A lot of aquariums are built for aesthetic purposes, and it’s easy to see why. Few decorative pieces can rival the beauty of a well-designed fish tank. With the rocks, the gravel, and the gently swaying plants, it looks like you have captured a small part of the ocean and placed it in your room. But the centerpiece of an aquarium is almost always the fish.
From tiny little Bettas with elongated tails and vibrant colors to the mind-blowing patterns of a Mandarin Fish, there are thousands of species that beautify aquariums with their presence. The elegant, natural beauty of these Aquarium Fish is what makes them such attractive photography subjects.
It might not be as easy as some other forms of photography, but with the right attitude, gear, and guidance, it will become much more comfortable and fun.
We will try to answer the question: How to take photos of fish in an aquarium, in this article.
But before we do that you’ll need a good camera.
What Is The Best Camera For Aquarium Photography?
A great camera for taking pictures of your fish (if you can find it) is the Nikon 1 Camera.
Nikon introduced a line of compact mirrorless cameras in September 2011, called the Nikon 1 series. Nikon 1 cameras were introduced to be economical, fast, and focused on the enthusiast market. The later models in the line packed some nifty features that helped them compete on equal footing with other mirror-less and DSLRs launched around the same time.
When it comes to professional photography, many people still consider DSLR as the only go-to option for high-quality photos. But another camera type has lately been gaining prominence. The mirror-less cameras, which were often disregarded for their smaller full-frame sensor sizes and auto-focus limitations, are catching up in quality to DSLRs. Mirror-less cameras lacked in lens selection, but with a wide range of adapters now available in the market, you can (theoretically) find any lens type for mirror-less cameras.
All Nikon 1 series cameras had the same sensor, a 1-inch type. The hybrid auto-focus feature of the Nikon 1 series was claimed to be the fastest in the world at the time of its introduction. This best-in-class auto-focus is one of the reasons that the Nikon 1 line is amazing for aquarium photography. The line also has one of the best continuous shooting features compared to other mirror-less cameras, and far better than even the high-end DSLRs.
13 Nikkor lenses were specifically built for Nikon 1 series. Other than that, there are several manual focus lenses available from a third-party manufacturer. The lens range covered almost all the lens types, including macro-lenses perfect for photographing fish in an aquarium.
- Fastest continuous shooting speed (60 fps).
- The line had the best auto-focus in mirror-less types.
- Better for video recording.
- They weigh much less than other mirror-less cameras in the same range.
- The cameras allow RAW imaging for extensive post-processing of the image.
- The Nikon 1 cameras are compact, lightweight, and more economical than other mirror-less cameras.
- Lower ISO, which translates to low light sensitivity.
- The range had a smaller sensor area than most mirrorless cameras in the same class.
- No viewfinder or low-quality viewfinder
- In terms of megapixels, Nikon 1 cameras often placed in the middle order, among other mirror-less cameras.
5 Basic Steps To Take Amazing Photos Of Fish In Your Aquarium
Now, there can be several steps in taking amazing photos of your beautiful little fishy friends, but we can talk about the five most common steps you might need to follow. Depending upon your setup and equipment, many additional steps might be necessary before, in-between, or after these five steps.
Step 1 – Choose the right equipment. A good camera doesn’t automatically make you a good photographer, but you rarely see astonishing photos taken with the wrong gear. So the most critical step is to have the right equipment. That includes an adequate camera body with features that will compliment the lens you will use. The best choice would be a macro lens. And if you are worried that you might not be able to hold the camera still enough, a stand is also a good idea.
Step 2 – Prepare the tank. That doesn’t mean a full aquarium makeover, or giving the little inhabitants new, crisp suits for their photoshoot (although, how awesome would it look?). It involves using a good background, removing anything that might through off your aquarium photo, adding something fun (without introducing anything harmful to the tank), and, most importantly, cleaning the glass. Make sure to take the aquarium photographs in the best lighting conditions available, and before feeding the fish, so the tank doesn’t have any uneaten food or recently-processed “food” floating around. Clear glass and water make for sharp photos.
Step 3 – Choose the right settings. Even if you have chosen the right camera and the perfect lens, settings like ISO and aperture can severely affect the quality of the image you take. You also have to decide whether you are using a flash or not. It might be necessary for the low light conditions of the aquarium, but it might also scare your little friends.
