Articles Photography

Aquarium photography tips!

September 15, 2013

I’ve been getting quite a few questions lately about aquarium photography – taking photos of your fish can be pretty tricky, which leads many people to think that you absolutely have to own an expensive DSLR camera to even attempt it. Luckily, this is not the case! Although getting a higher-end camera is a good idea if you’re really into aquarium photography, you definitely don’t need any super expensive equipment if you just want a few photos to post on your favourite fish forum.

I’ve collected the tips I most frequently give people when they ask me how to take sharp, well-lit photos of their fish. Doing these little things definitely makes a huge difference sometimes, so be sure to try them all!

1. Close the curtains

Eliminating background lights by closing the curtains and turning off the TV and any lamps that may be in the room can make a big difference because it removes any reflections in the tank glass. Colors will look much more natural this way, and you won’t see your camera or hand reflecting in the glass.

Even in a not so great photo, closing the curtains makes a huge difference!

Even in a not so great photo, closing the curtains makes a huge difference!

2. Use a tripod

It can be quite difficult to keep the camera steady enough to take a photo of a moving fish. This can result in blurry photos, especially when the lighting is low or when you’re using a cheaper compact camera. To prevent this, consider investing in a small tripod.

I often use a tripod when I take photos of my fish with my old EOS 400D, and have found it to be very helpful, especially when lighting is low (which means you have to go for a longer shutter time). It’s pretty much impossible to keep your hands 100% steady, especially when you’re bent into a strange half-crouching position in front of the aquarium because you just have to get that perfect photo of your shy puffer fish. In cases like this, a tripod can really help.


3. Get to know your camera (shutter speed/aperture/ISO)

Even small, cheap cameras and most phones have the option to edit some of the settings that influence lighting and focus in a photo. Knowing how these work so you don’t have to rely on the AUTO setting can really help. When I switched from AUTO to Manual and learned how to edit the settings to match the situation, my photography drastically improved.

Here are the most important settings:
Shutter speed – this determines how much light reaches the sensor, and thus, how light the photo is. A long shutter speed means a lighter photo, but also more chance of blurring because all movement is also captured – meaning that if you’re trying to take a photo of your hyperactive guppies, it may not be a good idea to go for a long shutter speed.
Aperture – like shutter speed, aperture has an influence on how light a photo turns out. It also affects depth of field – setting your camera to a higher f-number means a longer depth of field and more objects in focus at the same time. It also makes the photo turn out darker. Try playing with the aperture of your own camera a bit to see what kind of effect it has on your photos.
ISO – ISO determines how sensitive the sensor of your camera is to incoming light. This means that increasing the ISO can help counterbalance a lack of light – unfortunately, however, it’s not a magical solution for dark photos. Increasing the ISO too much also drastically increases the amount of grain/noise, which is not what you want either.

The right combination of shutter speed, aperture and ISO makes taking a well-lit aquarium photo a lot easier. It may take a while to learn how to change the settings for different situations, but it’s more than worth it to take that time. Play around with your camera a bit and you may come up with some great photos.

camera settings

4. Clean the tank glass – inside and out

This may sound silly, but making sure there are no dried droplets on the outside of the glass and no algae on the inside makes a huge difference. Not all stains can be edited out easily afterwards, and they can really ruin a photo. I can’t count the number of times I’ve wished I would have taken the time to wipe away a stain or smudge before taking a photo. And although you may still be able to look into the aquarium despite a thin algae film, photos will turn out much better if you take the time to clean it off.

5. Edit photos using GIMP

A lot of the impressive aquarium photos you see floating around the web have been post-processed using software like Photoshop. I usually very lightly edit my own photos using GIMP, which, unlike Photoshop, is completely free. Just increasing the contrast a little bit and removing any spots and scratches that may have been on the tank glass can make a huge difference in how a photo looks.

I know not everyone likes the idea of post-processing because they feel like that’s “faking” it, but it’s definitely worth looking into.


6. Set up a photo tank

If you really want to take nice, clear photos of a fish/invert/plant or want to go more in the artistic direction, setting up a special “photo tank” might be a good idea. It has many advantages – you can play with different backgrounds, it’s easier to get the lighting just right and there are no distractions that might get in the way. And it doesn’t have to be expensive at all – used 5 gallon tanks are easy to find and usually quite cheap.

That being said, not all aquarium inhabitants react the same way to suddenly being moved to a bare tank with heavy lighting – for example, I wouldn’t try this with our dwarf puffer as they are stressed out way too easily. My betta, dwarf crayfish, dwarf shrimp and fancy goldfish, however, would make lovely models for this kind of photoshoot.

When working with a separate photo tank always keep in mind that the well-being of your fish is more important than a good photo. Fill the photo tank with water from the main aquarium, don’t keep the fish in the photo tank for extended periods of time and move the fish back to the main aquarium if it seems too stressed. 

It's much easier to take a photo of a fish in a bare, well-lit tank!

It’s much easier to take a photo of a fish in a bare, well-lit tank.

7. Be patient

If you’re just starting out with aquarium photography, don’t get discouraged if you don’t get fantastic results right away. Just keep taking photos and your feel for lighting, angle, composition, color etc. will keep improving. After a few months, you’ll be amazed at the difference when you look at your earlier and more recent photos.
If you feel you’re not making progress quickly enough, try visiting some aquarium forums, looking at other members’ photo albums and maybe even opening a topic with a few of your photos asking for tips and critiques.

I hope these tips were helpful even though I’m no professional aquarium photographer either 😀 If you have any questions about aquarium photography, don’t hesitate to leave a comment below. Happy fishkeeping!

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