Digital Focus: Photograph an Aquarium

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Feature: Photograph an Aquarium

My wife maintains a gorgeous 90-gallon saltwater aquarium in our living room. I admit it: My wife does all the work. In exchange, since I'm the family photographer, she expects me to photograph the fish so she can add them to her aquarium photo album and share them with friends.

Of course, you don't have to have your own aquarium to want to photograph underwater critters: There are plenty of sharks, jellies, angels, and crabs at the public aquarium begging for your attention as well. So this week, let's see what it takes to get good pictures of indoor aquatic life, whether they reside in a home or public aquarium.

Crank up the ISO

To take good interior shots of an aquarium, you will probably need to push the camera's ISO to its limits. While you ordinarily want to use your camera at its lowest ISO setting, using a setting of 400 or higher is a good idea in this situation because it helps you freeze the action. (When you don't freeze the action, you end up with a blur.) The ISO control makes the camera more sensitive to light and therefore enables you to use a faster shutter speed.

However, high ISO levels also add some digital noise to the picture--random bits of color that don't really belong. The tradeoff is definitely worth it when you're shooting in low-light conditions. Remember, though, to return your camera to its lowest ISO setting when you're done with the fish.

This probably goes without saying, but remember to turn off your camera's automatic flash. If the flash fires, the light will reflect off the aquarium's glass and obliterate the detail in your picture. With aquarium photography, flash is a definite no-no!

Time of Day

Is there a best time of day for aquarium photography? You bet. Any ambient light in the room is a problem, since it can interact with the glass of the tank and create unwanted reflections in your picture. So the best time to shoot is in the evening, before the tank lights go off. If you can, turn off the room lights so the only illumination is coming from inside the tank itself.

Catching Fish on Film

There are two kinds of shots you can typically take: whole-tank photos, which are portraits of the entire aquarium, and close-ups of specific fish.

In my experience, most fish lovers want to capture close-ups of their favorite critters. The best single piece of advice I can give anyone who wants to capture a fish on film--at home or at a public aquarium--is to mount your camera on a tripod. Despite the seemingly bright lights in a tank, it's actually pretty dark in there, a mere fraction of the brightness outdoors in daylight. Putting the camera on a tripod helps stabilize it and reduces the jitters that will come from using a slower shutter speed.

Don't clamp the tripod down, though. Leave the head of the tripod loose, so you can pan around the tank freely. When a fish swims by, pan the camera to track the fish and click the shutter release. With a little practice, you can get a sharp image of the fish with a motion-blurred background, like this shot of Krusty (our clown fish).

Set the camera and tripod up fairly close to the tank and turn on the camera's macro mode. Usually identified by a little picture of a tulip, macro mode allows your camera to focus on subjects that are very close to the lens, usually within a foot. Experiment to see how close you need to get to the glass for the camera's focusing system to lock onto the fish. You might have to get within a few inches of the glass, or set up as much as a foot away. At a public aquarium, where the tanks are bigger and the fish are likely to be further away, you can position the camera right at the glass without worry of being too close. And since you can't control the room lights at a public aquarium, getting that close helps eliminate reflections from the surface of the tank.

Try to frame your fish so that you're shooting slightly down toward it--the fish should be lower than the camera. This way, the overhead aquarium lights will reflect off the fish and toward the camera. That makes the best use of light and will give you the fastest shutter speed and best overall color.

Once you find the right zone to position your tripod, get comfortable and, with the camera set to a moderate zoom level, start tracking fish. As one passes in front of your camera or against a contrasting set of colors, gently press the shutter release--and continue moving the camera on the tripod to try to track the fish through the short exposure. Sometimes the fish will pause and allow you to take a shot in a relatively low-lit area that you wouldn't ordinarily be able to get. For instance, I got a nice shot of Krusty against an attractive contrast of colors.

To photograph the entire tank at once, use most of the preceding advice. Put the camera on a tripod, use a high ISO, and turn off the flash. Leave the room lights off, and frame the tank in the viewfinder. To avoid shaking the camera during the exposure, though, use the camera's self-timer mode. After you activate it, back away from the camera so you don't jostle it while the picture is taken.

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