Jump to content

Recommended Posts

At the request of QLDAF, I have put together a basic guide for aquatic shooting. Please take all that you are about to read as a general guide only as every shooting

situation is different and usually has its own little idiosyncrasies that have to be dealt with in person. I can in general though, attempt to lay out good plan of

attack for those wanting to better their skills capturing those creatures who take up residence in our man made worlds we so love to keep them in. Before dipping you

into the more specialised world of Aquatic Photography, I think it would be better to skim the basics of general photography first. So here goes..

The general basics can pretty much be summed up with Exposure, Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISO. We'll work through them in that order.


This is pretty straight forward. This is how light or dark the image will be. We don't want to under expose the image as it will be too dark. Over exposing will cause

the opposite with the image becoming too bright.


Basically, this is the cameras ability to alter the focal plane which determines how much of the image will be in focus. Referred to generally as DOF( Depth Of Field ).

A large or wide Aperture(small f/stop) will give us less of the image in focus. Something that is great when one wants that nice creamy background to go with the

perfect portrait. It will also allow more light into the camera. A small/narrow Aperture(large f/stop) will give us much more of the image in focus. Great for

landscape shots or any time where we want more detail throughout the entire image. The downside to this extra in focus detail is a loss of light.

Shutter Speed:

This is how long the camera takes to capture the image. 1/25th = a 25th of a second or 1/4 of a second. A faster shutter speed equals darker images due to less light

intake and less image blur from camera shake. If we increase it enough, we can even make a moving object seem like it is standing still. A slower shutter speed means

brighter images due to more light intake. Image blur can become prevalent from camera shake though. A good tripod is a must when using very slow shutter speeds.


This is basically the cameras sensitivity to light. The lower the ISO, the better the image quality will be. However, we must have enough light to work with etc. Like

a nice sunny day. As we increase the ISO range, the image will become brighter but the quality will continually decrease usually showing us in ways like the image

becoming grainy to look at. The benefit of increasing the ISO is that it allows us to shoot in darker, less lit situations.

There are many more settings but I'll leave it there for simplicity as those are the ones that will be used the most. Learning these in their simplest form and more

importantly, how they work together is a must. Altering one to gain it's advantage usually means sacrificing another. Settings are always a trade off and knowing what

is more important at the time is what makes a good photographer. It is something that has to be learned though, especially if you want to get past the sub standard

images produced from the auto settings on that camera.

For a quick reference, I have put together a simple cheat sheet (shown below) which puts it all in its simplest form. I actually made this for my son who has taken a

liking to photography too now but I guess it can be of use to others too. Feel free to download, print and use at your own free will. Enjoy.


Now that we are past the very basics, I shall attempt to give a little insight on how I achieve some of my images.

Yes a DSLR is a must if you want that awe inspiring image. Expensive lens, body? It helps but the most important thing for Aquatic Photography is overhead flashes. I

would rather use lower end DSLR body and cheap kit lens with an overhead flash any day over the most expensive body/lens combo without an overhead flash. For this

reason, I will leave the conversation of which brand camera or lens to buy to your own discretion and talk more about the lighting needed or involved in Aquatic Photography.

Overhead flashes? You can buy the dearer Nikon/Canon brands, many of which will simply trigger remotely from the commander modes within camera software themselves. If

you have or can afford these, life is simple and you can get all the info you need from your manual. I love Canon speedlites but the few extras you get for such a

larger outlay really isn't warranted for this type of photography. The best bang for buck flashes I have found are made by Yongnuo. I have several of the Yongnuo YN560

Speedlites and they do everything I need when it comes to lighting up a subject in water. The downside with these is they have to be triggered via a remote trigger or

at least an off camera hot shoe cable. The upside to the remote triggers is they can be purchased very cheap on Ebay and have no cables to get in the way. I have a few

triggering devices. A set made by Yongnuo but even though they state higher, I can not get them to sync above 1/200th of a second. This means I can not shoot with a

shutter speed any greater than 1/200th. Take it to 1/250th and I end up with a half black image. My favourite of them all is my trigger made by Glanz. It will shoot at

a sync speed of 1/250th all day long. 1/200th is what I generally shoot at minimum to eliminate any movement blur from the subject.

Below is an image of a 430EXII speedlite and remote trigger. You can see the flash, receiver mounted to it and also the sender that mounts to the cameras hot shoe

sitting next to it.


