Taking Pictures of Fish

By C. Moormann

Quality Fish Pictures Made Easy

I have struggled for years trying to take pictures of fish with a lot of frustration and sparse results. I have purchased a half dozen digital cameras over the last few years and one of the first things I attempt with the new camera is to take a picture of fish. I have abused my friends by asking them to take some pictures with their new cameras and have always come up wanting. The fish always come out blurred or not in the pose I wanted. If you take a hundred pictures you may find a few in the pose you want as the picture is taken a half a second or so after you press the button. Even if your fish stopped moving for the picture, you probably moved the camera in the process of pressing the button or just by breathing. The pictures on this page were taken in less than 10 minutes using a Cool-Pix 990 twice for each pic. I came up with a cool editing tool using free internet tools. I will tell you how I took these pictures but first I want to list some of the picture taking issues and possible solutions.

1. Lighting is critical. The amount of light available determines the speed that the camera can take to complete the picture and the shorter the time the less blurring due to motion. Using a flash requires care in the angle of the lens to the glass to reduce the resulting glare on the tank glass. Proper lighting of the fish is from the top and front and probably the best method is a long flourecent bulb somehow positioned just inside the front lip of the top edge of the front of the tank. For these pictures I had 2 sixty watt bulbs behind and above me on a tripod -- the two glowing spots can be seen in the unedited video. The camera may need to be set-up for the expected light source to avoid everything looking yellow or reddish but generally with more light the colors come out right. Focus issues are reduced with proper lighting.

2. Clean glass and water is needed. Clean all of the front glass inside and out removing water spots on the outside and algae or whatever on the inside. Old water has a tint and a water change helps avoid yellow water unless that is a look you want.

3. Positioning of the fish. I have tried a lot of fish picture tanks using glass, acrylic, and others and find the method in this photo shoot as the easiest and most effective. Catching the fish and moving them usually guarantee some or a lot of fading of the colors. For these pictures I have an egg-crate divider which partitions the tank when I catch fish out of my 60 and 90 gallon tanks with their 8 and 12 square foot bottoms. The divider is cut to about 1/2 inch shorter than the tank width and has one or two edges of foam rubber cut into strips and either woven into the edges or tied on to the edge with wire or wire-ties. For these pictures I chased the fish I wanted to shoot into one side of the tank with the divider then took a second divider and positioned it to keep the fish I wanted into the front 2 inches of the tank -- right up by the front. In the movies you will see that a two by four stand support provided a place for the fish to occasionally get out of the main shot so one more divider to put them center front would be best. Replace the egg-crate panel with whatever construction material suits you -- glass, acrylic, or whatever.

4. Focus issues. Be aware that most cameras have a variety of focus tools allowing focusing on the center, right edge, left edge, etc. and a lot of cameras have the lens on one side or other of the camera. Adjust your target in accordance with these set-up issues. For this shoot I just used the Cool Pix automatic setting. With proper light and clean glass the camera should focus on the fish automatically. Notice in the movie that changing the zoom and the movement of the fish sometimes confused the camera but it always caught up eventually. There is a phenomenon called depth of field and basically what you need to understand is that if you are really close to the fish the image will be larger but the focus depth is kind of narrow and your movements and the fish movements affect the proper sharpness of the focus. The Cool Pix has a tight/wide zoom feature and note in the movie how the zoom affects the focus. In general with the camera about 2 feet in front of the tank and the zoom all the way maxed/tight the fish image is big as it would be at one foot but the depth of field is deeper and the fish is easy for the camera to keep in focus.

5. Trigger/button issues. On a single shot picture most cameras have a manual focus switch that stops focus changes when the button is pushed half way. You could focus on the tank frame in front and press the button half way then that sets the focus depth/plane. If the fish is 2 inches in from the tank front, then moving the camera 2 inches closer to the tank would have the fish exactly in focus when you finish the button push. The problems come in the fact that there is a delay between the click and the actual time the picture is taken and it is impossible to get a good pic with moving fish unless you have perfect anticipation. Red eye reduction of course adds another timing variable. Mounting the camera on a tripod and using a remote button or setting the automatic timer eliminates all blurring due to your shaky muscle coordination but stops tracking/targeting and makes even more difficult anticipation.

Now for the trick. All of the fish pics on this page were taken in the Cool Pix movie mode which takes a 40 second or so movie of me tracking the fish in the egg-crate trap area for the entire time. The movie is downloaded to the computer and in the case of the Cool Pix, the format is .MOV which is an Apple Quicktime mode. Quicktime is free on Apple's site and when installed play the movie. Adjust the picture size as large as you can without distortion and now you can experiment with your anticipation to hit the pause button and the forward and reverse until you have caught the fish in the perfect pose. Once posed for you, position your camera and take a single-shot of the computer monitor and you have a perfectly posed and framed fish picture. If you have a custom video program or photo program, you can alter the contrast, colorization, whatever. Only you and I know that you did not have the patience or stupidity to take 200 pictures to get the perfect pose. Watch the two movies below on YouTube and you should recognize the timing points I used to produce these pictures. An alternate method is to upload the movie you take on YouTube and use the play/pause/forward/reverse and sizing to get any fish on YouTube over to your camera.

Lemon Jake pair
A pair of Lemon Jakes in our breeding colony. Photo, C. Moormann, 2010 Click to Enlarge

Close-up of the dominant male
Our breeder male. Photo, C. Moormann, 2010 Click to Enlarge

The dominant male
Our breeder male. Photo, C. Moormann, 2010 Click to Enlarge

The dominant male
Our breeder male. Photo, C. Moormann, 2010 Click to Enlarge

Here are movies of some of the fish on You-tube on the internet: