Have you ever wanted to show off your aquatic pets with a nice, framed print on your wall, sell custom notecards or prints at an art festival, or put your favorite image on your office coffee mug or mouse pad? With digital photography, the options are endless. That said, none of these options are possible if you’re not successful at capturing the image. As a contributing editor for several aquarium hobbyist magazines for more than two decades, I have developed a method that is very portable, sets up in minutes and consistently produces great images.
With the aquarium light positioned in the center of the aquatic plants and driftwood, I placed both flashes along the front edge of the aquarium. This effectively illuminated all fish positioned along the front of the aquarium. The image was taken with a Nikon D300 and a Nikon 12-24mm lens on a Manfrotto 055CXPro3 tripod and Acratech ballhead. The aquarium was lit with a 65-watt, 10,000K compact fluorescent lamp with fill light using a video/DSLR LED light and 12-inch diffuser. Exposure was f/6.3 at one-forth of a second and ISO 200. Photo by Jeff Howe
The nice thing about aquarium photography is that you don’t need an expensive, professional digital camera. Pretty much any current point-and-shoot or digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) camera will do nicely. In the past, point-and-shoot cameras were very limited and not suitable for aquarium photography. Today, you’d be hard pressed to find a small compact camera unable to create excellent images due to the quality, performance and capabilities built into these units. Because point-and-shoot cameras have a built-in zoom lens, the optical quality will vary with each camera. The higher-quality cameras will typically have a sharper lens.
Macro photography opportunities are available with slow-moving, benthic fish like this Hypostomus plecostomus. Moving very slowly, I positioned the camera within inches of the fish’s head for this macro 1:1 ratio image. The image was taken with a Nikon D300 and a 105mm macro lens with an exposure of f/16 at 1/250 second and ISO 200. Lighting consisted of an aquarium 65-watt, 10,000K compact fluorescent lamp and fill light from twin Nikon SB-800 flashes. Photo by Jeff Howe
For anyone serious about aquarium photography and macro/close-up photography, a DSLR is your best choice. With a DSLR, you have the choice of supplemental lenses, which can be attached to the camera body. Macro lenses come in a variety of focal lengths, ranging from about 55 to 200 millimeters. The shorter the focal length, the closer you have to be to your subject to fill the frame. My current equipment consists of a Nikon D300, 105-millimeter macro lens and twin SB-800 speedlights.
Regardless of what type of camera you choose, the following features are necessary for aquarium photography:
- Full manual control. The ability to adjust both the aperture and shutter speed.
- Adjustable ISO setting.
- The ability to use an external, electronic, off-camera flash wirelessly or via a sync cord. The use of two flashes is preferable.
- The ability to turn the camera’s built-in flash off.
- Manual and continuous focusing modes.
- The ability to adjust the white balance.
- No shutter lag. If there is a shutter lag, you may end up with lots of fish tail images.
- Ability to capture images in raw file format. This is only important for adjusting the lighting temperature of your image if your camera’s white balance was improperly set.
- In some instances, the option to use a cable release, electronic remote shutter release or camera built-in timer may be beneficial.
- Image stabilization.
- Fast flash-sync speed (a minimum of 1/125 second).
- For point-and-shoot cameras, make sure the camera offers a macro setting/mode/capability adequate for fish portraits. In addition, the camera needs to offer an optical rather than digital zoom.
If possible, the aquarium should be cleaned 24 hours prior to your photo shoot in order to optimize your images. Cleaning should include vacuuming the gravel, removing any algae from the glass or acrylic surface, plant pruning, conducting a partial water change and rearranging any items based on aquascaping. If necessary, add some activated carbon to your filter to assist in removing any yellow tint in the water. Once cleaned, any newly suspended material will either settle to the bottom or collect in the filter.
With some fish, like this clownfish searching for food, it is nice to capture natural behavior. This image was taken with a Nikon D300 and a 105mm macro lens with an exposure of f/25 at 1/200 second and ISO 200. Lighting consisted of an aquarium 20-watt, daylight fluorescent lamp and fill light from twin Nikon SB-800 flashes. Photo by Jeff Howe
On the day of the shoot, clean the outside glass and make sure there are no spots or smudges. Unless the rear glass panel has been painted or other background material (hopefully, complementary and non-reflective) is attached, tape a piece of dark (I prefer black) felt to the rear glass panel to hide all electric cords, tubes and wall-painted surface. Approximately 10 minutes prior to your photo shoot, turn off all filters, pumps, powerheads and air stones. This will allow any suspended material to settle to the bottom. Make a note of when these units are turned off and make sure to turn them back on before your fish exhibit signs of stress.
