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Aquarium Fish Photography

Learn how to photograph aquarium fish.

By Michael F. Havelin

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How To Do It
Professional photographers (including myself) are continually shooting "tests." We need to determine how our equipment is working, what the best film is for the job and whether the lighting is correct. For the same reasons, you will want to test your setup, look at the photos and then make some intelligent decisions. As a result of this process, the pictures from the second effort will look better, and by the third or fourth time you will be producing professional-quality photos. I recommend that you use color transparency film for your tests regardless of the film you ultimately plan to use. The reason for this is that slides provide an accurate record of what is happening. If you shoot film that is for prints, you are introducing a number of uncontrollable variables into the process.

A film lab that makes prints from negatives will do some "correction" of exposure errors so that the final prints will be within an "acceptable" range. That may be fine for your ultimate photographic purposes, but it won't help you refine techniques that will eventually give you the highest quality results. It will be harder for you to learn from your mistakes because the prints will not be accurate representations. Slides will show you the truth of your efforts, giving you the opportunity to learn and improve. With slides, your exposure is either right or wrong, and the lab cannot adjust individual slides to make them better.

Keep notes! Record the distances and angles of your lights and the f-stops that you shot at. Try different f-stops for the same flash setup by bracketing your exposures. After the first few rolls, the notes will tell you what to expect, what works and what doesn't, and you'll be able to shoot less film more effectively. That's exactly how the pros would approach the same situation.

Above all, don't be miserly with your film. If you are going through all the trouble to try this, shoot a lot of pictures. You can't get it right on the first shot, so when you commit to a photo session, plan on shooting at least an entire roll of 24 or 36 exposures. If you're like me, you'll shoot an initial roll to test the setup and then come back to shoot a few more rolls after seeing the first results.

Supplementary Lighting
Setting your lights can be tricky, but it's really the key to getting good pictures. Why do you need to supplement the lighting in the tank? There are several reasons.

The aquarium light may be the wrong color temperature for the film you are using. Photographic lighting is matched to color films. You will get better results by using a finer grain film. These films are termed as "slower" because they require more light to make an image. This additional light must come from somewhere, which is where your lighting setup (usually flash units) comes in.

I highly recommend that you get the flash unit off of and away from the camera for this type of photography. Because of the reflection problems created when shooting through glass, the light needs to enter the tank from the side, from above or at an angle to the camera's lens. The photographer's technical rule here is "the angle of incidence equals the angle of reflectance." In other words, light will reflect off the glass at the same angle that it hits the glass.

If this seems too technical, simply avoid aiming the flash directly at the aquarium with the flash mounted on the camera. The ideal setup is lights mounted on stands. Experiment with combinations to find the lighting configuration that gives you the results you want.

You are ahead of the game if you have a light meter that will measure flash exposures. If you don't have such a meter, you will have to test for the appropriate f-stop. Set your lights and then expose the first frame at f/22, another at f/16.5, f/16 and so on, continuing through the f-stops in ½-stop increments. Write it all down. When the slides come back from the lab, check them against your notes and you will easily see which f-stop was correct for using the flash at that measured distance and angle.

As with any hobby, it takes time to acquire good skills. Specialized photography (such as aquarium photography) is going to require practice before you get the hang of it. In the end, however, you will be amazed at what you can do.

Testing For Exposure Factor With Extension Tubes Or Bellows
When shooting with extension tubes or bellows, you must adjust for the additional light needed. If you don't have a light meter and don't feel confident about figuring out the extension factor mathematically, you can easily test for the exposure factor.

Shine an incandescent light on a piece of grey cardboard (or any flat, one-color surface). Be sure the surface is evenly lighted. With your camera on a tripod facing this surface, look through the viewfinder and see what the internal meter says is the "correct" exposure. Write that information down.

Without moving the camera, card or light, add the extension tube or bellows. Look through the camera again and check the meter. Adjust the f-stop on the lens until the camera's meter again indicates the correct exposure.

The difference between the two readings is the exposure factor for that lens with that amount of extension. It might be different for other lenses, so do additional tests. This entire procedure will take five minutes or less and can save you lots of money in film and processing.

General Photographic Considerations
A photograph includes a background as well as the main subject. Watch backgrounds carefully and compose pictures for the entire frame.

Use depth-of-field preview button if the camera or lens has one.

Shoot vertical compositions as well as horizontal. Some species are better suited to vertical proportions.

Leave some blank space around subject to allow for cropping the photo to dimensions for prints or so that titles can be added later when putting together a slide show of your work.

Equipment — The Bare Minimum
35mm single lens reflex camera body.

A lens that will focus close enough to do the job — a macro lens made for your camera or supplementary close-up lenses.

Tripod that is sturdy and adjustable.

A sheet of glass almost as wide as the front glass of the tank (to limit movement of the fish). This can be the front or backpane salvaged from a broken aquarium.

Flash unit that can be used away from the camera, either a through-the-lens unit on a long cord or manual flash with a sync cord. Use a light stand or a second tripod to hold the flash in position.

Reflection blocker (home-made). A 1-foot square piece of black cardboard with a hole cut in the center for the lens to see through works well and can be attached to the lens hood with tape or cut to fit a filter holder.

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