Nothing can bring out my inner child quite like a trip to the aquarium. I am still in awe of the many and varied creatures that inhabit the aquatic regions of our planet. As a stock photographer, I am always looking for unique images of nature, and aquariums provide a wealth of models just waiting for their close-up. Planning ahead can mean the difference of success or failure for a photo shoot. So the next time you’re looking to grab your camera and head out to the local aquarium, here are a few tips to keep in mind.
Aquarium Photography tips
Plan The Visit
Who doesn’t love the aquarium? The first challenge to overcome is the sheer numbers of visitors most aquariums pull in every day. There are a few tricks you can use to minimize disruptions. Plan on going off-peak. Avoid summer months, school breaks and holidays, as aquariums will be on the attraction list for many families. Also try to avoid peak periods for school outing – the best times are early in the school terms (September/October and January/February/March). Mid-week is usually preferable over weekends.
Plan on arriving early in the day. In fact plan on arriving at opening and head straight to the most popular exhibits before they fill up. These will include the dolphins, the puffins, the sharks, or anything really cute or really icky. Another option is to jump ahead in the exhibit order for an hour or so of crowd free shooting. Use the natural lunchtime lulls to grab some one-on-one time with your favorite subjects (I always pack a peanut butter sandwich to give me added flexibility around this time). Missed the opening hours? Try going closer to closing when the crowds have started to thin out.
Use the online tools available on most aquarium web sites to map the exhibits you want to see. Note feeding schedules and show times and plan on arriving early to stake out a good spot (just to be aware of and avoid those splash zones).
Make sure to check your aquarium’s photo policies, most will only require advanced arrangements for “commercial” shoots i.e. shoots including models or requiring special equipment.
Equipment to Bring
Which brings us to the subject of what equipment to bring. Keep in mind that most aquariums have limited maneuverability as compared to say a zoo due to smaller exhibit sizes and the added number of visitors. You will want to have multiple lenses at your disposal – wide angle for tanks – zoom for close-ups – and have some fun by using a fish eye on fish. The simplest solution for this is to have multiple camera bodies for your various lenses so you can easily switch between shots.
You will find it easier to use a shoulder sling camera bag versus a backpack, and I prefer a monopod over a tripod simply due to the added risk of injury to others a tripod in a crowded location introduces. I will bring a gorilla pod, which can add additional stability when needed in cramped quarters.
Use of flash is a must. Avoid no flash exhibits; there simply is not a high enough ISO in the world for low light shooting of models that will be moving – fast. Please read and follow posted signs. Some animals can be harmed or killed by harsh light. Lens hoods are necessity to help block ambient light on glass.
A package of ready to use glass cleaners for quick smudge removal really helps to clean up those little nose and handprints that are so prevalent at kid height. And just as for any on-location shoot, bring lots of extra batteries and memory cards.
Shots to find
Flexibility and patience are key – favorite exhibit crowded? Do not try to compete for space with children who are excited and excitable – it won’t end well for either of you. Step aside. Use the chance to observe behaviors and plan your next shot. Once the crush has passed you can step in for your shot. Or just come back later if the crowds don’t thin out fast enough.
Pan out for people interacting with exhibits. Hands feeding stingrays, a child’s face pressed against the glass, crowds of people watching a dolphin show, wide angle on the shark tanks with their sense of fear, all provide worthwhile subjects.
Zoom in for close-ups. The tiniest of tree frogs can fill a scene. Anemones in a tidal flow look more like an underwater garden than animals when shot in close range. Try to catch the menace in the caiman’s eyes as he watches prey go by.
Talk to the volunteer docents for insights and additional exhibits. One friendly volunteer showed me a Longhorn Cowfish that would follow your finger anywhere on the glass – I could literally “pose” this funny little character exactly where I wanted him. Of course when they find out you are a photographer, be prepared to be peppered with their questions too – it’s only fair.
Look for behind the scenes shots. My favorite aquarium’s highlight is their dolphin shows. While the crowds fill the auditorium to watch the antics, I found a spot with a large window looking into the tank. I can shoot the stars as they do their warm up laps. Often they will notice someone standing there and swim over to check me out providing the perfect opportunity for a close up. And the underwater show is just as spectacular as the one being seen above.
Pay special attention to your composition making sure to remove any “unnatural” pieces of an exhibit from the shot. You don’t want that beautiful coral reef shot ruined by an errant piece of pipe running through it.
Try to slow down the shutter speeds to add the blur of motion to the shot. Using this effect on a menacing shark gives it an eerie and foreboding feel.
Pay attention to how your models are reacting. I once spent an hour trying to photograph rainforest frogs in an exhibit. Every time I would get the image composed and focused, the frogs would duck under a leaf or log. EVERY TIME. I finally figured out they were seeing the flash sensor light as a threat and reacting so. Simply keeping the flash off until needed finally allowed me to get the picture.
Keep vigilant on the websites and newsletters for any out of ordinary opportunities being offered. These can include the chance to see and shoot scientists or trainers during their work, or behind the scenes tours of the facilities. If this is an area of special interest to you, most aquariums will offer memberships that give special opportunities for members only.
Essential Camera Settings
Shooting in low light with fast subjects will require a fast ISO even with added flash. Use post-processing software to remove the added noise. For the same reasons focusing will be a bit more of a challenge. Use autofocus or select a spot to pre-focus on and be ready for quick shooting. In fact, it is wise to use burst or continuous shooting to make sure you capture your model at just the right moment.
Place your lens hood as close to the glass as possible to avoid flash flares and reflections.
Keep in mind that an image’s depth of field will be distorted when shooting through glass and water. Add 2 or 3 aperture stops to your normal settings to compensate for this effect.
My recipe for aquarium photography? Do a little research in advance to know where you want to shoot, when you want to shoot and what behaviors you can expect. Go back often as you become familiar with the layout and attractions – look for new exhibits being added. And let your inner child out. Your results will be amazing!
About the Author
Karen Foley is a free-lance stock photographer who contributes her work exclusively to Dreamstime Stock Photography Look for her blogs about photography and portfolio of work at karenfoleyphotography