Digital Aquarium Photography

Updated 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 water change the day before the shooting is also recommended.

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.

  • External flash through the front glass External flash held above or at the side of the camera, held at a sharp angle to the front glass, pointing on the subject. When the flash fires, light enters through the front glass of the aquarium. Some of the light is bounced on the glass, so make sure to keep the camera away from the bounced flash path to get good illuminated pictures without glass reflections. Holding the camera at a slight angle (same direction as the flash, but not as sharp angle) can also be helpful to reduce reflections. The camera should usually be set to macro mode, aperture on a medium f-number and a fast shutter speed.

  • Using the internal (built in) flash on the camera. The picture must be taken at an angle, to keep the flash from bouncing back on the camera. Because the internal flash is usually weaker and closer to the lens compared to an external flash, you usually have to use a low f-number with a shallow depth of field to get good shots. The operation of the camera is also slower since the camera has to use energy to recharge the flash at the same time as doing other energy consuming operations. The time it takes for the flash to recharge between shots can be very frustrating.

    The location of the internal flash relative to the lens can make a large difference. Many digital cameras do not have the flash positioned vertically above the lens, this makes it very difficult to get good shots from one angle, but a lot easier to shoot from the inverted angle. If the flash is vertically aligned with the lens, it's easier to recompose to get pictures from an opposite angle since the flash is symmetric.

    It is an advantage if the flash is positioned far away from the lens as this makes it easier to avoid glass reflections and the strange eye reflections that can occur (especially when shooting from a long distance away from the subject) and also allows you to shoot almost straight on the glass compared to the sharp angles needed when the flash is positioned directly next to the lens. A less angled light path through the aquarium glass also reduce the light distorsion, that may otherwise cause a "rainbow effect" in the photo, especially for subjects that are not so close, such as 30 cm or further away into the aquarium measured from the front window. A slightly higher flash intensity (and therefore also a higher f-number) can usually also be used without getting highlight blowouts if the flash is positioned far away from the lens.

  • Using one or more external flashes with extension cable(s). The flash(es) can be positioned either pointing straight down into the aquarium or at an angle. The closer to the aquarium the flash is held, the more "spot light" effect. To get less of this effect, move the flash(es) further up, use a bouncer (such as omni-bounce or you can make one yourself using one or two "white frosted" transparent plastic food boxes etc) or use one of the hooded bounce techniques described below.

  • Using one or more external flashes with extension cable(s) and a white styrofoam box. I invented this technique myself, with inspiration from portraiture tutorials where sheets of styrofoam was used to bounce light. I do not know if any other aquarium photographers use a styrofoam box. Anyway, the box is placed upside down on the aquarium with the external flash(es) pointing up into the box. The flash light is bounced on the styrofoam and down into the aquarium. Some of the light may bounce up and down a few times before it manages to penetrate the coverglass on the aquarium (if you use coverglass) and also the water surface, so try to make the box fit so that no light escapes anywhere but into the aquarium.

  • I have a friend named Rolf Lind who is an old professional photographer (who doesn't use digital cameras) and the professional set-up he uses to photograph aquarium fish, that I plan to replicate with my digital camera, when I have bought and constructed all the equipment, is the following:

    Above the aquarium, on top of the coverglass, he puts some rice-paper and then he puts one or more high capacity external flashes, facing upwards, on top of the rice paper. Above the flashes he puts a large half-cylinder-shaped hood and the inside of that is covered with reflective tin foil. Inside the hood is also mounted one or more light bulbs that are turned on all the time so that you can easily see and focus on the fish and the fish act as normal in the aquarium during the photo-session.

    He sits about two meters away from the aquarium with his camera (often mounted on a tripod) and with a large tele-zoom. That way he can get access to a high f-number and get a large depth of field, he also doesn't disturb the fish as much as if he was close to the aquarium.

    The only light allowed in the room are the bulbs in the hood on top of the aquarium, and Rolf covers himself and his equipment with black clothing.

    When he presses the shutterbutton, the external flash(es) emits light for a small fraction of a second and the light is shot up into the hood, reflected on the tin foil and then passed down through the rice-paper to be spread out evenly in the aquarium. Since the light only comes from above the aquarium, most of the problems with reflections in the front glass and reflective fish scales etc are solved. The shadows also look more natural than it does with a flash pointed to fish from other angles. The rice paper diffuses the light and makes it "soft" so that the pictures don't look as flat as they often do with "hard" light.

