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Techniques for Aquarium Photography
by Vinny Kutty

This is obviously the most subjective of all the topics covered here, but most photographers develop their techniques with time and experience and there is always some logic behind it.

Assuming you have read the other installments on aquarium photography on this site, you know what equipment and film I use. You also know my lighting methods. One of the most important prerequisites for excelling in this field is patience. Some would consider me patient but I don t give myself that credit. There are moments when I am patient and am willing to wait many hours for that one special shot. There are also moments when I will not sit down to shoot because I am not in a patient mood even if the fish are spawning and displaying their best colors.

Being a bit critical, I also will not shoot if many other requirements are not met. I am going to outline some of these conditions below:

Water the water in the tank may appear clean and clear to the human eye but the film will give you an unbiased opinion. I always do a large water change the day before the shoot. This will remove the tannins that may have leached from the driftwood and discoloring metabolites from fish waste. If you skip this step, your pictures may appear yellow.

The depth and width of a tank are very important if you are planning on shooting a very large or deep tank. Light does not travel very far in water and a tank that is deeper than 2 feet may require twice as much light as a tank that is only a foot deep. It becomes even more critical to do water changes before you shoot large tanks. Most fish love water changes and will respond by brightening their colors and increasing their appetite.

Substrate I always use s gravel vacuum to thoroughly vacuum the substrate before a shoot. This prevents unsightly debris from floating into the field of view. It may not seem like much but once a small piece of debris has been caught by three sources of light, it appears like a shiny, white speck. At worst, it can look like your fish have Ick.

From an aesthetic point of view, avoid having gravel as a background. This occurs from aiming down at the fish. You will be surprised to find that you have a much better shot of the fish if you are at eye level to it. Having gravel as the primary background appears monotonous and shows lack of effort. Of course, if you are shooting catfish, this may be inevitable but be certain to choose attractive, natural-colored gravel of varying sizes and shapes to add to the natural look of the substrate.

Glass sides the back and the two sides of my photo tank are spray-painted black to avoid seeing wires and other equipment. In addition, some fish, especially cichlids, seem to feel more comfortable and secure with the dark sides. The front glass of the tank needs to be thoroughly cleaned on the inside and out before the shoot. The inside glass needs to be cleaned to remove any spot or slime algae use an aquarium glass-cleaning scrubber. The outside of the front glass needs to be thoroughly cleaned. I use a non-toxic, non-abrasive cleaner. Even if it looks clean, it is a good idea to wipe it down with a moist towel. The tiny dust particles on the surface of the glass cannot be easily seen. These particles will become bright, glimmering spots when the two or three flashes hit them.

It is hard to keep glass and acrylic from scratching but if it does get scratched, it is best to wait until the fish swims away from the scratch or, I suggest you use another tank.

The fish itself make sure that you are photographing a healthy, attractive subject with flattering fins. I've photographed a few specimens, only to discover later when looking through a loupe that they had Ick! Occasionally, I may buy a fish from a pet store that I feel has to be photographed right away. Unfortunately, these fish usually display many signs of stress and it shows on film. The best photo subjects are fish you have had in your tanks for a while.

Background This is one of the most important aesthetic considerations. The backgrounds of most good fish photographs contain natural elements. Live plants, rocks, driftwood and gravel are the best backgrounds. Make sure you conceal any electric cords or air tubing away from sight. You may want to paint the back a flat black or dark brown or you can always buy a black piece of paper from an art store and use it to conceal unsightly gadgetry. PVC tubes, filtration equipment, aquarium corner seams and heaters will ruin a great picture. Make sure you have nothing artificial in the background of the fish.

This is why I use photo tanks they are easy to control and arrange aesthetically.

