Beginners Guide to Aquarium Photography
A Brief Guide by Chlorophile
In this guide I will attempt to outline some basics of shooting photography manually, some important gear to have, and how to make due without said gear, as well as some important things to remember when photographing through glass or when working with a scene that has distinct highlights and shadows.
You need a DSLR (Digital Single-Lens Reflex) to get the best results, or at the very least a camera with manual focus, exposure, ISO, and aperture settings.
Some of the modern point and shoot cameras are very good, but the key factor in an SLR is that when you look through the eye piece you are looking through the lens.
There are many types of lenses and they all have different purposes so here is a breakdown of some types of lenses and the pros and cons.
Wide Angle to Normal Zoom lens
: This is your typical Kit lens, mine has an adjustable Focal Length
of 18-55 which means it can be fairly wide-angle, all the way to just slightly zoomed in.
The benefits of this lens pretty much stop at A. It usually comes with your DSLR. and B. It can focus fairly close.
Mine can focus at the closest on an object .98 feet away.
This lens will not suffice as a Macro Lens, nor will it suffice as a Telephoto lens- but it will take full-tank shots and suffice for most of your photography needs, albeit it will not be ideal for shooting individual fish or shrimp when compared to a macro lens.
Also most cheap variable zoom lenses have will have a high ƒ-stop
, which gets even higher when you zoom in, meaning less light gets to your sensor, your shots will get darker, and you'll need to use a higher ISO
These are either zoom lenses or fixed lenses, mine is a zoom length and has a focal length of 55-200.
This lens is typically a bad choice for aquarium photography because they typically can't focus very close, especially the cheap ones, mine can only focus on an object 3.12 ft or more away, and that number decreases a bit if I am zoomed all the way in.
However the long focal length makes background images larger and it won't make the center of your image appear to bulge out.
This means that if you can stand far away from your tank this lens can create some nice close-ups that will have a shallow depth-of-field
similar to what you might be able to get with a macro lens.
They will usually have a higher ƒ-stop when zoomed in
These lenses are great for photographing close-ups, that is what they are designed to do. If you wan't to see the tiny hairs on your shrimps, or be able to count scales on a fish, then you wan't one of these.
They are very expensive though. They typically have a really low ƒ-stop which means very very shallow depth-of-field, and lots of light is getting to the sensor. They come in Variable-Zoom and fixed zoom and typically have a focal length of 50 or greater to create a very shallow depth-of-field
A fixed lens can come in any focal length, but does not zoom.
These are typically higher quality lenses, they typically have larger glass, and almost always have much lower ƒ-stop settings.
There are many kinds of flashes, for the most part for aquarium photography you just wan't something that is not pointing directly at the glass.
You can make due without a flash if you have a high light tank or an amazing camera that doesn't get grainy at high ISO settings.
You can also use external lights that are on all the time when doing your photography if your shots are too dark.
I think any tripod is better than no tripod, but if the tripod is worse than you hand holding it, then there is no point in owning it.
I would go with the cheapest tripod you can find from a reputable company.
Get a used tripod that was once top of the line.
I have 2 manfrotto tripods, one is 10+ years old and is awesome, and I have another manfrotto that was the cheapest one I could find on ebay last year.
Both are just fine, one of the legs on the older one does get a bit loose sometimes, but it's because I don't tighten it as much as I should.
This is good to have for full-tank shots, especially if you don't have a high-light tank or an external flash.
Not ideal for photographing fish as it is hard to adjust your camera position and aim on the fly, but it is good for getting details and close-up shots of your hardscape or your plants.
Having the camera steady will let you use a lower ISO and lower shutter speed and not have your entire shot blurry.
The fish however, will still be blurry.
this number is displayed on your lens, and as far as we are concerned as focal length increases; magnification increases, depth-of-field decreases, and the background of the photo appears closer to the subject, as well as larger and more to scale.
The top row of images has a 100mm focal length.
I prefer a higher focal length for aquarium photography as it makes background leaves and hardscape appear larger and creates a more intimate feeling in the shot - in a full tank shot a higher focal length also creates a more accurate image.
