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Guide to Fish Photography


A guide to fish photography.

A lot of people find aquarium photography very daunting especially if you’ve only tried it once or twice with poor results. Some of the problems experienced by those starting out in aquarium photography include, blurred images, not enough light, floating particles and tank reflection just to name a few. However by following a few simple guidelines, you will be able to shoot with more ability and confidence, and ultimately improve your success rate.

Most people will begin taking pictures of their fish using their camera's automatic mode or one of the preset modes, but if you want to start taking great pictures, you'll need to understand what your camera is capable of. Switch to manual mode and learn what all the features can control. You must understand that camera's work by capturing the amount of light that comes in through the camera lens. The more light that makes it through, the easier the picture is to control. Using a flash is essential in taking photos of fish but not always possible as the sudden burst of light can spook some fish.

The three main utilities of a camera are shutter speed, aperture and ISO. Each affects the final image in very different ways with the best results being achieved when they are all in balance to allow the correct amount of light into the picture.

Shutter Speed

The shutter speed is indicated as 1/8, 1/200 etc, this means that the shutter will be open for an eighth of a second and two hundredths of a second respectively. The longer the exposure time (ie. 1/8th is longer than 1/200th) the more light is let in, however a long exposure will make any movement in the picture blurry - still life will be sharp.


The aperture is expressed as F-numbers, eg. F2.8 and F8, and creates the depth of field (DOF). The smaller the F numbers the larger the lens opening and the more light is let in. For example, when you take a picture of a fish from a front on angle, the focus should always be on the eye. With a small f number (F2.8) the fish's eye will be in focus and not much else. With a large F number (F16) the entire fish should be in focus as well as some of the background.

ISO speed

Digital cameras are made with an ISO speed ranging from about ISO50 or ISO100 up to ISO6400. The more advanced cameras get the larger the range of ISO speed. The greater the ISO speed, the more light is let in causing the picture to become "grainy." A small ISO speed of ISO100-400 should create no grainy effect at all.

Now that you know about the 3 basic utilities of the camera, you need to know how they all work together. If you choose not to use a flash, you will need to use high ISO settings, small aperture settings, and slower shutter speeds. Don't rely on the output of a standard fluorescent tube for lighting. Put as much light above the tank as possible. Lamps, spotlights, even floodlights if you're able to, just don't have them resting on the glass lids of your tank as overheating can crack the glass. To start with, try using a shutter speed of 1/60th, an aperture as low as your camera has and an ISO speed of ISO400.

If you do decide to use your flash, the whole situation becomes much easier because you can increase the shutter speed to reduce blurring, decrease the aperture settings to increase your DOF and lower your ISO setting to reduce digital noise. For a start, try 1/200, F16, and ISO100. Using a flash will give you a much sharper and crisper picture, however sometimes you will get a "washed out" effect in the colours of the fish or hot-spots from the reflection of light off the metallic sides of the fish. For those of you that own a Digital SLR camera, an external flash is essential for serious fish photography because You can adjust the angle of the flash to any direction. Bouncing the flash off a mirror or the ceiling can give you a more natural light and make the colours of the fish evenly saturated. Another step further would be to purchase a wireless transmitter for your Digital SLR to have the flash resting above your fish tank and pointed down.

The single most important challenge when taking fish pictures is to get the fish in focus. This is easy if you have a Digital SLR and difficult if you have a point and shoot camera. It seems to be the case of, the more you pay for your camera, the faster the auto focus is and in turn creates better pictures. It is also easier to focus without using a tripod because you can follow the fish with your camera (called panning) instead of waiting for the fish to swim in front of it. If you have trouble, try focussing on an object in the tank (rock, driftwood etc) by pressing halfway down on the shutter button, and then moving to a fish at about the same distance from the lens that the object was. This technique requires a lot more patience and luck, but it is handy when the camera you own has a slow auto focus.

Tips and Tricks.

• Take your pictures at night as many fish have different colours and patterns at night.

• Do a water change on the morning of or the day before you start taking pictures. This will minimise the fish waste and floating particles that ruin a good picture, plus fish seem to enjoy a fresh water change, enhancing their colours and can trigger behaviours such as spawning which makes for a much more interesting photo.

• Tripods are useless unless you're taking a picture of a stationary fish, like pleco's, bristlenoses and thomasi's etc. It's much easier to follow the fish. Make sure you are at a comfortable height to avoid stress on your back.

• Get to know your fish's movements. Watch to see which fish moves in which direction and is in a good position for capturing. For example, Clown Loaches tend to swim up and down the glass so try to capture them at the top of their turn.

• Make sure the focal point is the fish's eye. A focussed tail and a blurry eye will look terrible, but you can get away with having a focussed eye and a blurry tail but understand that higher F-numbers will improve this and give you a greater margin for error.

• Having a clean tank makes a big difference in picture quality. Clean the glass, inside and out, there's nothing worse than taking a great picture but having it ruined by a spot of algae or some dirty water drops, It also stops your camera from auto focusing on dirty glass. If you have air bubbles in the tank turn them off too; this also eliminates tiny particles in the picture.

• Taking the picture on a slight angle to the tank will eliminate the unwanted sight of the flash in your shot. Just be careful not to create too much of an angle as the refraction of light will distort your picture.

• If you're using a point-and-shoot camera switch to the macro function that is typically shown as a little flower. This will help focus on the fish much closer to the camera, however the disadvantage of using this mode is that you are often not able to use the macro settings with the manual settings on a normal point-and-shoot camera. It will also cause a shallow depth of field in automatic mode if there is insufficient light. A dedicated macro lens on a Digital SLR camera can produce more detail than you will ever see with your naked eye. Here is a photo of an Albino bristlenose catfish using a 60mm Canon macro lens.

• Have your batteries for your camera fully charged. There's no fun in having your camera go blank right at the time your fish is yawning or has its fins/gills flared.

• Try to capture you fish as close as you can to the front of the glass as the more water there is between the lens and the fish, the more difficult your camera will find it to focus.

• Where possible, remove any aquarium essentials from the background like heaters, filters and air tubing. Having these objects in the picture will make it look cluttered and messy. When setting up a tank, keep this in mind and make sure this equipment is at either end of the tank or preferably in a sump tank.

Post Processing

So you've taken that 1 in a 100 shot? Even if you haven't got it quite right, you can enhance the picture using a post-processing programs like PhotoShop and Paint Shop Pro.

Being able to digitally correct photos was once frowned upon, (and still is by some traditional film users) but is fast becoming an essential art in itself.

• Don't go overboard with the brightness and contrast controls. It is much easier to adjust the levels plus it will give a more natural look.

• The "Clone" and "Burn" tools come in handy when you want to remove unsightly objects from the picture like other fish, shadows, floating particles and air bubbles etc.

• Don't crop your pictures too harshly, leave enough area around the fish to give it that "swimming" feel.

• A nice way to give that professional touch is by adding a border and signature.


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