How to Take Clear and Creative Photos at Aquariums

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Aquariums are amazing places to take your family. But it can be really hard to take good photos as aquariums.

Naturally, you want some really cool pictures. But you find out very quickly that aquariums are dark. Really dark! And that your photos turn out blurry. Really blurry!

Low light photography is one of my favorite challenges. So, in this article, I’ll show you how to get clear and creative photos at aquariums and how to apply some simple edits in Lightroom.

A photo of a shark swimming with fish. How to Take Clear and Creative Photos at Aquariums

I’ve always been amazed by people who go diving with sharks. I knew that I wanted my aquarium photos to seem like they were taken from in the water. So as much as possible, I got right up close to the glass, blocking everything out except the creatures in the water.

1. Getting Clear Photos at Aquariums

Turn off your flash

If you set your camera to Automatic Mode, it’ll likely trigger the flash when you take a photo. The flash will make a huge reflection on the glass which will ruin your photo. So before you even enter the aquarium, make sure to disable your flash.

If you turn your flash off you’ve eliminated the biggest problem with glare. But there still might be some ambient light reflecting off the glass. Move right up to the glass so that your camera won’t pick up any of this reflected ambient light. You’ll be standing right up at the glass looking through it, rather than standing back a few feet looking at it.

Photo of ambient light reflecting on glass at the aquarium. How to Take Clear and Creative Photos at Aquariums

Here you can see the white and orange ambient light reflected in the glass on the left side of the photo. This photo is also suffering from a slight bit of motion blur.

Photo of a fish with no ambient light reflecting on the glass. How to Take Clear and Creative Photos at Aquariums

In this second photo, I stepped closer to the glass and angled the camera so as not to see the ambient light reflected in the glass. The main fish is also sharper now. Part of drew me to this photo was the simplicity of the scene. Very little color, good subject and a repetitive pattern of fish in the background. ISO 2500, f/2.8, 1/50th.

Turning off the flash and getting rid of reflections is the first step. Now it’s time to consider freezing the action so that your photos won’t be blurry.

Motion Blur

You may find that your aquarium photos turn out blurry at first. This is because in low light situations your shutter speed can become too slow to freeze the movement.

It’s important for you to set the shutter speed yourself, ensuring that your photos will not be blurry from camera or subject movement. There are two main ways to do this; Shutter Priority or full Manual Mode.

A photo with blurry fish - How to Take Clear and Creative Photos at Aquariums

This is a typical aquarium photo suffering from motion blur. The camera settings were ISO 400, f/4, 1/10th. The shutter speed needs to be much quicker to freeze the movement of the fish. Increasing the ISO to 3200 would have allowed for a much faster shutter speed (1/80th).

Shutter Priority Mode

To use Shutter Priority Mode, start by setting the ISO as high as you are comfortable doing according to your camera. I have no problem going to ISO 3200. This higher ISO will help your camera absorb the dim light.

For photos in aquariums, I suggest setting your shutter speed to 1/125th to begin. Make sure you only set the shutter speed fast enough to freeze the action, but no faster than necessary. If the shutter speed is too quick you’ll end up with dark or underexposed images.

Close-up photo of a shark - How to Take Clear and Creative Photos at Aquariums

I was so excited to get this close to a shark! The settings for this image were ISO 3200, f/2.8, 1/125th.

Manual Mode

If you’re comfortable with it, you should use full manual mode. Set your ISO as high as you are comfortable doing according to your camera. Aim for ISO 3200 which will help your camera absorb the light.

Open your aperture as much as you can, or as much as you are comfortable doing creatively. If your aperture opens to f/2.8 or f/1.8 that will really help to capture the light.

With your ISO as high as you can make it and your aperture open as wide as you like, set your shutter speed to 1/125th or faster (likely somewhere between 1/60th and 1/250th – adjust as needed to get a good exposure based on the amount of light in your scene).

If you have a 50mm lens I recommend you make it your main lens for aquariums. The wider aperture will let in lots more light. It’s a good focal length too.

My typical settings for aquarium photos are as follows:

  • ISO 3200
  • Aperture f/2.8
  • Shutter speed 1/60th

That shutter speed is actually pretty slow. But I have practiced holding the camera really steady and most of the creatures weren’t moving too quickly.

A shark with fish. How to Take Clear and Creative Photos at Aquariums

ISO 3200, f/2.8, 1/125th.

Don’t get discouraged when the first shot doesn’t turn out. Take your time as you explore the aquarium. Try to choose a day to visit when it’s less busy. Give them a call and ask them when those times occur.

2. Getting Creative Photos

Once you’ve figured out how to get clear photos, it’s time to get creative. You might be so overwhelmed by the amazing sea life that you forget to bring your own creativity to the photos, so here are some tips for you.

Angles

To me, varying your camera angle is the quickest way to make your photos more interesting. Rather than capturing everything from the same perspective, try a variety of angles. The same shark can look very different from different angles.