This is the term used to describe the aperture, which is essentially the lenses iris - a lower ƒ-stop means that the aperture is wider open, letting in more light. The bi-product of a lower
ƒ-stop / wider aperture, is that the depth-of-field becomes shorter, or more shallow
If you refer to the above picture of the toy and the car you will notice that in the top row, the left picture has an ƒ-stop of f/4 which is probably as wide open as the lens can be.
The result is that the shooter can only get the toy in focus.
The image on the right has an ƒ-stop of f22 - he can get much more in focus at once, but he would have had to use a much higher ISO or slower shutter speed to compensate for the diminished light he would have from closing his aperture so much.
Here is another example
For the most part in aquarium photography you wan't a lower ƒ-stop, especially if you don't have a flash or a high-light tank.
This is the range of focus in front of and behind the actual focal point - this is adjustable by altering your ƒ-stop.
Lower ƒ-stop means more light and a more shallow depth-of-field.
Higher ƒ-stop means less light and a deeper depth-of-field.
This is just how long the shutter stays open - the longer it is open the more light it will let in, the brighter your image will be.
But you and your subject will have to remain more and more still as your shutter speed gets slower and slower.
I personally can't shoot a steady picture any lower than 1/30th of a second.
Some can go lower, others are much shakier and will be only able to shoot a steady picture at say 1/60th of a second.
This represents the sensitivity of the camera's sensor.
A higher ISO will make your images brighter, but at the cost of quality - a very high ISO will almost always make your images far too grainy.
A higher quality camera will be able to get away with a higher ISO and not have as much grian. I can't go over 800 on my d40 and get images worth posting.
First and foremost - learn to hold your camera correctly!
Keep both your elbows touching your chest/stomach, bring your head down to meet the eye piece, don't bring the camera up to your eye.
If you are trying to keep the shot extra steady take a deep breath in, breathe out all your air and press your elbows/back of your arms to your chest and in the brief couple seconds where you have no air in your lungs... take the photo!
Don't stick your elbows out, don't stick one elbow out and press one to your chest, don't hold the camera out in front of you and look at the LCD screen.
Keep the eyepiece to your eye, keep your left hand under the lens, cradling it.
That will allow you to adjust your zoom and focus without having to move your hand position and without moving the camera all about.
Also, it'll keep you from looking like a tourist when you are out photographing other things!
Balancing ISO, Aperture, and Shutter-Speed:
Lighting aside, balancing these three things is how you will get the correct exposure in your shots.
For Aquarium Photography we rarely need to raise our ƒ-stop above its lowest setting.
Since we have a low amount of light to work with we wan't to get as much light to our photo sensor as possible.
Raising our ISO will make photos more noisy.
And since we typically have fast moving fauna that will blur out at slower shutter speeds, the best place to get more light first is from using a lower ƒ-stop.
Exceptions to this will typically only occur when you are taking a full tank shot.
At your lowest ƒ-stop you most likely will not have the depth of field needed to get the foreground and background in focus.
In an Iwagumi tank this will be important if you are trying to display what your tank actually looks like - if your foreground rocks and background rocks are blurry but the center is sharp, then that isn't a great representation of your tank.
However, one might intentionally blur out the background or foreground of the tank to create a photo that gives a feeling of being at the foot of a large landscape.
Shots too dark?
Shots too bright? (Lucky you)
- Lower your ƒ-stop AKA open your aperture.
- Increase your ISO setting to a higher number. I.E. go from 400 ISO to 800
- Use a lower, slower, shutter speed. I.E. Try 1/60th of a second instead of 1/120th
Shots too blurry?
- Decrease your ISO setting to a lower number. I.E. go from 400 ISO to 200
- If your fish and plants aren't coming out blurry this is the FIRST thing I would do, otherwise increase your shutter speed.
- Use a higher, faster, shutter speed. I.E. Try 1/120th of a second instead of 1/80th
- Increase your ƒ-stop AKA close your aperture.
More soon when I get time and clear thoughts.
- Use a faster shutter speed.
- This will mean your shutter isn't open as long, so your photo will be less blurry, but the side effect is less light is getting to the sensor so your pictures will also be darker.
To compensate you will have to do one of the following
- Increase your ISO setting to a higher number.
- Lower your ƒ-stop