How to photograph: The Public Aquarium

February 23, 2012



Baby – it’s cold outside!  It is during the cold winter months here in Maryland that I tend to capture more shots indoors where the weather is not as forbidding.  And, what better place than the local aquarium where you are able to capture underwater marine life, be warm and stay dry – what a combination!  But, this type of photography can be a challenge.


Living a short driving distance from the National Aquarium in Baltimore Maryland afforded me the opportunity to take the challenge. With any photography, one strives for repeatable results and not just have hit or miss captures.  And with moving subjects, low light, reflective glass several inches thick and visitors all around, the task at hand to obtain consistently usable images can be difficult.

White-spotted jellyfish


One thing I have learned over the years is that with any photoshoot, a bit of preparation is always in order. Some things we can control – some things we cannot. For now, I will focus on what we can control to help get more consistent shots.


Time of Day. The time of day can make a big difference. The later one goes to a city aquarium, the more visitors will be there to contend with as they obstruct shots, knock into you and often add unwanted reflections. Working around fingerprints spread all over the glass can also be a real challenge later in the day. To avoid much of this, it is always better to be there when the doors open and try to avoid weekends and holidays when it will be really crowded.


Concentrate on a few subjects. Limit your scope. Plan ahead by knowing the facility layout and the location of what you want to shoot to make the best use of your time.  It will pay off in the long run as you will use your time wisely rather than just running around aimlessly looking for that 'special shot'. Most of the larger aquariums will post a map of their facility on the web.  It is better to concentrate on getting your best shots from a few locations rather than try to quickly snap shots without a purpose. Review schedules for the times of demonstrations and feedings.  You will be much better off when you are prepared at a good location before everyone realizes that a feeding is about to begin.  

You can get some very interesting shots as divers become surrounded by hungry fish.


The Right Equipment. It is important to be prepared with the proper equipment for the shoot. Most aquariums will not allow tripods – so expect to shoot everything handheld. In that some of the subjects may be close to the other side of the glass, be sure to have at least one lens that can focus to less than a foot. In terms of lenses, available light will be a factor.  f/2.8 lenses work best but has the trade-off of having a shallow Depth Of Field when used wide-open. That should be taken into consideration for close subjects as only part of your subject may end up in focus.  Although prime lenses will often be the sharpest, quality zoom lenses work best in this changing environment.  And if available, a macro lens for capturing small objects can be extremely useful.  For more stationary objects, a lens with VR (Vibration Reduction) or IS (Image Stabilization) can allow a lower ISO to be used at slower shutter speeds.

A circular polarizing filter can also help cut down on glare and bring out colors – but this will come at a price of even more loss of light in an already low light environment.  And, be sure to include a hot shoe mountable flash than can be adjusted to an angle. Sea Nettle jellyfish


Location. Location.  Location.  Remember that shooting through glass at angles can lead to a prismatic effect resulting in unwanted reflections, distortions and color fringing in your capture.  Find a location where you can shoot perpendicular to the glass.  You will want to try to fill the frame with your subject and if the background compliments the shot, be sure to include it.  It is important to know your environment. Some aquariums are designed to be viewed from both sides of the tank which makes it very possible for photographers to be on the other side of the tank facing you.  Needless to say their flashes will be pointed directly at you.  You need to be flexible and prepared to reposition yourself at any time. Also be aware of the reflection of overhead lights, signs, windows, etc, that may be picked up in the capture.  Shots that are made straight (and close) to the glass will yield the best results. Be careful of having your lens come in contact with the aquarium glass – use a lens-hood whenever possible.  Visitors often come in waves – be patient.  Your purpose of being there is different then many of the others that are there.  You are on a mission for that ‘special shot’ and often it can take time to be in the right location.  And be considerate of others and allow them an opportunity for that 'special shot' as well.


