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Photographing Aquarium Fish with Digital Capture

 Age of Aquariums > Aquarium Articles

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There are many articles out there that illustrate how to competently photograph an aquarium using a film base single lens reflex camera, but not so many on how to do it with a digital camera. Quality digital aquarium photographs are important as by far the best research tool in this field are internet forums and in which it is a necessity to post clear and useful photographs. Aside from the personal satisfaction atained from the production of an interesting image, good photos are important for competition entries as well.

Lighting is the single most important issue in photography in general, and aquarium photography is no exception. All cameras will use their metering system to judge how much light is available to enter a lens in any given scene, and then decide on the amount of time to open the shutter and expose the sensor (shutter speed) and how much light to expose it with (aperture). Different combinations of aperture and shutter speed will give you different effects, for example, a slower shutter speed, of say 1/2 second will render movement in a blurred fashion, whereas 1/500 second will usually render a moving fish sharply. So: no matter what camera you use, more light gives the ability to use faster shutter speed and therefore sharply rendered images. The problem is that in aquariums with standard lighting fixtures, there is not always enough light to be able to use these fast shutter speeds.

Although simply finding a way to increase the lighting in your aquarium temporarily is obviously the best solution (and will render the best results) there are actually some ways you can improve your shots without doing this. The first is to increase the sensitivity of the sensor, or in other words, increase the ISO setting. An ISO setting of 200 is twice as sensitive as ISO 100, and an ISO setting of 400 is twice as sensitive as ISO 200. This means that the higher the ISO setting, the more sensitive the camera's sensor is, and therefore the faster shutter speed can be used. Which is what you want for that fast moving fish. The drawback is that as you increase ISO, image noise increases, in other words the picture will have more grain and not look as smooth.

Another way to use a faster shutter speed is to provide more light in the form of a camera flash. Ordinarily, if you set the flash on your camera to auto, it will fire the flash in low light situations in order to illuminate the area, and correctly expose the scene. If you try to use the on-camera flash when photographing aquarium fish, firstly, the image will look washed out as on-camera flashes are usually too powerful to use at distances closer than 30 cm, and secondly you will probably get the reflection of the glowing flash on the glass, obscuring some, if not all of the fish. The way to overcome this is to use an off-camera flash, attached to the camera via a cable. If you place the flash on top of the aquarium, you will get a similar effect to your aquarium lights but much more powerful, allowing the use of fast shutter speeds. The drawback here is that not all compact cameras can accept external flash units.

The other way to obtain a faster shutter speed is to use a lens that lets in more light at once, or in other words a wider aperture. This won't be an option for those using compact digital cameras, but for those using interchangeable lens type cameras, you can get more light to your sensor with a lens using, say an F2.8 aperture, as opposed to an F4.5-5.6 lens, which is what most single-lens-reflex (SLR) type cameras come with as standard. More on equipment later.

Another issue that is important is focus. The focal point, in photographic terms, is the area of the image that is sharp, which occurs at a specific distance from the lens. Automatic focus cameras alter distances between critical lens elements to hunt for areas of contrast, or focus, in a shot. This takes time and is not always reliable. And when a fish is darting wildly about, is ineffective. The best option is to manually focus (or auto focus and focus lock, if available) on an area and wait for the fish to swim into it. Also, when possible, position your camera perpendicular to the aquarium glass, to minimise any distortion in the shot.

As opposed to photographing individual fish, full aquarium shots are quite easy. All one needs is a basic digital compact with the flash disengaged, on a stable surface (preferably a tripod). Set the ISO rating to low, for example 100, as this will give photographs with the least possible image noise. Turn the room lights off and shoot. It can sometimes help to use a self timer or a remote release to minimise and camera shake.

Whether you're photographing individual fish or the whole aquarium, it is possible that your camera's light meter may be confused by the bright colours and tones in the aquarium and inadvertently over or under expose your image. Look at the shot you just took and decide whether it's too light or too dark or just right. If the exposure was incorrect, you can adjust the 'exposure compensation' on your camera and shoot again.

Another thing to be mindful of is 'white balance.' This term refers to what the camera considers to be white, there for affecting the rest of the colour range. Obviously white will take on a different hue under different types of light (tungsten, fluorescent, daylight). For example, if you set your cameras white balance on 'daylight,' then photograph a fluorescently lit aquarium, the shots will most likely have a green tinge. Your camera should be able to automatically judge what white balance settings to use but as with all automated systems, it can make the wrong decision. Most cameras seem to struggle to identify incandescent light mostly, but errors under other lighting conditions are possible. If you are finding that your colours are not perfect, adjust your white balance settings and re-shoot.

Digital SLR's versus Digital Compacts

There are many advantages in considering a digital single-lens-reflex (SLR) as opposed to a compact digital, but the cost of a digital SLR is still prohibiting for many. In years to come, as digital technology improves, the prices of digital SLR's will drop, meaning the numerous advantages will soon be accessible to many more photographers.

The first and most obvious advantage in a digital SLR is the fact the lens is interchangeable. This means that you will be able to use different lenses for different applications, giving you greater creative freedom. Specifically, macro (close-focusing) lenses are available in most brands in a number of different focal lengths, allowing you to vary your working distance with the subject, as compared with digital compacts, where their close focusing ability is usually limited to their wide angle, meaning your subject must be very close. The optical quality of a macro lens designed for an SLR will be far superior to the lenses on compacts in regard to general sharpness, corner sharpness and give lower levels of chromatic aberrations. Of course the price of these lenses reflect their ability.

The quality of the imager (the sensor) also is superior in an SLR to that of a compact, mostly because it's physical size is much larger in an SLR. This means that, for various reasons, there is less image noise initially, so ISO ratings of 3200 and above are possible with acceptable noise levels. In other words, the sensor on a digital SLR can be eight times as sensitive as that of a compact.

Another issue to be aware of is that, although some compacts allow the use of an external flash unit, generally it is not a feature that is common. All Digital SLR's can accept external flash units.

In terms of specific products, I am hesitant to go into too much detail, because the technology is advancing so fast that my recommendations today will be irrelevant tomorrow. That said, at the time of writing, Canon and Nikon are two manufacturers that are making very good choice compact cameras, accessories for each being easily obtainable (flash guns, etc). They are also making very capable and high quality digital SLR's each with over 40 different lenses to choose from. More info can be found on digital camera dedicated websites.

Digital photography is here to stay. The advantages of digital capture over film are so numerous that it's astounding. To use your digital camera to its full potential, however, a little bit more know-how is required. Hopefully this article has been informative and helpful, and will assist you in taking strong aquarium photographs. Essentially, although it is very possible to take great photos on a budget using a compact digital camera and external flash, an SLR will in no uncertain terms, outperform digital compacts in every respect. The drawback at the moment is the cost, which, I believe will become less and less of a problem in years to come.

Thanks for reading,

Reader Comments Comment

Two points made in your article on photographing aquariums are a bit misleading. First, a camera with an interchangeable lens is not necessary in order to be able to change the aperture. Many cameras with built-in lenses have that capability. Secondly, an off-camera flash can be used by having a remote slave that is triggered by the flash from the on-camera flash. The on-camera flash can be screened with filter material to keep that flash from adding light. In this way, a camera that doesn't have an attachment for an off-camera flash can be used.

Contributed by Bill

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