reduce noise. Trust me. Even if it does not seem so to your eyes, just like compression, noise reduction processes always decrease the image quality once more. As I said, it depends on what you want to do with your image!

White Balance:

When using a digital camera, the white balance setting is arguably one of the most important elements of aquarium photography. If light determines how brilliant your colours are, white balance determines how true your colours are rendered.

You have to remember that with all its wonderful features, a camera is still just a mechanical,  or electronic instrument pre-programmed with certain default functions. It does not have a brain, and cannot think for you. In the illustration  below I have slightly exaggerated what  the camera does with the different white balance settings it has,  when it works with what it perceives as ‘white’:

In top photography you should not be satisfied with the camera’s automatic white balance adjustments. That means you have to do the thinking and override the default settings.

Because aquariums tend to have an overall blue or green tint despite the overhead lights, we need to ‘tell’ the camera what WHITE is, because only then can the camera adjust the built in colour balance to give as true as possible a rendition of white, which in turn influences and changes all the other colours we capture in our photographs.

Let us use an example. In a photograph of a white wall with a blue light shining on it, taken with auto white balance, the wall will register as blue, because blue is what the camera ‘sees’. If we however set the white balance, telling the camera that the blue is really white, we override the camera’s incorrect judgement, and it will now render that ‘blue’ wall as white — the accurate colour of the wall.

White balance can be a great tool to play with. It is for example often used by nature photographers who want to depict sunsets as more intensely orange than they really are. In setting their white balance on a blue surface — the opposite of orange on the colour wheel — they force the camera to render brilliantly deep and intense orange colours in sunsets. 

In aquariums we are of course faced with a situation closer to our ‘blue’ wall analogy, with the added confusion of various fish colours thrown in. And apart from this we also have to keep in mind that water can filter out a lot of colour information, the deeper and wider an aquarium gets. Add to this that you have aquarium lights above your tank — usually in a variety of different colour temperatures!

This is why it is so important to set the white balance correctly (with your aquarium lights on), or the resulting pictures may turn out either too blue or too yellow. Never trust the camera’s ‘Auto White Balance’. It is rarely able to recreate the correct coloration of an aquarium or an aquarium inhabitant.

The simplest solution is to make a little waterproof (plastic or PVC) white card. Have someone hold it inside your tank, at more or less the plane you expect to photograph. Find the manual white balance on your camera and select it to set the new white balance. Point your camera at the white object and depress the button. The new white balance will be registered in your camera’s settings. Once set, that colour temperature will apply to all your images. You may need a tripod for this if you work alone. Also turn off the rest of the lights in the room to minimize reflections, and switch your camera to manual focus so it doesn’t get distracted by the glass front of the tank.

Still, let us shortly return once more to that blue wall of before. Say you want to shoot in a bare-backed aquarium and actually want that blue reflection on the wall (or a reflector board) to become a graduated blue horizon in your tank, what must you do now? That is the magic of setting your white balance on something white inside your tank. Because the camera now knows what you consider white, it will faithfully register the blue ‘wall’ as blue. (After all, you did not ‘tell’ it that the blue is actually white, as we did in the first example!)

Incidentally, if you do want to photograph an aquarium subject against a blue background – entirely possible if you work in a photo-dedicated tank, you would still set your white balance, but you will light a plain white background board with a flash that has a blue gel over it. Voila: A blue background with a fish that has the correct colour, because of the white balance setting! 

Before we can bring all of these lessons together, there is one more element of photography we need to pay attention to: Light

LIGHTING YOUR AQUARIUM FOR PHOTOGRAPHY

If there is one single thing you can do to take better photographs, it is lighting. Lots and lots of lighting!

Normal aquarium lighting is not enough!

You will find many conflicting opinions on this. Many ‘experts’ will profess that as long as you turn the room lights off, your aquarium turns into a little illuminated ‘studio’, or they will say that the lights used in aquaria tend to bring out the colours of the fish and plants better than any household light, or that a flash should not be used, because it will reflect off the fish, bleaching them out.

