Taking Fish Photos - Expanding the Hobby VIa

An article by George J. Reclos

They say that an image is worth a thousand words but in this case there are a thousand words to be told about each image. Instead of getting that far, we decided to show you some photos which are classified as technically "excellent" (in our opinion anyway) and let you know how those shots were actually taken. Apart from the theoretical part (which we trust you have already read) some examples of what can be done should complete this long article. We all love fish and we want to show the best of them. However, in some cases, a "direct" approach may not give you the best results or you may want to try something different. This part is compiled by Frank Panis and George J. Reclos

1. Taking a photo with minimal presence of the photographer.

First click on the two images above to see the high resolution pictures and pay close attention to the detail, color accuracy and sharpness which make them stand out of the many you have probably seen. The main difficult was to take the picture of the male Cyathopharynx furcifer while making its pit without disturbing it. Standing in front of the glass was definitely not the solution as the fish would stop its activity and display to the intruder. Thus, Frank tried a different approach using a remote flash unit and taking his camera to the left thus allowing "vital space" to the fish which went on with its activities. However there were more reasons for this approach. As Frank says, "I just chose this approach to highlight some details in the tank: flash through the side of the tank to get special lighting on that spot and shoot the picture though the front glass. The shadows indicate the size and shape of the nest... I can also bypass the large minimal focusing distance of the Nikkor AF 70-210 with this technique as no light gets lost (should work miracles with the Tamron too if you're standing a bit further away from the tank in my opinion) This also prevents the eyes of the fish being too highlighted." In the picture below you see the actual set up used for this photo while right below it you can see the data of this shot as recorder by the camera. To avoid any reflections by the flash units the camera was kept at an angle. If you are puzzled by the setup, the camera (Nikon D70) can "fire" the SB800 flash unit electronically even from a distance (within a range of course) if set to "Commander" mode. A tripod was essential in order to mount the flash unit and have complete control over the area which was to be illuminated. The TTL (through the lens) function of the main flash unit resulted in excellent color reproduction despite the reflective nature of both the fish and the sand.  Very few cameras offer the "remote" flash unit mode but still, this is just an idea you wan work on. As we are going to see in the next examples, this "limitation" can be overcome.

2. Looking for a different "feeling"

Click on the image above to see the high resolution picture. The aim was to get a picture of some Paretroplus maculatus which tend to stay together in close formation and search their surroundings in the tank. After taking hundreds of photos of this fish I was tired of getting the same image every time. Moreover, what I saw in the pictures was not exactly what I was seeing in the tank. The use of "head on" flash units resulted in silver, flattened bodies which is not how the fish looked like in this particular tank. The water surface in this tank is covered with Lemna minor so what I was actually seeing in the tank was fishes reflecting the green color of the plants as the light passed through the green "layer" of plants. This created a more natural sight and the fish seemed to enjoy the subdued light of the tank. However, the use of a flash unit fired directly at them (placed on the camera's hot shoe) eliminated this "feeling" and created the classic silvery shots. It was evident that I needed to have the two light sources (tank illumination and flash units) at the same place to replicate this atmosphere. Placing one unit over the tank didn't produce the effect I wanted since, although the green cast was there, the sides and bottom of the fishes turned out dark. Adding a flash unit on the camera, although eliminating the darkness, didn't result in the desired effect since the illumination was now "even" throughout the tank. A third flash unit was placed out of the right side of the tank, which seemed to do the trick. However, much work was still needed to "balance" the light coming from the three sources. Too much light from the front eliminated the green cast. Too much light from the right side created long horizontal shadows. In the end, it was obvious the more light was needed from above (since it would have to penetrate the plant layer) and less from the right. Light from the front was only to be used for a "fill in" effect. The flash units were then set as follows: Unit # 4 in the photo below was set to GN 36 (full power); the output of unit #1 was set to 1/8 while the output of the SB800 on the camera was set to 1/16th of full power. I was happy with the result so I decided to shoot more than 50 photos (actually the batteries drained at that point). You will see more of those photos coming online soon. The camera used was also a Nikon D70 but, instead of using the "commander" mode (which would only fire the compatible Nikon SB800) I used a light sensitive trigger (#2 in the picture below) which fired (through a solid state 1:3 terminal; #3 in the picture) the other two flash units each time the on camera flash was fired. For your information, the two slave unites were Sunpak DX36 (above the tank) and DX 24 (to the right of the tank).

