Digital Aquarium PhotographyUpdated February 28, 2003.
If it is possible to do some basic preparations of the aquarium before the
photo session, then I strongly suggest cleaning the front glass of the aquarium
both on the inside and the outside. To avoid backscatter etc, make
sure that the water is free from suspended dirt and if you have any apparatus
that puts a lot of tiny suspended air-bubbles in the water, turn it off or
reduce the flow. A partial waterchange the day before the shooting is
If there are scratches on the aquarium glass, try to avoid them so they don't ruin your pictures. The photographer should wear dark clothes without patterns and preferably dark gloves. If it's possible all light sources other than the light above the aquarium being photographed should be turned off. Sunlight from the windows in the room should be avoided by pulling down the curtains etc. When shooting fish or other animals with eyes, as a general rule try to get the eye(s) in focus. An other general rule is to try and get an interesting but neutral background. Plants, leaves, roots and rocks are usually good, but try to avoid the most common background, namely gravel. It is usually a lot easier to shoot fish against gravel, but having it as background in every shot gets kind of monotounous after a while. Naturally there are occasions when it might be a good idea to make an exception, so whenever you have a good reason to not follow these rules, please break them.
Probably the most controversial aspect of aquarium photography is if you want to
use flash or not. This originates from the difficulties of mastering the different
techniques. Some beginners without any knowledge about aquarium photography may start
their aquarium photo experience by taking a few experimental shots, some with either
internal or external flash, and some without flash, and then look at the results.
If one technique yelded decent results and the other one yelded lousy results it is only natural for the beginners to continue using the technique that yelded decent results. Unfortunately those people usually also start bad talking the other way of taking pictures since they didn't get any decent pictures when they tried it for a few shots. I am not one of those persons.
I like to experiment and find new ways of taking aquarium pictures and also continue using each technique for a while, with small modifications and variations, without giving up prematurely. That way I can get a feeling of what the technique is really capable of in different situations and with different camera models. In the long run this makes me as a photographer much more versatile, because I can choose appropriate techniques to use in different conditions and on different subjects.
If I use flash or not for a specific shot usually depends on what I want the photo to "feel" like and what type of light that the aquarium is illuminated with. The movement speed of the subject is an other important factor. I also have to deal with possible obstacles such as reflecting surfaces. It also depends on if there is enough room for a flash hood above the aquarium or not. Sometimes I am at a place where flash is not allowed and then the choise is easy. Most of the photos on this site are shot with some type of flash, but there are also many shots that were made without flash. Some pictures even have a visible combination of flash and other available light.
If you look in aquariummagazines and aquariumbooks, most of the photos of fish are shot with external flash(es). When it comes to other subjects such as corals or anemones you may find that the percentage of pictures taken without flash has increased, since they are often easy to shoot without flash.
The main advantage with flash is that you can get sharper pictures. If there is not an unusually stong aquariumlight available, then it's necessary to use flash to get sharp pictures of fast moving fishes and still have all the fins sharp. You also have more contol over the aperture and that leads to control over the depth of field in your photos. Other advantages are that you don't have to hold the camera as steady as when not using flash and you will also be able to get pictures with less noise from the camera sensor.
The main disadvantages with flash (except for advanced setups) is that the photo will often look more "flat" (less 3D-feeling) and you might also lose the beautiful transparency of some corals, anemones, plants, fish etc. The colors may also look very different but this can be both in a good way or in a bad way. Sometimes the difference is huge, sometimes it's small, but it's there. The whitebalance can be adjusted in the camera firmware and further manipulated in computer software, but it can still be difficult to get the colors to look the way you want. There may also be problems with shadows and flash reflections, or strange color, or highlight blowouts, depending on what type of flash technique you use.
As a simile I would like to say that to never use flash for aquarium photography is like never using a motor vehicle for transportation. Sure, you usually get by indoors simply by walking. Outdoors you may need good shoes for walking or you could ride a bike or a horse after some practice, you could even go paragliding if you have a mountain to start from. My point is that although such transportation is possible and in some situations the best alternative, there are still occasions when it would be much better to travel by car, by buss, by train or even fly with a jetplane to make a relatively long journey faster or more comfortable.
A very common problem is that the contrast autofocus of most digital cameras is extremely slow in low light conditions. There are several ways to work around this problem. The most obvious ones are to use manual focus or increase the amount of light illuminating the aquarium. An other alternative is to autofocus on something else with high contrast (usually the gravel) in the aquarium, at the same distance as your subject, and then lock the focus (keep the shutter button half pressed) and recompose to take the shot. One more thing that can counteract the effect of poorly focused images is to use a high f-number (narrow aperture) to get more DOF (depth of field) so that the subject looks sharp even though it may not be in perfect focus. When using a high f-number and shooting fast moving subjects it is usually best to use flash to get enough light to reach the camera sensor. Often the DOF can also be slightly expanded artificially by using a sharpening tool in post editing.
There are many ways of photographing aquariums. Below is a list of the techniques I personally consider to be most useful. Sometimes some of these techniques can be combinied in the same photo if you want to create a special look.
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