Some of this is true, much of it is not. Ask anyone who consistently produces beautiful fish photography, and they will tell you that proper lighting is their greatest secret. Having learnt from them, here is my take on what you ideally need to do to get getting stunning shots of your aquarium and its inhabitants:

Avoiding glare is one of the hardest aspects of photographing an aquarium specimen. The best way to prevent this is to make sure the room is dimly lit and the aquarium is very well lit. Reflections in tank’s glass appear in aquarium photos when there is light that illuminates objects outside your aquarium. To reduce or eliminate reflections in your aquarium photographs, cover all shiny surfaces, turn off all the room lights and either shoot at night, or close the curtains & blinds in the area where your aquarium is housed. Ideally, the lights you choose to illuminate your aquarium for a photo shoot should be the only lights on.

Because you will be shooting with a fast shutter speed, which means letting in light for only a very short period, you have to drastically increase the light in your tank and on your subjects.

The first thing that comes to mind is really bumping up the overhead lights of your aquarium. It may also be the only solution for cash strapped photographers and those with less sophisticated cameras. The more lighting you have above your tank, the better lit your tank will be and the easier it will be for your camera to focus and for you to take clear photographs of your fish. If you have any glass over the top of your tank, it must be impeccably clean, so that all the light possible can properly pass through it into the water. (If your tank usually has subdued lighting, you may have to add lights gradually in order not to stress your fish.) Also consider adding reflectors to your hood.

Keep in mind that with larger tanks depth and width is crucially important. Light does not travel very far in water and a tank that is deeper and wider than the standard aquarium may require twice as much light!

For whole aquariums there are different techniques below — most of which I will not describe,  as the images will show you ‘how to’.

But ideally, to get the best light on your fish, you need to think FLASH. If you made any investment in you camera equipment, this is the way to go!

However, absolutely, positively, definitely DO NOT USE YOUR ON-CAMERA FLASH. It will only increase glare and will make your image appear flat or two dimensional. There is only one exception to this rule — when you have a tilt-able on board flash, and even then I would advise you to first consider the other options below. (And yes, there are people who will disagree with me, including the photographer in a reference I will give you shortly)

We are talking here about ‘slave flashes’! Do not shudder! They are easy to use!

Most sophisticated cameras either allow you to take your on-board flash off and use it separately, and most also support remote flashes. (Since I am a Nikon fan, I know that Nikon’s Creative Lighting System is particularly nice for this.)

So, if you can remove your on-board flash, you may well be able to use it as a remote or ‘slave’ flash.

If you cannot remove the on-board flash, simply switch it off. Instead use two off-camera flashes capable of being connected to your camera, either with a sync cord or wirelessly, via infrared transmitter.

Let me explain, since there are several types of ‘slave flashes’.

Some cameras have a built in slave plug, which functions with a sync cord attached both to the flash and camera, and is set off when you release the shutter. This means you can mount your flash on a stand of its own, from where it will set of its burst the moment you release the shutter. It works well, except for the disadvantage of the synch-cord dangling around your set-up. You can also use an adaptor to add a second synch-cord connected flash, or you can choose the much cheaper option, which is adding an optical slave flash.

An optical slave flash (also called an AC slave) is not connected to your camera or the main flash at all. It is the most commonly used and most economic of slave flash options. It is plugged into a power source and uses a very sensitive light meter mechanism which triggers it to go off as soon as it sees the bright light from your main flash. So, when your master flash goes off, the slave will go off too.  It acts like another flash, but it is inexpensive and is screwed into a regular light socket. Three seconds later, it is fully recharged and ready for your main flash to go off again. Some are more sophisticated, and come with a PC socket that allows low voltage triggering directly from a camera sync terminal, as well as an integral test button. They look like this:

An Infra—red slave flash is triggered by a burst of infra red via an infrared receiver/sender attached to the hot shoe of the camera (which is where your on-board removable flash is usually attached. The Infra red burst is triggered by the shutter release.  Sophisticated IR systems can control up to 3 groups of multiple flashes, as well as control different output ratios for each flash.

A radio slave flash is triggered by a radio signal, but is much less common and is usually only used in crowded situations, to prevent other peoples’ flashes from firing yours. Radio and IR systems are both more expensive than an optical system, but there is a wide range of prices, so hunt around locally and on the internet.

