You get quite a few reactions from your surroundings when you suddenly
start spending your time starring through your camera into a glass container.
My photographer-friends laugh at me, my kids are nagging me and my wife
sighs and shakes her head. It seems like they had more understanding
towards my earlier photographic projects for some reason.
- Sure, those fish are nice but how exiting could it be to look at
It really is very exiting with fish pictures. Even more exiting to
create them and especially when it involves your own fish. I have always
been fascinated by the interaction that takes place between our cichlids
and the rest of the inhabitants of our flat. The majority of our cichlids
have individual relationships with all members of my family. My wife
is uninteresting, my son is highly dangerous, I bring the food and my
daughter is harmless. One day I will try to photograph how she squeezes
her face towards the glass and beats it with her little hands and a
whole group of curious Tropheus gathers in front of her nose to check
her out. If I would do something like that the entire group would press
themselves against the back of the tank.
Sometimes you have to wait for a long time before
the fish shows it self in the right way, like this Lamprologus stappersi
Returning to the subject of photography I must say that shooting cichlids
that you "know" is very awarding. Sometimes it seems as if
they are posing for you, moving back and forth, spreading their fins
until you have gotten the shots you wanted. When you confront new cichlids
it is more common that they shy away from the strange unnatural behaviour
it is having a person following their moves pointing at them with a
big object. The most difficult place to shoot cichlids is often at breeders
since they tend to keep their breeding stock in peace as much as possible.
This limits their experience of having people close to the tank to a
degree that it might be impossible to get any good shots of them. This
of course becomes even more frustrating due to the fact that these particular
specimens, for obvious reasons often are the most beautiful ones you
can imagine. Their posture and colour is brought out to an extreme degree
when a lonely male gets to hang out by him self with a group of five
to six females. And it doesn't really make it worse that these males
already from the start are selected for having that little "extra"
bit of elegancy to their bodies.
In shops however it's different. There it is more likely to come across
intrepid individuals but the fish are often crowding their tanks and
in the majority of cases they are not showing the slightest of their
Cameras can't take pictures
An important detail that I was taught by my grandfather and father
(both photographers since a very early age) is that it is not cameras
that take pictures, it is photographers. This is probably very good
to keep in mind especially today when technology takes care of practically
half of what was ones my grandfathers actual craft. It's great with
all this progress of technology because the less time you spend on the
technical part of photography the more you spend on creating images
which is what it's all about. The technical recommendations that follows
are the conclusions of my experiences in aquarium photography and you
should keep in mind that I have gone the traditional way. I have not
even tried to use a digital camera, auto focus or built in flash or
any other kind of automatic function simply because I don't know how
to and have never used it in my daily work as a photographer. This does
not mean it is wrong to use such functions but I hope that some of the
things I will be discussing can be of help also to those who choose
to use more automatic/modern equipment.
It is possible to estabish a contact with the fish
just like in human portrait photography. You can almost feel the intensive
eye of this Dimidiochromis compressiceps.
Photography in general is mainly about light. The angle from which
the light hits a cichlid greatly determents how we experience its shape,
colour, fins and eyes. If one choose to use only the built in flash
of the camera one likely gets a big reflection in the glass. If you
point your lens at a straight angle against the glass this reflection
also ends up in the centre of the image. If the built in flash is located
high on your camera or you point the lens at an angle you sometimes
avoid reflections but the shape of the fish becomes flat and boring.
The "correct" way to place the lights for aquarium photography
is from above. This creates highlights on the back of the fish and lowlights
underneath and we clearly experience the rounded, elongate body of a
fish the way we are used to see it. Now, I like braking rules and would
like to point out that the reason we are taught that the "above
light" equals "correct" lighting is that this is the
way we normally se fishes. In the lake/ocean all light comes from above
and this is also the way they are lit in the aquarium. It is recommended
to place the light from above to start with but all of you who have
seen underwater documentaries at Discovery or BBC have probably noticed
that due to the position of the camera the light can come from what
ever angle and when light surprises us that's when we get a truly great
kick out of underwater photography. But maybe we shouldn't start with
cubism before we have learned to paint a classic portrait? (But if that's
what you want go ahead and do it.)
