T h e  A r t  o f  A q u a r i u m  P h o t o g r a p h y

Gourami photo emphasizing forefront lighting

Juvenile Clown Triggerfish

Some aquarists find that an exciting and enticing sub-hobby of keeping a beautiful tropical aquarium is that of taking pictures (and video) of the tank and it's inhabitants.  Many find, (like certain other criteria for keeping fish tanks) that this is not easy to do.   In fact, it takes equal as much patience and practice as keeping the aquarium itself.  

Often, the relatively dim lighting conditions, reflective and refractive light issues involving the tank itself, and the constant movement common to the life of most aquariums, makes the art of aquarium photography also one of planning, precision, timing, and sometimes even luck.  

Even the best photo equipment is virtually useless, except when there is a good subject to photo, and area to photo in, especially if the intent is to capture a unique moment.  Sometimes, indeed, the equipment can make a difference, but I've found that it's hard to beat the good-old virtues of patience and practice, especially when it comes to the art of "aquatography".

Below, you will find some useful information on the style, techniques, and equipment you might consider when taking pictures or video of your aquarium.  

If you would like to view some pictures of aquariums, ponds, and underwater photography, please see our Photo Gallery.



A colorful abstract of an aquarium scene



Polyps of a purple-tipped Acropora coral

Like most styles of photography, the aquarium photographer looks to enhance the brilliant beauty often found on it's subjects, while capturing moments unique to that of the aquatic environment.   Most modern aquatic photographers desire to enhance the "realism" of the environment while focusing on crisp focal lines, bright colors, and soft backlighting. 

Abstract aquatic photography is becoming more popular because of some of the most incredibly unique shapes, designs, and colors commonly found only in the underwater world.  These shapes and designs make for an incredible palate for creativity.  Different computer software are available to manipulate and enhance aquarium photos.   These can offer great benefits, and have proven to me to be a true asset for making creative photos.

Proper adjustment of the camera and accessories will make a big difference when taking the photos or video, and utilizing the software tools will help to create the abstractions that you desire.  Look for out of the ordinary and unique shots.  Try to think how you would like the picture to look altered before you even take it.  Planning is an important part of taking successful aquatic photos.

Experiment with altering the picture.  Some excellent programs to do this with are MS Publisher, Photo Shop, Image Composer, and Photo Suite.  However there are many, many others available.  It's always a good idea to save a copy of the original before altering the pic.

Work with the photos until you have a work of art that is right for your taste, and create your own new style of aquatography!!



Open brain coral in a great photo setting




A lavishly colored Killifish



Lionfish swimming over a coral reef




Reef scene with soft corals

The technique used, and how it's executed will determine the overall success of the end photo.

Before I even begin to start taking pictures, I will do thorough aquarium maintenance a day or two before.  This helps to clean up the gravel, and clear the water.  Tannins, often found in older aquarium water tend to make it look yellowish, and also can cut down on the amount of light in the tank...not to mention it can be unhealthy for the inhabitants!!  Perform a substantial 40-50% water change, and also clean any chemical or mechanical filtrants.  See the section on Aquarium Maintenance for more info on thorough aquarium cleaning.

Make sure the front glass/acrylic pane is clean and free of lint or debris.    The inside of the glass should be cleaned of algae, snails, or other aquatic organisms.  The aquarium should have a darkly colored backdrop, or spray-painted.  I find that the spray-painted aquariums work well because they don't get debris in-between the glass and the tank, and they absorb more light, whereas backdrops allow the glass/acrylic to glare, and some require tedious care to get the proper shot.

I also find that the aquarium with a variety of plants, wood, rock, and various fauna are softer of the eye and allow for less glare also.  It can also provide for more of a natural habitat for the fish.

Take the photos in a dark or dimly lit room.  I will wear dark clothes, and sometimes even gloves for quality shots.  A dark towel is a good makeshift shroud for covering parts of the camera when needed.

Smaller aquariums such as 10-55 gallon tanks offer a good sized "photo tank" for specimen shots of fish, invertebrates, or coral.  These aquariums are often easy to light, and provide less space for specimen fish to "scurry off".  For  reef scenes, larger fish,  or panoramic shots, a larger aquarium is often desirable.  The fish or coral should be acclimated to the aquarium for at least a few days in order to capture the specimen in more of a relaxed, natural position.  Make sure this aquarium is fully cycled, of the proper water quality, and clean.