If you have a decent flash, you should be able to dial it down or up in increments, giving you more or less light, depending on what you need for your exposure. Such flashes also come with diffusers that take the edge off hard light.  If your flash does not have the dial up or down capability, you may have to move your flashes closer to or further away from your subject. You could also create a diy diffuser, using white paper or a Styrofoam coffee cup.  There are many instructions for this on the Internet! 

If you want to know more about flashes and slave flashes, and also want to  understand lighting better, I highly recommend that you visit  the following link:

http://strobist.blogspot.com/

How to Position your Slave Flashes

I wish there were recipes that I could give you, but there are not. Why not? Because it depends on your tank and the fish you want to photograph, as well as the effect you want to get. So, you have to do a bit of logical thinking here, and above all, you need to experiment. (I will later tell you what other photographers do)

You use the tank lights to focus by. Your flashlight will only light up your tank at the moment of the shot. They will not cause any reflections. Also, if you were wondering, no, your external flashes won’t harm or spook your fish. The bursts are too short. They will simply carry on as they always do.

The most common way is to position one of your flash lights above your aquarium. This is also your most important flash. Aim it at  the fish from directly above the tank, suspended or clamped about 20—30 cm above the water line. This is the flash that gets rid of all the shadows,  and illuminates the plants and the décor of the tank. Any light that comes from above, gives the your photographs a 3-D quality, where the fish seems to jump out at you — provided you also use a second fill-in flash. You can either put the flash on a stand with a moveable arm, or get some adjustable brackets to mount to the top of your light stand in order to tilt the flash up and down. Alternatively, put a sheet of glass across the top of your tank if you do not already have glass over it; then place the flash on it, pointing it downwards into the tank. In either case make absolutely sure that the flashes cannot topple into your tank, or get in contact with your aquarium water. You do not want to electrocute yourself or your fish. If you are using sync cords, tape them out of the way for the same reason.

Place the second flash in front of the tank, towards the left or right side, lower than where your subject will be, but aiming it slightly upward at where you expect your subject to be. You need to find the perfect angle for this, as you do not want the direct light to bounce into your camera. It is usually around 45° to the tank front. This flashlight light is meant to provide light fill for the bottom half of your fish subject. Without it, when  lit from above only, the lower half of the fish will be less illuminated than the upper half, and chances are that the eye-lens of the fish will catch the light coming down and project an unnatural looking tear-drop shaped bit of bright light onto its cheeks.

By using two lights, and working out how much light you want them to release, you can get astonishing detail in fish colour patterns, scales and fins.

Again: Remember that light travels in a straight line and that if you want to avoid reflections from your flashes, you must always aim them at the tank at an angle so that their light bursts do not bounce back into the camera.

You can also experiment with illuminating from the side of the aquarium (at a 90°angle to your camera lens), or if you have surface swimming fish from a shallow angle to the front of the tank.

You may sometimes have to dial back the flash power on one or both of your flashes or use diffusers to soften their strength. In fact you can position the flash lights in any way you want, as long as it is at an angle that keeps the flare out of the camera lens. You can move up or down as well, just as long as you are not  pointing the lens perpendicular to the glass of the tank. In fact many photographers prefer to hold their fill flash in their left hand and their camera in in their right hand while photographing. As long as you remember the rules, do what is comfortable for you and delivers the desired results.

You could also go to town with an optical flash (or more) and arrange your frontal flashes to cover a greater field of view. One flash may need to be above the height of the camera, and one below. This requires a few test shots to verify that there are no hot spots or dark spots. You may also have to diffuse these flashes, so that you do not over-expose your shots.

The reason you do not want to put both flashes at the top of the tank is that it causes a flat, two-dimensional effect, whereas you actually want to ‘sculpt’ the shape and lift it off the background, so that it feels three dimensional in the image. This is particularly so in the case of fishes with very shiny backs, or in larger fish, since to top down only lights will cause incorrect exposure on the upper side and deep, shadows without detail on the bottom half. This is exactly why we use fill flash from the front.

There is an exception: Cover the tank with a piece of glass, set both the flashes on it pointing upwards, move the hood lights forward, and cover the whole lot with a big piece of aluminium foil reflective side down. In this way you are working with reflected light, and can make the background very subtle, because you are deflecting the flash away from the back of the tank.

