with Lorelle and Brent VanFossen

Underwater Without Getting Wet – Aquatic and Aquarium Photography

Animated graphic of fish in a tank swimmingPhotography in open air can be easy. Point and shoot. Add one of the other basic elements – water – and the rules change. A lot. Aquariums offer excellent opportunities to get up close and personal with your local (or not so local) squid, octopus and shark. For photographers, this represents a challenge. Between the camera and the subject is glass, often over an inch thick, and lots of water. Fish can be a big challenge to photograph.

Aquarium light is usually dim to simulate the natural habitat of the animals, and to permit better viewing for the public. As the fish dart around the tank, using a flash will increase the amount of light, increase the shutter speed, and probably enable you to take a wonderful photograph of your flash reflecting from the glass.

The Glass

Line up your camera and lens perpendicular to the glass. At any other angle the glass acts as a lens and throws everything out of focus. Keep the lens as close to the glass as possible to avoid reflections from the flash as well as other interior lights. A rubber lens hood will allow you to put the lens up against the glass without the danger of scratching it. When using a zoom lens, zoom with caution. The zoom will change the length of the lens and it can hit the glass.

Sea anenomes through an aquarium window, Red Sea, Israel, photo by Lorelle VanFossenIf the subject is close to the glass or if the depth of field is large, the imperfections and scratches in the glass may show in the photographs. Keep to a moderate aperture for best results and faster shutter speeds.

Photographing in Eilat, Israel, at the Coral World Underwater Observatory and Aquarium, much of the photography we did through the glass windows was in available light since midday in the Middle East means lots of light filtering through the water, even at some depth. This allowed us to work with moderate depths of field without a flash to capture the unique and colorful underwater life of the Red Sea.

The Water and The Flash

Our fish tank capturing the brilliant reflection of the camera flash, photo by Lorelle VanFossenWater absorbs a lot more light than air. To counter the density of the water, a medium to high powered flash is necessary, especially for large public aquariums. Two of the largest and finest public aquariums in the world are the Seattle Aquarium and the Monetary Aquarium in California. Using a flash synch-cord will allow you to take the flash off of the camera. Placing the flash against the glass or at a 45 degree angle to the glass will help eliminate “flash-back” or strong flash reflections in the glass. A polarizing filter can help cut reflections but it can also cost two stops of light, resulting in a slower shutter speed. Use it in combination with a flash.

The Home Aquarium Enthusiast

Photo of a fish tank 
Photo by Jo BoyettPsychologists and psychiatrists report that an aquarium in your home or office will help to ease tensions and worries. Imagine what photographing one will do! If you have your own aquarium or want to set one up to photograph aquatic animals, or even lizards and frogs, it’s easy.

This Cichlid Convict mother guards her precious eggs in our living room. Photo by Brent VanFossenInexpensive fish tanks are available from large retail stores such as WalMart or a local pet and fish supply stores. Sizes range from 5 gallons to over 150 gallons with prices from $10.00 to thousands. There are many easy to read instructional books for properly setting up a salt water or fresh water aquarium.

Closeup of baby shrimp by Brent VanFossenWhen photographing your own aquarium, take precautions to keep the water as clear as possible. Make sure it has been a couple of hours since the last feeding so all the food as been consumed or settled. Any props (rocks, wood, plants, etc.) should be rinsed and scrubbed thoroughly before introducing them to the tank. Carefully clean the glass inside and out.

By constraining the fish to the front, with an interesting background, it makes photographing the fish easier. 
Photo by Brent VanFossenYou can easily adapt your aquarium for photographing the quick-moving fish. In his Photographing the small homemade aquarium with shrimp. Photo by Lorelle VanFossenbook, The Complete Guide to Wildlife Photography, Joe McDonald recommends sliding a piece of glass in behind the front pane of glass in the tank to create a division in the tank a couple of inches wide. Make notches in the top plastic aquarium frame to accept and hold the glass pane in place. This will constrain the fish to the very front and keep them closer to the glass for a clear shot. Place rocks and plants behind the glass for a backdrop and no one will know there is glass between the subject and the backdrop.

A home aquarium opens up many photographic and creative possibilities. By using more than one flash, you can add back lighting and side lighting to accentuate the subject. One can even be used overhead to simulate sunlight.

No Reflections
Make sure the room is as dark as possible to help eliminate reflections on the glass and be aware of the background. Watch for wires, pipes, heaters and pumps. Dress in dark clothes and remove all shiny jewelry, rings, necklaces, earrings, and watches, as these can appear as reflections in the photograph.
Use Close-up/Macro Lens
Close focusing equipment is critical to capturing your home aquarium life on film. Use a macro lens, close-up diopters, extension tubes, teleconverters or combinations of these to capture the miniature world before you.
Do no harm
Be careful handling all life forms. Fish are easily harassed and stressed by changes in their environment whether from a change in water or a change in activity. Be patient and move slowly to ensure the survival and health of your fish.

Fish and Pet Stores

Clown Fish in Salt Water, photo by Brent VanFossenLocal fish and pet stores may allow you to come in during their “slack” times, usually first thing in the morning or middle of the day, to photograph their fish. Be cautious of other people tripping over your equipment, especially children, and of interfering with the work of the employees. A good negotiating tool is to provide a few prints to the store in return for the favor.

padding protects you from sharp tidepool rocks and barnacles, photo by Lorelle VanFossenThere are a variety of aquatic animals to photograph from tide pool creatures like starfish, anemones and urchins to tropical fish, shrimp, coral and seaweed, as well as aquatic insects. There is a lot of room for experimentation and new creative approaches. These techniques will work for wide angle or extreme close-ups of aquariums and the creatures within their glass constraints.


  • molly
    Posted August 21, 2005 at 17:22 | Permalink

    you have awesome pictures they are neat.

  • Another Molly
    Posted February 1, 2006 at 12:36 | Permalink

    Gr8 pics. They are absolutely beautiful!

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  • […] there are amazing underwater photographers, our underwater photography is fairly limited to aquariums, we still love swimming, snorkeling and diving. We were lucky enough to swim with the dophins in […]

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