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Getting Started in Aquarium Photography
by 2manyfish - October 2000

As anyone who has attempted to photograph fish has learned, it's not as easy as it looks. Probably your first attempts at fish photography resulted in blurry, fuzzy pictures that were ruined by reflection off the glass and back into the lens. We then look at the magnificent photographs in fish magazines, and wonder how in the world the photographer achieved such beautiful results, when our attempts failed so miserably. This article will help identify some of the problems of aquarium photography, and then try to create some solutions for you.

Successful fish photography does not require a huge investment in expensive cameras, special lenses and elaborate lighting equipment. To be sure, some of the most beautiful photographs you have seen were, indeed, taken with expensive equipment. However, we can take beautiful pictures without breaking the piggy bank.

The selection of a camera is not difficult. It's important to know that simple "point and shoot" cameras will invariably be inadequate for fish photography. First, the flash is usually mounted permanently in the camera, and cannot be removed for lighting from any angle other than frontal lighting. This will result in a glare of light reflecting off the aquarium glass. The camera you choose must be capable of using an electronic flash unit mounted off the camera. Any quality 35mm SLR camera will work well for our purposes. While photo store salesmen love to try to convince you that only this or that brand of camera has a sharp lens, or will give faithful color rendition, the truth is that all but the cheapest SLR cameras has a darned good lens. My personal favorite camera is the Nikon FE2, but any brand such as Minolta, Pentax, Ricoh, etc., will do the job. A camera that has the capability of manual shutter and lens settings will be required, since auto-focus and auto-exposure cameras will be fooled by the front glass of the tank. Probably one of the best cameras for fish photography is the simple old Pentax K-1000, or it's predecessor, the Pentax Spotmatic series of cameras. Old manual Nikons such as the Nikon F, F2, F3, FM, etc., are perfect aquarium cameras. Older Minoltas such as the SR-1 and SR-7 can frequently be purchased at yard sales for $5 or $10, and make excellent cameras for our purposes.

The "normal" lens for a 35mm SLR usually is of 50mm focal length. Large aperatures such as F1.4 are nice, but are entirely unnecessary. Probably the sharpest lens ever made was the old Nikkor 50mm F:2 lens. Older Pentax Takumar 50mm F:2 lenses were among the sharpest ever made by any manufacturer in the world, and that includes Leica lenses. The differences in most lenses is not in sharpness, but rather in quality of the lens barrel. While an expensive lens may be made with metal barrels and metal spacers, a cheaper lens may use a plastic or other cheaper material. This usually doesn't show up in the photograph. Use whatever you have, and don't spend a lot of money for a fish photography camera.

Whatever lens you choose, it would be better if it had close-up capability. This means that any of the "Macro" lenses are to be desired. I treasure my Micro-Nikkor lens because it can focus down to within a few inches of the subject. This comes in very handy when trying to take close-up pictures of a single fish. Longer focal length lenses ("telephoto" lenses) can be used, but with their longer focal length comes more shallow depth of field. Probably the best of all worlds is the Macro Zoom type of lens, that allows you to adjust the focal length of the lens from, for example, about 35mm to 105mm focal length.

Of more importance is the lighting. At one time, photoflood bulbs were quite commonly used. Their great disadvantage is that they get quite hot, and are difficult to work with. If turned on too long, they can actually heat the water in the tank. Any water splashed on the bulb will almost certainly result in catastrophic failure. Another disadvantage of photoflood bulbs is that they are a poor match for color film, requiring the use of light-absorbing color correction filters over the lens. A much better choice is an electronic flash unit. This must be capable of being mounted off camera, and be provided with a sync cord or sync cord extension capable of reaching 2 or 3 feet from the flash unit to the camera.

Most photography stores sell many accessories to make lighting the aquarium an easy task. Light stands with extended arms allow us to place the flash unit directly above the tank. Light diffusers are very desirable. The ideal light for our purposes would be a professional "soft box" type of light that has dimensions larger than the tank, e.g., a 24" x 24" soft box mounted directly over the tank would be perfect. If this is above your budget, then a diffuser lens mounted over the flash head will soften shadows and spread the light more evenly through the aquarium.

Depth of field is determined by the F-stop we use. A lens with an F1.4 aperature will allow photography in a very dimly lit tank, but the depth of field will be quite shallow. The fish may be in focus, while everything around him is blurred. To achieve maximum sharpness of the fish as well as surrounding decorations, plants, etc., you will need to stop the lens down. F:11 or F:16 (Or smaller if available and you have adequate light) will render much sharper, crisper photos than those taken at larger (wider) aperatures. Of course, the smaller the aperature, the more light that will be required. This means that a large studio electronic flash rated at 100 watt-seconds or more will always be superior to a small hand-held electronic flash unit. However, a professional studio flash can cost hundreds of dollars, and would be a poor investment unless you intend to do photography on a commercial basis. Therefore, pick an accessory flash unit that fits your budget without breaking it. If you look in a Spiratone or Porter's Camera catalog, you'll find some very good quality flash units at an affordable price. Off-brand flash units do not necessarily equate to poor quality. I have a Popular brand flash unit that I purchased over a decade ago that is still giving me faithful daily service. This unit was also sold under the Spiratone brand, and someone once told me that Toshiba manufactured them and sold them under the Toshiba brand as well. Whatever its pedigree, it has served me well, and was not expensive when I purchased it.