Scaling down your flashes

With this much light, you can end up with images that are much too bright. That is why it is so important to test shoot. I have touched on this subject before, but here it is in a bit more detail:  The remedy is to scale down the power of your flashes. If you do it in the camera menu, (flash compensation), the settings will automatically affect both flash lights. With sophisticated camera and flash combinations you should be able to set different ratios for the two different flashes, as one setting will be dedicated to ‘flash a’, and the next setting to ‘flash b’.  Alternatively, you can usually scale down the flash burst on the flash light itself. I frequently set the flash compensation on my camera at minus 1/2 or 3/4 stops. Another remedy is placing diffusers over the flash lights. The secret is to make the flash softer and larger, but less directional.  You may even go to the trouble to make a small soft-box for your flashes.

The last remedy is quite simply to put a greater distance between the flashes and the subject, as light falls off with distance (at a predictable rate).

Whichever way you choose, the light from the top is always the main light and should preferably be around 3 f-stops brighter than the fill flash.

Lighting problems:

There are many variations to the lighting theme, especially when you have to photograph highly reflective fish, or dark or black fish. Black fish require directional lighting – one from above and behind the fish and one from the front and off to the side a bit.  The back flash then keeps the edges of the fish lighter than the background. Alternatively move a strong overhead fluorescent to the back to provide some back-lighting.

Hristo Hristov’s stunning photograph of a Black prince guppy is a good example of the subtle difference this makes.

The alternative is to photograph black fish against a saturated, contrasting background, while using the fill-flash to bring out detail, as shown in Hristo’s photograph below.

For reflective fish you may have to scale down your flash considerably.

Iridescent fish always present a problem because their rainbow sheen is so easily washed out by flash. The iridescence you see on the body and fins as these fish move, relative to your eye and the light source, is caused by tiny semi-regular ridges which act like miniature prisms, separating the light into its individual sequence somewhat akin to a rainbow. However, dependent on the spacing, size and regularity of these tiny ridges the effect sometimes moves from the rainbow sheen to an enhanced one colour ‘tone’, or can even be almost invisible to the naked eye. The shimmering iridescence is usually dependent on movement. As you know what flash and a fast shutter speed does — the outcome seems logical, I would say. I guess the answer is to carefully scale down your flashes, just enough to give you the best of both worlds! As you can see in Hristo’s splendid photographs below, it can and has been done. So don’t give up!

The same problem may apply to light coloured fish. Try to diffuse or scale down your flashes more drastically and try to catch your subject against dark backgrounds.

There are also exceptions, where you do not want to use much flash at all. With slow moving fishes, like Discus, you will be able to get great shots without flash, using only your tank lights and fill-flash!

As for tricks: Aluminium foil can be your friend. Try setting the first flash to the back of the tank and cover the tank and the top three inches of the front with foil. If you can reflect light from the front as well as illuminate the edges of the fish, you will have a great shot.

If you want the background to be darker, so that your fish subject will stand out, you can move the hood lights forward and cover the back end of the aquarium with black paper.

The main advantage of external flashlights is that you can get sharper pictures with great detail in fins and scales. You also have more control over the aperture and that leads to control over the depth of field in your photos. Other advantages are that if you must hand hold your camera to get your shot, you do not have to be as steady as you would have to be as when not using flash. You will also be able to shoot at lower ISO values, which means images with less noise.

Most posts on the Internet will have you believe that the main disadvantage of flash is that the photographs look too ‘flat’. This is incorrect. Flat, 2-dimensional pictures come into being because the photographer has positioned the flash-lights  incorrectly, or has not diffused the power of the flashes enough. So flatness is not the fault of the flash – but that of the photographer. Others say that you lose the beautiful transparency of some corals and anemones. Again, this can usually be remedied by changing the position of the flashlights and scaling their power down until you get the desired result. (In an advanced set-up this will, for example, never happen, as many more lights, most of which will be diffused, will be brought into the scene.)

Finally, if you cannot afford more than one flash, you will have to use reflectors to maximise your light. You may  may also want to try taping an aquarium light to the top front of the tank for an added light source, yet take care to shield it with black paper from the front, so that its light cannot enter the camera lens.

