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Cover Images

Fish on Film...
Basics on Aquarium Photography

Article and photographs by Adam Blundell & Shane Silcox

With a quick internet search or visit to your favorite aquatic website you can quickly find pictures from Terry Seigel, Bob Fenner, Corey Kruitbosch, Shane Silcox, Skip Attix, Greg Rothschild, Jake Pehrson, and Lorenzo Gonzales.  And aren’t those pictures amazing?  Have you ever wondered how some people take those amazing photographs of their aquariums?  Do you see many aquatic pictures on the internet and in magazines and wish they were pictures of your tank?  Well, hopefully with a little help and a lot of practice you can.

Photographs like the macro shot of a brain coral (left), entire aquariums (top left) and even specialty shots of the fluorescent qualities of corals (top right) are within the reach of the average aquarist.

Aquarium Photography Basics

Exposure

Without spending too much time explaining standard photography there are some terms and definitions that should need to be familiar. The first and most important aspect of photography is exposure. Exposure is how the final picture turns out and is the result of a combination of shutter speed and aperture. This picture has poor exposure, and therefore is blurry even when the subject is (or was) in focus

 

Shutter Speed

Shutter speed determines the length of time the camera shutter is left open allowing light to come in to the sensor or film to capture the image.  A fast shutter speed prevents blurry pictures because the camera and subject do not have time to move relative to each other in that time.  However a fast shutter speed does not have time to allow as much light to enter the camera and therefore the pictures may be dark and underdeveloped.  Having more light coming from, or shining on, the subject is necessary for taking pictures with a faster shutter speed.  Notice the difference in these pictures.  A faster shutter speed allowed the authors to get a clear image on the bottom picture

 

Some important differences exist between full control (left) and point and shoot cameras (right), even for the amateur photographer.

The other aspect of exposure is aperture.  Aperture (sometimes also known as F-stop) is a term to describe how wide the camera lens opens.  This is very similar to a human iris. Basically it can open wide creating a large opening for light to enter, or be closed down and allow little light to enter. Too much light and the image is washed out and overexposed. Too little light and it is dim and underexposed.  Although a larger aperture opening seems like a better choice, the more open the aperture the shorter the depth of field.  In other words, (without too much photography techno-babble) opening the aperture helps to let in more light, but makes less of the picture in focus.  Now that we have gone over the basics, here are some quick tips to taking better pictures.  We will address most issues with two types of cameras in mind.  We are classifying cameras as either 1) small point and shoot cameras, or 2) large, full control cameras.

 

White Balance

When using a digital camera, arguably the most important part of aquarium photography is the “White Balance” setting. Using white as a reference, the camera adjusts the color balance to give as true as possible a white, which in turn changes all the other colors of the picture by doing this. For example, in a photograph of a white wall with a very blue light shining on it (kind of like aquarium lights!), the wall would look blue. Being able to adjust the white balance appropriately would render that “blue” wall white in the exposed picture, the accurate color of the wall. This is why it is so important to set the white balance correctly, 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 the subject.  Shown here is the same clam with camera settings for different levels of white balance.  Notice that the color changes can also be seen in the surrounding substrate, which is a useful indication of the true nature of the photograph.

 

Flash

For most aquarium photos, it is desireable to turn the flash off when taking pictures. By using the light of the aquarium, you will get better color rendition and avoid the “washed out” look from a flash. If the photos are too dark and underexposed, a slower shutter speed or larger aperture may be required. In point and shoot cameras it will be in “manual mode”. Consult your user manual to find out if your camera will support it.

Camera flash as well as reflections from windows and lamps can hurt the clarity of the image. Avoiding the use of the flash as well as turning off lights in the room helps avoid this. 

 

Close-ups

Setting a slower shutter speed will increase the potential for blurry images, especially for very close up or macro photos. In these instances a tripod is an absolute must. Any movement to the camera or even vibration from pushing the shutter release can cause opportunity for blurred images. Using a remote shutter release or even putting the shutter release on a timer will help to limit the amount of vibration in the camera, and help to get those very focused, clean shots. Also, when photographing corals, it is helpful to turn off the aquarium pumps and powerheads in order to avoid the blurry images of “swaying” coral.  Note also the bellows on the front of the camera which aids in achieving sharp focus on small subjects by increasing the focal length of the lens.

 

Focus - Aquarium Glass Distortion

This leads to the next important area to address, keeping the subject matter in focus.  First off, it is important that you place the camera perpendicular to the glass and the subject. If the camera is placed at an angle to the glass, the glass will distort the light making it difficult to get a clean focus. In addition to the distortion from the glass itslef, automatic focusing cameras often times can not properly focus when taking pictures on an angle to the glass. Notice the poor focus and "carnival mirror" appearance of the bottom picture.

 

Focus - Depth of Field

With a point and shoot camera with auto-focus only, attaining focus can be tricky.  Try holding the camera close to the glass, if that does not work, then try standing back and zooming in. Having a manual focus is very useful when working with a short depth of field.  Otherwise the main subject matter may be out of focus.

 

Focus -  Small Objects

 

Next, attaining focus on small objects is easiest accomplished in manual focus mode.   Also, many cameras have a “flower” mode or some type of macro setting that will automatically adjust the camera settings to properly take close-up shots.  With larger, full control cameras the focus is usually not a problem as manual focus removes this difficulty. If you find it difficult to find a perfect focus, try zooming in to your subject, then slowly rocking back and forth until you achieve focus.  Larger cameras also offer the advantages of interchangeable lenses to provide better optics for close range (although admittedly a pricey solution).  For larger cameras with interchangeable lenses, you can also get relatively cheap extension tubes and close-up lenses that will allow you to increase the magnification of your setup. Just remember that putting additional glass between the camera and the subject will potentially decrease the quality of the photo.

