Aquariums offer gorgeous views of fish, dramatic lighting, and plenty of incredible photographic opportunities. Unfortunately, without the right approach, capturing great aquarium images can be insanely difficult thanks to the ultra-dark environments and fast-moving subjects.
Fortunately, I love photographing in aquariums, and I know how to capture crisp, clear, and well-exposed images of an array of fish subjects. In this article, I explain how you can create stunning shots of sharks, lobsters, eels, and so much more – so if you’re ready to start producing some stunning aquarium photography, then let’s dive right in!
The best settings for aquarium photography
If you step into an aquarium with your camera on Auto mode, you’re bound to end up with frustratingly blurry photos.
Why? In low-light scenarios, your camera will automatically slow down your shutter speed, which will amplify camera shake and fail to freeze subject movement.
So it’s important that you choose the right camera settings to ensure your images are consistently sharp.
In particular, you need to use a decently fast shutter speed – generally 1/125s or above, depending on the length of your lens and the speed of your subject. This next image was taken at 1/10s – the kind of shutter speed chosen by a camera left on Auto mode – and the motion blur is very obvious:
Shutter Priority mode lets you select the shutter speed and the ISO (which essentially refers to the sensitivity of the camera sensor to light), while the camera automatically picks the aperture. If you set your camera to Shutter Priority, I recommend setting the ISO as high as you can without risking image-ruining noise. (I have no problem going to ISO 3200 on my camera, though you should test out your own camera model to get a sense of its high-ISO capabilities.)
Then you’ll need to set your shutter speed. I’d recommend starting at 1/125s; you want to set a shutter speed that’s fast enough to freeze the action but no faster than necessary. If the shutter speed is too fast, your images will be sharp, but they’ll be dark (i.e., underexposed).
Manual mode, on the other hand, lets you select your ISO, your shutter speed, and your aperture. It’s a good mode for more seasoned photographers, so if you’re comfortable with such an approach, I recommend setting your ISO as high as you can stomach, opening the lens aperture as much as you can (or are comfortable doing from a creative perspective), and then set your shutter speed to 1/125s or faster.
You’ll then need to adjust the shutter speed to ensure a perfect exposure; it’s important to pay attention to the exposure bar in the viewfinder, though you can also capture several shots, view them on the LCD screen, and make adjustments accordingly.
Here are my typical aquarium photography settings:
- ISO 3200
However, shooting at 1/60s takes practice and only works with slower subjects, so don’t be afraid to widen your aperture, boost your ISO, and bump your shutter speed as required.
The best aquarium photography gear
Aquarium photography is an exciting endeavor, but having the right gear is often essential to success. Here are a few key items to consider:
A powerful camera
I encourage you to you opt for a DSLR or a mirrorless camera; these models generally give you manual control over settings so you can adjust different elements to suit different aquarium environments. They offer the flexibility to play with exposure, focus, and other essential elements so you can capture stunning underwater aquarium images.
Low-light performance is another crucial aspect to consider. Aquariums are often dimly lit, and using flash can create unnecessary reflections. A camera with an impressive high ISO performance allows you to shoot in these conditions without compromising on clarity.
Finally, shooting in RAW can be a lifesaver. It provides more latitude in post-processing, enabling you to correct colors, balance exposure, and ensure that your photos look exactly how you envisioned.
A carefully chosen lens
The lens you choose can significantly impact the quality and creativity of your aquarium photographs. A versatile zoom lens gives you the flexibility to compose shots, particularly in confined spaces where moving around might be restricted. With a good zoom range, you can capture both close-ups and wider shots without needing to switch lenses continually.
If you plan on taking detailed shots of smaller species, a macro lens becomes essential. It enables you to get up close and personal with the subjects, capturing every intricate detail. Pair this with a wide maximum aperture like f/2.8, and you’re equipped to shoot in especially dark environments. (A wide aperture lets in more light, allowing for faster shutter speeds and reducing the risk of motion blur.
When investing in lenses, remember that quality matters and that reputable brands generally offer superior performance and build.
Best accessories for aquarium photography
Aquarium photography doesn’t technically require any accessories; that said, many photographers do prefer to work with a tripod when possible. Not only do tripods keep your camera stable in low light, but they can also be a big help when composing each image.
Unfortunately, tripods are often off-limits at most aquariums. If tripods are not allowed or impractical, a monopod can be a good alternative. It provides some stabilization without being as intrusive as a full tripod.
Additional accessories can also play a vital role in a successful aquarium photography session. Extra batteries and memory cards are essential, as aquarium photography can be time-consuming and you don’t want to miss that perfect shot. Keeping your lens clean from smudges, especially when shooting close to the glass, will ensure your images remain clear, so don’t forget your lens cleaning supplies.
Essential tips for aquarium photography
Now that you’re familiar with the basic gear and settings for photographing aquariums, let’s take things to the next level with a handful of my best tips, starting with:
1. Turn off your flash and get close
Most cameras, when left to their own devices, will automatically turn on the flash in dark environments. But while aquariums are extremely dark, you definitely don’t want the flash to fire; it’ll create a huge reflection on the glass that’ll almost certainly ruin your photo.
So before you even enter the aquarium, make sure to disable your flash.
Even with the flash deactivated, however, you still might encounter some ambient light reflecting off the glass, which will distract the viewer and can make your subjects appear less sharp. To avoid such reflections, simply move up to the glass (you can even press your lens hood against the surface!). Note that, if you follow this advice, you’ll be standing right up at the glass looking through it rather than standing back a few feet looking at it.
Check out this image of a fish at an aquarium. It looks okay, but if you look carefully, you’ll see a reflection on the left side of the frame:
To avoid an unwanted reflection of your own, try stepping closer to the glass and angling the camera to avoid including any reflections:
Much better, right?
2. Stabilize your handheld camera
Shooting in an aquarium often means dealing with low-light conditions. To combat this, you’ll likely need to use slower shutter speeds, which in turn can lead to camera shake and blurry images. As I discussed above, if the aquarium’s rules allow it, a tripod or monopod is a great solution. But if not, there are still ways to stabilize your camera.
First, utilize any built-in stabilization that your camera or lens might offer. This technology can significantly reduce the effect of small movements and vibrations. If your camera doesn’t have this feature, pay close attention to your posture and grip. Holding the camera with both hands and tucking your elbows into your body can provide extra stability.
Another useful method is to find support within the environment. Leaning against a wall or resting the camera on a solid surface can help. Remember, practicing and finding what works best for you in different situations is key. Every aquarium is unique, and mastering the art of handheld shooting can open up new opportunities in this fascinating world of underwater photography.
3. Try manual focus
One of the greatest challenges in aquarium photography is achieving the right focus, especially when dealing with viewing glass that can confuse your camera’s autofocus system. This is where utilizing manual focus can make all the difference. Unlike autofocus, which frequently accidentally targets reflections or smudges on the glass, manual focus puts you in control, allowing you to pinpoint exactly what part of the scene you want to be sharp.
If you’re new to manual focus, it might seem intimidating at first. Start by practicing on larger, more stationary subjects within the aquarium. Many modern cameras offer features like focus peaking, which highlights the in-focus areas on your screen and helps guide your adjustments. These aids can be incredibly effective as you learn to navigate manual focus.
Keep in mind that mastering manual focus is a skill that takes time and patience to develop. However, once you’ve honed this skill, the creative control it offers can be incredibly rewarding. Whether you’re trying to capture a detailed close-up of a coral or track a fast-moving shark, manual focus enables you to decide what’s important in the scene, ensuring that your photos turn out exactly as you envisioned them.
4. Adjust your angle to make your shots more interesting
Once you’ve figured out how to get sharp aquarium photos, it’s time to get creative – and for me, varying the camera angle is the quickest way to make images more interesting.
In other words, rather than capturing each fish from a head-on angle, try shooting from a variety of perspectives. (The same shark can look very different from different angles!)
For instance, you might try:
- Getting below your subject and pointing your camera upward
- Getting up high and pointing your camera down (to achieve this angle, see if you can find a clear glass walkway)
- Crouching down so you’re on a level with your subject
- Walking to the right or the left for a diagonal perspective
To capture this next shot, which highlights the shark’s teeth and makes it appear far more menacing, I made sure to shoot from a low angle:
Whereas I used an eye-level angle to capture the beauty of this eel:
I also favored an eye-level angle to give this lobster photo a sense of intimacy:
But when a shark swam toward the glass, I used a low perspective to add drama:
Finally, I used an ultra-low angle – sometimes referred to as a worm’s-eye view or a bug’s-eye view – to capture this last image, which (I think) gives the feeling of actually being in the water with the sharks:
6. Seek out stunning silhouettes
Silhouettes are a great technique for capturing breathtaking aquarium photos, and – bonus! – they’re really easy to capture in aquariums thanks to the unique lighting situation.
