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Digital Camera Basics for the Aquarium Photographer
by Evan Bowers

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The Effect of Aperture

The aperture you use will affect how much of the image is in focus. This is also called Depth of Field (DOF). Depth of Field is the amount of the picture that will be in focus. If the DOF is bigger, then more of it will be in focus. For example, the picture of A. baenschi was taken with a fairly large aperture (f/3.5) and has a very narrow depth of field. By keeping the DOF shallow it creates a blurred background which can help the subject stand out. In comparison, the picture of the flamingos was taken with a smaller aperture (f/11). It has a very large DOF and so all of the flamingos are in focus.

Fin Fish Tail Marine biology Underwater

Bird Photograph Vertebrate White Greater flamingo

Once again, your camera will try to help you with this. The autofocus system will try to figure out what you are focusing on and set the aperture to provide the appropriate Depth of Field.

So that's it for the theory part. We have learned what aperture and shutter speed are and how they affect our pictures. Armed with this knowledge we can make some better decisions about what we need to purchase and some of our options for taking shots.

What to Buy

Camera Type

The first thing we need to do is select between a standard Point & Shoot (P&S) camera and a Digital SLR (DSLR). There are some pretty big trade-offs here in terms of cost and quality.

  • Point & Shoot Advantages
    Small and portable
    Less expensive

  • Digital SLR Advantages
    No noticable shutter lag
    Much faster autofocus
    Interchangeable lenses
    Lots of flashes and other accessories available
    Larger sensor size

We will talk more about sensor later but for now it is important to understand that sensor size makes a big difference in image quality. To put this in perspective, the average P&S camera has a sensor that is about 0.28 cm2. In comparison, DSLR sensors are between 3.32 cm2 and 8.64 cm2. This means that DSLR sensors are 10-30 times larger.

Fast autofocus and no shutter lag are also important for aquarium photography. Since many fish are constantly in motion being able to snap a picture and know that it will be taken when you press the button is key. Being able to use an off camera flash for overhead light is also very advantageous with an aquarium. In the end, if you are serious about getting high quality pictures of your fish you will want to have a DSLR.

Due to the overwhelming advantages of DSLR for aquatic photography, we will be focusing on DSLR's for the remainder of the article. However, much of the information is also applicable to P&S cameras.


The next thing we need to decide when making a digital SLR purchase is the brand we will be using. If you are not familiar with SLR's you are probably wondering why that would be the next thing to consider. The answer is to that question is that when you are buying a SLR you are not just buying a camera. You are buying into a system. Each brand of camera has its own proprietary set of accessories that they work with. Over time you will want lenses and other accessories such as flashes. These accessories will only work with a particular brand so once you choose a brand you will probably not want to switch even if you get a new camera down the road. For this reason I always recommend that you select a prominent brand with lots of available accessories. There is an active and vibrant used market for equipment from the larger brands as well so you will have a lot more options when buying or selling down the road.

The Body

The next thing you will have to decide is the camera body. The camera body is by far the most complicated thing you will purchase and can also be the most confusing as there are a lot of options. As of the time of this writing the big two alone have 18 different digital SLR's in the market. There are a lot of things to consider and there are entire articles dedicated to this subject alone. I am only going to cover a few of the most important things to consider.

  • Sensor size

    As we discussed previously, the sensor is the equivalent of film in a digital camera so the size of the sensor can have a big impact. A full frame sensor is one in which the sensor is the same size as 35mm film. Full frame sensors can capture more detail and generally have less noise than smaller sensors. Unfortunately, cameras with full frame sensors are very expensive. Because of this, most of the SLR's you will see have smaller sensors.

    Smaller sensors in DSLR's have an interesting effect. That is that they reduce the effective view of the camera based on their size. The amount that they reduce the view by is commonly referred to as the crop factor. Most small sensors SLR's have a crop factor between 1.5x and 2x. For example, if a camera has a crop factor of 1.5 and we are using a 100mm lens then the view through that lens will be the equivalent of 150mm. This does not have a huge impact on fish pictures but can make wide angle shots harder to achieve. One last thing on sensor sizes. The crop factor also increases depth of field. In practice, this will make the camera a little easier to use for the less experienced.


    Each camera uses a different auto focus system. Some are better than others. It is worth investigating and reading reviews on the accuracy of the auto-focus system when buying a camera body. It does not matter how sharp you lens is if you fail to focus on the subject.

    Feel and controls

    The size, weight and general feel of the camera will be very different from camera to camera. Before you make any purchase I would recommend getting a hold of some of the cameras you are considering and getting a feel for how they handle. The ease of use and ability to directly access important controls are things you should check on.


    The question of whether or not the number of megapixels matter is an often debated topic. The number of megapixels in the camera will define how much resolution the image has. The earliest mass produced digital SLR's were around 3 megapixels. Today, high end SLR's are packing well over 20 megapixels. That's a huge difference but does it matter? Unless you make poster size prints or crop tiny things out of an image it will not matter much. The quality and size of the sensor is far more important than how many megapixels it has.

All that being said, if you are new to digital SLR's my most important piece of advice when shopping for a camera body is don't overbuy. Buy the least expensive body that has the features you really need. If you have extra cach to spend it is better used on lenses and accessories such as flash then on the camera body. Technology changes fast and most manufacturers are replacing the entry-level and mid-level models on a 12-18 month cycle meaning that your camera body will shortly be obsolete. Lenses, on the other hand, have much longer product lifecycles.

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