Using the flash overhead:

You can use the flash by itself without any light diffusing device. I often do this as it gives me a more direct source of light which equates to a more dramatic


Single flash shown here in action.


Edited by greenterra

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

This is the type of contrasty images that can be produced by the method above.




To get a more even source of lighting or less contrasting shadows in the image, you will have to either use multiple flashes or some form of light diffusion. Both

have their uses. Diffusion? This is when we take the light output from the flash and direct it in a way to better light up the subject more evenly. This is a must for

larger specimens. It is easy to light up an 8-10" fish but a 20" fish requires a much wider source of light. One way to achieve this is through the use of

diffusers/reflectors. A simple ice cream container as shown below will work great for smaller subjects. I generally also use the diffuser on the flash head as seen in

the 2nd image below when shooting shallow tanks but often remove it on deep tanks.



Edited by greenterra

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

This is an image with a more even light source from the diffuser above.


This one is for those tiered systems where there is very little space above each tank.


As subjects get a little larger, so do the diffusing devices. This is a home made contraption utilising some white plastic containers purchased at Mitre10. I have cut

them to the required size and screwed them together. They do an exceptional job for me. A couple of these running side by side allows me to cover a good area.



Edited by greenterra

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Again. An image from using the above diffuser.


Larger specimens require larger diffusers. The one below is a home made device from a simple styrene foam box. I am sure most of you aquatic lovers would have one or

two of these to work with. You can leave it just as a rectangle box but I have found it to work better with the arc as shown here. This is easily achieved with a

good knife, tooth picks and some silicone to hold it all together.



Edited by greenterra

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

On my 9'x 4'x 3.4'tank, I have also modified the lights to accommodate my flashes. This way I get to use the lights as an all in one light/reflector/diffuser. The

advantage with this setup is, I have the tank lights right there to help the camera gain focus faster. I can also set the middle flash at a lower light intensity than

the outer ones. This helps to stop hot spots on the top of the subject but only works as long as I capture the subject in the direct centre of that zone.



The above setup is what I used to capture this shot.


Edited by greenterra

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites


Now that we have most of the needed items out of the way, the next thing I guess is the settings etc. As a general rule, I start out around 1/200th, ISO as low as

possible and adjust my Aperture to suit. Sometimes I will need a small Aperture to increase the DOF(Depth of Field) so this often means a compromise in increasing the

ISO to regain some of the lost light. As stated earlier, every tank and subject will put forth its own unique set of characteristics that will change the way we shoot

it. All tanks vary in size and this will of course create a need for different settings.

Now we get to my favourite style of shooting. The subject with the blacked out background. By far the most asked question about Aquatic photography I receive. Without

knowledge, most would think it is a result of manipulated 'Photoshopping'. This however is not so. Many people I have done shoots with, some of whom are on this very

site seem to be quietly surprised to see the blacked out background on my cameras display screen at the time of shoot. To explain better, imagine a tank that is say 2'

deep from front to back. If we take the overhead flash/es and position them so they are only illuminating the front half of the tank when fired, the background will

not be visible in the final image as it never received enough light to show. Think of an entertainer within a spotlight on a theater stage only in our case a column of

light in the front half of our tank. Also, what we see and what the camera sees are two very different things. It is after all only reflected light that allows us to

even capture an image in the first place. Example; The normal tank lights can be left on, a must for obtaining proper focus. Although the ambiant lighting from the

tank lights may illuminate the whole tank from front to back for our eyes, the camera will only show what it's settings allow it to. In this case, the camera is set to

suit the much higher light output of the flash/es making the low intensity light source of the tank lights non visible in the final image.

Below are a couple of images to show a blacked out background but with a hint of decor protruding into the scene. If the decor were positioned further back, it would

be a total blacked out background.



Some tanks are just so narrow that we can not shoot in a way to eliminate, blur or blacken out the back ground. In these cases, I try and shoot so as to incorporate

the backdrop in a way that is as interesting as the subject.

Something like below so we create a bit of an environment around the subject. The added subject peering from under the rock helps to add a little to the image.


Edited by greenterra

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites


Most cameras come with some sort of image editing software nowadays and I strongly advise users become well acquainted with it as your images will turn out much

better. As with shooting technique, post processing is something best learned over time and with lots of practice.

