I recently took a family trip to Ripley’s Aquarium in downtown Toronto, and hoped to get some neat photos of the creatures there. Now be prepared; An aquarium is an extremely challenging environment to take photos, but I will share some tips and tricks so that you can make the most of your shooting time.

A quick note before I start. I’m not an activist, but I am keen that we take care of our environment, respect the creatures we share it with, and generally keep it clean. I don’t want to get too bogged down in this, but I also don’t want to feel like a hypocrite. There are many concerns about the impact that aquariums have on sea creatures in particular. Only around 5% of creatures are bred in aquariums. The rest are captured. Of those captured, around 80% die before reaching their destination. If you care to read more about this, please do. Moving on…

  • Get there as soon as they open: Number One Rule! There will be fewer people frustrating you and getting in the way.
  • Do NOT use Flash: The built-in flash on your camera nearly always sucks, but especially when you are shooting through glass. You’ll get reflections.
  • Avoid curved glass: Shoot up against flat glass to reduce distortion.
  • Pick your subject: Lighter coloured, reflective creatures are easier. Shoot creatures near to the glass. The more water between you, the more blur you will get.

 

The following tips apply to SLR cameras (not mobile phones) and more advanced users:
  • Use a tripod: In these low-light conditions, a tripod will offer stability. Bonus points if you have a remote shutter release.
  • Shoot in RAW: You will have way more freedom to fix images later
  • Use manual focusing: Set your focus by taking a test shot and zooming in 100% on the LCD. Repeat until correct. Then set your camera to manual focus. Auto-focus is under extreme conditions and will frequently fail. It will try to focus on the glass, on reflections, on debris in the water… Even worse, some cameras will shine a light that normally helps it to focus. This will lead to worse reflections and may disturb some creatures that like the dark, such as octopodes.

 

Lionfish by BritHikesOntario
Lionfish by BritHikesOntario Manual exposure, 50mm, 1/40, f4.8
And some technical tips and settings:
  • Lens: Everything is about the low-light. You want the fastest lens you own in this situation. If you have more than one lens, look at the F number(s). If the lens can zoom, it will have a range of F numbers. For example, one of mine is quite slow at 4.5-5.6 and another is 3.5-5.6. I am going to choose the lens with 3.5 on it. Balance this against the practicalities of the lens (no point bringing in a 10-foot long telephoto lens).
  • Aperture (F-stop): The lower the number, the more light enters the camera. So you want this as low as you can go. Just also bear in mind that the lower the number, the less depth of field you will have (the amount of the image that is in focus) and that this effect is also exaggerated the more that you zoom.
  • ISO/Shutter: You want the ISO (how sensitive the camera is) as low as you can set it. The higher it is, the more noise there will be, especially in the dark. BUT, the lower the ISO, the lower (slower) the shutter has to be. You don’t want the shutter to be much lower than “60” (60th of a second). At this point, the shutter will be open too long and pictures will be blurred. These settings are all about balance and will vary from camera to camera. A high-end camera might be good as low as ISO200-300. Older, lower-end cameras might have to be in the thousands. You’ll have to fix noise afterwards.

 

Manta Ray at Ripley's Aquarium by BritHikesOntario
Manta Ray by BritHikesOntario Manual exposure, 48mm, 1/60, f5
Last of all: 
  • Include People: Don’t be afraid of including people in your shot. As silhouettes, they can help give a sense of scale.
  • Consider cheating: I personally do not like adding, moving or changing the actual content of my photos. I prefer to only alter levels. However, many people, many successful people, edit their photos quite extensively. You can get a great result by taking multiple images and “compositing” them. In other words, copy and pasting fish from several photos into one overall image.

Hope this helps!

-BritHikesOntario