How to Photograph Aquarium Fish

How to Photograph Aquarium Fish – Beginner Guide

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One great way to enhance your fishkeeping hobby is by keeping a written log and taking pictures of your prize aquatic pets. Photos and logs are good tools for learning more about your fish, their breeding habits, environmental quirks, and natural social interactions. Photography is also a fun way to enhance your social standing by impressing your friends with your great pictures.

Most of the equipment you need to photograph aquarium fish are fairly inexpensive and can be easily obtained.

  • Using a log book
  • Going the film route
  • Taking digital pictures
  • Learning better photography techniques

Keeping a Log Book

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Keeping a Log Book

Keeping track of your fish’s individual health, breeding schedule, and food preferences can be quite a difficult job, especially if you have a large variety of species, or more aquariums than the National Aquarium in Baltimore. One good way to keep tabs on your aquarium fish is to use a written logbook.

A complete record of each fish in your aquarium lets you monitor your pet’s history, social habits, growth, water conditions, feeding habits, and spawning successes.

If you keep track of each new fish as you purchase it, you gain a better understanding of each species needs, and that can be beneficial in decisions regarding purchases of future tankmates.

For example, the “calm” oversized molly you bought a couple of months ago cleverly turns your community tank into a World Wrestling Federation battle royal, and you note its bizarre behavior carefully on your written log.

On your next trip to the fish shop, this individual fish’s rap sheet will remind you to run at warp speed past the giant molly section toward calmer waters.

Beginning a log is kind of like starting your first diary except you don’t have to make up stuff. Keep a separate sheet for each fish.

We suggest encasing each sheet in a plastic slip-folder and placing the individual sheets in a three- ring binder to protect the logs from water and moisture. To get you off on the right foot, the following list details the information we usually record in our own aquatic logs:

  • Date and place of purchase
  • Number and type of tankmates
  • Monthly growth record
  • Common and scientific names
  • Sex, size, and color
  • Preferred temperature, dH, pH, and lighting requirements
  • Type of feeder and preferred diet
  • Environmental distribution (for example, “found in Guatemala and Mexico”)
  • Social behavior (whether it gets along with other species or needs its own tank) and what type of tankmates it tolerates
  • Spawning date and number of fry
  • A disease record that includes the type of disease, date contracted, treatment, and how long the treatment took to work
  • Date and cause of death
  • Any personal comments

Photographing Your Fish the Old-Fashioned Way

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Okay, just admit it, buried deep within your creative depths is a shutterbug itching to get the old, dusty, 35mm (millimeter) camera out of the attic and snap a few quick photos. Or maybe you’re just an enthusiastic hobbyist like ourselves, continually searching for new and exciting ways to enhance your aquarium-keeping records.

In any case, see this book’s color section to get a sense of how beautiful and exciting aquarium photography can be.

Many hobbyists try their hands at selective breeding at one time or another. Have you finally succeeded in breeding the perfectly colored platy and now feel an overwhelming need to capture and preserve that beauty?

Have you had a fish for a long time that has become very dear to you? Fish photography can offer a new challenge for you.

There are a variety of reasons for photographing fish: You may want to capture the beauty of your aquarium and email these aquatic treasures to your family, friends, and colleagues. Nothing compares to the pride you feel when others openly admire your aquatic and photographic creativity.

Another good reason to consider fish photography is that you can turn good quality fish photos into extra spending money if you catch the right scene, interaction, or pose on film.

Many aquarium magazines, stock photo houses, and publishers purchase photos to use in their articles. It takes time to build up a photo business, so don’t quit your day job until you are established.

The camera

Almost any camera works well for fish photography. However, a single-lens reflex (SLR) camera has several options that other cameras lack:

  • The picture you see through the camera lens on an SLR is basically the image that you see in the finished and developed photo.
  • You can easily equip most SLRs with auxiliary wide angle, telephoto, macro, and zoom lenses.
  • SLRs are capable of taking synchronized electronic flash pictures, which can help you capture the action of fast-moving pets.
  • You can purchase a wide variety of cool attachments such as filters to help you make interesting shots and create different types of scenes.
  • A 35mm SLR makes you look like a pro if you get a cool camera strap and have a bunch of accessories crammed into a stylish bag.

However, the most important thing is to get the shot. Start with a camera that is equipped with automatic exposure so you don’t miss shots fumbling with numerous settings. Many SLRs, including digital SLRs, have a fully automatic feature, but some cameras are so complex that by the time you set up everything for your shot, your fishy subject has spawned several times and is about to collect Social Security.

You can mount your camera on a sturdy tripod to help eliminate blurred pictures caused by camera shake. You can find cheap tabletop plastic tripods at camera= shops that will work fine. If you don’t have a tripod, support the camera on a table or firm surface.

The film

kodak film

The simple fact is, if you want good-quality photos, you must purchase the highest quality film on the market. In our opinion, Kodak is the best film made and produces the truest color.

