This article focuses on fish photographing, but a lot of the suggestions are great for all sorts of aquarium photographing, regardless of whether your want to capture the lush growth of plant aquarium, your cute water frogs or the weird and wonderful creatures that inhabit the live rocks in a marine set up.
Keep the glass clean and scratch-free
Dirty and scratched aquarium glass can have a huge impact on your pictures and should therefore be avoided. Acrylic glass is more prone to scratching and must be handled with special care. If there are only a few scratches, simply wait until you can capture the fish from a suitable scratch-free angel. If the aquarium is heavily scratched, you may want to consider setting up a separate (glass) aquarium and use this for photo sessions.
Even if your aquarium looks 100% clean to the human eye, the camera can be able to capture ugly dirt, slime, greasy fingerprints etcetera that will show up on the picture. The added light sources will also make dust and dirt appear in a completely new way. Always clean the glass thoroughly before a photo session. Don’t forget to clean the outside as well as the inside. Never use toxic cleaners or items that may cause scratches.
Aquarium dimensions are important and must be taken into consideration when you plan your photo shoot. It is hard for light to penetrate water, and an exceptionally deep, wide or tall aquarium can therefore require additional light. This will naturally depend on which angle you choose to photograph your fish from. Major water changes and a debris-free environment will help the light to penetrate somewhat deeper.
Use happy and healthy models
Happy and healthy models are a necessity, unless you are taking pictures for an article about fish disease. When a fish is stressed, e.g. due to illness, it will usually dampen its coloration, clamp its fins and look listless. It is common for diseased fish to hide away or rest at the bottom. Also keep in mind that a good camera is very unforgiving and can highlight health problems that are easy to miss for the human eye. Early stages of Ich can for instance be clearly visible in a picture, even though you did not notice it when you were taking the pictures. Health is not merely the absence of parasite, bacteria or virus attacks – a healthy fish is a fish that likes its environment and feels good in the aquarium. A barren aquarium without any hiding spots, unsuitable water parameters, bullying tank mates, or being moved to a new aquarium are just a few examples of factors that can cause ill health in fish and make them less suitable for aquarium photography.
Take advantage of the spawning period
In many species, the fish will display especially beautiful colours during the breeding period. This behaviour is especially common among males. The breeding period can also cause the fish to flaunt its finnage and carry out a wide range of other beautiful behaviours that will look really good on picture.
Make a large water change
A large water change will bring out the colours in many fish species. You should however keep in mind that some fishes dislike sudden changes and a large water change can cause such species to dampen their colouration.
A large water change will remove tannins, waste products and other forms of debris from the water and make it more suitable for photographing. Carry out the water change one day in advance, since water changes can stir up debris and temporarily make the water more, not less, clouded. By acting one day in advance you will also give your fish plenty of time to realise the positive change and start flaunting their colours. Some species will even go into spawning mode the day after a major water change.
Vacuuming the substrate
Thoroughly vacuuming the substrate before a photo session will lower the risk of having ugly debris affecting your pictures. Just as with the water change, vacuuming should however be performed one day in advance to allow the aquarium to settle afterwards.
Getting your fish to model
Getting your fish to model can be tricky and patience is a key factor. If you photograph fish that you have kept and cared for during a long time, you are probably the one who knows most about their specific behaviour, what they like, how they act and react, which things that frighten them, what can make them excited etcetera. It is hard to give any general advice about how to make a fish pose, because each species and even each individual fish is different. By getting to know fish better, you will also get to know how to make them look stunning in front of the camera.
A quick note about tranquilizers
Some photographers advocate the use of tranquilizers to slow the fish down before a photo session. This is not only cruel to the fish, it is also cruel to the picture because a tranquilized fish will often feel sick and frightened and dull its coloration. Imaging having your own picture taken when you wake up from anaesthesia or is leaving the dentist office completely numb. Do you think you would look good? Tranquilizers are simply the last retort for pitiable animal photographers.
The importance of a suitable background
The background is really important and will affect the picture in a number of ways. Even if you plan on digitally removing the background afterward, it will still affect how lights are reflected etcetera. Which background you prefer is naturally an aesthetical choice. Many aquarium photographers prefer natural looking pictures and try to get the fish in front of plants, rocks, drift wood etcetera. It is however possible to be creative here; perhaps you want to place your fish in front of a bright crimson sheet of paper? Or perhaps you want a photo of your fish investigating a sunken space ship? Only your own creativity and a few practical restrictions will set the limit here. (You should for instance be careful with things that may emit poison.) One thing that very few people find aesthetically pleasing is aquarium equipment. You may have been staring at tubing and thermometers for so many years that they are virtually invisible to you, but when you develop your pictures they will surely stick out like a sore thumb and make the picture look muddled.
Shooting a test roll
Regardless of whether your camera is of the old fashion type or a digital one, it is always a good idea to do a test roll and get to know your camera better. Note down the camera settings for each and every picture in order to see which results they produce.
You can for instance start at f/8 and then gradually work your way up to f/22, keeping the shutter speed constant at 1/125th. In a conventional camera, use slide film, not print film, since developers of print film tend to compensate for errors committed by the photographer. If you want to know more about the various alternatives that your specific camera has to offer, read through the manual carefully or visit the manufacturer’s website. It can also be a good idea to swing by the library and pick up a book about basic photographing. Basic factors such as film speed, shutter speed and aperture are closely linked to each other and will all affect your pictures.
If you are serious about aquarium photography, you may wish to invest some time, money and effort in setting up a special photo aquarium. In a photo aquarium, you will be less restricted by practical requirements and you can for instance keep it virtually equipment free.
Tossing your fish into a barren aquarium with some tap water is naturally not the proper way to set up a photo aquarium. A photo aquarium must cater for the needs of each fish you plan to photograph; otherwise the move will make them stressed and cause them to look listless in the picture. It is also a good idea to let the fish stay in the photo aquarium for a while and adjust to its new surroundings before you start taking pictures.
When you set up a photo aquarium, decorate it with your future pictures in mind and arrange several spots that you know will work great as backdrops for a picture. A photo aquarium does not have to be large; a 10 gallon aquarium will be sufficient for most small and medium sized aquarium species. If you want to add an air stone, make sure that the stone is well hidden. The bubbles should appear to be mysteriously materialising in the water by an act of magic.
Live plants look great in a photo aquarium, but should be placed there well in advance since they need to adjust to their new home. Aquatic plants that have been given a chance to anchor themselves, adjust to the new light source, produce a few new leaves, and so on will be a much better background to aquarium photographing than plants that were tossed into the aquarium the day before.
Some fish become very scared if placed in an aquarium without any other fish. Schooling fish should naturally always be photographed together, but even non-schooling fish can need the comfort of other, braver fish to feel safe. You can solve this problem either by adding a group of valiant fish to the photo aquarium to keep nervous fish calm, or to skip the photo aquarium and photograph anxious fish in their normal aquarium where they are more at ease.
Be inspired, and don’t be afraid to experiment
Looking at pictures taken but other aquarium photographers is a great way of getting inspired and finding new angles. There are no strict aquarium photography rules that every one have to stick too; each photographer develops his or her own favourite techniques and allowing your self to experiment freely is always a good idea. Understanding the basics about how cameras and flashes works is recommended, since this knowledge is highly useful during all sorts of photographing.
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