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How to Get Great Aquarium Photos

Want good pictures of fish and other inhabitants of aquariums, but it’s not working out? We have some tips for you on what to do.

As a photographer, you may have tried to capture fish or other aquatic animals during a past visit to a zoo. It sure can be frustrating, can’t it? So little light… and the zoo won’t let you use a flash. Also, most fish move fast, and you can forget about them posing for you, or even cooperating with you. To top it all off, there are reflections everywhere on the aquarium’s front walls.

The Problems With Aquarium Photos

The main problem when photographing aquariums is a lack of light. You have to think of this when choosing a lens. Choose the fastest one available—at least an f/2.8.

You’ll also want lens stabilization, because not every zoo will let you use a tripod. If your tripod trouble is simply because there are too many people in front of the aquarium, you can use a monopod. Or if nothing else, lean against the wall of the tank. Expect to be using a long exposure. That means you’ll want to any tool at all that can make your photos sharper.

How to Get the Exposure Right

You’ll need to keep an eye on exposure settings so you can avoid underexposure. The light is weak, and your options for shutter speed and aperture are limited, so you’ll be pushing up towards a very high ISO. I usually go from 800 up to as high as 1600. That’s because it’s better to suffer a little noise than a blurry picture.

I recommend using either full manual mode or shutter priority on your camera. Your exposure time will depend on how quickly the fish, etc. is moving. For creatures that move slowly, a time between 1/25 and 1/80 will usually do. For quickly swimming fish, you need to shorten it to the range from 1/100 to 1/250, or sometimes even shorter.

An aquarium with medusas (Phyllorhiza punctata), Nikon D800, Tamron 35/1.8, 1/250 s, f/2.8, ISO 1000, focal length 35 mm

An aquarium with medusas (Phyllorhiza punctata), Nikon D800, Tamron 35/1.8, 1/250 s, f/2.8, ISO 1000, focal length 35 mm

Handling That Low Depth of Field

The lack of light limits your choice of aperture. Aquariums are usually lighted for viewing with your eyes, not your camera. Even with the high ISO and long exposures I’m recommending, you’ll end up using an aperture from f/2.8 to f/5.6, and that means a low depth of field. You’ll have to work with that creatively. You’ll need to choose precisely what will and won’t be sharp in your photos.

When photographing a fish at a low depth of field, the fish’s orientation relative to the lens also plays a role. For example if the fish is facing the lens, then only its head will be sharp. It’s best to photograph a fish from the side; then all of it will be sharp.

For this one I had to use a really short exposure. The European Seabass is an ocean fish that’s very fast, so with a long exposure, my photo wouldn’t be sharp. Nikon D800, Tamron 35/1.8, 1/320 s, f/2.8, ISO 800, focal length 35 mm

For this one I had to use a really short exposure. The European Seabass is an ocean fish that’s very fast, so with a long exposure, my photo wouldn’t be sharp.
Nikon D800, Tamron 35/1.8, 1/320 s, f/2.8, ISO 800, focal length 35 mm

The apple snail is a commonly bred aquarium snail. Nikon D800, Tamron 180/3.5, 1/80 s, f/8, ISO 800, focal length 180 mm

The apple snail is a commonly bred aquarium snail.
Nikon D800, Tamron 180/3.5, 1/80 s, f/8, ISO 800, focal length 180 mm

For slow creatures such as these beautiful snails, I could use a longer exposure. That enabled me to set the aperture to f/8 and get more depth of field; in macro photography, this is important.

A Mexican walking fish, or Axolotl. Nikon D800, Sigma 180/2.8, 1/80 s, f/5.6, ISO 800, focal length 180 mm

A Mexican walking fish, or Axolotl.
Nikon D800, Sigma 180/2.8, 1/80 s, f/5.6, ISO 800, focal length 180 mm

What About the Reflections?

Another frequent complication in aquarium photography is that aquarium glass reflects nearly everything around it, filling photos with unwanted reflections of the photographer, passersby, and everything shiny in the room. This problem, too, has a simple solution—an anti-reflection shield. Either buy one of these special rubber lens shields, or make a tube out of black cardboard or hard fabric and place it over the lens. Press the edge of the anti-reflection shield up against the glass of the aquarium to shield away reflections.

Using a shield has one disadvantage: with the lens up against the aquarium glass like this, you can’t focus on objects that are right next to it. But this is a fair trade for a reflection-free photo.

Always Hold the Lens Perpendicular to the Glass

The last stumbling block is that you’re working with multiple optical environments—air, glass, and water. Light rays are refracted at various angles at the boundaries between each of these environments. This can cause distortion and optical defects. To suppress these negative effects, you have to always hold the lens perpendicular to the glass and to the object in the aquarium. Otherwise the photo will be unsharp due to light refraction, and chromatic aberration (a blue-violet aura) will appear around objects.

Banded cichlid Nikon D800, Nikon 28-300/3.5-5.6, 1/80 s, f/6.3, ISO 1200, focal length 65 mm

Banded cichlid
Nikon D800, Nikon 28-300/3.5-5.6, 1/80 s, f/6.3, ISO 1200, focal length 65 mm

What if the Aquarium Glass Is Damaged or Dirty?

Aquarium glass isn’t always clean, and you need to take that into account. Ideally you should always take a cloth and some cleaner with you to clean dirty glass. With their help, you can often even clean away fingerprints. You might get some funny looks, but it’s worth it for a perfect photo.

But the glass may also be scratched, or seaweed may be growing on it from the inside, and at a zoo you can’t influence that. Here the solution is to not focus on things that are right up against the glass. If you’re focusing about halfway into the aquarium, then the defects in the glass won’t be within your depth of field, and so they won’t be visible.

An oceanarium, with a sailfish tang in the foreground. Nikon D800, Tamron 35/1.8, 1/80 s, f/3.5, ISO 800, focal length 35 mm

An oceanarium, with a sailfish tang in the foreground.
Nikon D800, Tamron 35/1.8, 1/80 s, f/3.5, ISO 800, focal length 35 mm

How Should I Edit Pictures?

I shoot to the RAW format, since it offers me a wealth of ways to post-process my pictures. In Zoner Photo Studio I can adjust their exposure—brightening the dark spots and suppressing overexposed spots using the controls for brightening shadows and suppressing lights. Those are very useful, because aquariums are usually unevenly lighted.

Sometimes I also need to adjust the white balance, depending on what kinds of lamps there were back at the aquarium. I sharpen the photo and remove the noise. For retouching, e.g. of any gunk in the water, I use the clone stamp. And then I’m done!



There are 2 comments

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  1. penny

    Never tried in an aquarium but frequently tried shots in tropical waters when I see bright fish or jelly fish near surface. Usual problem is reflection and bumpy surface to sea but have managed some nice pics by waiting but more good luck than judgement. Have nice ones of whales but then the problem is usually rolling boat. What is best way to deal with that?


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