Fixed lights or flash?
First of all maybe we should say something about fixed light, in other
words, lamps. In my opinion it is wise to use as slow a film as possible
in all sorts of macro photography since it is the details that makes
the pictures interesting. 100 asa or its digital equivalence is according
to me the fastest possible film for this type of work. Due to the fact
that you need a shutter speed of at least 125th of a second to freeze
a moving fish most lamps are not strong enough, especially the ones
located in standard aquaria lighting. I am not saying that good cichlid
photos were never taken with fixed lighting. It is a little like feeding
bloodworm to Tropheus. It may work but it might end up in a catastrophe.
If you however happen to be the owner of a set of really powerful lights
there is actually one more thing to consider. The unnatural strong lighting
really stresses the fish. Not so much because they dislike the actual
light but because they all of a sudden see everything in the room outside
the tank from a different perspective. To bright new big suns with big
stands and a whole bunch if threatening shapes and things in the room.
It takes quite some time for them to get used to this. I can assure
you that I have tried. One of the reasons why I have done this is because
there is one great advantage in using lights. You can see what the lighting
is going to look like when you look through the viewfinder. Using flash
you won't know this until you see the results. This means it might take
a few sessions until you get the lighting the way you want it.
Experimenting with the placing of the flashes can
be very rewarding. In this photo the flash is placed to the right giving
the Discus an almost transparent look.
This very small advantage with the lights is to be compared to a large
amount of advantages with using the flash. The really big advantage
in using them is that the fish does not notice them at all. The flash
bulb actually lights up and shuts down before the eye of the fish reacts
to it. In a few rare occasions I have noticed reactions from the fish
but I think this has been times when I have linked several flashes together
with a prolonged flash blow as a result.
To be able to shoot fish "my way" you first of all need a
camera, preferably one with a changeable lens and an outlet for an external
flash. Pretty much all cameras with changeable lenses features such
outlet and quite a few compact cameras as well. Then you need flashes,
preferably three of them. At flee markets or in ads you can quite often
find old flashes at a very low price. Or you might have one lying around.
The only thing that's important is that you can hook them up to your
camera with a cable and that they flash when they receive a signal from
the camera. It's not important if some of the buttons or switches seem
to be out of order, the strength of the flash can be set by changing
the distance between flash and object. You now hook up one of the flashes
to your camera with a cable and buy a small sensor to connect to the
other two that make them flash when they sense another flash going off
close by. You have now turned these two flashes into what photographers
call "slaves". The cable will cost you under 10 dollars, the
sensor about 15. I have found several old flashes of all kinds and brands
in flee markets and in ads for less then 10 dollars. An alternative
to this is of course buying new slave-flashes with built in sensors.
The prize of the smaller ones range between 35-60 dollars a piece.
What about the exposure values? If you use negative colour film of
100 asa, which is what I recommend, you wont get a very long depth of
field with above mentioned equipment, but it is enough I think. I do
not think that the longer depth of field you can get the better in all
occasions. Just remember to focus the eye of the fish and you will be
fine. If you ask me I actually think that you can intensify a fish portrait
by letting the extended body of the fish be out of focus.
It is of course an advantage if you have a flash meter so that you
can measure the exact strength of the flashes but it is not necessary.
Just select the exposure time for flash sync. It can be marked as an
X on your camera or it could be one of the exposure times marked in
red. Use F-stop 4.0 with a 50 mm lens and you will be fine. If you wish
to use a different asa or a shorter/longer lens you either have to measure
with a flash meter or try a couple of times to get it right. If you
place the flashes at a distance over the surface and they are not of
professional strength, then set your aperture to 2.8. Color negatives
are pretty tolerant so a little under or over exposure is easy compensated
during scanning or printing your images.