Step 4 – Take photos. Even after all that preparation, don’t expect your first photos to be masterpieces. What you can expect, though, is to have a lot of fun taking those photos. You can play around with different angles and different light conditions. Keep the camera at an angle if the flash is causing reflections in the image. It’s important to play around with different settings, angles, and views, till you start getting a feel for it.
Step 5 – Post-process your photos. For photographing an aquarium, it’s sometimes recommended that you take the pictures in RAW format, instead of taking them in Jpeg. The Jpeg files tend to compress the photo, which inevitably scrapes away some of the details you take in through your camera. But in RAW format, all the data is available and using a photo processing software like Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom. This will allow you a lot of control over your images, and you can tweak the white balancing, contrast, color space, and shadows in your images.
The 3 Most Important Elements Of Good Aquarium Photography
Aquarium photography usually means working in low-light conditions. Since you don’t have the luxury of bright and open lights, you will have to work on ‘exposure.’ In basic terms, exposure is how bright or dark your images are. Too bright an image is usually called overexposed, and unusually dark ones are underexposed. When photographing an aquarium, you have to make sure the exposure is just right to capture the detailed patterns and vibrant colors of your fish without getting any reflections or significant noise (distortions).
The exposure has three basic elements: Aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. Together they are called the exposure triangle (or the holy trinity of exposure). They control the light entering the camera, and you get the perfect exposure by the right combination of all three of these.
Aperture controls how much light is entering the photosensor. Like our pupil’s diameter controls the amount of light entering our eye. Aperture is measured in f-stops (f/16 or f/2.8). The smaller the number, the wider the aperture and vice versa. Aperture also controls the depth of field, so larger apertures like f/2.8 will be shallow compared to smaller apertures like f/16. The most common aperture used for aquarium photography is f/2.8.
2. Shutter Speed
Shutter speed dictates how long the light is going in the sensor. It’s measured in seconds and its fractions. If you increase the shutter speed, the images will become relatively darker since light will be going in for a lesser amount of time. Most experts place the usual shutter speeds for photographing an aquarium between 1/25 to 1/250. The most commonly used ones among them are 1/60, 1/80 and 1/125. But you can experiment with other shutter speeds as well as see what works for your aquarium conditions.
ISO refers to the sensitivity measure of the camera sensor. A higher ISO value means the camera is more sensitive to light, which is desirable in low-light conditions. But a highly sensitive sensor will pick a lot of ‘noise’ (visual distortion) as well. It can be cleaned up in post-processing software, or the camera itself might have a noise reduction feature for high ISO values. Many pros recommend using auto ISO with shutter priority mode on. In most cases, ISO settings shouldn’t exceed 3200.
Some Camera Equipment That Can Help
Apart from mirror-less, two other camera types can be a good choice for your aquarium photography.
The Point & Shoot Camera
It’s the simplest type of camera available in the market. They don’t have lens mounts, so you can’t change the lenses as you can in DSLRs and mirrorless cameras. But they are relatively cheap, easy to use, and much good quality point & shoot ones come with a variety of features that can help you take high-quality photos of your aquarium. It’s a simple camera for a variety of uses and a good option for absolute beginners.
Still the sweetheart of the pro photographer, the DSLR is perfect for low light photography. With DSLRs, you get a higher range of lenses, better auto-focus, and usually a better full-frame sensor than a similar priced mirror-less camera. If you don’t mind the bulky body and expensive add-ons, the right DSLR can help you become a pro aquarium photographer.
Selecting The Right Lens
This is perhaps the most crucial element of aquarium photography. The right lenses can help you shoot your aquarium and its inhabitants in stunning ways.
Normal/standard zoom lens
Standard zoom lenses allow you the most flexibility, and the control over a focal length range lets you experiment with distance. This comes in handy if your fish scares and hides when you place the camera right on the aquarium wall.
Telephoto lenses allow you to take in clear photos from a distance. But the catch is that even if you can shoot your aquarium from the other end of the room, it will not be able to absorb as much detail as other lenses would. It can help you capture your whole aquarium, though, from different angles and distances.
A wide-angle lens will let you capture a very large area with ease, thanks to its small focal length. If you have a huge fish tank, or you like shooing fishes in public aquariums, wide-angle lenses will let you capture the broader angle.
It’s a wide-angle lens that wraps the photo to capture an even wider perspective. These lenses have a very large field of view (typically between 100 and 180 degrees). These lenses are sometimes preferred by divers who like to capture underwater fish, reefs, and plants.
