Issue: August 2010
Author: Radek Bednarczuk
Wondering how all those amazing fish photos are taken? An accomplished aquatic photographer shares some tricks of the trade.
Pressing a camera’s shutter release is merely a single step toward a great picture of your fish. If you want to take an effective picture, you need to prepare the tank itself and its surroundings properly. Another important issue is choosing the right lighting. Of course, you will also need to have healthy, beautifully colored fish as well.
Rules of Photography
If you have even the slightest interest in photography, you must know that every year new models of digital cameras come out. Manufacturers try to outdo one another not only with pixel count, but also through the multitude of functions offered by the newest models. You must remember the most important point, however—good pictures are the creation of your mind, not your equipment. Even the most up-to-date, full-frame DSLR (digital single-lens reflex) camera will not take, by itself, a picture that is worthy of publication, for instance on the cover of an aquarium magazine.
Taking a great photograph requires knowledge of some basic rules, a lot of preparation, many attempts, and, naturally, a measure of luck (having to capture the spawning of a rare species of fish, for instance). In the past (that is, before the introduction of digital cameras), photo slides were used in order to achieve a perfect picture worthy of publication. These allowed for excellent image quality and vivid, lifelike color. However, professional photographic film was relatively expensive and required considerable skill to maximize the format’s potential, and the development process meant that shots could not be quickly assessed.
Nowadays, digital cameras allow you to take a large number of pictures (only limited by the capacity of the memory card) that can be examined immediately. You do not have to worry about wasting expensive film, and, more importantly, you can easily choose the best pictures out of many. This is really convenient, although sometimes the large number of pictures can make it difficult to make the right choice.
As I mentioned earlier, the latest and greatest equipment is not required to produce an excellent picture. A good few years ago, I used simple compact digital cameras and did not even have an external flash unit, so I used natural lighting. Many professional photographers asked me how I had achieved the effect I had. The answer is simple—my house had skylights; it was enough to place the aquarium under one and wait until the light was just right. This was my whole recipe for success.
To take great pictures of aquaria, a few basic factors are required: patience, time, and healthy and attractively colored fish or crustaceans. (A knowledge of the animals’ biology is helpful, too.)
Choosing the Equipment
Cameras and Lenses
One can face many problems with photographing fish, such as small size and very active behavior. A lack of light in the tank could also be an issue, not to mention having to consider not only what is inside but outside of the aquarium. Most of these problems can be partially solved if the right equipment is chosen. The best camera for an amateur would be a unit that includes an extensive set of both automatic and manual features, which will not only help beginners achieve good shots but also allow the fine tweaking of individual functions once they become accustomed to the unit and photographic process. I highly recommend the popular digital SLRs—even the entry-level, least-expensive models, with only 6 to 8 megapixels, will be completely sufficient.
A DSLR gives you a lot of room to maneuver; they allow for exchangeable lenses and offer advanced manual settings and many other useful functions. It is the most versatile type of camera around, with the only drawbacks being large size and weight, and relatively high price. When compared to any compact camera, however, a DSLR performs infinitely better when it comes to capturing movement (as in swiftly moving fish), thanks to minimal shutter lag.
A vital issue while assembling equipment is the choice of suitable lenses. For photographing fish and crustaceans, one should use a set of basic lenses with different focal lengths. This usually means a standard 50 or 35 mm lens for bigger fish or a larger section of the aquarium (e.g., when shooting a group of fish).
Then there’s the macro lenses for the very small fish and crustaceans, which usually come in the 60 mm, 100 mm, 105 mm, and 150 mm variety. With the first of these, you would need to get close to the subject for it to fill the entire frame. However, more timid species would likely not allow that, which is when the last of the lenses mentioned above comes in handy.
However, the best lens for beginners who take pictures of fish only from time to time would be an all-purpose one that encompasses all the focal lengths mentioned earlier. When taking pictures, you must remember to place the lens perpendicular to the aquarium glass (avoid angles of more than 5°). Taking this step will improve the quality of the photo, reducing deformations and blurring. An indispensable item in a photography kit is a tripod, which is useful when shooting crustaceans and peaceful fish, as well as an external flash unit.
Taking photos is painting with light. The lighting that is chosen should enhance the natural colors of the fish. As light intensity increases, colors become more vivid; however, they can also change when light changes—the fish will look different in natural sunlight and under fluorescent bulbs or halogen lights. The latter are often used in fish photography, but they have some disadvantages. Their strong light stresses the fish, which might cause them to lose color and look unnatural. Furthermore, the color temperature of halogen lights differs from natural sunlight, which, unfortunately, affects the picture by distorting colors.
The best choice is a flash unit using light that approximates natural daylight, and which gives a short yet strong burst of light that will not stress the fish. Every camera comes provided with a built-in flash, but this is rarely the best option because of their weaker intensity and fixed position. If you place the camera in front of the aquarium glass, a reflection of the flash can appear in the picture, which is why it is best not to use the built-in flash for photographing fish. Two external flash units would be a better option.
One of these should be placed immediately above the tank and the other should be positioned in front of it, at an angle, so the reflection will not show in the photo. The unit to be placed over the aquarium should ideally be provided with a diffuser that scatters the light; the light can also be softened by putting a piece of tissue over the flash. If the tank is covered with a pane of glass, this should be removed when this type of flash is used.
Both flash units are best placed on tripods. In newer camera models, the external flash is operated by an infrared signal from the camera. In older types, one unit can be connected to the camera with a synchronization cable while the other is fitted with a photocell, to be set off by the light of the first.
