Aquatic Photography: A Personal Experience

Jul 9, 2003
Columbia, SC
Aquatic Photography FAQ

-Let me start out by saying i am not a professional, have taken no classes on photography, and my equipment is all stock, i don't claim to be an expert and am just writing this out of personal experience. I am writing this because i have gotten so much great feedback on my work over the years, even when i have been less than statisfied with it. My aims at this article is to possibly encourage more people to just sit down and take pictures of your tank. You will be amazed at all the things you will discover if you just take the time to look. Not that many of us don't spend hours infront our tanks already. Also i would like to show and share with people, some tips about aquatic photography that i have learned over the past few years. I have always been asked many questions that ultimatly lead to one main question, "How do you do it?". Well hopefully i can show you how I do it.

-First off let me tell you all about the equipment i use, and though it sounds like i have a lot of it, i really don't. Most of my pictures are taken using a Canon 300D camera (Digital Rebel) with a stock 18-55mm lens and onboard flash. Yep thats it, cool huh. The camera may be fancier than most, but the whole equipment list is not and i'm sure you can make it work with any camera (aside from cell phones and small cameras that are just made to get the broad point and not the details in a picture.). I also use a tripod for the longer sessions when i don't want to hold the camera and keep it steady.

Tank Setup and Prep
-Tank setup and prep is a major point in my photography. Though some don't or won't arrange their tanks around taking pictures i tend to do just a minor way. It doesn't take much, move a rock here or a plant there for a background, or so that you have an open area for a clean shot. Strategically placed rocks can mean a great flash picture because you get no feedback from the flash, thats what i do in my tanks. Of course if you just take a minute and look around your tank i'm sure you can find a suitable area where a background is present. There is more to getting a good picture than sitting down infront of your tank and snapping away. First you must do Tank Prep. All i involve in tank prep is cleaning both the inside and outside of the glass, no one wants to see dirty glass! (Take a tissue/paper towel with the cleaning agent TO the tank, i would not reccommend spraying the glass first (Vinegar or Water work just fine as cleaning agents). A simple wipedown of the inside will do fine.) I also do a water change if needed to remove any solid, eye catching wastes on the bottem of the tank (Sand shows everything). If you do a water change be sure to give your fish time to color back up and cool off before you start flashing away at your tank. Give them time to come out of the stress.

Timing is Everything
-Timing is everything. Be sure to plan your photography sessions carefully. I personally will only shoot in the evenings or at night. That way it is easier to darken the room and i get no unwanted glare in the tank or the glass. Depending on where your tank sits in your house or room, you may be alright shooting in the daylight.

The Session
-Pull up a chair, this is a full blown photography session. I use a chair or stool that is both comfortable and is the correct height at which i can take pictures. Fish are sometimes spooked by you moving all around trying to get that perfect shot. Don't chase the fish around the tank, they will get curious of you in one place and move into your selected area. You might also look for the fish's favorite hang out area and set your shooting area near that. There is no set time you have to sit there, its on your time, however i usually spend at least 30 minutes at a time with the camera taking pictures. Be sure to have your batteries charged and your memory stick empty.
-I usually shoot towards the bottem portion of the tank where the rocks can serve as a background and i might get that perfect shot of a cichlid spitting sand. I have been known to shoot above to rocks but i will talk about that a bit later. I ALWAYS shoot at a slight downward angle when using the onboard flash. Having just enough of a downward angle minimizes glare from the flash but does not distort the image. Another thing about shooting, you do not need to be right up on the glass, although sometimes it works the best for me on a macro shot. Sit back a little an get the whole fish into view. Here is a picture that shows my Camera, tripod, and the downward angle at about which i shoot. You can also see about how far back i am, though that gets adjusted depending on where the fish is and such.

-I use auto focus 90% of the time because its fast and easy. My camera lets me autofocus by barely pressing the shutter button. So when a subject swims into my viewing area, i auto focus and wait for a good pose. I consider a good pose anything from fins flared, to yawning, or to capturing the fish in mid turn.
-One other thing you might want to try before you start is just take some pictures in the shooting range you will be in for the fish session and see how they come out. Mostly, if you are using flash, to see if you get any feedback from that position/angle. If you are, try some different angles.
-Be wary of other fish swimming into the picture. It can become unsightly, especially if you are focusing on one certain fish in the tank.

Pre-Download Check
-Everyone hates to wait, especially on a slow computer. So to speed up your wait time during the download process and get rid of the pictures that are already obviously trashers before you plug the camera up to the computer by viewing them on the camera's LCD display.

Aspects of Good and Bad Pictures.
-I've compiled some pictures of my past sessions that i have dubbed as "bad" or "trashers", i will explain why for each. In a session of 90+ pictures consider yourself lucky to come out with 5 good shots, at least thats my thinking. Most of these were considered keepers on the camera's LCD screen and were downloaded then dubbed trashers.

Out of focus. The whole picture is out of focus.

Over exposed. See the bright white areas? Thats over exposure. Also dirty glass and distracting shadows. Taken at the top of the tank and not near the bottem.

Flash feedback, causing over exposure on the fish. Though a fairly good picture otherwise.

Good pose, decent focus but dirty/scratched glass and you can see where the sand is up against the glass. Scratches that small could possibly be taken care of with image editing.

Great pic, but dirty glass and the silicone corner is kind of distracting.

Taken to close to the top of the tank. Very bad shadows. A bit to over exposed on the face.

To dark, under exposed.

-That was all the bad. Don't get me wrong, i personally enjoy seeing the sparkles and shine of the fish and like some over exposure to show that, but there can be to much in certain places. Lets take a look at some pictures that I consider to be good.

Good focus, good flash control and just enough shine on the fish. Not enough shadow to be to distracting.

One of my personal favorites, no glare, great color on the fish, sharpness and focus is just right, and the fish is in a good pose. No other fish in the background to disrupt the picture.

-Lastly i would like to say practice makes perfect. You won't get good over night, you won't get good in a week, you must keep trying and trying. Heck i've had the camera for a year and i still don't consider myself good, lucky to get some good shots every now and then, but not all around good. Sure the type of camera will make a difference, but once you get to know your own camera you can push its limits and get great shots, i assure you. A small Sony Cybershot point and shoot propelled me to where i am today with my Canon 300D. And while you are sitting infront of your tank taking pics, just enjoy yourself. Don't get frustrated if the fish won't do it right, just enjoy your fish and keep trying. Photography is another hobby, and you will find yourself taking pictures of anything and everything.

-If I have missed anything or you have a question feel free to PM me. I did not go into the manuel settings on the camera in this because I felt like it would make the whole thing overall to complicated.

-Matt - Cichlid-Man

Last edited:
Sep 8, 2005
Don't kid yourself you are a pro. Excellent thread. Great tips and dead on. I love that camera. I have a canon rebel but not dig. My Sony does not cut it. I hope you change your mind and post on the camera manual settings. I'd be interested. Your fish pictures are gorgeous.


Large Fish
Oct 22, 2002
Fort Wayne, IN
pics dont work for me :(

Nice article Matt. Another thing...if you are shooting without a flash, good prep (along with cleaning the inside and outside of the glass) is to clean the hoods. You can lose alot of light to dirty hoods. Also, new/fresh bulbs help. Alot of people are trying to shoot with old bulbs, so they are losing alot of light that way too.


Large Fish
Sep 7, 2008
Wow..nice job...

Even the 'bad' ones are better than mine.

I think the tripod is totally necessary. (some patience too)

I have a tripod but where did I leave my patience???