The key to a silhouette is to photograph a dark foreground subject on a bright background. You often simply need to angle your camera to include bright light in the background, then wait for a subject to swim over. Fire off a shot, then check your camera LCD. If the image is too bright, simply raise your shutter speed or add in some negative exposure compensation until the subject turns into a perfect silhouette!
You can also capture gorgeous silhouettes of people standing by the aquarium glass. Children, for instance, are often captivated by sea creatures, and parents are often captivated by watching their kids! This next silhouette shot happened quite naturally because the aquarium tank was really bright compared to the people in the foreground:
Depending on its settings, your camera may produce a similar result, or you may need to make the exposure adjustments discussed above. Unfortunately, when shooting toward glass from a distance, you’ll often end up with some ambient light reflections, but if they bother you, you can always remove them during post-processing.
7. Consider the direction of the light
Aquariums are often lit by all sorts of interesting lighting angles, so it pays to carefully observe the direction of the light in the water.
You can use backlighting to create silhouettes (as discussed above), but you can also brighten up the image (by lowering the shutter speed or increasing the exposure compensation) for an interesting overexposure effect:
I also recommend looking for side light, which can give a cool sense of drama and three-dimensionality.
Don’t be afraid to experiment, and when in doubt, capture more photos, not fewer. And make sure you frequently check your camera’s LCD; when dealing with a mix of bright light and dark shadows, it can be difficult to get the exposure right, so you may need to make a few adjustments before you get a good result.
8. Enhance your photos with a bit of editing
It’s always important to capture the best possible images while you’re actually at the aquarium. But once the chaos of your trip is over, you can relax, sift through your photos, and – if you want to really take the files to the next level – spend some time editing.
Note that editing isn’t necessarily about creating unrealistic, over-the-top results. Instead, it’s often about recreating the scene as it was. I like to keep my photos looking as natural as possible, but I always want my photos to look the way the moment felt, so I don’t mind exaggerating colors or exposure if need be. The particulars are up to you, but here are a few items to consider:
- Try adjusting the white balance to eliminate any unwanted color costs
- Raise or lower the exposure to retain detail in the highlights and the shadows
- Add contrast for a bit of extra punch
- Add some clarity for extra crispness
- Boost the saturation or vibrance to more accurately represent the lush aquarium colors
For this first image, I subtly adjusted the exposure (via the Highlights and Shadows sliders), dropped the Blacks for extra contrast, and really cranked up the Clarity:
This next shot was far too dark, so I boosted the Exposure slider, then added some Clarity and Vibrance to give the image some pop. I also altered the white balance, which got rid of the green color cast in the original:
9. Mind your surroundings
Aquariums are often bustling places filled with excited visitors of all ages. While this creates a lively atmosphere, it also means that as a photographer, you must be mindful of your surroundings. Being considerate of others, ensuring you’re not blocking views, and avoiding bumping into fellow visitors is paramount. Always be aware of where your camera equipment is, use straps to secure it, and be careful not to obstruct pathways or exhibits.
Sometimes, the most unique angles and captivating shots are found in unexpected places. Look beyond the main exhibits and explore different viewpoints, and don’t be afraid to venture into lesser-visited tanks or corners of the aquarium. This exploration can lead you to hidden gems and offer great photo opportunities away from the crowds.
An interesting aspect of aquarium photography is capturing human interaction with the exhibits. Observing how children marvel at a giant fish tank or how a couple enjoys a tranquil jellyfish display can add a new layer of storytelling to your photography. These candid shots can convey emotions and human connection to the aquatic world, making your photos more engaging and relatable.
Lastly, it’s essential to understand and respect the rules and guidelines of the aquarium. From keeping tripods and monopods out of the way to obeying any flash photography restrictions, adhering to the aquarium’s policies ensures a pleasant experience for everyone. Plus, it reflects well on the photography community so everyone can maintain a good relationship with these amazing venues.
Tips for aquarium photography: final words
Well, there you have it:
My top tips for improving your aquarium images! Just remember to adjust your settings and approach until you can capture sharp, well-exposed photos. Then see if you can capture creative shots by changing your angle, paying attention to the lighting, and more.
One final tip: Don’t rush around the aquarium trying to photograph everything. Instead, take your time with each subject – even if it means you need to come back another day to finish your photoshoot. Patience is generally rewarded!
Now over to you:
Which of these tips do you plan to use on your next aquarium visit? Do you have any tips that I missed? Share your thoughts in the comments below!