Quick Tip: Fishes in Water or Shooting Through Glass

On Saturday we took our toddler to the aquarium for the first time. My challenge was to photograph both his reactions and the exhibits. Oh…and it’s very nearly dark inside. Learn how I photographed the exhibits after the jump…

The Challenge

Jelly Fish

Photographing the exhibits at a zoo is pretty easy. All that’s between the lens and the animals is, often, air. Not so at an aquarium. The primary challenge is a reflective (eek!) smudged barrier. Add in the gunk in the water (another reflective medium) and photography can seem like a lost cause.

The Environment

  • Realize that you can’t clean the water.
  • It’s almost futile to clean the glass.
  • Your flash is useless. No, it’s worse than useless. Leave it in the car.
  • Someone else will be trying to use a flash.
  • It will likely dark, dark, dark inside.

Tool Selection

  • A dSLR, or similar if you have it.
  • A fast (large aperture) lens.
  • A wide lens.
  • A lens that will focus closely, not a high-end telephoto that will only focus 1.9m away.

Time to Shoot

When it’s time to shoot images of the exhibit, the trick is to turn the aquarium glass into nothing more than a piece of glass on the front of the lens. It will be much like a UV filter that you might attach to your lens.


Place the front of your lens against the glass and trigger the shutter.

Bio-luminescent jelly fish

That’s why you need a lens with a short minimum focus. You won’t know how close the fish will swim to the glass. Having the right lens isn’t essential, but it will help you get more in-focus images.

My Approach

I used both wide and telephoto zooms on my trip, each on a different camera body. I used a fast (f/2.8) wide (17-50mm) lens at ISO 12,800 (!) for dark alcoves and tanks. I used the longer zoom at ISO 1600 for better lighted areas and shots taken across open-air exhibits. The fast lens and camera body made several shots possible. Had I not had a brand new camera with a higher ISO rating, I’d have gotten what I could and been happy. Even at ISO 12,800, the photos have a considerable amount of digital noise.

…considerable digital noise…

Piranha on Exhibit at the Oklahoma Aquarium in Jenks, OK.

That’s why I shoot RAW images and process them in software that handles noise well. It doesn’t eliminate it, but it does tone it down to look more like a grainy image from film.

Even so, to paraphrase New York photographer Jay Maisel, I’d rather have a noisy image than not have an image.

Your Turn

So…take your camera and lens and go get some aquarium photos. Post them on your favorite photo sharing site and put a link in the comments below. I’d really like to see your shots.

Oh…and have fun!


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