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!
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:
For the next photo, however, I stepped closer to the glass and angled the camera to avoid including any reflections:
Much better, right?
2. Adjust your settings to avoid motion blur
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:
My advice? Don’t rely on your camera to pick the shutter speed. Instead, choose a shooting mode that lets you dial in the shutter speed directly – either Shutter Priority mode or Manual mode.
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). I used a 1/125s shutter speed to capture this crisp shark shot:
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.
3. 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:
4. 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.
5. 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.
6. 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:
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!