Digital Cameras
For Aquarium Photography

Updated June 8, 2006.

Warning! This article includes personal opinions and speculations!

  • What specific cameras and lenses do I recommend?

Choice 1. If you want high quality at a low price, I recommend Canon EOS 350D (EOS Digital Rebel XT) with the following lenses: For wide to normal zoom, the Canon 350D kitlens EF-S 18-55mm F3,5-5,6. For closeup photography, Canon EF-S 60mm F2.8 USM Macro 1:1. If you can afford a third lens, Canon 28-135/3,5-5,6 IS USM.

Choice 2. If you can afford a camera that is twice as expensive as the one mentioned above, then I recommend Nikon D200 with the following lenses: The Nikon AF-S DX VR 18-200/3,5-5,6G IF-ED that covers almost everything except closeups. For closeups you need a macro lens. There is a new macro lens with vibration reduction (Nikon Micro AF-S VR 105/2,8G IF-ED) that will soon be released on the market and if it holds up to the advertisement hype it will be my number one recommendation. Other macro lenses to choose from are Nikon AF Micro 60/2,8D 1:1, Nikon AF Micro 105/2,8D 1:1, Tamron SP 90/2,8 AF Di Macro 1:1 or Sigma EX 105/2,8 DG Macro 1:1.

Some other cameras worth considering, if you don't want to buy a dslr, or if you prefer a camera that can also record videoclips:

o Canon PowerShot Pro1
o Nikon Coolpix 8400
o Nikon Coolpix 8800
o Sony DSC-F828

  • What makes one digital camera better than an other for aquarium photography?
In an attempt to answer this question, I will start by pointing out some of the limitations and drawbacks that most digital cameras suffer from. By weeding out the digital camera models with too many and too severe drawbacks, we are left with a more manageable number of good cameras. After that I will mention "bonus" features that I find useful.

For taking small snapshot pictures for the web, of large slow (or not moving) fish in brightly illuminated aquariums, almost any digital camera is good enough to do the job, if it sits the hands of a skilled digital photographer. However, this article is about digital cameras that are well suited for advanced aquarium photography. These are the type of cameras that can make it fun and fairly easy, even for an amature photographer, to get plenty of good results and makes it possible for a skilled (or lucky) photographer to get excellent results even in tricky conditions. I especially consider the possibility to easily use external flash to be important for advanced aquarium photography. There are also ways to use external flash even without a flash connection on the camera, but it is not convinient.

Common drawbacks that I've found with most old or "normal" digital cameras are:
  • Missing or very limited manual control of focus, aperture, shutterspeed, ISO, white balance etc.
  • Long shutter lag time. (The time from when you press the shutter button until the picture is taken.)
  • Slow and inaccurate autofocus, especially evident in lowlight situations and when trying to focus on dark or low contrast subjects. Red or blue subjects are usually also problematic.
  • Lack of external flash connection.
  • Low buffer memory size.
  • Slow shot to shot time.
  • Lousy macro close-up distance. (Especially evident when taking pictures of very small fish.)
  • Lack of optical zoom.
  • Slow lens. (Lowest possible f-number is relatively high.)
  • The LCD-monitor becomes too dark and noisy in low light situations.
  • Low resolution. (Below 2 MP.)
  • Low picture quality. (Inaccurate colors, color noise, grain noise, jaggies, blooming, low dynamic range etc.)
  • High amounts of chromatic aberrations.
  • High batterypower consumption.
  • Annoying firmware.
  • Annoying camera design.

Good bonus features and properties:
  • Resonable price.
  • Both RAW and JPG file formats.
  • CompactFlash storage media.
  • Through The Lens Optical View Finder.
  • Low weight.
  • Image stabilized lens.
  • Very fast lens.
  • Continious shooting mode.
  • Fast shutterspeed. (1/500 second or faster even with flash.)
  • Physically large and high quality image sensor.
  • Very fast and accurate autofocus in lowlight situations.
  • Several autofocus areas. (Good for making artistic compositions.)
  • Capable of taking very high ISO pictures with low noise.
  • Swivel lens, tiltable LCD, articulating LCD etc. (If it is also capable of 180 degrees rotation it's even more useful.)
  • Interchangeable lens. (This is good for quality, but expensive.)
  • Availability to add converters. (If the lens is not interchangeable.)
  • Extra high picture quality. (Very accurate colors, low color noise, low grain noise, no jaggies, no blooming, high dynamic range etc.)
  • Non detectable, or extremely low amounts of chromatic aberrations.
  • Full feature remote control.
  • Very high resolution. (Above 6 MP)
  • Easy to use manual focus.
  • Very long battery life.
  • Ability to use TTL flash, but this is only a positive feature if you can also choose to use the flash in manual mode.

Most digital cameras that are well suited for aquarium photography are more expensive than my own cameras. The prices are dropping fast on digital cameras and new improved models are also released continuously. Some cameras might have useful special features or properties that I lack on my cameras, but they usually also lack some of the special features that I do have.

Cameras with a Through The Lens Optical View Finder have a similarity to good analogue (film) cameras, but the price is also higher than other digital cameras, from medium price up to very expensive professional cameras.

One issue that I didn't think of, until I had actually held and tested several cameras in shops, was that many cameras are constructed for people with small or average sized hands. I personally have relatively large hands. (I wear XL or XXL gloves.) Some cameras that according to the specifications and user reputation seem very good, are in my personal opinion terrible to operate with big hands. Some cameras don't allow proper holding and operation with large hands. If you have big hands I strongly suggest looking closely on the design of the camera and try holding the camera you are considering (or at least a camera with similar design) before buying one.

February 11, 2002 Foveon announced a new type of color image sensor for digital cameras. The X3 sensor captures light in three layers. All other types of image sensors on the market only catch light in one layer. My guess is that this technology will continue to improve and might become dominant in the future, but at the moment cameras with single layer sensors still rule.

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