Photo tanks a photo tank is a small tank designed to show off a fish with none of the unsightly aquarium hardware. I set up my photo tank differently for each fish, depending on its natural habitat and allow room for the fish to swim. They are usually 10 or 20-gallon tanks. I decorate these tanks as naturally as I possibly can, hiding anything I don t want in the photo by using rocks and plants. I make sure that each photo tank design has a few sweet spots in it. A sweet spot is a place in a tank where I want the fish to swim or stay. Once the fish is at the sweet spots, I focus and click, being assured of an attractive and problem-free background. Plants, rocks and driftwood do not disturb the viewer like PVC tubes, heaters and air tubing.

All my photo tanks have undergravel filtration, not to provide biological filtration, but to help pull any floating debris into the substrate. It usually takes an hour or two after the substrate has been disturbed before the water is clear. By this time, the fish begins to feel at ease and begins to swim into the sweet spots with increasing frequency. You can t help but have a high degree of success if you use a photo tank. I hide the UGF stems with rocks and plants. Fish often need to be left alone in a photo tank for a few hours or even a few days before they become comfortable in there. Time is a price to pay if you have a photo tank. Cichlids, however, do not lend themselves to being photographed in photo tanks. Cichlids often hide and display fright pattern in a tank with no other fishes. Therefore, I often shoot cichlids in their regular, maintenance tanks. Very few of the cichlids on my web site were shot in a photo tank, on the other hand, most other small aquarium fishes, do well in photo tanks.

Invest time and effort into making the photo tank look attractive. A quickly set up photo tank with freshly purchased plants often looks sloppy because the plants have not had the time to reorient themselves vertically to the new source of light. I rarely shoot on the same day as I set up my photo tank. This allows the plants to straighten and perk up. Bunch plants purchased from stores are often unhappy looking and need some time before they are attractive. Attention to detail is very important if you want a good photograph. The effort you put into it shows with every shot.

I control these conditions before I sit down to shoot. Photography is a fine blend of art and science. In my opinion, you need more science than art for fish photography. This suits me just fine because I don t consider myself artistically gifted. If you separate the art from the science, you find that the science portion is very controllable. This field is something anyone willing to invest the time and money in can do very well. While artistic fish photography is rare, some European masters like Arend van den Nieuwenhuizen produce images that are technically and artistically exceptional. Most hobbyists are interested in seeing what a fish looks like at its best; for that, you don't require much artistic skill.

Do you use your camera in manual or automatic? This is a question that I hear very often from beginning fish photographers. If you are not comfortable using your camera, you may be tempted to use it in the automatic mode. If you have TTL (through the lens) metering and have a dedicated flash, this may work well. However, if you decide to add additional light for removing shadows and possibly a third flash or AC slave strobe for increasing depth of field, it is not going to be possible to use the automatic mode. Your camera cannot account for the additional light generated by the separate strobe. Here, you will have to use the manual mode. It is not difficult. Get a pencil and a pad of paper. Shoot a whole test roll using slide film on a fish or even the plants in the tank. Record your camera setting for all the exposures.

If you are using 100-speed film and one camera-mounted flash, start at f/8 and 1/125th second. Then change to f/11. Then try f/16. Assuming you maintain a constant 1/125th second shutter speed, you will be able to tell the difference between the three shots. The f/8 may be too bright (overexposed) and the f/11 may be just right and the f/16 underexposed. Be certain not to use print film to do this the processor will compensate for your errors and you will not be able to tell the difference easily. You can ask your developer to number your slides when you have this first experimental roll developed, this will help you identify your mistakes. Similarly if you are using an additional strobe or flash, you could use f/11, f/16 or f/22 as your aperture settings. This experiment will tell you what your aperture should be assuming a constant of ASA 100 and a shutter speed of 1/125th second.

I suggest you buy the paperback book 35mm Photography by Craig Alesse, available at any bookstore, if you don't understand the relationship between film speed, aperture and shutter speed in regards to exposure. Thoroughly understanding this is crucial if you are venturing into manual photography.

