Photographers in public aquariums encounter a myriad of challenges; fish in constant motion, darkness, dirty glass walls, water which washes out even the brightest colors, and general bans on tripods, monopods and flash use.
Here's my public aquarium photography tips to assist in capturing great images from your visit:
- Typically, kids outnumber adults visiting aquariums. Within a half-hour of opening, aquariums' tank walls are often covered with small oily fingerprints. They can affect image sharpness. I bring a small bottle of Purosol Optical Lens Cleaner, and a second lens cloth to clean the aquarium's tank walls through which I'll be shooting. Whatever cleaner you use, make sure it won't harm the acrylic walls used by some aquariums.
- Try to avoid the busy times at the aquarium, when they're packed with visitors, making photography difficult.
- Wide angle lenses, or zoom lenses set to wide angle focal lengths, generally work best for most aquarium photography, for both fish through the glass, and images of visitors with the tanks in the background. Their wide angle gives photographers better framing opportunities for sea-life in motion.
- With aquariums' tanks' low light, faster lenses (larger apertures) are better. Vibration reduction or optical stabilization can be beneficial. Internal focusing is best, so the front of the lens doesn't move in an out, as you press it against the tank wall to steady the camera and avoid reflections.
- For in the tank sea-life photos, get your lens close to the tank walls, with the fish as close to you as possible. I put my lens, actually my lens hood, directly on the aquarium tank wall to get the best possible shot. Your lens hood is essential to:
- Block out general aquarium lighting which degrades images.
- Prevent damage to the front end of your lens.
- To prevent the lens from scratching the tank wall.
I suggest the use of a rubber lens hood to prevent scratching the walls of the aquarium tank, and create a good light seal between the lens and the tank wall, preventing general aquarium lighting from degrading your photographs.
- Set your ISO to the lowest setting which will give you a fast enough shutter speed to freeze sea-life motion in the image, yet minimize noise to the extent possible. I've found the general the minimum shutter speed needed for any fish in motion is 1/125, but higher is better. I usually start at an ISO of 800, and adjust it as needed.
- Use auto-white balance at aquariums, to handle their mixed light sources and when they use colored lights in the tanks. You could you custom white balances, but the effort to set it for multiple locations is time consuming.
- Shoot in RAW if possible, for the most latitude. If you can't or don't want to shoot in RAW, use the highest image quality setting possible. RAW image storage permits easy white balance correction in image post processing.
- Set your camera to the highest speed continuous shooting mode available. Shoot in bursts. This will increase your percentage of sharp images because you don't need to move your finger for each shot.
- Test to see if you're camera/lens can adequately auto-focus. Shooting with low light, through glass, and water can easily cause auto-focus difficulties. If manual focus is necessary, pick an area in the tank for shooting, pre-focus, then wait for fish to move there.
- To photograph a particular fish, don't chase it. You'll like interfere with others, and usually miss the shot anyway. It's often not even necessary. Many fish in aquariums are repetitive path swimmers. Watch their behavior and you'll quickly notice many follow the same path around the tank, repetitively. Learn their patterns, then be ready when they return to your location.
- Many aquariums prohibit the use of flash, but if it's permitted:
- Don't use a built-in flash for in tank images. The flash's light will reflect back from the wall ruining most photos.
- Use an off camera flash held at least a couple of feet away from the camera and as close to the aquarium tank wall as possible.
- In shooting wildlife I believe in the principle, “Don't distress wildlife or their habitat.” I go out of my way to avoid using a flash when shooting wildlife. The fish and other sea creatures in aquarium tanks are “wildlife,” and some are very light sensitive.
- If your photos have washed out looking color, you're likely taking photos of fish too far away. Water absorbs red light and makes photos look like a washed out blue. The more water between you and the fish, the more color you lose. Getting closer will also help you capture more detail.
- Many aquariums have beautiful coral and underwater plants with colorful flowers. The people around you can make really good subjects too. Don't forget to shoot these photo subjects.
- Some aquariums have shallow tanks for specific sea-life where you can shoot down through the top of the water. Use the polarizer here to allow you to shoot through the water and make the sea-life visible. Don't use a polarizer for images taken through the tank wall, as they will make those photographs more difficult to capture.