Photographing The Home Aquarium

I tend to find it’s best to do this late in the evening when there’s no Sun streaming through the nearby windows lighting background reflections in the tank glass. Turn the room lights down a bit too, but keep the aquarium light on. I use a generally-available tube with a broad daylight colour balance.

When learning photography, particularly on an SLR body, you’ll learn that what he human eye sees is often entirely different to what the camera lens sees. Remember, the human eye has an automatic aperature, and the brain adjusts the images it receives to interpret your surroundings better. While automatic cameras are nowadays very good at replicating most of these functions for professional equipment they wouldn’t dream of imposing ‘guesses’ on your photo shoot. You’re there, you know what the shot should look like, you set the camera up as it should be, not according to a computer chip’s predefined rules.

By the way, photographing fish in the aquarium is one of the more difficult things to do. The settings I use here I’ve found to work, but that doesn’t mean that in the coming months and years I won’t find better ways.

My equipment:

  • Canon EOS 350D
  • Sigma 105mm macro
  • Jessops circular polariser
  • Jessops MP 330 monopod
  • Sandisk 1GB memory card

Make sure the battery is full charged as you’ll be making use of your on-board flash. If you know how, clean both the camera’s lense and the sensor. Be careful not to leave any fingerprints or damage – if in doubt send away to a professional. Always use cleaning equipment from a reputable store and ask their advice.

Before you start you’ll need to prepare the aquarium glass. Trust me, it’s dirty. Use a magnetic algae scraper to clean the inside of the tank first, then some bottled spray solution with a clean dry cloth to thoroughly wipe the outside. At high zoom levels even the smallest dust and algae particals can be speed. Another reason is due to dried water stains where splashes have run down the outside of the tank glass.

Once you’re clean, take a hold of the camera and use the following settings:

  • Turn to full manual (M) on the dial
  • Set your picture quality to RAW. If you specifically don’t want this you can use JPEG but ensure you have set the white balance to ‘Daylight’ – definitely NOT ‘Flash’
  • Shutter speed 1/100s second. The minimum for hand-held is really 1/60s so this should be reasonably sharp.
  • ISO 400 (Canons have very good noise reduction which helps)
  • F/8 although you can try small variations for depth of field
  • On the lens switch to manual focusing

At this point you should be ready to go. Use the monopod (tripod can be used but is less flexible) to steady your shot – the pictures will turn out a little sharper that way.

Feed your fish a little something, preferrably pellet food that sinks the floor at the front of the aquarium.

Never take a photograph directly in front of the fish – the flash will be reflected by the glass straight into the lense and ruin your picture. Always take your photos at a sideways angle.

When focusing, it helps not to try and constantly focus on the fish itself. Try focusing on the substrate (gravel or sand) immediately beneath the fish first, then rotate the camera up to the fish and shoot. Be aware also that the depth-of-field can be increased by stopping down the aperature – go from F/8 to F/16 for instance – but this will reduce the light by the same amount so you may need to go from ISO 400 to ISO 800 which in turn may increase noise in the picture. These are the main points you’ll need to practise on and learn from experience.

Be prepared to take lots of pictures – in one session I took sixty-nine RAWs and found four were really good ones worthy of Internet publication.

Use Photoshop Bridge – it can not only read RAW images that have been loaded on your disk already from the camera, but batch-manipulate and preview images really nicely. Much faster than the Canon supplied software I find.

With your RAW files, adjust their colour balance to ‘Daylight’ – that’s the colour output of your tube unless for some reason you have a non-standard tube. The colours will instantly change to something much closer to that which the human eye remembers seeing.

Export your images to JPEG, fairly high quality (say 8/10). You can upload these to or other photo-hosting services or to your own web site but beware of the file sizes.


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