Why do I always get a flash reflection on my photos? This frequent question has an answer. Assuming you are always aiming the flash at an angle away from your camera, this is caused by two causes. First, you may be using a compact or instamatic camera equipped with a small lens. Second, you are using a wide-angle lens like a 28mm or a 35mm or even a 50mm lens. The human eye sees the world similar to a 50mm lens. A 28mm lens sees a wider angle than the human eye. A fish-eye lens sees much more than 180 degrees. A 100mm lens sees only about 30 degrees in front of you and a 400mm lens sees a narrow 5 degrees in front. The longer the focal length, the narrower the camera s field of vision. So, using a 100mm macro lens will significantly reduce your chances of getting a flash reflected on the film. Having said that, I still have to throw out about 5 or 6 from each roll due to this problem.

To avoid other reflections, I shoot in a dimly lit room, wearing dark clothes and a dark pair of gloves. Remove shiny objects from the area. If you wish, you can hang a dark cloth behind you and all around the tank to avoid additional reflections.

Do I need a Tripod? A tripod helps if you are going to be in front of the tank or many hours; the camera and lens can get heavy after a while. Since this is flash photography, the tripod is not meant to stabilize or steady the camera, but rather give your arms a break. Before you buy a tripod, make sure it has the ability to rotate and point the camera at all angles in the front. It is not necessary to purchase a heavy tripod like the ones used in outdoor photography, a light and cheap one will suffice.

What shutter speed should I choose? Your shutter speed will be limited by the flash sync if you use a flash. I would shoot at the maximum allowable speed during flash photography. In my case, it is 1/125th second. Since you are going to have a flash, the light burst will be fast enough to freeze any movement, regardless of the shutter speed. Still, the only thing I would use to control the exposure is the aperture.

Getting the fish to pose is another challenge. You simply must have patience. Any other quick tricks become apparent. Some photographers add tranquilizers to the water to slow the fish. Perhaps they can't tell the difference but I can. Tranquilized and handled fish, especially cichlids, often have their fright patterns on and this can ruin the picture, unless you want to capture the fright patterns. John O'Malley, a fellow photographer for Aquarium Fish Magazine once told me that he sometimes leaves his cichlids in his photo tank for a couple of days to acclimatize them to the surrounding. A comfortable and acclimatized cichlid is a wonderfully photogenic animal and it is very easy to photograph.

Another photography technique is to have a tank divided by a clean sheet of glass into two, the bare front where the fish is kept and the back where there are plants and decorations. The front section is narrow and only allows a couple of inches for swimming. This is an unacceptable method for cichlids. They look terrified and it shows. Sometimes cichlids are squeezed and injured by this technique. On the other hand, this technique works very well for killifish, small tetras and some Anabantids, where the fish are not as concerned about their surroundings as cichlids. These small fish are not as likely to be crushed.

Another technique I ve seen used to avoid reflections is to put the lens right up against the front glass of the tank. This requires a lens with a very small focus distance and it is very difficult to get good shots. Try it and see what I mean - you'll just end up scratching the glass with your lens.

While there are no hard and fast rules, the techniques you settle with will always be your favorite. Scrutinize the images of some of the best fish photographers like Aaron Norman, John O'Malley, Harry Grier (my mentor), and Scott Michael of North America and Arend van den Nieuwenhuizen, Burkhard Kahl, H.J. Richter, Dieter Bork, Max Gibbs and many others from Europe. Look for shadows and observe their tank background. Shadows can reveal a lot about lighting techniques. Some rely on top lighting (Harry Grier), some occasionally on plastic plants (Aaron Norman), some on medium-format films (H.J. Richter) and almost all of them use photo tanks, one to three sources of light, slide film, SLR cameras, clean tanks, healthy fish and attractive backgrounds. This being such a subjective matter, I can find something I would do differently with most of their photographs...except may be for A.V.D. Nieuwenhuizen's - I think he is the ultimate fish photographer.

I have taken many slides of tetras and other small fish that I am happy with but none of them are what I consider excellent or great. It is easy to rise above the average in fish photography by following some of the techniques described above but I find it is extremely hard to make the jump from my level to the levels at which the individuals mentioned above, especially the Europeans operate.
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