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Digital Camera Basics for the Aquarium Photographer
by Evan Bowers

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Back in the days of film cameras we all bought film. Film came with different ratings. ISO 100 film gave us a high quality film when we had lots of light and with ISO 800 film we could shoot well in low light but at the cost of a picture with some grain. With digital cameras it works exactly the same way except that rather than having to buy different kinds of film we can just adjust the ISO setting in the camera. Unfortunately, the trade-offs are also still the same as they were with film. Increasing the ISO setting increases the amount of visible grain in the image. Except in the digital world it is called noise instead of grain.

In general, you want to set you ISO value as low as you can and still get a good picture. If you are using flash then it will usually make sense to set the ISO to 100 as this will give you the best picture quality. If you are trying to take pictures without the aid of flash, your mileage will vary depending on your camera. Test out different ISO settings and see where the noise gets too noticeable to use. Typically this will be in the 400+ range for DSLR's but the technology is getting better all the time.

With point and shoot cameras ISO noise is a much bigger issue because of the smaller sensors in these cameras. You will almost always want to shoot with the lowest ISO possible to reduce digital noise. In most of these cameras anything over 200 will demonstrate visible noise. You are much better served to set the ISO setting by hand in your camera and use flash when doing aquarium photography.

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The autofocus engines on DLSR's work by sampling a number of points and setting focus appropriately. Most low to mid-end cameras have 7-9 different points. Some higher end camera bodies have as many as 45 points. However, when we are doing aquarium photography these points can sometimes get in our way. For example, how many times have you tried to get a great shot of a fish and instead ended up with an out-of-focus fish and an in-focus rock or plant. Worse yet, you get a great shot of some little spots on the glass.

One way to deal with this is to not use all the autofocus points but instead use just one of them. Most DSLR's will allow setting a single point to autofocus with. The easiest thing to use is the one in the center but you can use another one instead if you prefer.

Image Quality

Almost all DSLR's have a plethora of image quality options. They basically break down into a few key choices, various quality JPEG, RAW or sRAW. JPEG is a standard file format readable on any computer. JPEGs are processed by the camera's internal processor and have effects such as sharpening and other post processing applied. With JPEG output the camera does its best to process the image for you and make it look as good as possible.

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A RAW image is a manufacturer specific file format that has all the data possible from the sensor. Typically, the camera does very little post-processing to RAW files. RAW files need to be converted before you can use them on your computer. The advantage that RAW files have is they contain more information which opens up more options during digital editing. sRAW is just a smaller RAW format. In the long run you will probably want to shoot RAW but to start out I would recommend using the highest quality JPEG your camera has available.

Wrapping it Up

Well, that is it for this article. Hopefully this article has helped provide some basics on how cameras work and how to set them up for your aquarium shots. With that, I will leave you with one last piece of advice. Take pictures, lots of pictures. Experience is the best teacher and digital pictures don't really cost anything. Although we did not talk about photo software, most photo editing software will show you the settings you used when you took your picture. Looking at this information when you look at both your good and bad pictures will give you a good idea of what works and what doesn't.
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