Something I'd like to address is how many think editing is 'Photoshopping'. I'd like to start by saying that the term 'Photoshopping' is an incorrect term as there

are many software programs that are capable of manually manipulating an image to be something other than the original image ever was. I prefer to call this type of

image processing 'Doctored'. Editing is to bring out the best in an image using the best available information obtained in the original capture. Hence why most

photographers prefer to shoot in RAW mode instead of JPEG. It enables the camera to capture a vastly greater amount of information at the time of shooting which in

turns gives us more to work with at time of editing. In essence, the final image is basically a post produced product of the original information captured at time of

shoot. One thing that is in a sense a 'doctored' part of the post editing process is the removal of unwanted free floating debris from the image via tools such as the

spot removal tool which is available in most good image software. Ask anyone who has had me in their home and they will tell you, one of the first things I have

required is to the best of their ability a very clean tank, an extra large water change and no feeding 24hrs prior to the shoot. This greatly helps eliminate free

floating matter within the tanks water column. Basically, the cleaner the water, the better the image. With all the advantages of the overhead flash/es, a disadvantage

is that they can actually enhance these free floating particles and as such, often the need to edit them out of an image is a must. Especially if you want a truly

clean look. Although this is manual editing in a sense, it is not an addition to or an alteration of the image that would change the subject at all so therefore is not

classed as 'Photoshopping' or as I prefer 'Doctoring'. If it was to be termed, it would simply be classed as a 'Clean up' of the final image.


When shooting, pick an area of the tank that is free of scratches, marks and is best suited in terms of tank layout for the image type required. Always try and shoot

at a 90degree angle to the tanks face for best results. Shooting at an angle allows the image to become distorted due to light refraction. The bigger the angle, the more

the distortion. Always give the subject time to get used to you. No point capturing a fish that is stressed. We want them at their best if possible. From here it is a

matter of fine tuning the cameras settings to suit the tank. That and a lot of practice makes perfect. Even with plenty of experience, I still fire off a lot of images

to get the keepers I want.

For those trying to achieve a better result without the use of an overhead flash. I can only suggest this. Throw as much lighting above your tank as possible. If you

have extra lights from other tanks, add them all together to obtain as much light as you can. The more light the better. I strongly oppose the use of any onboard flash

as it reflects wrongly on aquatic subjects and also creates glare. The glare can be corrected by shooting at an angle but then your image will be distorted anyway from

the light refracting as explained earlier. You will have to shoot with a wider aperture, higher ISO and more importantly a much slower shutter speed, probably more

like 1/60th at best so non moving subjects wil be your best chance of a good capture.

An example of what can be achieved without an overhead flash. Settings for this shot were 1/30th,f/3.5 and ISO 400.


Anyway, that's a little insight into some of what it takes to get that crisp clean shot. Hopefully this will help some of you to better understand the process or

better yet, capture your own keeper to remember that favourite specimen or wet pet.

Cheers and thanks for reading.

Brent Smith.

Brent Smith Photography

Edited by greenterra

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Awesome post, clears alot of things up for me...

I struggle every time trying to get a good shot on auto, will have a go on manual using your guide.

Hopefully will get some better results.


Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

some insane detail and quality in them photo's....

I am wanting to buy a fairly decent camera, but i dont know a whole lot about them..

what sort of qualities should i be looking for in a camera?


Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites
some insane detail and quality in them photo's....

I am wanting to buy a fairly decent camera, but i dont know a whole lot about them..

what sort of qualities should i be looking for in a camera?


Firstly I would be looking to purchase a DSLR if you are wanting to get serious or at least get above average shots. While using a DSLR in auto mode probably won't yield much better results than some top end point and shoots, you will have a tool that is capable of delivering far better results than a point and shoot as your techniques improve over time(Learn to shoot in manual). I prefer Canon or Nikon over all other brands. Don't get me wrong, a couple of other brands have some good gear out there but both Canon and Nikon are market leaders with an amazing amount of lenses available for them. Another point to consider is 3rd party products. Many companies like Tamron or Sigma make pretty decent lenses for a fraction of the price to suit both Canon or Nikon bodies only which is another plus for these brands. With Canon or Nikon, you have more options with lens choice, zoom ranges, lens brand etc. If you are looking at entry level but still fairly decent? Have a look at something like the Canon 650D. It also has Full HD Movie Mode but unlike other cams has continuous Auto Focus while in Movie Mode.

Edited by greenterra

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

  • Create New...