Keeping the camera parallel to the fish as it moves, using a relatively fast shutter speed, image stabilization, if available, and proper lighting, enables you to obtain nice fish portraits. This saddleback puffer image was taken with a Nikon D300 and a 105mm macro lens, with an exposure of f/25 at 1/200 second and ISO 200. Lighting consisted of an aquarium 40 watt, daylight fluorescent lamp and fill light from twin Nikon SB-800 flashe. Photo by Jeff Howe
While waiting for things to settle down, position two flashes on top of the glass cover at a 45-degree angle and adjust the aquarium lighting accordingly to illuminate as much of the front portion of the aquarium as possible. Initially, I experimented with both flashes positioned at a 45-degree angle in front of the aquarium, but this arrangement frequently produced reflections in my images. Flashes positioned on top eliminate all reflections.
Before you begin shooting, turn off all overhead and room lighting. Close all blinds and curtains to eliminate any stray light from entering the room and producing reflections. With my camera set on manual, I initially set the shutter speed to 1/200 second and the aperture to F22. Upon review of the first several images, I adjust either the shutter speed or aperture accordingly. Unless I’m taking an image of a stationary, bottom-dwelling fish, I set my camera to continuous focus, which assists in tracking fish movements. If hand-holding your camera, make sure that image stabilization is engaged, as this will assist in producing the best-quality images.
With this Chinese algae eater (above) resting on the bottom of the aquarium, I was able to move in very close with my macro lens. Unfortunately, at close proximity, algae on the glass became apparent. An abundance of algae can be observed below and to the right of the fish’s snout. Make sure you perform a thorough cleaning of the aquarium. The image was taken with a Nikon D300 and a 105mm macro lens with an exposure of f/25 at 1/160 second and ISO 200. Lighting consisted of an aquarium 65-watt, 10,000K compact fluorescent lamp and fill light from twin Nikon SB-800 flashes. Photo by Jeff Howe
Because there is a combination of lighting sources (flashes and aquarium lights) which are of different temperatures I set my camera’s white balance on automatic. In addition, I use a low-ISO setting (such as 200) in order to reduce noise in my images. With my current setup, my flashes are triggered via an infrared transmission produced from Nikon’s SU-800 wireless speedlight commander positioned on my camera’s hot shoe, which eliminates the need for sync cords.
Conquer these Common Problems
Patience. Remember that digital images are free. Consequently, shoot lots of images and take your time.
Study behavior. If possible, prior to your photo shoot, spend time understanding the fish’s behavior in regard to swimming patterns and areas of the aquarium that they frequent so that you can be at the right place at the right time.
Frame it well. Compose your images so that there is space in front of the fish’s snout; hence, provide swimming room for your fish.
Initially this image appeared to be a keeper, but on closer examination, numerous scratches on the glass were revealed in the lower left-hand corner and directly below the right tetra. The image was taken with a Nikon D300 and a 105mm macro lens, with an exposure of f/25 at 1/125 second and ISO 200. Lighting consisted of an aquarium 65-watt, 10,000K compact fluorescent lamp and fill light from twin Nikon SB-800 flashe. Photo by Jeff Howe
Choose the correct angle. Reduce distortion by positioning your camera perpendicular to the aquarium glass. The greater the angle, the greater the distortion.
Stand back. The closer the lens is to the glass, the greater the chance of seeing scratches and algae in your images.
Stay parallel. Try to keep the camera parallel to the subject.
Don’t be a flasher. Never use the camera’s built-in flash or a flash positioned on the hot shoe, as this will produce bright reflections.
Sometimes everything comes together to create a nice portrait. In this image the dark green and black provide great contrast with the orange platy. With any moving subject, always leave some space in front of it. The image was taken with a Nikon D300 and a 105mm macro lens with an exposure of f/25 at 1/160 second and ISO 200. Lighting consisted of an aquarium 65-watt, 10,000K compact fluorescent lamp and fill light from twin Nikon SB-800 flashes. Photo by Jeff Howe
Simplify. If possible, remove any distracting equipment, hoses, heaters, etc., that would be unsightly in your images.
Be stable. Engage the camera’s image stabilization mode.
Chose the right setting. If your goal is to produce fish portraits, use the macro mode on your point-and-shoot camera or a macro lens with your DSLR. Unless you want to convey the fish’s surrounding environment, for fish portraits, I suggest filling 75 to 80 percent of your view finder with your subject. For true macro images (1:1 ratio), purchase a macro lens, screw-on close-up filters, or use extension tubes between your camera and lens to decrease the minimum focusing distance of the lens.
Digital photography has been a game changer. With some basic equipment and practice, you’ll be amazed at the images you’re capable of capturing. Why not share your love of your aquatic world with family and friends?
Jeffrey C. Howe has maintained aquariums for more than 40 years and has written for fish hobbyist publications for the past 20 years. He is currently employed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a coastal biologist. To view more of Jeffrey’s photography, visit http://jeffreyhowe.zenfolio.com.