Fishkeepers often decide that they would like to take photographs of their fish. This could be for any number of reasons – to show their friends, to send to fellow hobbyists, to display on their web site, and so on. A lot has been written on the subject. I would just like to record the techniques and knowledge that I have found useful.
Choice of camera
For most people, there is probably not much of a decision to make here. You will be limited to whatever camera one actually possesses. Nonetheless, it is worth pointing out the pros and cons of some of the different types of camera.
Compact film camera
Probably the most common camera these days is the 35mm or APS compact. Typically, these have either a moderately wide-angle fixed focal length lens or a zoom lens with a modest (but quite usable) range of focal lengths. Also, most functions are automated, such as exposure control, whether or not to use flash, focus. These characteristics combine to make the camera very easy to use for general shooting, but provide limited control and flexibility for specialised applications.
As far as photographing fish is concerned, these cameras are probably most useful for taking general shots of an aquarium. They are also capable of producing pleasing shots of individual fish, especially if they have a zoom lens that extends to, say, 100mm. However, consistency is quite difficult to achieve, mainly as a result of limitations of the lens and absence of a close focus (macro) mode for taking close up shots. Even if the camera has a macro mode, the absence of a “through the lens” viewfinder means that “parallax error” can cause shots to be off-target.
I would avoid using cameras using smaller format films such as 110 or disk film for anything other than the most casual snaps, as these are unlikely to do your subject justice!
SLR film camera
When equipped with a lens of reasonably long focal length and macro facility, these cameras address all of the potential inadequacies of compact cameras. The fact that the lenses are interchangeable means that most owners of this type of camera are likely to possess such a lens. A good length would be about 200mm. Longer focal lengths could be useful, but a tripod or other support might be necessary in order to prevent “camera shake” blurring the picture. These longer lenses enable you to home in on individual fishes or groups of fishes to take their image.
Exposure can normally be controlled manually. Therefore, it is possible to set a sufficiently small aperture to obtain a reasonable depth of field (i.e. more of the photo is in focus), which will compensate for focusing errors. Also, a fast enough shutter speed can be set to freeze motion. Both of these points are especially true if a fast film and/or flash is used, and are relevant in photographing moving objects such as fish.
Digital versions of both of the above types of cameras are now available, which store the images electronically instead of using traditional film. Other than that difference, the same points hold true with respect to their respective virtues. The pros and cons of the two systems are well documented elsewhere. Suffice to say that, in my opinion, image quality from modern digital cameras has now reached the point where they rival film cameras in most applications.
Taking the photographs
Having chosen the camera best suited to the sort of photographs you are aiming for, there are a number of fundamental considerations that, when taken into account, will help you obtain some pictures you will be pleased with:-
If you are taking a shot of the aquarium as opposed to specific fish, then using the tank’s own lighting is probably the best option. Owing to the fact that this lighting will be relatively dim, leading to longer shutter speeds being required, the use of a tripod or some other support for the camera will help avoid the picture being ruined by camera shake.
For taking shots of the fish themselves, then the use of flash is highly recommended, as this will permit the use of a short shutter speed, effectively freezing the motion of the fish. Many authorities say that the flash should not be mounted on the camera in order to achieve the most flattering light. This might be necessary for top quality shots being published in magazines etc. However, I have had very satisfactory results from having the flash on-camera.
One concern you might have is the effect of the flash on your fish. All I can say is that I have never noticed any effect whatsoever – the fish just carry on after the flash, without dashing for cover etc. Having said that, I refrain from taking photos of a tank that contains recently added fish, as these are likely to be very skittish anyway.
When taking a shot using natural lighting, do so when the room is in total darkness, other than the lights in the tank itself, otherwise you will end up with reflections of you, the camera, or your sofa showing up in the photograph!
When using flash, there are three rules to follow to avoid getting a bright reflection in the shot:-
1. Do not shoot the photo at right angles to the aquarium glass. I.e. set the camera up slightly to one side of where you expect the subject to be so that the photo is taken at an acute angle to the glass;
2. Do not get the rear corner of the tank in the shot;
3. Keep the aim of the camera level or slightly downwards, not up towards the surface of the water.
Framing the shot
When preparing a shot, take careful note of where unwanted items might be so that you can avoid including them in the background. E.g. you probably want to avoid the tank heater poking out from behind your prized Oscar.
Also, if you are taking a shot of a specific fish, take time to observe its behaviour and the area in which it moves, so that you can predict the best spot to get your photo without getting unwanted objects or other fish in the way.
Taking the shot
Having thought about all of the above, it is now a matter of mustering your patience. Settle down comfortably in the position that lets you frame the shot you have planned, keep the camera to your eye, and wait for your subject to come into view. Better still, to avoid getting cramp, set your camera up on a tripod focused on the target area, and then take the shot with a cable release when the subject moves into position.
Don’t be in too much of a rush – take a few shots to help ensure that at least one of them has the fish in just the right position, with fins nice and erect, and without another fish getting in the way. (Note that a digital camera with LCD preview screen is a boon to help you know when you have got the shot you are after).
In case you were wondering, the photographs on Steve’s Fishy Website have been taken using either a Nikon F301 SLR with 80-210 Tamron zoom lens and Hanimex flash, or with an Olympus Camedia CZ-900 digital camera (which has the equivalent of a 35-105mm lens if it were a 35mm film camera). The earlier shots were taken with the Nikon, but I have used the digital camera exclusively since I have had it, as it is so convenient. The gallery has examples of photos taken with both setups, including the wallpapers. I defy you to be able to tell the difference!