How to Photograph Fish
Photographing fish is quite easy as long as you follow a few golden rules. This part of the site is a guide to photographing tank fish in their normal environment - swimming around a tank. If you have not yet devised your own successful system of photography then you may well find that this section gets you results.
Suitable camera types
Unfortunately, it does require a certain type of camera to make it easier. An SLR with through-the-lens composing and focusing is highly desirable because the one thing you will want to do is view your fish accurately and see what reflections you will get from the tank glass. Compact cameras (which almost always have separate taking and viewing lenses) are not really suitable for fish photography. Parallax, the difference in view between the positions of the two lens, is very marked for close-up work and will make it very difficult to frame your subject properly.
A separate flash or built-in flash is a must for photographing fish, but the type which is built-in to most compact cameras is often unsuitable because the flash is very close to the taking lens. You will need to be able to angle the camera to exclude the flash gun from the shot otherwise the flash light will reflect off the fish tank glass and ruin the shot. With an SLR it is easy to see if the flash is in the field of view and move it, or the camera, accordingly. You may say "switch off the flash then". But you need the flash because otherwise with the low light level you will need a very large aperture giving a reduced depth of field. In a close-up situation like this the fish will be out of focus somewhere on its body. If you stop down the aperture to increase the depth of field then you will need a slow shutter speed, and your fish's fins will then be blurred! You can't win - you need a flash!
Many people suggest that you use a flash gun removed from the camera and point it down through the top of the water. They say that this gives a more natural photograph. This may be true to some extent, but that's because you'll have a photo with the underneath of the fish badly under exposed. In my opinion it is far better to illuminate all of the fish. Let's face it, to be perfectly natural we ought to put the fish in a river and look down vertically on it! I'll stick to sharp, well exposed photographs of a beautiful fish at home in a tank.
Manual focusing with an SLR is obviously the best because you can see how well focused you are before you press the shutter release. However, depending on the focusing technology and the accuracy of the camera there is no reason why autofocus should not produce good results. If, however, the focusing system relies on an infra-red beam then the camera will focus on the tank glass, which is not much use. Contrast assessment focusing should be able to cope well, as long as the fish is within the focusing range of the camera.
So what sort of photographic film is suitable for fish photography? Gosh, how long is a piece of string! That's about it really, you choose. There is no fundamental reason why you should not use the film you normally work with - the fish won't care, and color reproduction is pretty much unimportant considering that cichlids change by the minute anyway. The choice of film speed is also pretty much up to you. I tend to use 100asa/ISO 35mm film because that is what I use generally and that is what is likely to be in the camera. If you really must forgo the use of flash then you will need a very fast film. I suggest that ISO400 would be a minimum speed rating.
Ok, so you've got everything ready. An SLR with a flash, manually set to the flash synchronisation speed, aperture set to a sensible f11 (or whatever is needed for close up work with your film speed) and the flash switched on. So now you just press the shutter? Um, no. You've got to get the fish in the right place, and the camera angled to the tank glass at approximately 45 degrees, or a good angle anyway. You need to anticipate flash reflections off the glass and steer away from it. One technique is to put the lens right up against the glass, so any light will only be reflected off the fish. Which, of course, is exactly what you want.
My experience of cichlids leads me to think that they are born posers and will be quite at home on the catwalk (I feel a pun coming on). They will either give you some 'agro' through the glass or pace up and down with fins flowing elegantly. However, all this activity right outside the fish's territory may intimidate it causing it to go off and sulk behind a rock. The only safeguard against this is to acclimatise the fish(s) to the equipment by allowing them a couple of days to get used to it. Stick your camera on a tripod for a couple of days, very near to the tank, even if you do not intend actually using a tripod. Unless the cichlids are actually about to breed they will probably tolerate this very well. Once they are breeding they will probably ignore you or try and shoo you away. Either way this is a good photographic opportunity. I've never found my camera activities stop a cichlid breeding so unless your fish are really anxious they'll accept your presence quite happily. If the fish are very anxious then the breeding will probably be a failure anyway, so you may as well have a couple of photos for your pains!
One of the problems of fish photography is the 'eye-blink' effect. You know the sort of thing - you find your perfectly exposed and focused shot of a very famous person is ruined because he blinked just as you pressed the shutter. Of course, you don't find this out until the film is developed and the VIP is now 3000 miles away. Similarly, with a fish, you find that after you've got the perfect shot his pectoral fin has flapped forward over his eye.
Whether you want to use a tripod, or not, is really down to personal opinion. If you own one then why not try it? If not then don't waste your money because you will not need it for fish photography. The speed of a flash gun is so fast that all fish movement, and hand-shake, is eliminated. You only need to use the tripod if you need it to ensure that the camera is always placed at the correct angle relative to the tank glass. Sometimes there is so much on your mind (camera settings, fish position, dorsal fin position, other fish getting in the way, ugly background, etc) that you press the shutter just as the reflection of the flash pops into view. The tripod allows you to set up for the best position, and then you merely have to wait, and wait, and wait, for the fish to come into position. When it does you've got your best shot, and you know that the technicalities haven't been bungled at the last moment.
These are hugely beneficial for fish photography. Not because they are better, but because you can run off hundreds of shots for zero money, and only keep the good ones. Although I have used a digital camera I haven't purchased one, at the time of writing, because I like to have a certain amount of manual control and the cameras I like are still pricey. I send my 35mm films to Kodak for developing and for a few pounds extra I have them put onto a Photo CD. However, this is only possible for 'normal' pictures which you know will be ok, because the cost is far too high for trial shots.
So there you have it. Use a camera with as many manual functions as possible; preferably an SLR. Use a flash, which must be at an angle to, or right up against, the tank glass. Use a small aperture. Acclimatise the fish to the equipment. Oh, yes, and be patient!