A big lobster with huge claws. How to Take Clear and Creative Photos at Aquariums

I chose an eye to eye camera angle for this lobster. His claws were huge and getting right down to his level made him look like a tough guy. You have to look carefully to see his eyes in the background. This part of the aquarium was actually lit with purple light.

Low angle photo of a shark with its teeth showing. How to Take Clear and Creative Photos at Aquariums

To me, the feature that stands out the most on a shark is its teeth. A low angle is just about the only way to see those teeth in a photo.

Photo of a strange fish (eel). How to Take Clear and Creative Photos at Aquariums

The best way to capture this eel’s beauty was an eye to eye angle.

Photo of a shark chasing a fish. How to Take Clear and Creative Photos at Aquariums

A low angle can add a sense of drama to the photo. When a shark decides that it’s feeding time, that’s a dramatic moment!

Extremely low angle photo of a shark. How to Take Clear and Creative Photos at Aquariums

I would normally refer to this extremely low angle as a “bug’s eye view.” Dramatic angles such as this can really give the feeling of actually being in the water with the sharks. You’ll notice a little glare on the glass on the upper right of the photo.

Silhouettes

Silhouettes are really easy to capture in aquariums. The key to a silhouette is to have a bright background and a dark foreground and subject. If you’re comfortable using Manual Mode, then you only need to adjust your exposure until you get the desired effect.

If you’re in Auto Mode or even Shutter Priority, then your camera may naturally make the photo look like a silhouette. But you could use exposure compensation to adjust the exposure (- if you want it darker, + to lighten it) if you don’t want to shoot in Manual Mode.

A silhouette photo of people watching a manta ray. How to Take Clear and Creative Photos at Aquariums

Children are taken in by the sea creatures and parents are captivated watching their kids. This silhouette photo happened quite naturally because the aquarium is really bright compared to the people in the foreground. You’ll notice some unfortunate ambient light reflecting on the glass near the manta ray’s tail. That could be easily removed in Photoshop – if you have those skills.

Light

Pay attention to the light in the water and you should be able to get some interesting photos. Especially look for backlight or sidelight.

A dramatically lit school of fish. How to Take Clear and Creative Photos at Aquariums

I love backlighting so I positioned myself to get the huge lights in the frame. This gives the photo a dramatic deep sea feel, as though a submarine were coming along.

Close up of a backlit school of fish. How to Take Clear and Creative Photos at Aquariums

Another backlit photo. I was able to get right up to the glass to photograph this school of fish.

Editing Your Photos at Aquariums in Lightroom

When the chaos of the aquarium trip is over you can relax and sift through your photos. Choose the ones that you like the best and forget about the ones that didn’t turn out. Use a program like Lightroom to put the finishing touches on your photos.

My goal is to keep my photos looking as natural as possible. My main concerns are exposure, contrast, and clarity. However, I always want my photos to look the way the moments felt. So I don’t mind exaggerating colors or exposure if need be.

So considering your images, they’re your photos so you get to make the decisions.

Screenshot of adjustments made in Lightroom. How to Take Clear and Creative Photos at Aquariums

The adjustments here, especially clarity, allowed the shark and the fish to pop a little more.

Screenshot of adjustments made in Lightroom.

The most important adjustment made to this photos was the White Balance. I normally use Auto White Balance and the camera gets the color pretty close. But in this case, there is a strong green tint to the photo. There are all sorts of color casts in an aquarium which can make white balance tricky. Make sure you shoot raw so you can adjust it later.

Screenshot of adjustments made in Lightroom. How to Take Clear and Creative Photos at Aquariums

This lobster was impressive for its size and gritty crusty look. I bumped up the clarity significantly in order to portray that in the photo.

Bring it Together

Whether you’re going alone, with a friend, or with your whole family, don’t fight the crowds and choose a quiet time to visit the aquarium. When you get there, take your time and get comfortable with your camera settings.

Once you have figured out how to get clear photos, get creative with angles and interesting light.

Relive the sights as you cull, edit and print your favorite shots. And before you visit an aquarium again review your last photos and plan to make the new batch even better.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Mat Coker is a family photographer from Ontario, Canada. He teaches photography to parents and families, showing them how to document their life and adventures. You can get his free photography ebook, and learn more about taking creative photos.

  • Robert Law

    Great tips, Mat! Thank you!

  • Mat

    You’re welcome, Robert 🙂

  • Steve

    This is really good advice, I have used many of these methods over the years with great success. One thing I would add is to purchase a (low cost) rubber lens hood for the 50mm lens because you can press it to the glass or wall of the aquarium sealing out mostly all ambient light. Because it is rubber, it can be angled as well.

  • Mat

    Thanks, Steve. That is perfect advice. I notice a lot of people don’t use lens hoods, so thanks for that!

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