Reef Shark


Camera settings. Try to shoot in 'Manual' mode whenever possible. ‘Program Mode’ and ‘Automatic’ can get easily fooled by the lighting conditions.  Since many of the subjects will be moving, using too low a shutter speed will result in blurred images.  Try to keep as high a shutter speed as possible - no less than 1/125 for moving images – and the faster, the better.  Wide open apertures (f/2.8) will gather more light, but will produce a shallow Depth of Field.  f/8 is often a good starting point for sharpness.  It will often be necessary to bump up the ISO to balance the desired aperture/shutter speed settings anywhere from ISO 400 – 1600.  But, the higher the ISO, the more grain.  Many cameras have a built-in variable ISO that will self-adjust based on the exposure.  Limit the upper range to 1600. Luckily, most cameras today have very good built-in noise reduction to help offset the grainy effect that the higher ISOs create. Additionally, post processing software has also come a long way in correcting the negative effects of higher ISO values.  If you use a flash, shoot perpendicular to the glass with the flash unit set at a 45 degree angle in order to eliminate flare-type reflections.  (And if you use a flash, you will not need to bump up your ISO).  Focusing can also be a challenge. Auto focus (AF) sensors often have problems working through glass - especially at an angle. It is better to focus manually on a specific spot and wait until the subject has moved into viewfinder.  Camera-shake can also become a problem when focusing on stationery objects at slow shutter speeds.  Use a lens with stabilization whenever possible. Finally, shoot short bursts of frames and select the ones that are the sharpest.



Post Processing. For best results in post processing, only shoot in RAW (vs jpeg) in order to retain as much information as possible in the capture. Products such as Adobe Raw and Lightroom allow for viewing the capture at a high magnification (400%) and provide tools for initial adjustments such as Exposure, Color, White Balance, Clarity and Noise Reduction before working in the editing software.  By adjusting the Detail Sharpening in Adobe Raw (Luminance/Masking), much of the noise (grain) caused from high ISO values can be reduced. When adjusting your shots in Lightroom or CS5, start by adjusting the fill light (shadow/highlights) and then the clarity.  Clone out distractions, such as reflections or debris, that you didn’t see and make your final crops before applying a sharpening filter.  (Don’t over sharpen as this will emphasize any grain that was not removed.)


The equipment I used consisted of a Nikon d700, Nikkor lenses 12-24mm super wide zoom f/2.8, 24-70mm zoom f/2.8, 105mm f/2.8 macro and SB-900 flash. The camera was set for center weighted metering, focus was set to manual and exposure settings were set to Manual Mode. ISO values ranged from 200 up to 1600. Although the Nikon d700 could go much, much higher, I felt the noise above 1600 became a factor which required me to limit the upper ISO to 1600 whenever I had that feature turned on. Shots were taken at various shutter speeds and f/value combinations as each situation demanded something a bit different. Light was always a challenge and I wanted to try to capture the natural lighting whenever possible. To enhance the dark background where there was ample light, I used a Circular Polarizing filter. Jelly Fish were captured with a 12-24mm super wide zoom (subjects were within a foot of the lens). I found that the natural lighting from the tank was most effective and f/8 – 1/125 – ISO 800 worked as a nice starting point.


The Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8 zoom was used whenever I needed a more ‘flexible’ reach beyond the 12-24 zoom. Fish were shot using this 'walk-around' 24-70mm lens combined with an SB900 hot shoe mounted flash set to 45 degrees. Being close to the glass, and at this angle, flare was eliminated and colors just popped. For very small objects I used the Nikkor 105mm f/2.8 macro lens. Adobe Raw was used for my first level of cleanup and Photoshop CS5 for cropping and final edits.


I suggest that you travel light and only take what you will need for the shoot.  At times, it may get crowded and you may find that a simple shoulder bag is the best choice for quick lens changes.  And be sure to check your coat when you get there - you will want all the freedom you can get and carrying a coat could easily hamper that. You most certainly will need both hands free at all times.


Lastly, as with any photo shoot, be prepared before you go on location.  Do your research first and you will have much more enjoyable, and rewarding, time.  And, as always, the more shots you take, the more likely you will have a nice collection of ‘keepers’.


I hope you can take advantage of your local aquarium and that you will find some of these techniques useful as a guide.


Good luck and happy shooting.



/john soulé, IPA

Image Details
1. 12-24 @ 14mm, 1/125, f/8, ISO 1000
2.  24-70 @24mm, f/5, 1/80, ISO 400
3. 24-70 @70mm, f/3.2, 1/250, ISO 200, SB900 flash
4. 12-24 @ 24mm, f/2.8, 1/60, ISO 1600
5. 12-24 @14mm, f/8, 1/320, ISO 200, SB900 flash




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