High-speed lenses or fast lenses have a very wide aperture coupled with fast shutter speed. This allows for amazing indoor photography in low-light conditions, which makes them ideal for darker aquariums. But the trade-off is a shallow depth of field.
The perfect lens of aquarium photography, a macro, allows detailed photos of very close up subjects. If you shoot your fish using a macro and the right setting, you will capture details that you can’t even see with your eyes. Macro lenses are unique because they project the subject in its exact dimensions, onto the sensor.
If you’re looking for a good lens for a Canon camera check out our article Best Canon Lens For Aquarium Photography
Gels & Filters
Gel filters are physical color filters that you can place in front of your lenses to achieve the desired color effect, or cancel out the aquarium light which might be responsible for a dominant color tone in your aquarium images. Some years ago, gels and filters used to be made from different materials, but nowadays, most filters you will find will be gel filters. They are especially helpful if you are photographing your aquarium, which doesn’t have a day-light (have a blue-colored light instead).
Use Your Smartphone
Smartphones have bitten off the largest chunk from the amateur camera market. Many smartphones like this have really high-end camera sensors that might allow you to take near pro-level aquarium photos. Like a mirror-less or a DSLR, you have to play around with exposure settings, ISO, white balance setting, and focus on getting the hang of it.
The exposure compensation feature is also very useful. Your best chance of getting a good shot of a moving fish is to take photos in burst mode and pick the one with the best focus. You can also use external lenses, as a macro, with your smartphone. Apps like Snapseed will let you touch-up the photos afterward.
Use a Tripod To Get Blur Free Images
A tripod is a convenient tool, especially in macro and long exposure photography. A little bit of shake in your hands can ruin the perfect combination of equipment and settings. A tripod will help you focus your camera in just the right place, and you can experiment with different exposure times. Choose a tripod that can handle the weight of your camera and lens (especially when you are using a heavy DSLR), functional, the right size, and portable.
Where To Buy Your Equipment?
The simplest answer to that would be the internet. Websites like Amazon have the widest variety available, and you might be able to find something you need at a good discount. Other than that, the original vendors will be your best shot. If you need a camera body from Nikon, it will be easiest to place the order directly with them. Other than that, your local marts will have the basic equipment you might need, but the selection will be limited compared to what you will find on the internet.
Further Reading: We found the best canon lens for aquarium photography and reviewed it.
Important Things To Consider When Taking Photos Of Fish
1. Light Exposure
Low-light conditions of aquarium photography make light exposure all the more important for taking the perfect pictures. To control the exposure, you have to find the right combination of aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. One expert suggested a general combo of f/2.8, 1/125th of a second, and auto ISO as a starting exposure setting. If you are not satisfied with the result, try changing one setting at a time to see how it all fits together.
2. White Balance
You will mostly find white balancing a problem if you are working with reefs and saltwater aquariums. In almost all other cases, auto white balance tends to work best. You can also edit the white balance of your images in post-processing. If not auto, then you may want to choose among the preset white balance option provided in your camera to see which works best. Choose manual white balancing only when you have a good reference point or object (and you understand how to use the reference point).
3. Focus and Moving Fish
Focus is important because, without the proper focus, you won’t be able to take sharp photographs of your fishy friends. Most lenses have an auto-focusing motor. If you have to focus manually, you might have to move around a lot to get the sharpest possible image. The minimum focusing distance of any lens is crucial to understand in aquarium photography because that essentially controls how close you can get to the aquarium. Try taking pictures of nearby fish. The farther away they are, the softer your focus will be.
Focusing on light-colored, or fish with shiny silvery sheen will help you with better exposure in your photos. You mustn’t stay glued to the front side of the aquarium. Walk around, take photos from different angles, and try to capture the fish from their best side.
4. Depth Of Field
With low light conditions and standard aquarium exposure settings, you won’t be capturing much depth of field in a shot. But a sharp picture with a blurred background is still stunning. If you are shooting coral, your image might suffer from a low depth of field, but otherwise, it won’t really diminish the quality of your photos.
5. Reflections & Glass Distortion
Reflection from the glass walls of your aquarium is one of the most common problems. This mostly manifests when you are using a flash. To avoid that, you can tilt your camera a bit so that the flash isn’t perfectly parallel to the glass. A rubber lens hood will remove the reflection problem without damaging the glass, but your lens should be able to handle such close-up photos. This perpendicular placement of a camera lens (with a rubber hood) to the glass also helps fight the distortions that crop up in curved glass walls and refractive nature of the glass.