With respect to flash photography versus using natural lighting.  This is a decision that will be decided by the lighting availability in the aquarium, vs. the quality of flash system one is using.  I myself prefer using naturally bright aquarium lighting, and eliminate the possibility of glaring from flash photos, however, some of my best overall shots have been from flash photography.   

It's best to use a camera mounted lens, or remote flashes, and the camera itself should be mounted on a sturdy tripod.  Take multiple pictures of the same shot for the best results.  Sometimes I will take 5 to 10  pictures to get the one I want, if I get it at all!  Sit the camera closer, then further away and examine with different lighting, aperture, and shutter speed.

Decide what mode you will take the photos in. It's recommended beginners find initial comfort in the auto modes of their camera to concentrate their efforts on focus and movement of the specimens in this difficult type of photography. More advanced "aquatographers" should experiment with manual modes, which allows for altering fields of focus, lighting, and special features.  When I'm taking aquarium or fish shots, I will vary the shutter speed and aperture of the camera to allow for manual control of depth of field and light allowed into the lens, and onto the film.  It's important to understand the relationships between apperture, shutter speed, and film speed. Bs sure to thoroughly read through the manufacturer's operation manuals to understand how your camera works.

Experiment with different manual camera settings.  For example, if you are using 400 speed film, you might focus and shoot an f/8 aperture shot at 1/125th second.  Then an f/8 aperture, again at 1/125.  Then try an f/16.  Compare the results and decide which photo looks best, and how the lighting and film speed is recorded by your specific camera.  You can also try this technique by altering the shutter speed for instance, taking 3 photos at a set aperture of f16, but at shutter speeds of 1/60, 1/90, and 1/125th second without the flash (if it is possible).  If you are a geek like me, you will record which photo number is taken at which aperture and shutter speed.  Most developers will number the pictures for you by request.

Find the aquarium "sweet spots", which are openings, and grottos where the fish like to swim or hover. 

 In the case of live coral, special attention should be paid to make sure that the water flow and aquarium lighting is optimal for the coral and the picture.   In many cases, the display reef aquarium has sufficient lighting for the picture, and some corals are very sensitive to being moved or by changing the water environment around it. 

Try employing some of the above techniques, and hopefully the advice will improve your results.



35 mm camera w/macro zoom lens




Video camera mounted on a tripod

There are many, many brands and types of equipment for taking pictures and video of aquariums.   The problem with some of this equipment is that at a certain price range,  it can get very costly, and for little performance difference.  Get equipment that is user friendly, reasonably priced for what you get, and versatile.

The camera itself does the bulk of the physical work so it's important to choose one that's right for you.  There are many types of cameras and video equipment, so choose the product carefully.  I myself use a combination of 35 mm SLR (single lens reflex), and digital photography.  Shop for a camera that will  be able to shoot in multiple lighting conditions, and offer manual, as well as full-auto photography modes. 

A flash system is also very important due to the nature of the photos.  Built-in, and camera mounted flashes are the most common, but there are some excellent backlighting, and slave flashes that make an enormous difference.  A quality flash system will prove invaluable for photos.  Shadowing, and glare are common hurdles that can be overcome by manual photography, or a good flash.  Shop carefully for the flash system if you plan on using the camera for your aquarium.

A tripod is highly recommended.  A sturdy model of quality construction is foremost in consideration.  You also want one that is pivotal and allows the camera to be moved into various and sometimes precarious positions.  Many are fairly inexpensive, and can be folded up for travel/storage.

Commonly, to avoid flash glare, 35 mm photographers experiment with different lenses, especially those with longer focal length such as 100 or even 200 mm macro lenses.  Your choice of the lenses for the camera will be significant in the difference of the photos.  If your camera can use multiple lenses you might consider getting a wide angle and/or macro lens.  The wide angle lens allows for panoramic shots, and the macro lens is basically a zoom lens that allows for close up shots.

Other photography equipment such as light filters, shutter release cables,  lens cleaning kits, and camera maintenance equipment can be very helpful also.  Happy shooting!

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