  • There is the alternative of not using a flash. This method is commonly used, but the disadvantage with it is that it usually only works well with subjects that are fairly slow or not moving in well illuminated aquariums. It works especially good for aquariums that are illuminated with strong Metal Halides. Other strong lightsources can also be used, for example 500W halogen lamps are very cheap to buy but generate a lot of heat. Advantages of using this technique with only the available aquarium light is if you don't want to lugg around a large bag of equipment and don't have to spend time setting up an advanced flash or lamp setup.

    If you have a camera that have a manual mode for white balance I highly recommend manually adjusting the white balance on the camera by holding a neutral (white or grey) object (a sheet of paper, a styrofoam sheet etc) angled by the lower end (outside) of the aquarium front window and point the camera at the illuminated side and set the white balance.

    I personally shoot without flash when it is not recommended (or not allowed) to use a flash, for example at a public aquarium or when I want photos with a nice 3D feeling without hard shadows. I also use it when taking pictures of a whole aquarium and sometimes also when taking pictures of highly reflective fish or of fish that get a strange color when illuminated by a flash through the front glass and when it's not appropriate to use flash through the water surface.

    When taking pictures of semi transparent objects such as anemones, corals, glass fish etc, this method can often give a totally different and much more interesting result than using a flash trough the front glass. It can also be used to take pictures of object in places where it is hard to reach with a flash or if you get unwanted flash reflections on other glass walls of the aquarium, for example in a corner in the back of the aquarium.

    Usually you have to use a low f-number (resulting in shallow depth of field) to get enough light to keep down motion blur. When it is possible I also recommend using a tripod and remote control to eliminate camera shake. In good light conditions the pictures can become extremely good, but in low light conditions the pictures usually get either too dark, blurry or noisy. A continious shooting mode on the camera is also a great help to get sharp pictures at the right moment when the subject temporarily stands still or moves slow enough. A continious shooting mode (except for the first picture in the series), or a selftimer, can also help against camera shake when shooting handheld shots.

    If you are lucky to have one of the digital cameras that either have a very fast lens and is capable of taking pictures at high ISO without having the pictures ruined by noise, then this type of photography can be an easy method to take pictures even in medium light conditions or of moving fish in above average light conditions. A polarized filter can sometimes be used to filter out some unwanted reflections, but this also removes some of the precious "good" light. An other way is to shield out surrounding light using a large black blanket held by an assistant or stand. One more way to shield out reflections is to use a piece of black cardboard etc with a hole for the camera lens.

  • External flash with a rubber rim. The external flash is pressed against the front of the aquarium, making sure that the rubber sealing keeps any light from escaping anywhere but into the aquarium.

  • A black rubber, plastic, textile or sponge rim on the camera lens. The lens can then be pressed tight against the glass, to cut out reflections. This technique can be used with or without flash. Some people put the lens straight against the glass. If you do this without a protection and "sealing" rim, be aware that the removal of reflections will usually be good but there is also a high risk that you damage your camera or the aquarium window. Be extra careful if the aquarium window is made of acrylic material instead of normal glass as it scratches very easily. Without protection it is also high risk that you frighten your photo subjects because of the sound generated when the edge of the lens bumps into or scrapes the aquarium glass.

  • Use cross polarization by putting a polarized film on the flash and then a polarized filter on the camera to remove reflections.

  • Sometimes I take pictures from above the aquarium with, or without, flash. The shot is taken at an angle and trough the water surface instead of the front glass, and it works OK if the water surface is not moving. This works good for fishes that are interesting to view from above, but most aquarium fishes look better in profile. A polarized filter is extremely useful to remove sunlight water surface reflections when taking pictures of pond fish and wild fish outdoors through the water surface.

  • You can put the camera in a waterproof housing and then put it under water, but I don't think that would be a good approach in an aquarium, except if you want some special effects or funny shots, or if the aquarium is huge.

  • I know of one aquarium photographer who has used external flashes in waterproof bags and put them in the water of the aquarium, but I would not recommend an amature photographer to try such risky experiments.

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