3. Playing hide and seek with your subject.

Again, click on the image above to see the high resolution picture. The aim was to get a picture of some Paretroplus nourissati which have the nice habit to hide under rocks or plants and stay there as long as you try to get a descent photo of them. I didn't mind them hiding but the fact that they always chose different points to hide was a real nuisance. Moreover, since the tank is very poorly lit, you can't see what is going on in there (the autofocus mode of the camera won't help since it usually focuses on the tank front glass) and the quick moves of the fish didn't give me enough time to focus manually.  The tank has a thick layer of plants on the surface (Lemna minor and Ceratophyllum demersum) and a lot of bogwood which is a paradise for the fish but not for me in this case. I was able to get some photos of them but only whenever they came in open space - which means rarely. What I wanted was to get a shot of the fish hiding - which is what you usually see when you look at their tank. The approach was more or less the same as in the example above only this time all the slave units were placed on top of the tank and set to full power (it is really enough light to penetrate the plant layer). Shooting a couple of shots in advance showed me which was the region they covered so I pre-focused the camera on a "zone" and waited to see a move, any move ! This approach worked very well and I managed to get more than 30 good shots of the fish. In the photos below you can see the setup and how it worked (bottom picture). For your information: 1) light sensitive flash trigger, 2) solid state 1:3 terminal, 3) Sunpak DX 36, 4) Sunpak DX24, 5) 50 meters of flash connection cable, 6) dedicated hot shoe cables and 7) manual scale of flash units, both set to "full power". Normally, for tanks which don't have anything floating, you can use the "auto" mode of the slave units but you have to make sure that there is nothing blocking the thyristor (the light measuring device) of the units.

4. Getting really close to your image (macro photography)

Click on the thumbnail to see the high resolution photo.

Here is an example of my insect macro setup. The bug is located in the box behind a clean glass so it can't escape and it can be photographed whenever I want. I usually set the bug free after 2 days, so it can continue it's life in a normal way. A Nikon SB-800 flash unit is mounted on a cheap tripod and is connected to the D70 camera (not present as I needed it for making this photo) with a SC-29 flash chord. I could use the very useful wireless I-TTL flash commander mode, but I prefer this setup though, as it prevents delay. Of course all the photo's are made with the Tamron SP 180mm Di 1:1 macro. You can see the photos of the insect here.

We know pretty well that these examples will not tell you all there is to know. Moreover, we don't know it all. We hope that this series of examples showed you new ways to exploit photography, apply your findings in your hobby and come up with better pictures. For us, taking a good shot is something like a second hobby within the first one. It definitely takes time, needs a lot of preparation, try outs and more. However, in the end, you may get a photo for which you will be proud.

5. Getting innovative helps overcome problems



Click on the images above to see the high resolution photos

Many times I think of my old days in this hobby and remember the money I invested on all those lenses of my Pentax system which are now collecting dust. Although I own almost everything you can think of for macro photography (extension tubes, bellows, focusing rack, macro lenses, ring flash etc.) I read an article which reminded me of the old trick, when the money was little and we had to work with what was available = reverse the lens. Since there was no adapter to reverse the Nikkor on my D2X (and, naturally there was no adapter to reverse the Pentax 50 mm f/1.7 lens on the Nikon) I decided to reverse the Pentax lens on the Nikkor lens. The Nikkor has a 52 mm filter thread and the Pentax a 49 mm one so this was not possible on the spot. As far as I know a male/male adapter with a 49 mm thread on one side and a 52 mm on the other is not available - which was confirmed after making a couple of phone calls. I borrowed an idea from another photographer and used two step up rings a 49-55 and a 52-55 mm. The two rings were were brought together and kept in place with an extremely strong cloth adhesive tape (the white collar you see in the picture below). I then glued them together by adding lots of silicon glue on the inside of the complex. The silicon glue hardened within minutes and ready I was. I tried it carefully on a table to make sure that the two rings wouldn't fall apart and then decided it was time to take those close up shots of insects which were found dead in summer and collected .. to keep me busy during the cold winter months. All filters were removed from both lenses (they were put back in place once the session was over) and the reversed lens's aperture was set to its maximum value (1.7). The "primary" lens was set to f/16 to have the maximum depth of field without the loss of quality which occurs at f/22. After checking all the specimens I had I decided to work with the wings of a cicada which have a combination of transparency and lots of fine detail on them. Following that, I also took some photos of a cicada exoskeleton found on a tree during the summer (actually I have four of them since they are too fragile to rely on their long term integrity). The funny thing is that this solution gives a somewhat sharper image as compared to the bellows and a better depth of field (although I don't know why). The downside is that you can't really focus, you can just move your camera back and forth till your subjects comes in focus. Another disadvantage is that this system will only focus on one plane, which means that the lens to subject distance is fixed (about 50 mm). The advantage (apart from the subjective quality of the image) is that you still have full i-TTL flash and all the automations of your camera (except focusing of course, which has to be done manually). In the second session I used the Novoflex focusing rack which made focusing a pleasure.. A cheap solution (less than 10 Euro) providing 1:1 macro with full automation and i-TTL flash metering, which could be of special interest to those who own old normal lenses sitting somewhere in a closet. It should be noted that it is better to use a lens with a larger thread than the primary one as a reversed lens. Otherwise, you will end up with a black circular vignette caused by the interior of the reversed lens. With my 12 Mpixel camera this is not a very serious issue because I can still get an image large enough to impress you, but with lower resolution cameras, this may be a problem.

From left to right you can see the camera with the flash unit on the flash shoe (no need to use extension cords) the Nikkor lens, the white adhesive tape which holds the two step up rings in place (the silicon glue is on the inner side of the rings), the reversed Pentax lens and, finally, the cicada. As you can see, the distance from the subject is not a large one and - still worse - it can't be changed. Special care should be used with protruding subjects to avoid scratching the back element of the Pentax lens. A desk light is visible at the upper right hand corner used to make focusing easier.

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