Naturally, the angle at which the flash units are to be placed, as well as the strength of the flash, needs to be determined through trial and error. It all depends on the effect you want to achieve in the photo. On the other hand, if you plan to visit a fish show and take a series of photos there, it is best to bring one large flash unit mounted on the camera’s hot shoe. If you shoot pictures at a proper angle, you will probably manage to take a few acceptable photos.
Most cameras will allow you to save your photos in a variety of formats. While the most popular are JPEG, TIFF, and RAW, the last of these gives you incomparably more latitude when it comes to photo editing and ensures much better picture quality. The RAW format is essentially self-explanatory; it is the raw, untouched shot straight from the camera without any compression or additional processing. Most professionals prefer this format, as post-processing can (and ideally should) be performed on a clean source, in any graphics program of their choosing.
Once you have assembled the equipment—that is, a suitable camera and flash units, and you have your models, the fish, all lined up—you can proceed to the task of preparing the tank.
An important point is the cleanliness of aquarium glass; this should be cleaned thoroughly on the outside to remove oily stains. On the inside, algae and other impurities should be removed with a sponge. You should then consider water clarity in the aquarium itself. It may be advisable to filter the water through activated carbon and a UV lamp. It is best to turn off the aeration before taking pictures, as tiny air bubbles from a spray bar, diffuser, or an airstone do not look very attractive in a photograph. If you do not intend to show fish during feeding, it is best not to give them any food, as it can compromise the clarity of the water. Besides, it can easily happen that you capture a fish in the act of evacuating its bowels, which will make the picture much less appealing!
There are also a few useful tricks that can help you in photographing your fish. The first consideration while taking pictures are correct camera settings. To reduce “noise” (a snow-like effect particular to digital photography) in the pictures and therefore ensure better quality, you should choose lower ISO settings. This setting controls the sensitivity of the camera’s image sensor to light. Higher settings will introduce noise into the picture, so it is preferable to stay at lower settings, preferably in the 50 to 200 range.
The correct aperture and shutter speed settings have to be determined individually through trial and error. A beginner’s best bet is to use an automatic mode. This will typically allow you to see the settings chosen by the camera, and then, in manual mode, you can set similar values and experiment with them, depending on the effect you want to achieve. The pictures are best taken in the dark, with only the aquarium lights on. Any additional light sources (such as other lamps in the room) can be reflected in the aquarium glass, which can spoil the pictures.
If the camera is placed on a tripod, and so are the flash units, you are faced with the problem of convincing the fish to appear in front of the lens. In order to achieve that, feed them in small amounts every day at the same time and in the same place. They will become accustomed to it after a while, and you will then be able to take a picture easily in that spot.
If you are dealing with really timid fish (a common enough occurrence with those that are wild-caught), you should begin by setting up the camera on a tripod and putting the flash units in their places. Then prepare a large piece of rigid black paper or plastic of a suitable size (so it can cover most of the tank), and cut out an opening through which only the camera lens will protrude. This camouflage is intended for the photographer to hide behind; you will be able to take a picture without stressing the fish with your presence.
When the fish are very timid, it may take a few days for them to get used to the black object. Another method used in fish photography is to divide the tank in two, using a pane of glass, so the fish cannot escape toward the back of the aquarium. This will bring them closer to the front pane, making it easier to take a picture. This can lead to stress, however, which in turn causes their colors to fade, and they may huddle in a corner of the tank in fear.
If you want to take a portrait of a particular fish and want to display it to its greatest advantage, it is advisable to increase the strength of the flash positioned over the tank, or, even better, place on the flash, for instance, a paper tube, so the light will not be scattered, which can give very interesting results. This trick is also used with fish whose bodies strongly reflect light, such as the silver dollar Metynnis hypsauchen.
An interesting method can be used for taking pictures of the Siamese fighting fish Betta splendens, which, as everyone knows, has males that are known for their beauty. To highlight their impressive fins, it is best to take pictures when these are spread. A helpful device would be a simple mirror placed against the front or side glass. When a male sees his reflection in the mirror, he will strike an aggressive pose, in the belief that another male has invaded his territory. This will allow you to take some interesting pictures.
If you want to take portraits of two male bettas, it is best to place them in a small tank, divided in two by a pane of glass inserted lengthwise, and only a few centimeters away from the front glass of the tank itself, which the lens will be pressed against. Sometimes, because of this additional piece of glass, unwelcome lightreflections can appear in the picture. Some experimentation with the placement of the equipment will help avoid that.
Yet another method that makes it easier to take photos of fish is to move them from the community aquarium to another, smaller photo tank, suitably set up with a background, substrate, decorations, plants, etc. However, the fish will need some time to acclimate to their new surroundings before the photo session can begin.
I have listed here a few basic tricks often used while shooting fish, but every person who even dabbles in photography could probably contribute other interesting ideas and methods that they use every day.
Last Words of Advice
Remember, a photo does not take itself, and even several thousand dollars’ worth of equipment will not guarantee excellent pictures. Only you can make sure that they are really good. When taking pictures of an aquarium and its subjects, you must, first and foremost, have patience, although a modicum of luck can’t hurt.
Those who are interested can refer to the thousands of how-to books and websites about photography, where you will find valuable advice on how to take pictures. However, as they say, practice makes perfect, and without application there are no results, so I encourage you to experiment with your camera. To achieve really good results, you need to take a few hundred pictures, choose a few dozen of the best, and from among these, the few that are outstanding will become a source of pride.
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