Take Great Fish Photos :: Digital Photo Secrets

Take Great Fish Photos

by David Peterson 3 comments

Underwater photography is cool. Who doesn't love seeing all those colorful tropical fish swimming through the beautiful blue water, surrounded by coral formations and lovely green underwater plant life? The photographer, that's who.

Yes, I know, I'm totally wrong--for some people. Some photographers thrive in their scuba gear, with their obscenely expensive underwater camera housings and all those sharks. But it's not for everyone. And if it's not for you, I have great news. You can still get amazing shots of fish without having to go underwater.

[ Top image Jelly Fish by Flickr user szeke]

Yes, that's right. I am talking about aquarium photography. And if you do it right, you may even fool people into thinking that you braved the ocean blue and the great whites to capture that amazing shot.

  • Nikon D80
  • 1000
  • f/1.8
  • 0.017 sec (1/60)
  • 50 mm

Seahorse / Caballito de mar by Flickr user _Hadock_

Know the rules

Now here's the thing: the people in charge of public aquariums often like to keep their rooms dark. Oh, and they sometimes don't like it when you use tripods. Or flashes. So you're going to be challenged in this environment, make no mistake. But that doesn't mean you should sneak a monopod in under your trenchcoat, either. If your local aquarium has a no-tripods rule, you're going to have to find another way--or you may find yourself and your monopod being escorted from the aquarium, no refunds, don't let the door hit you on the way out.

  • Canon EOS 5D Mark III
  • 1000
  • f/2.8
  • 0.025 sec (1/40)
  • 31 mm

Touch her dream Variation1 by Flickr user Fotografik33


Many of the tips I include on this site don't require a DSLR or some extra gear to go with it, but this isn't one of them. When taking photos in public aquariums, you will benefit from some higher end stuff. That's not to say that you won't get a few interesting shots with your point-and-shoot, but for truly wowing photographs you will need to have a DSLR with very good high ISO capability, as well as a decent off-camera flash for those rooms where a) flash is allowed and b) where it is too dark to depend on your ISO settings.

  • Canon EOS 40D
  • 500
  • f/5.6
  • 0.067 sec (1/15)
  • 50 mm

You can't always avoid reflections at aquariums.Discus fish in an aquarium by Flickr user weesen

The next essential piece of equipment you'll need is a lens hood, and not just any lens hood. You will need a rubber lens hood. That's because your arch nemesis in an aquarium setting is Reflection. And because all of your subjects are behind glass, you're going to have to do battle with that reflection every time you set up a shot.

The advantage of a rubber lens hood vs. a hard plastic one is that you can press it directly up against the glass, effectively removing all reflections from the scene so you can get a clear shot of your subject. Also, as an added bonus, you won't anger anyone by getting scratches all over the plexiglass.

Now, as I've already said, many aquariums prohibit tripods. This is generally for the simple reason that they get in everyone's way and that they cause traffic jams in popular spots. But do find out for sure if your chosen destination has such a policy. It could be that they allow monopods but not tripods. Find out their policy and if they do allow one, the other or both by all means bring your favorite. But remember your manners. You don't want to be the guy who caused the epic traffic jam that made the aquarium rethink its tripod policy. Don't set up where you're going to be in the way for extended periods of time. Get your shot and get out. Be polite and wait for others.

You will also need a macro lens, though it doesn't have to be true macro (1:1 isn't really necessary, especially when shooting the larger animals). A zoom labeled "macro" (which isn't a true macro, but usually more like a 1:3) is probably going to be just fine. You want that zoom to give you some flexibility over what parts of an exhibit you're going to shoot, as well as giving you the ability to shoot from less desirable locations. But you also want a lens that you can get pretty close with.

  • Canon EOS 7D
  • 1000
  • f/3.5
  • 0.04 sec (1/25)
  • 18 mm

Aqua Park [Explored] by Flickr user Lel4nd

Wider angle lenses are also going to come in handy, especially if you want to capture an animal in its big, plant-life-filled, custom habitat. But also keep in mind that you don't want to bring too much--a big bulky camera bag is going to annoy you and everyone else in the room, especially as you swing it around and bonk people with it. Remember that there's just not a lot of room to maneuver in an aquarium, especially a popular one. Which brings me to my next point:


Aquariums are usually indoors, and that means that there's a lot less space for photographers than there is at, say, a zoo. Crowds can be a big hindrance for a photographer, and you can't exactly shout "fire!" in the hopes of clearing the room, either, because that will not only get you thrown out of the facility but also thrown into another facility (one with bars). So you need to do a couple of things when you shoot at an aquarium. The first is, don't shoot--at least not on your first visit. Instead, go there with a notebook and get a good feel for the layout. Figure out what you want to shoot and think about the best way to shoot it. Take copious notes.

Now I know, visiting an aquarium can be pricey so if you can't afford to visit twice, do some research online. Download a map of the aquarium and check out some photos taken there by other photographers (Flickr is a great source for this). Try to get a feel for the animals that are there and the camera settings you'll have to use to photograph them.

Now see if you can find out when the aquarium's slow season is. The easiest way to do this is to pick up the phone and ask whoever is on the other end. While you're at it, ask what the most popular exhibits are and then draw a line on your map so that you can efficiently and quickly get to those exhibits as soon as you enter the museum. Popular exhibits will fill up quickly, so get there, shoot them and get out before it's too late.

Plan your visit during the off time of the year, mid-week, and then make sure you get up early and get in line before the aquarium is due to open. Plan to stay until the guards shoo you out the door. The trick is to minimize the number of people who might be standing in the way of your shot. If you visit in the middle of the day or during peak hours in the summer, you're going to get a lot of photos of people's heads. Now, this can make for an interesting shot. But let's face it, you don't want all of your shots to be of people's heads.


