Yamato Green Fe
Yamato Green Technical Specifications
Terms & Conditions
Starting a Planted Tank
Plant Nutrients 101
Phophates in the Planted Tank
Fertilizer & the Planted Aquarium
CO2 & the Planted Tank
Safety Around the Aquarium
Cleaning Aquarium Glass
Mysterious Fish Deaths Explained!
New Tank Syndrome
Choosing an Aquatic Heater
Tips for Beginning Fishkeepers
Salt in the Aquarium
Outdoor Patio Tubbing
Malaysian Trumpet Snails
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
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
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.