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Digital Camera Basics for the Aquarium Photographer
by Evan Bowers

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For aquarium photography you only need one lens. That is a good quality prime macro lens. A prime lens is a lens which has a fixed focal length. In other words, not a zoom lens. A macro lens is one which is specialized for taking close up shots of small objects. On a crop-body I would recommend a lens size of 60mm for taking pictures of normal sized fish. On a full frame something in the neighborhood of 100mm would be more appropriate. That being said I have used my 100mm lens on my crop-body quite often. There have only been a few times when I have not been able to get my subject in frame.

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You may be thinking that you can get the best of both worlds by getting a zoom lens with a macro feature. Unfortunately, this is not really the case. Not only will the dedicated macro lenses be sharper and faster than the similarly priced zooms but the magnification you can get will be far greater. This means less cropping and higher quality images. For comparison, both of the big two manufacturers make an 18-55mm zoom lens and a 60mm macro. These lenses have similar specs. The 18-55 zoom lenses have a maximum magnification of 1:3. The dedicated macro lenses have a maximum magnification of 1:1 which means you will be able to get much closer. Moreover, the 60mm macro lenses are materially sharper, focus faster and more accurately, don't suffer from barrel distortion, are much faster and produce better bokeh.

None of this is to say that you cannot take good aquarium pictures with a zoom lens. If you already have one or one came with your camera then by all means start out be using it. One last thing, remember to pick a good UV filter to protect you lens. These filters don't cost much and they will really help protect your lens from dirt and scratches.


For aquarium photography you will want overhead light if you can get it. Not only will you reduce reflections off the scales from front flash but overhead light is much more natural looking. The easiest way to get a lot of overhead light is with an off-camera flash. An off-camera flash is simply a flash unit which is connected to your camera with an off-camera shoe. An off-camera shoe is just a cable that connects to your flash allowing you to move it away from your camera. Another option is to use a wireless transmitter but those tend to be more expensive. I would also recommend the use of a diffuser which is small translucent cover that goes over your flash. It helps make the light less harsh.


Other than that you will also need a memory card and maybe a spare battery. Although I would mention that personally I almost never use my spare battery. They battery in most SLR's lasts a long time because you do not use the LCD much on a SLR.

Seems Expensive

Well, you can certainly spend thousands of dollars if you are so inclined. Everything I mentioned above would cost at least $1,300. There are a couple of things to keep in mind though. The first thing is that you don't have to buy it all at once. Personally, I have accumulated all the camera equipment I use today over the course of the many years. The second is that you can get an entry-level DSLR kit & memory card for around $500. This is a great way to get started and will be a significant upgrade over the average point and shoot camera.

Setting up your camera

OK, so you just got home with you new camera. It is out of the box assembled and ready to go and you are wondering what to do next. Let me help you. On the top of the camera there will be a round mode dial. One of the settings will either be a green box or say "Auto". Just switch it over to that mode and start taking pictures. Take some pictures of the family, the house, the yard and even the cat. Once you are done with your session and you have downloaded the pictures to your computer you need to do one very important thing..


Seriously, you have just spent a lot of money on a specialized piece of equipment to make your photography better. What is the point in shooting in a mode where you have absolutely no control over the outcome of the pictures? I know there are a lot of settings in there and it can be a little intimidating at first but there are really only a few settings you really need to understand when you are first starting. In this section I will describe what I feel are the most important settings and how you should set them.

The Mode Dial

Camera accessory Automotive wheel system Font Auto part Circle

Somewhere on the top of you SLR there will be a mode dial. What exactly is on it will depend on the specific camera you have. All cameras will have an automatic mode that we now know shouldn't be used. Many cameras will have a group of modes denoted by pictures. Each manufacturer calls these different things but essentially they are fully automatic modes tailored to a specific purpose. For example, some are setup for macro work, night photography, portraits, etc. These all function very similar to automatic but change some key settings to things the camera feels are more appropriate. For example selecting the landscape option will use a very small aperture to ensure a large Depth of Field.

With that out of the way there are a few modes that SLR's will have in common. These are the ones we will focus on and really the only ones you will need to know.


Program mode is denoted by a "P" on the mode dial. This mode is very similar to the fully automatic mode because the camera will automatically set both the aperture and shutter speed based on available light. The difference between this and the automatic mode is that in program mode you can set some of the other settings such as ISO, metering and auto-focus points which will be explained below. This is where you should start. This mode allows you to set your camera up before you start and then to shoot your pictures without worrying about specific settings while shooting.

Shutter Priority

Depending on the manufacturer shutter priority will be denoted with either an "S" or a "Tv" on the mode dial. In shutter priority, you set the shutter speed and the camera will automatically choose the aperture. Shutter priority can be useful when you are shooting fish in motion without flash. If there is enough light you can set a higher shutter speed to ensure that even a fast moving fish will not be blurry.

Aperture Priority

Depending on the manufacturer aperture priority will be denoted with either an "A" or an "Av" on the mode dial. Aperture priority means that you can set the aperture and the camera will set the appropriate shutter speed. This is very useful as it allows you to control Depth of Field as you are shooting. When doing aquarium photography this is method I would recommend shooting at once you are more comfortable with you camera. When you first start out it might be a little too much to think about.


Manual mode is denoted by a "M" on the mode dial. Manual mode is just what it sounds like, entirely manual. You set the shutter speed and the aperture manually. I don't use this much in aquarium photography because my fish move around so much it is hard to set the correct settings in advance. If you have consistent lighting across your tank or if you can wait for the fish to come to the right area then manual mode is a great option.

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