What kind of camera?
Regarding the camera I recommend one with manual focusing. Auto focus
is slow and when you shoot details you often come across situations
when your target fish has all its fin rays pointing in the right direction
and your camera is focusing on a leaf on the side. The auto focus also
tend to get confused by the strange proportions that might occur on
an object seen through water at close range. Also the majority of the
auto focused lenses that I have tried have serious problems focusing
on objects at close range. It is not always you wish to focus on an
object that is in the centre of the image and when your whole viewfinder
if filled up by an object that does not measure more than an inch and
a half, you better be spot on with your focus. Go manual because you
are not going to focus that much anyhow, I will tell you more about
It is important to use a lens that has the ability to focus at close
range. It needs to be able to focus an object located approximately
5 inches from the lens. It is not a good idea to use a wide-angle, Wide-angle
is everything shorter than 50 mm. Lenses that have the ability to focus
on objects at close range are called macro-lenses. There are pure macro-lenses
but also plenty of zoom lenses that have a macro setting. Usually a
macro-lens has "macro" written on it but you can of course
just look through the viewfinder and focus on something to tell if the
lens is capable. I work with a 50 mm macro and it has worked fine for
me. 50 mm lenses are often called "normal" since they pretty
much imitates the shapes and forms of objects the way we see them with
our eyes. Shorter than 50 mm is wide-angle and longer is "telephoto".
Telephoto lenses press together the image in a way that the fish might
look both short and fat.
Here you can clearly see how the "slave-flashes"
that I have placed on top of the covers, light up the fish.
How To Focus
If you use several flashes you can place them directly on top of the
tank covers. If the covers are dirty they need to be cleaned otherwise
you loose several F-stops. Place the flash that is connected to your
camera beside you at a distance of approximately one and a half foot.
Point it towards the centre of the tank so that it is at an angle and
not pointing directly towards the glass surface. Don't chase the fish
around with the lens. You decide where the photo is to be taken. On
that spot you should wait until your object swims by. You can of course
make minor adjustments in either direction but if you keep still the
fish will eventually come close. You just need a great amount of patience.
Because of this it is very important to sit comfortably and to be prepared
to sit for a long time. I always sit with the camera risen looking comfortably
with both eyes over the viewfinder. When a fish gets close I can then
just lower my head and look through the viewfinder without scaring the
fish with sudden body movement.
Most of the time It will do you no good to keep focusing back and forth.
Just focus on a spot a few inches behind the glass on a spot where you
find it likely that the fish will pass and the make swaying movements
with your whole body against or away from the glass to capture the focus.
Like most of you know it is quite common that cichlids move between
fixed spots in their territory. If you are to shoot a tank that you
have never seen before it is of great help to first stop at a distance
and observe the fish for a while before you start laying out your equipment.
Later when everything is in place and you have sat down still for a
while in front of the tank, things behind the glass will return to normal.
If you have powerful flashes it can be a good idea to rise them up
a bit above the tank. In this case you should totally remove the cover-glasses
and you will have the light spread a little more. If you are to work
with only a single flash from above this is necessary since you otherwise
only light a small part of the tank at once. With some tape and a broom-stick
you can place a flash at any angle. It can also make a very interesting
result if you place one flash hitting the tank from one side. When you
experiment with the flash angles just make sure that you don't point
them at your self. This may result in your own image being visible in
the front glass of the tank.
When you photograph your own fish you nomally establish
the best contact. In my own group of Tropheus "Kala Island"
i am practically accepted as a member.
From camera to publication
It is often cheap to get your negatives transferred to a CD when you
have them developed. The CDs you get from print shops are most of the
time enough for publishing your photos in magazines and of course for
the web. Photographing cichlids is a good way of closely examining their
behaviour and I hope that this article might encourage you to take one
step further into the art of cichlid photography. Good cameras are always
an advantage but remember that the most important traits in becoming
a good cichlid photographer are cichlid passion and patience.