Now that you know more about lighting, I urge you to look at the work of other fish photographers with a much more analytical mind. Just by studying how they lit their subjects you can learn a lot about how they set up their lighting, and how they use backgrounds and settings to attain the pictures they produced.

Lighting for Full aquarium Photography

If you have read along up to this point, then you need very few words to explain the following images. Let us begin with two schematic illustrations:

The first illustrates how you would light a bare-back tank. This usually applies to Amano-style Nature Aquaria, where backgrounds are never used.

If you use white board behind your aquarium to reflect light into the tank in order to acquire a clean white background — a technique which is usually required for Nature Aquarium competition shots —  the white board should be positioned at least 15 — 20cm behind the tank. Any nearer, or even worse, up tight against the tank, your background will appear grey in the shot. In addition you could play with an extra background light at the back, lighting upwards toward the reflector board. Make sure that this light is positioned below the aquarium bottom.

Depending on how you light it, this type of set-up lets you take pictures where the surface of the water (in the rear) is not really noticeable. Additionally, this type of background along with lighting from the top creates a shadowing effect on the lower part of the background, which makes the tank seem deeper. Generally, adding a great amount of light for the background from the top always gives better full tank photos.

If your aquarium has a background your lighting set-up must change to in-tank lighting. You need to flood your tank with sufficient light to get pin-sharp detail. You may therefore want to add two or more front lights as fill lights. Just remember that your angles must be chosen to avoid reflections into the camera.

If you feel that you are not getting the results you desire with flash photography, you may want to experiment with proper studio lights. Some come with soft-boxes too, so that you can diffuse the lights if necessary. Few full-tank photographers will want to invest in a purchase; but studio lights can be hired. (Photo Hire in Cape Town is one of the biggest and best.) Perhaps if you team up with one or two buddies with the same aspirations, the shared costs for a one day hire will make it worth your while. 

In either case, black paper is used in front of the top of the tank lighting set-up, to shield any stay light from entering the camera. The side of these these boards that face inwards could be lined with white paper or foil reflectors to maximise your lights.

Black backgrounds in tanks are also neutral but if you are not careful, the can act like mirrors, so place your lights with much forethought!

For best results, shoot in manual mode, and choose either ‘aperture priority’ or ‘shutter speed priority’ mode. Try not to exceed ISO 200.

Frame your tank precisely, excluding everything external to the tank. It makes things much easier for the matrix of the camera’s metering system. Also, put your camera on a tripod and use a remote release, or your camera self timer to avoid any camera shudder when the shutter releases.

Finally, expect to take at least 40—50 shots at different settings, before you get the ultimate shot.

If you are into planted tanks, you may want to create a photo journal that spans over time to show the development of your tank. So make notes of the settings that worked best for you. I always think it is very interesting to see a planted tank develop – as well as later, what it looks like before and after pruning, with another view a  week or so later, after the pruned plants have settled. Many planted tank hobbyists and photographers will at some or other time scrap the old and begin a brand new project. How wonderful to keep a photographic record that shown your growth as an aquascaper as you go along!

This brings us to the end of the ‘technical’ part of photographing your fish and aquarium.

 In Part 2, I will try to bring it all together for a proper photographic shoot. Meanwhile, you need to thoroughly digest and try out the techniques. Try out the various settings and look at the results. You do not necessarily have to do this by shooting your aquarium. You can practice close-up work on flowers and plants, or your pets. The whole point is to get used to be at ease with activating these settings.

You may also want to have a look at the following videos on YouTube:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JUtrNJN_4zY

This video has nothing to do with fish photography, but it shows you the concept of how motion is frozen by flash – I recommend it because I have previously used it to make the concept ‘click’ with a class of students who just did not get why flashes are so important to good photography.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r1Sdyqcn8FI

In this video an amateur photographer shows how he does it. While I do not always agree with him, it may help you a lot – as well as convince you that it is not that difficult to get started. Please note that although he usually also shoots in a darkened room, he obviously had to leave the lights on to take the instructional video.

Finally, for you point and shoot camera owners, go to the following link, for an   excellent tutorial on whole tank photography with a point and shoot camera:

http://www.projectaquarium.com/plantedAquariumArticles_PhotographyPointAndShoot.aspx

Enjoy, and have FUN!

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