Like all pet owners, aquarists enjoy creating keepsakes of their prized fish and aquariums through the medium of photography. Whilst this can be fairly straightforward when taking pictures of our furry friends, capturing our wet pets on camera can be a bit more of a challenge. Before the age of digital photography, the sheer number of photographs that had to be discarded could become quite frustrating.
These days we can take much larger numbers of photographs, deleting the ones that don't make the grade, with no additional expense incurred. Even so, there are a number of considerations to take into account if you are aiming to take that perfect picture. Quality photographs do not depend on having the latest high-priced camera model, but there are many techniques that will help you to achieve better results.
One of the first things to bear in mind is that preparation before the photo shoot is key. Hopefully your aquatics pride and joy is always well-maintained, so there should be minimal maintenance required before you begin photographing. A well-maintained tank is obviously not only best for the fish, but it also allows for “spur-of- the-moment” photography, such as when your fish are displaying some unusual behaviour or their colours have intensified prior to spawning.
However, if you know for sure that you are going to be spending time photographing your fish the next day, the most important thing is to ensure that the glass is thoroughly clean both inside and out. Any imperfections or algae will detract from a good shot and can even give problems when focusing. If you usually run a UV steriliser on the tank and activated carbon in the filter, these would both be seen as bonuses in aiding exceptional water clarity for photography.
When taking photographs in the main aquarium, better results are often achieved if filtration and aeration are temporarily turned off during this period. This is because the tiny air bubbles that are pushed through the water from filter returns or powerhead venturis can sometimes spoil the overall look. Remember that turning off the filter and aeration is only temporary and they should be switched on again as soon as you have finished taking pictures, ideally within 30 minutes or so. Never be tempted to feed the fish prior to photographing them, in order to try and encourage them out into the open, as this will cloud the water (including the crucial area between the fish and the front glass) with small particles and will quite spoil the results.
Aquarium photographs tend to come out best when the room is fairly dark, and the only illumination is from the tank itself or from additional lighting that you are employing for photography purposes, placed at strategic angles - usually above the tank. Other lights in the room, and even furniture situated too close to the tank, tend to be reflected onto the glass and have spoiled many a good shot.
Some tanks are dimly lit because they are home to shy fish that prefer subtle illumination, so you may need to boost the available lighting if the camera's flash is not bright enough, as otherwise focusing can be very difficult. Having said this, timid fish might not appreciate being suddenly brightly lit, and their colours may fade, so there may be a bit of trial and error to find the most suitable approach.
There are some minuscule species of fish that are so active, that it will be near impossible to photograph them successfully in larger volumes of water, and in such cases you may like to ask your local retailer if they could give you a quote for a narrow photographic tank constructed for you by their trusted aquarium manufacturers. Narrow photo tanks can be useful, but they are very much a temporary measure; the welfare of the fish must always come first and they should not be left in such a small volume of unfiltered water (taken from the main aquarium of course) for more than a few minutes.
One drawback of smaller photo tanks is that you won't be able to achieve such a naturalistic-looking background, for example of live plants, but they are very useful for macro work or tiny species. However, some people find that they enjoy their aquarium photography so much that they set up an aquarium specifically for this purpose: a fully functional tank of decent length, with a small number of permanent inhabitants to help keep the filter ticking over, and which has moderate width (being somewhat narrower than the main aquarium) but still wide enough to grow live plants.
This means that once the fish in question are carefully acclimatised across, they can stay in there for some time in order to gain confidence and settle down to show their best colours, as the water is mature and filtered. The background of natural vegetation and the settled nature of the fish make for the most beautiful photographs, but obviously this type of set-up will only work for smaller sized fish. It all depends on how serious you are about your photography. It has even be known for some hobbyists to go to the trouble of constructing a small "hide" in front of the main aquarium when dealing with nervous fish - such as a black sheet placed in front of the tank with just a hole cut out big enough for the lens to poke through!