You should always try and clean the aquarium surface before taking any photos because all the great gear in the world might not help you take amazing pictures through dirty glass. A damaged glass impacts your photo only if you are focusing on subjects very close to it. If your subject is halfway or deeper in the aquarium, small scratches and cracks will not be in your depth of field, and they won’t affect the photo.
6. Should You Use Flash?
Flash is a slippery slope when taking photos of your slippery friends. Low light conditions of aquarium might entice you to use flash, but most internal flashes will reflect light off of your fish’s reflective scales, and you will wash out its natural color. External, muted flashes might help you out with the low lighting conditions, but whenever you can, try taking aquarium photos without a flash. Flash might also stress out the fish.
7. How Clean Is Your Aquarium Water?
Dirty water can especially affect the macro photography of your fish. Clear and clean water will result in sharp photos. It’s recommended that you set your aquarium photography session before feeding the fish when the water is relatively clear.
8. How Clean Is Your Tank Glass?
A dirty glass wall will distort your image and may over and underexpose the shot. Make sure to clean your glass from the outside, as well as inside, before taking photos.
9. What Does The Background Look Like?
Background can impact every photograph. If you want to capture the fish in its natural environment, i.e., your planted tank, your photo might be better off with a higher depth of field. If you are focusing on only the fish, a dark or black background will make the photo sharper and well-focused. If your aquarium is not set up against a flat wall, you can use a simple poster sheet for a nice clean background.
10. Turn Off Your Air Pumps & Other Equipment
In aquarium photography, it’s better if you turn off the air pumps. More water movement means more chances of distortion, and the air bubbles can also spoil the look. It won’t adversely affect the fish for a little while. Turn the filter back on in about 30 minutes. If any decoration piece or filter is throwing off your photo, you can temporarily remove it to capture the look you imagined. Place everything back on once the photos are taken.
How To Edit Your Photos?
The best part about taking pictures in RAW format that you get all the image data there is. Nothing is compressed out, and it gives you a lot to work with. With the right editing, your aquarium photo might look completely different from the same photo in the Jpeg format that your camera processed.
A very good way to think about editing or post-processing your photos is that you are working with the same “light” data that your camera captured. But instead of letting the camera’s processor turn it into a picture, you are doing it yourself with a software and a much more powerful processor.
Image Adjustment & Photo Editing Software
Once you have chosen a photo editor that want to use (Mostly Adobe Photoshop), there are a few common steps you can take.
- Crop the picture. It will help eliminate unnecessary elements and bring focus to the centerpiece of your photo.
- White balance the image. White balancing on a still photo is very different than doing it in your camera setting. You will have much more range when adjusting the color temperature using the software.
- Make black point adjustments and work on the exposure tools to add the right contrast to your photo.
- Always save your photo in the highest allowed resolution. You can compress it for distribution or posting, but the master image should be in the best possible quality.
Most Common Problems With Aquarium Photos
Reflections in glass walls, water’s refractive nature, and distortions from curved glass walls are just a few common problems with aquarium photography. Other than that, the most prevalent issue is the lack of light.
Some Tips For Better Photos
Some tips that can help you take stunning photos of your aquarium are:
TIP 1: Make an L with the glass wall and your camera. If your camera is exactly at a 90-degree angle with your aquarium’s wall, you will be able to avoid something called chromatic aberration and will capture the sharpest details.
Tip 2: It’s one of the oldest tips, but it’s always relevant. Use the right gear, which includes a good camera body and, ideally, a macro lens.
Tip 3: If you have to use a flash, use an external one. Set it up so that it doesn’t cause a reflection in the image.
You’ll Need Some Practice And A Lot Of Patience!
Even if you are accustomed to photographing different subjects and scenes, aquarium photography might prove very different. Be patient, and don’t get frustrated if the first few (or few hundred) shots don’t come out as you intended. It will take time and practice, but you will start seeing improvements soon.
Even when you have chosen the best gear, it’s not a guarantee for the best results. You have to experiment with the settings, different lighting conditions, different angles, distances, and post-processing techniques. But eventually, you will get there. Then you will be taking photos that don’t just please the eye, but the heart as well.
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