 

Clean Glass

Remember to clean the aquarium glass (or acrylic).  It may not look bad to you, but once a picture is taken and you zoom in it will certainly be noticeable. Shown here are Blundell Buttons, although they are difficult to make out behind that dirty glass!

 

Tricks of the Trade

Okay, so you’ve practiced taking pictures for a while now but still can’t get those professional pictures.  If you aren't up to purchasing a high grade camera,  another trick of the trade is available if you are shooting digital pictures.  Actually it would work with film cameras but would be quite costly.  What we are talking about here is simply taking a lot of pictures at different camera settings.  When we say a lot, we mean that for an article like this, showing around 30 pictures, the authors may take 400 pictures. By taking multiple shots at different shutter speeds, aperture settings, and white balance settings, you will be able to find the shot that most accurately depicts the subject.  Digital photography also affords the opportunity to "fix" otherwise less than perfect picures

Advanced Techniques - Digital Manipulation

Digital Manipulation - The Good

Learn to use the crop tool.  Often times you can not zoom in or get close enough to take a picture of that small item.  Try shooting the picture at high resolution from far away, and cropping the picture.  Now you can enlarge the picture (obviously loosing quality) and be able to show that item. Computer programs can also be of great help in aquarium photographs. 

 

Digital Manipulation - The Potentially Bad

The authors consider computer enhancement perfectly ethical and acceptable if used to make the picture look more “more accurate” in portraying the subject matter.  Of course it wouldn’t be proper to change a picture of a brown coral to fluorescent blue. Here the authors have intentionally manipulated this Acropora sp. photograph to demonstrate the current trend and challenge of improperly representing corals. The first picture is the original, the second is manipulated to look more true, and the third is simply edited to display some crazy colors.


Subject Matter


This topic is important enough that the authors decided to give it its own category.  Most photographs that are being taken by hobbyists are not intended to be artistic nor well designed.  It is in no way the authors’ intent to discourage creative works, but this paragraph is merely intended to help the average hobbyist.  Wet Web Media as well as many other website receive daily emails requesting identification of a very small sessile invertebrate.  It is important when taking such photographs to make sure the subject matter or animal in question is filling as much of the picture as possible. Please remember, a clearly focused close up picture is a wonderful thing to see.  If you need to, take the picture on a high setting from far away, and then crop the picture to the subject matter.  This will of course lose clarity, but as will be discussed below pictures are cut in size before posting anyway.

Photography Etiquette


When working with aquarium photography there are some etiquette rules or guidelines worth mentioning.  The first guideline was already mentioned.  That is, the photographs you take and share should be as close to portraying the actual item.  In other words, it would be deceitful to take a picture and alter it to look different from the real image.  This is a growing trend which needs to be curbed. 

Photos of fishes should always display the left side of the fish.  The picture on the left is the original, and the picture on the right is the same picture which has been digitally "flipped".  This technique is acceptable as long as the fish is symmetrical and that nothing in the picture belies the "trick" (like text).

A second guideline for taking aquarium pictures deals specifically with taking pictures of fishes.  When displaying a picture of a fish it is proper to take a picture of the left side of the fish.  In other words, the fish is facing left.  This isn’t always possible, and in general a picture of a fish facing right can be flipped and mirror image is used.  There are of course exceptions to this rule including: never flip a picture that has a human in the photo, never flip a picture of a non-bilaterally symmetric fish (i.e. flounders), and internal dissection pictures are taken on the right sides of the fishes.


A third guideline for taking aquarium photographs is adjusting the file size.  It is always best to take pictures in the highest setting/best quality possible.  After such pictures are taken they can be manipulated for color and cropped for subject matter.  Then remember what you are doing with these pictures.  If they are to be printed in a large size than it is certainly best to keep them in their large format.  If the pictures are to be emailed or used for online posting, then it is best to shrink them down.  Wet Web Media and many other websites prefer photographs sent with approximately 150 pixels in width. [Editors note:  Most folks (us included) who plan on reproducing submitted photos online prefer digital photos that have been cropped for subject matter, but that  have not been shrunk or resized.  This ensures maximum quality of the final image once it has been placed online.]

Conclusion

There are some tips and tricks that can be used by anyone to obtain better aquarium photographs.  Additionally some items are just purchased (more advanced cameras, computer software).  It is important to ask yourself what you wish to get from your pictures, and how much time and money you are willing to invest to get them.  Lastly, it is always a good idea to have a spare set of batteries and extra film or memory cards on hand at all times. You never know when you will get an opportunity to take a bunch of photographs only to realize your batteries are dead or you are out of film.

Acknowledgements

Many thanks are owed to the home owners who allowed the authors to visit and photograph their systems.  We would also like to thank the editorial staff of Conscientious Aquarist for their support of this article.

Author Information

This article was researched and written by The Aquatic & Terrestrial Research Team members Adam Blundell and Shane Silcox.  Adam and Shane are aquarium hobbyists who are happy to contribute to the aquarium hobby.  Adam can be found at wetwebmedia.com and Shane can be found at www.utahreefs.com.  Input and suggestions are always welcomed.

Photography on WWM

Related Articles: Above Water Photography, Underwater Photography

Related FAQs: Above-water Photography, Digital Photography, Aquatic Videography

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