Saltwater fish photography and aquarium photography, in general, can often be more difficult than it first appears. The aquarium photographer has to contend with the effects of water refraction and glass reflections, not to mention dealing with low lighting conditions.
As you might imagine, getting that elusive perfect shot of your reef tank is extremely more difficult than getting a perfect photograph of your family dog.
Even though Rover probably won’t cooperate and pose for you, at least you will have better lighting conditions, whether you shoot indoors or out in the back yard.
Getting your fish to pose is just as difficult, but even more of a problem is overcoming the hurdles of low light, reflection, and refraction. You can compensate with slower shutter speeds, wider apertures, and faster ISO settings, but each of these has to be done in accordance with the Exposure Triangle. (See the sidebar.)
But there is no reason it has to be that difficult. Using these tips, you can make the prospect of taking great fish tank pictures a lot easier.
Saltwater Fish Photography Techniques
Clean the Glass
Cleaning the glass of the tank should be the first step in saltwater fish photography, but it is often overlooked. As a result, skipping this one step is possibly responsible for more ruined photos than any other issue. There are so many OTHER obstacles to overcome, why make it even more difficult?
You can easily clean the glass of your tank in just a few minutes, resulting in much better pictures.
I like to clean the glass of my reef tank with microfiber cloth towels the day before I shoot pictures. This allows me to remove any smudges or algae on the glass which will result in more clarity of the pictures.
The reason I clean the tank the day before the shoot is to allow the tank inhabitants time to relax and get back to life as normal. It also allows any particulate matter to settle out of the water column.
Turn Off the Pumps
Before I set up my camera and begin shooting, I turn off the aquarium pumps. The idea is to stop water movement which causes corals to sway. Any movement while shooting with slow shutter speeds will cause blurriness, and this helps prevent that problem.
Of course, once the photo shoot is done, don’t forget to start the pumps up again.
Use a Digital Camera
When I first started my photography hobby, I shot 35 mm film. I wasted rolls and rolls of film in my quest of getting that one perfect shot. Those days are long gone now, and my digital camera allows me to focus on taking pictures without worrying about wasting money on film.
If I take a bad shot, it is easily deleted. This frees me up to focus on getting the best shot possible. No matter how many pictures it takes, each one is a learning experience that takes me closer to achieving perfect composure, exposure, and clarity.
Use a Tripod with a Remote Shutter Release
Tripods are commonly used for stationary subjects, such as landscape photography, or food photography. But they can be used to great effect in saltwater fish photography. Low light levels require slow shutter speeds, which increase the possibility of blurred exposures due to camera shake. The tripod stabilizes your camera, and the remote shutter release button will eliminate camera shake.
One technique I use is to loosen the clamps on the tripod, which allows me to move the camera freely on a horizontal and vertical axis, but the clamps are tight enough that the camera stays in position once I stop moving it.
Acquaint Your Fish with the Camera
Set your tripod up in front of the tank with your camera mounted on it. Then leave it there. Yep, just leave it. For as long as possible. Several days at a minimum.
This will get your fish accustomed to the presence of the camera, and when you begin moving it around and making weird noises with it, they will be more comfortable.
Saltwater Fish Photography Lighting Techniques
Lighting is hugely important in saltwater fish photography. This is one of the reasons why I recommend using a spotlight over the tank. This works as well as a flash, but without the flash’s glare or reflections. You can adjust the spotlight to make sure your subject is receiving the light necessary to get a good exposure. This means you can use a faster shutter speed or smaller aperture setting and still get perfect clarity.
Another benefit of using a spotlight over the tank is your fish will look natural. After all, in nature, the sunlight always comes from above the fish.
Also, you need to increase the lighting inside the aquarium to its brightest setting. This will eliminate unwanted shadows and it also gives your picture a better 3-D characteristic. You can also use side lighting to diffuse shadows – something I like to do on occasion.
These are just a few tips to get you started towards mastering saltwater fish photography. There are many articles available online which will give you all the detail you need to deal with the special obstacles you encounter in this specialized photography field. Search for them. Read them. Practice. And enjoy our hobby!
One good source of information is Reef Tank Photography Tips : A Quick Guide by Mathew Gore.