Cutting costs with inexpensive or low-grade film costs you much more in the long run (buying tons of film to get a good-looking shot on bad film) than if you had just spent a few extra pennies on a better quality roll. Ask any professional photographer, and she’ll tell you the same thing.

When you are first starting out, you can save money by purchasing rolls of film with more exposures (36 instead of 12 exposures).

Always choose the slowest-speed film possible to avoid the grainy pictures produced by faster films. Film speed is measured in numbers such as 100, 200, 400 and 800, and the lower the number, the slower the film speed and the higher the level of detail, but the more light you’ll need to get good pictures (see later in this article for more on lighting).

A slow, fine-grained film such as ASA 100 produces higher quality images that can also be enlarged with better results than does a faster film such as ASA 400, which often makes your pictures look as if they were taken during a desert windstorm. Increase the lighting before you attempt to increase film speed. Begin with a 100 speed film and work from there.

Make sure to have plenty of extra film on hand, because it may take several rolls to get the one perfect shot you’re seeking.

After you achieve lighting proficiency and mastery of the camera and lenses, consider using slide film (very slow film that offers bright, realistic color saturation,) which gives you the ultimate in color saturation and picture quality.


camera lenses

A standard 50 mm lens works great on fish longer than 5 inches. But when working with smaller fish, use a zoom, telephoto, or macro lens to help eliminate background material.

A macro lens is designed for taking close-ups and offers a 1:1 ratio, which results in a large center-of-attention subject in the finished photo. A 105 mm macro lens works great for small fish such as a pencil fish.

A zoom lens allows you to change the focal length of your lens to capture different sizes of fish (and spy on your neighbors after the photo session). A 100–200 mm zoom lens is a good lens to use for most smaller fish.

Telephoto lenses enlarge images that are far away and provide you with the freedom to work at a distance from the aquarium. Taking photos from a healthy distance helps avoid the possibility of your fish going into cardiac arrest from fright during photo sessions.

The three disadvantages of telephoto and zoom lenses are as follows:

  • Camera shake due to the larger size and heavier weight of the lens if you don’t use a tripod
  • A shallower depth of field (zone of sharp focus), which tends to blur out any background
  • A slight loss of quality in the finished prints

Photographing Your Fish with Digital Photography

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Photograph your Aquarium FIsh

Digital photography is growing in popularity and is now a good alternative to film-based cameras. Digital images are made up of small squares called pixels, which resemble a bunch of very tiny tiles laid out to make the image.

Digital cameras are judged by their pixel count, which is represented in millions and abbreviated by MP (megapixels). So, a 3MP camera has 3 million pixels, or megapixels.

The pictures are stored on small memory cards instead of on film. You then transfer the images from the card to your computer or a printer.

There are many digital cameras to choose from. Cell phones and inexpensive cameras typically offer 2MP. This is good for emailing photos, but not much else. The 3MP camera is good for 4 x 6 photos and is relatively inexpensive.

The 4MP takes close to photo lab quality pictures and is a good all-round camera. The 5MP+ cameras are great for outstanding photo quality, but can be very expensive. Generally, the higher the MP, the more expensive the camera.

There are many advantages to using a digital camera. Most digital cameras have an LCD (liquid-crystal display) screen, which allows you to see what the captured image will look like before you take the photo, and also let’s you preview it after you take the photo to see if it’s worth keeping.

You can take hundreds of photos on a typical memory card and only keep the very best. Using a digital camera allows you to save on the cost of film that is often wasted on shots that don’t come out well. And most digital cameras are very light in weight compared to many film based models.

Printing your work

Once you have taken your wonderful fish photos with a digital camera, you can print them out on your computer’s printer or email them to friends. You can also scan film photos into a computer and print them out, too.

For higher quality prints, most film development shops can print your digital photos directly from your memory card.

Computer-aided fish photography

In order to store your wonderful fish photos, you can turn to your trusty computer. The images from your camera (and scanned photos) can be transferred from your camera to your hard drive for storage. However, hard drives can get viruses and crash or die, so if you have a CD burner, you should transfer your images to a CD so that you have another copy.

Photos can also be altered and improved using different varieties of image- manipulation software, such as Adobe Photoshop (expensive) and Paint Shop Pro (not so expensive). Many digital cameras come with basic software for this purpose as well.

Lighting Techniques

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The main hood lights on an aquarium usually do not provide sufficient lighting to take good photos. If your tank has fluorescent lamps, you may end up with a green cast on your finished pictures; if you use tungsten lamps, an orange cast may appear.

You’re much better off using electronic flash or strobe units that provide proper lighting and freeze motion.

Ideally, you place your photography tank (see later in this chapter for more on photography tanks) in natural sunlight, which far exceeds artificial lighting in terms of color, shadow, and mood. The disadvantage of natural lighting is that the direct sunlight can quickly heat up the water in a small tank to lethal levels and turn your fish into a broiled entrees.