As mentioned, the light should be mounted above the tank and pointing down. If your tank has a cover, remove it for the short time you will be taking pictures so that no light is blocked. If the surface of the water is agitated by an airstone, power head or strong power filter, turn them off for the few minutes required to take your pictures. This will prevent undesirable light diffraction that might cause strange shadows or light patterns to fall on the fish and to spoil your picture. The light should be mounted about 1 to 2 feet above the water. If the flash unit has an automatic exposure setting, this should be disabled and the flash unit should be set to manual. This will prevent light bouncing back off the water's surface and resulting in under exposure.

The camera should be mounted in front of the aquarium, with the plane of the film parallel to the plane of the front glass. This results in the least distortion possible.

Probably more aquarium pictures are spoiled by water spots or streaks on the glass than from any other cause. Be sure to clean the front glass with a good glass cleaner. If you use a product that contains ammonia, be very careful not to allow any of the spray to enter the water. It would be better if you spray the cleaner on the cleaning cloth, and then apply it to the glass. Glass cleaners are made with vinegar and are ammonia-free. If you can find one of these at the store, by all means use it. Whatever you end up with, clean the glass very thoroughly, and then polish the glass with a clean soft towel until every trace of a water spot or dust is completely removed. I cannot over-emphasize how important it is to get the glass clean. Algae or other debris on the inside surface of the glass can be removed with a scraper or a magnet scrubber. It would be best to do this several hours before taking photographs, so that any floating debris or algae is removed by the filter by the time you're ready to take pictures.

Make sure you have no plants or other obstructions above the fish. Otherwise, the shadow of the plants may obscure the fish.

It may be difficult to calculate exposure. The exposure dial or scale on the electronic flash is a starting point, but usually a wider F-stop will be required. Light loss in the water may be a little unpredictable. If you use slide film, you might want to take a series of photographs at "bracketed" F-stops. This means you will want to try, say, one F-stop less exposure, a "normal" calculated exposure, and then 2 or 3 more pictures with gradually wider F-stops. Have the film processed, and then choose the F-stop that results in the best exposure. Of course, be sure to take notes of where you had the flash unit mounted and the exposure data, or your efforts will be wasted.

Choosing a film for your fish photography isn't too difficult. Remember that the "slower" films (ASA 25 or 50) will result in the sharpest pictures with the finest grain, but their slow speed may require you to use a wider (lower) F-stop, which can negate the advantage due to the resulting more shallow depth of field. High-speed films such as ASA 1600 or 3200 will allow you to use a very small aperature, but their grain may be noticeably objectionable. Color saturation usually suffers with the high-speed films as well. A middle range film such as ASA 100 or 200 is best, provided you can achieve a small enough aperature. Color print film or color slide film is up to you. Slide film is a little more critical about exposure, but if your plan is to show your pictures at your local fish club, then slides will make it easy for you to make a more formal presentation. If you plan to publish your fish pictures, almost without exception magazines will prefer your submissions to be in color slide form. If you shoot print film, of course, you will be able to make better quality enlargements. These enlargements can then be used as wall decorations for your fish room, or mailed to your friends.

Place your camera on a tripod if you have one. It will result in a sharper photo, since the point of focus can be locked down with accuracy. A tripod also eliminates any possibility of camera shake.

If your fish are active swimmers and you want a close-up of one, single fish, there are several ways you can achieve this. One would be to pre-focus the camera on a spot in the tank, and then wait until the fish swims into this spot. Then, take your picture, knowing the fish will be in sharp focus. This calls for patience on your part, but results in a very natural-looking photograph that is composed exactly as you wanted it to be. If the fish will not cooperate and wants to swim everywhere except where you want him to be, you might try restricting his movement with sheets of glass inserted in the tank to prevent the fish from straying. Or, you might place the fish in a smaller tank that restricts his ability to range far and wide. It is a simple task to set up an attractive 5.5 gallon tank with a beautiful arrangement of a few rocks and plants, then transfer the fish to be photographed to this tank. In a 5.5 gallon tank, he won't stray far from your lens. Here's a practical tip: get a sheet of glass that can be pivoted up from the front lower corner of the tank, so that you can "pin" the fish against the front glass. That will prevent the fish from swimming in and out of focus. You can also construct a special photography tank from sheets of glass. Make the tank about 10" long, 10" high, and about 1" wide. By placing the fish in this tank, he can swim forward or backward only 1", and can't swim out of your plane of focus. This tank can be placed inside a beautifully planted tank to use as a backdrop. The extra glass of the photography tank won't show in the picture. And finally, you can use a printed background set back behind the 1" wide photograhy tank. With judicial selection of a wider f-stop, the backdrop will blur out of focus, giving a pleasant but non-distracting background for the fish.

Fish photography takes a lot of patience. It is also valuable if you keep careful notes of your exposures, the position and distance of light(s), camera, etc. When you change things, try changing just one thing at a time. That way, you will know what you did that helped improve the quality of the picture. At any rate, give it a try.

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