Now there are two schools of thought when it comes to using flash in an aquarium. The first is "do." The second is "don't." The truth is that there are advantages and disadvantages to both schools of thought.

Flash, as you know, can make bad pictures. It can cause ugly reflections off those very reflective fish scales and glass tanks. It can also kill fish, or at the very least give them heart attacks. It can also do the same to certain snooty aquarium visitors, so use with discretion, if you're going to use it at all.

  • Nikon D70
  • 200
  • f/10.0
  • 0.006 sec (1/160)
  • 84.8 mm

This image was captured with an SB-700 Speedlight.Neon by Flickr user DigitalCanvas72

First make sure you find out the aquarium's flash policy at the same time you're asking about the tripod policy. If flash is allowed, bring a good off-camera one (don't use your on-camera flash).

When you enter an exhibit (before you whip out that flash), take an assessment of the light. Set your camera to f/5.6 and see if you can get a shot at 1/125 using an acceptable ISO. Most of the time, 1/125 is going to be fine for the average slow-moving fish. For fish that dart, though, you may need to use a faster shutter speed. Or if your tripod is allowed, consider slowing down your shutter speed to capture some motion blur.

  • Canon EOS 5D Mark II
  • 3200
  • f/4.0
  • 0.004 sec (1/250)
  • 80 mm

Out of the Blue by Flickr user MarkNKL

You should have a good understanding of how much noise your camera produces at higher ISOs--don't go any higher than you need to and if you find yourself slipping into an unacceptably noisy ISO, consider using flash instead.

There are a few reasons why you will want to use an off-camera flash instead of your onboard one. The first is because onboard flashes are almost never a good idea. They give you very little flexibility, and at an aquarium, they can create glare. With an off camera flash, you can control the intensity and the angle, which means that you can avoid that glare altogether and can control where the light will land. That means you can either choose to illuminate your subject and the background, or you can choose instead to illuminate only the subject (this will cause the background to fall off into black).

A few extra little tips

Shoot in RAW. This is usually a good idea anyway, but in tricky lighting conditions shooting in RAW may save a shot that is otherwise underexposed, or suffers from white balance problems.

Use focus tracking. If your camera has good focus tracking, use it. Moving subjects are tough to keep in focus, especially in dimmer lighting conditions. If your focus tracking system isn't cutting it, try prefocusing on a spot where you know the fish are going to be. Wait for one of them to arrive, then take the shot.

  • Canon EOS 5D
  • 1600
  • f/4.5
  • 0.02 sec (1/50)
  • 60 mm

Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium. by Flickr user Greg Miles

Zoom out, then zoom in. Don't get so hung up on those close-ups that you forget about the setting. The Monterey Bay Aquarium, for example, has an amazing "kelp forest" tank that includes fascinating plant life as well as fish. Get some shots of your fish with their environment, then zoom in to get the details.

Don't compete with other visitors for a spot. Getting into an elbow war is fine for a mosh pit, but not at an aquarium. If there's a crowd, step back. This is a good time to get some pictures of people looking at the exhibits, interacting with them (the touch pools are great locations for photos), or just those aforementioned heads silhouetted against the blue and green tanks.

Bring along a pack of glass wipes. There's going to be smudges on the glass. If there's not, I can almost guarantee you some little kid will come along and press his recently-held-a-hamburger fingers up against the exact spot where you decided you would get the best shot. So bring the glass wipes, and try not to look at the kid's mom while you're cleaning up after her kid. She's probably going to take offense.

Remember that shooting through glass can cause distortion. Avoid placing your camera at an angle to the glass, and remember that fish that are further away from your camera are going to be in softer focus, just based on the amount of matter between them and your lens. Also remember that when shooting at any angle other than perpendicular, you might also get a ghosting effect caused by light refracting through the tank face.

Look for brighter colored fish. Those darker fish are cool, but they won't show up as well in your photograph. Seek out the brightly colored ones instead. No offense, dull-colored fish, but colorful fish make more interesting subjects, too.

Experiment, experiment, experiment. As with almost every tricky lighting situation, taking each photograph a few different ways is going to give you the best possible chance at getting a series of photos you're truly happy with. Check your LCD often to make sure that you're getting the results you expected, and try new settings to see what works and what doesn't. Digital frames are free, just as long as you bring plenty of memory cards.


Yes it's true, you can get amazing fish photos, no scuba gear or underwater housing required. A great aquarium may not be the cheapest ticket going, but it's going to be a lot less money and hassle than a trip to Hawaii. Did I just say that? Hey, maybe you can go to Hawaii anyway, visit the Maui Ocean Center, and just forget about scuba diving altogether. Grab your awesome fish shots at the aquarium, hang out on the beach with a pina colada, and get some shots of the sunset while you're at it. Hey, I think I just planned my next vacation.

[Now see some examples out oustanding aquarium images]

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  1. Nelson says:

    Thanks for the advice on the rubber lens hood, glass wipe AND never to look at the kid's mum.

  2. mohamed wagih says:

    Interesting you are the first one who touch this item because fotografing fish is tedious job because fish has many features & colors grad from back to belly I congratulate you that you give us these instructions & Informations. best wishes again.

  3. Linda Bonskowski says:

    David, I never tire of reading your articles. Not only are they informative, but your sense of humor puts me in stitches sometimes! This one was the best yet!!! Thanks for the early-morning chuckles!!

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17 minutes
About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.