Basic point-and-shoot type cameras may work reasonably well for general overall shots of the aquarium, but when taking closer photographs of the inhabitants, the autofocus settings will limit you somewhat as they will usually focus on the front glass rather than on the fish themselves.
DSLR cameras will give you much more manual control over what you are focusing on, and for beginners, bridge cameras can be a very good compromise. With a DSLR, you may need to invest in one or two lenses of different focal lengths i.e. a 35 or 50mm for larger fish or sections of the aquarium, and a dedicated macro (micro) lens optimised for close-up work.
Bridge cameras offer a good alternative as there is no need for several lenses, many boasting normal and macro shooting modes. The focus lock button can be extremely useful, allowing the user to firstly focus on an object within the aquarium, holding the focus point, then moving back a few mm with the camera, and then taking a photo when the fish swims past the object.
By studying your fish’s behaviour you will get to know their preferred areas of the aquarium and any habitual swimming patterns. Then by holding the focus but moving slightly out from the object you focussed on in the first place, it should result in a sharp shot of the fish as it cruises by in front of it. Focus lock is one of the most underused functions on digital cameras and it is so advantageous for aquarium photography.
Correct aperture and shutter speed will need to be determined through trial and error. For beginners, it may be best to use an automatic mode to begin with, as you can then view the settings that the camera has chosen, switch to manual mode, and set similar values and begin experimenting with what works best. To reduce 'noise' within the photograph, you will need to use a lower ISO setting. ISO controls the sensitivity of the camera's image sensor to light. Higher settings will introduce noise into the photo, so aim to keep the ISO around 50-200 for best results.
With any macro shot of a fish, it is crucial to get the eye in focus - this literally makes or breaks a shot. A greater depth of field (DOF) will allow more opportunity for you to have the maximum amount of the fish in sharp focus (hopefully including the eye!) and this will require a higher f-stop, but this in turn means a smaller aperture and less available light for the photograph. Shutter speed will also need to be fast enough to capture the fish without blurring. It is a case of experimenting to find settings that give you the best results for the fish in your aquarium - usually a happy compromise of sorts - every set-up is slightly different.
With regards to camera flash, inbuilt flashes are practical for many situations, but they do not always give the desired results when photographing fish. Inbuilt flashes tend to be of much weaker intensity than external flash units, and are also in a fixed position on top of the camera, which limits the angle at which you can photograph the aquarium and the fish without creating a big glare across the picture. However flash is necessary if we wish to 'freeze' the fish in a fixed position in a photograph, but we must be very mindful of positioning.
The most pleasingly lit aquarium photographs tend to come about when one or more external flash units are mounted on small tripods, one above the tank (and preferably fitted with a diffuser), and the other to the front of the tank, but at an angle to enable you to photograph straight-on without it causing glare in the photograph. Again, you will need to experiment. If external flash is not an option, and you are relying on the inbuilt flash, you will need to photograph at a slight angle to the front glass in order to avoid glare. However, too much of an angle can result in distortion of the subject/s, so it is best to try and keep this angle to a minimum. A tripod for the camera can be very beneficial for those who are a little unsteady and wish to avoid camera shake, and a basic one needn't cost a fortune.
When photographing the aquarium as a whole, you may need to use a slower shutter speed and higher ISO to bring in more of the available light. This can result in slightly blurry fish (unless they are very sedentary species!), but the overall aesthetics of the tank itself will be captured more true to life. Taking the shot slightly below and to the side of the aquarium will give the photograph a sense of depth.
Photo editing software is not strictly necessary, although it can be useful for sharpening up images, cropping to suitable proportions, fine-tuning vibrancy/contrast, and for cloning out any debris.
Finally, do remember that a good proportion of aquarium photography is down to patience and sheer luck! Happy snapping!
Firstly, I feel I need to apologise to you all as it’s been far too long since I last wrote this feature. In fact, I was extremely shocked to learn that my last piece was way back in October of last year but needless to say, one heck of a lot has happened since then….. Read on to find out what's been happening over the last few months at Maidenhead Aquatics by Stuart Ashley, one of our Senior Partners.