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Fish is an essential element in ALL aquascaping contests. It may not be the factor that will make or break your result, but having the right fish (color, shape, size), good swiming position/direction, good schooling shape or even the suitable amount will go a long way in helping you to edge the other players if it is a tight race. There are also certain cases where the fish can take center stage and help you to really eccentuate the level of your layout. So, do not underestimate the importance of the show fish in your contest photo!

1) What fish to choose?

There are basically 2 scenario:

A) when you create a layout base on your fish choice. In this rare and special situation, the fish choice is given, since your whole layout concept is based on that particular fish and basically you already decided on what fish to use even before you started the hardscape. Not many aquascapers use this approach but i am definitely one of them lately, along with my friend Masashi Ono san. We like to design our layout based on the fish of our choice. Some examples of my work with this approach: "Congo 2017", "Faith 2018", ",Pure 2020", "Samurai 2022" and "Eternal 2023". This is a fun approach but it also gives a lot of restriction to our design, as many aspects are pre-defined.

B) Any fish will do as long as it suits the aquascape. This is the most common approach - we usually decide on what fish to use at a latter stage of the layout progression. Some even make decision 1-2 weeks (or days!!!!!) before photo session.

In this scenario, choosing the right fish become crucial. Here are a few guidelines:

* Choose the best schooling fish. Cliche, i know, but that is also THE golden rule. If you have a good layout by itself and it does not need the fish to help you in gainning points, then atleast dont let the fish be the negative points and jeopardize the hardwork and good work in your design. Choose the fish that will school effortlessly and let your aquascape shines by itself, it will save you a lot of hair tearing nightmare during photo session, trust me. Most tetras fit the bill but Rummy Nose is the safest by miles, use them and your photo session will only need 5min. Puntius Denisonii is another super schooling fish but they have the bad habit of pulling plants and they swim very fast, so make sure you introduce them to your tank as late as possible (so they dont destroy your scape) and you must have the suitable camera setting to match their speed.

* Choose the fish with color that can be seen in your aquarium. If your layout has a lot of bright spot, dont choose white/silver fish. If it has a lot of shadow, dont choose fish that is dark/black. White and dark/black fish is typically 2 fish colors that are harder to standout in the aquascape. Especially if they are small in size and in quantity. If you really have to choose the fish with the color too close to your aquascape, it can also be done, but you will have the up-hill task to tell them where to school, for example, let your white fish school at the darker area or dont let your red fish swim in front of yout red plants - good luck with that - but, if you have a good schooling fish, then it may not be a problem. So please remember the Golden Rule.

* Choose the fish with the right size. Big fish is nice and you cannot miss them in the photo. But they will also make everything else in your aquarium look small. Imagine creating a majesty mountain range and then you put altum angel. The whole proportion of the aquascape is ruined. Therefore, if you are not sure, go small size. How small? I would think anything not more then 2-3cm is safe. Biggger size fishes can be use but it has to match your layout concept, for example, bigger fish is typically used in a more "close up" design, design that does not emphasize depth or majestic feel. To give an example, if you want to use bigger fish in a forest layout, your design has to be in such a way that the viewers will feel like they are "inside" the forest (where everything is bigger) and not standing outside the forest looking in (where things are smaller). Dont understand? Just use smaller fish then.

* Some fishes by nature are bottom dwellers and some always tend to swim at the middle to top level. So it depends on where you want your fish to swim - that will very much depend on your aquascape design. Personally, i will always want my fish to swim at the middle to ground level, bottom half, this will give a more natural feel but also is a personal prefrerence.

2) How many fish?

Here, we are talking about small schooling fish like tetras, not those Altum Angels. Fish quantity is in general associated with your aquarium sizes. Big aquarium = more fish. Here are some rules of thumb:
90cm: 20-30 fish
120cm: 30-50 fish
150cm: 40-70 fish
Again, the size of your fish will affect the quantity you should use, even for the same type of fish. Bigger size = lesser quantity. In short, we want the fish to be seen in a sizable group, without appears too crowded or looking messy.
Another consideration on fish quantity: if the color of your fish blend in to your aquascape (similar color tone), you can use more fish. If your fish color has a stark contrast to the aquascape (too much different in color tone), you should use lesser fish.

3) Fish schooling position.

Please refer to attached photo (i).

In general, i do not like my fish swimming too close toward the tank glass - as if they are going to hit the wall. I like my fish schooling away from the tank glass, it will have a nicer, liberating feel and somehow make the aquascape look bigger....or maybe just my silly wishful thinking.

Another aspect of fish position: bottom half vs top half. Objectively speaking, i do not think it matters but personally, i always prefer my fish swimming at the bottom half of the tank. It just gives a more natural feeling. Please refer to attached photo (ii)

4) Fish schooling shape or formation.

Okay, we are talking about a very "luxury" topic now as many of us cannot afford to choose the schooling shape - we will be happy enough if they school at all. But....if there are options, let's say we have a few photos that the fish are behaving and schooling, i will always choose the schooling shape that is more dynamic, fluid and demonstrate the flow of water, a longish shape instead of in a more rounded formation. I think it helps to elevate the underwater flowing dynamism. See attached photo (iii).

5) Fish schooling along the flow or against the flow?

In my humble opinion, it does not matter. In nature, fish can often be found swimming against or along the current, so both ways are perfectly fine. Please see attached photo (iv).

6) Always train or make rehearsal before the actual shooting.

Most fishes can be trained, or in a more practical term, they can get use to a certain habit. So we should try to find ways to make them school or swim in such a way that is more photogenic, either by feeding, making sound by tapping on the glass, even putting a stick in the tank to scare/chase them, using any method neccesary to achieve our aim. Do not try to figure out how to do this only during the photo session but practice in advance. However, do take note that in actual shooting, when filter is off, hair dryer is blowing, water level and lighting setup could be different, all these changes could make it easier or harder for the fish to swim to our preference.

7) Only 1 type of show fish in a layout?

I would say, a single type of show fish is the safest and it will not go wrong. But if you have a good concept to use 2 types and you have the confident to make it work, why not. However, 2 types should be maximum. I honestly do not think we should use 3 different show fishes, looking forward to anyone that can prove me wrong.

Last but not least, we are creating a home for the fishes, a habitat. We want to make them feel happy and comfortable. Provide enough shelter (shadow or dark places) and enough hiding places with good amount of aquatic plant will be good for them. Clean water, good water flow (for most fishes) and not over crowding. Feed them reponsibly and make sure they find a proper home after you are "done" with them.

Corydoras inspired layout

Samurai Guroumi inspired layout

Altum Angel inspired layout

Congo inspired layout

Congo inspired layout

Pearl Guroumi inspired layout

These are just my very personal and highly subjective opinion/experience. Not all will agree so different opinions are always welcome in the comment section.

If there are other fish aspects that i overlook from contest point of view, i would be equally happy to discuss with you in the comment as well.


Author: Josh Sim / Malaysia

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