Take great care to ensure that the water remains cool until you’re ready to start the photography session, and that you don’t leave them in direct sunlight for too long. A large, thick towel to cover the entire tank and block out the heavy sunlight is a great tool to have handy if you need to take a short break.

If you’re using one strobe light, direct it at the tank from a 45-degree angle near the top of the aquarium. If you use two strobe lights, place them at the same angle on opposite sides of the tank.

The 45-degree angle offers these advantages:

  • Shadows appear below the fish and give your photos a natural look. These shadows also possess a softer tone than those in photos using straight-on lighting and are more appealing to the eye.
  • You avoid flash reflection off the glass, which can ruin an otherwise good shot. Another method to avoid excess reflection is to wrap a black-cardboard tube around the lens on your camera. This tube is known as a mask.

Strobe lights generally have a flash duration of 1/1500 of a second and are very effective in stopping action if you are photographing a fast-swimming fish in a large tank that isn’t equipped with restraining glass.

(A restraining glass is an inserted piece of glass that is used in small photo tanks, usually 2–5 gallons, to gently pin the fish against the aquarium glass so that it will not move while its picture is being taken.)

Strobe lights are usually powered either by electricity or rechargeable cadmium batteries.

If the subject of your photo session is a very dark fish, move the lighting closer to the tank to compensate. On the other hand, if the fish is white or of a very light complexion, move the lighting back from the subject.

Red-eye (also known as vampire syndrome,) is the common name for reflections caused by lighting placed very close to the subject. You can avoid it by working with the light adjustments mention earlier in this section. For digital shots, you can use image-manipulation software to remove most red-eye problems.

Another option is to aim your flash or strobes up at a mirror or white card suspended above the tank. The light reflects off the mirror or card and bounces back onto the subject, creating a softer look.

This method is popular for delicate-looking species, such as angelfish and other long-finned tropicals.

Focusing Techniques

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focus fish

The focus of a camera is determined by the aperture, or opening, of the lens, which decreases as the size of the image increases. The aperture itself is a hole in the lens which regulates the amount of light striking the film.

The aperture is adjusted by a diaphragm inside the lens and is calculated in steps called f-stops. You can see the f-stops available on an SLR camera on the ring on the outside of the lens. The smaller the f-stop number, the less light required, and the smaller the depth of field, or zone of focus.

With fish photography, you are usually working close up and with limited ability to provide a lot of light, meaning smaller f-stops.

To get a large amount of the background in focus, you need a larger f stop — or more light. The lens manufacturer usually supplies a table to help you determine the aperture you need for the magnification you want.

Or set your camera to semi-automatic mode, if it has one, meaning you can set the shut 1⁄60 of a second, and the camera chooses the correct aperture automatically.

If your calculations point to an f-stop of 11, take one photo at f 8, one at f 11, and another at f 16. This bracketing technique reduces your margin of error, maximizes the probability of a useable shot.

Keep a log of each exposure and ask the developing lab to number your pictures so that you can gain a better understanding of how each aperture affects your shot.

Larger lens openings (f 2, f 1.4) have a narrower depth of field (how much area behind or in front of the subject will be in focus), which means you have to focus more carefully. Smaller lens openings (f 16, f 22) have a larger depth of field and require less focusing to get the correct image. Depth of field increases with distance.

The farther your camera is from your subject, the greater the depth of field. Macro photos (extreme close ups of small objects) have little depth of field because the lens is so close to the subject.

Composition Techniques

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Composition Techniques

You need to organize all the visual elements into a balanced and appealing scene in order to take good fish photos. All photos require a center of interest (which is usually the most important image in the picture).

Obviously, most of the fish that you take pictures of are of some interest, but other subjects in the aquarium can be accented by your aquatic pets.

For example, a piece of driftwood with an unusual shape or a brightly colored castle can provide a center of interest that you can highlight by capturing a small school of fish swimming nearby.

Using the rule of thirds

One general rule of composition that always produces a pleasing balance is to place the subject at the intersection of imaginary lines dividing the entire scene into thirds, horizontally and vertically, as shown in Figure 21-1.

This simple but effective placement of subjects, known as the rule of thirds, often gives excellent results. If there are other lines in the picture, try to arrange them in such a way that something about them leads the viewer’s eye toward the main subject

Panning the scene

To obtain unique photos that stand out from the rest, try taking pictures of interesting moments, such as mating rituals or feeding sessions. Another fun thing to experiment with is a specialized effect such as panning — following a fish with the camera as the fish swims: You simply continue moving the camera in the direction the fish is swimming as you depress the shutter.

The effect is a fish that’s mostly in focus but with a blurred afterimage and background that can be quite interesting as it captures motion over time. To get the most realistic photo, keep the camera on the same horizontal plane as the fish.

Setting up for close-ups

For good close-ups, make sure your subject fills at least 75 percent of the frame — this keeps the background from overrunning or cluttering the shot.

Focus on the best aspects of the fish (a beautiful flowing fin, for example).

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