An online book of Common Sense Photography, by Rhett Stuart

How to Take Macro Pictures at an Aquarium


The best way to take pictures at an aquarium is to avoid having the flash reflect in your own picture! Place the flash units at 45 degrees off to each side and pointed at the fish, or crab or whatever. If possible, bring a tripod unless you are really good at hand holding a camera for long periods of time. Flash isn’t essential. I have taken close up photos of the glowing yellow jellyfish with an f/1.4 aperture at Monterey Bay Aquarium by leaning against a post. The effects can be dramatic with the aquarium lighting the photograph! But for really sharp photographs a flash is strongly recommended.

The best results are with 2 flash heads 45 degrees to each side of the fish. Remember to overexpose by 1 or 2 stops since 25% to 50% of the lighting is lost through the thick aquarium glass and the water. Try a smaller aperture of f/16 with a 100-125/second shutter speed to stop the action with two flash heads. This also yields a good Depth of Field. Another alternative is just to get at an angle to the glass. I usually just get at a 45 degree angle from the glass with a single flash unit so the reflection bounces off away from the lens.

Another problem is having your own reflection show up in the glass. Get off to one side and take the photograph at an angle. If this doesn’t allow for the close up angle you want, wear black clothing with a black cap, or attach a black cardboard to the front of the lens. Make your own black cardboard attachment by tracing the outside end of the lens on the cardboard and cut the circle up into small pie slices. Bend back the tabs you just made back and rubber band them onto the lens as the lens is sticking through the hole. Hopefully, this will help you from coming back from that great aquarium tour and having all the pictures of your own flash unit! Or with a reflection of you and your equipment in the photograph with the sea creatures! If the aquarium allows for it, bring a stool since it takes awhile for the fish to cooperate.

The closer I get the more light the flash produces on the subject. The distance of the flash is critical. So I need to underexpose another stop or two to correct for this. Getting a few inches closer dramatically increases the amount of light at these close working angles. Macro flash units allow for these close distances. The point is, flash lighting with macro photography has more room for error, and so more care is needed with the exposure.

Think of it this way. If the flash is 8 inches away, moving it 4 inches closer would be like being 20 feet way from a subject, and moving 10 feet away. However, with macro flash photography the increase in light is increased even more due to the extremely close distance.

For larger sea life or pictures from the top of an aquarium try a polarizing filter. This special filter cuts out reflective light and makes sea life much more visible though the top surface of the water. Polarizing filters reduce the exposure by 1-2 stops since they are dark colored filters.