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1) Equipment and gadgets

2) Camera settings

3) Some important guides during photo session

4) How to get a bright background

5) How to get a black/dark background

6) How to create a blue tint on the background

7) The timing of photography

8) Now we come to the question that I have been asked the most – photo editing

However, as an aquascaping judge for a few aquascaping contest around the world, I have seen many potentially good layouts ruin by bad photography, which is rather pity. You may argue that this is an aquascaping contest, not a photography contest, granted. But as the judges can only evaluate your aquarium base on solely the single photo you submitted, a bad photo will inevitably affect the judgement. Not to mention that art is subjective and the very first impression of your contest photo quality is often quite influential.

Every now and then, I get messages asking me about contest tank photography technique, camera setting, how to take a good tank photo etc…so I thought I would summarize and share all that I know on aquarium contest photography here. Please take note that this is a guide for beginners, seasoned aquascapers can look away.

1) My photography equipment and gadgets

How to take great aquarium photos for the contest

A. Camera – Canon 7D, which has been with me for the past 10 years. It is not top of the line but it is not exactly an amateur camera either. To be honest, most modern DSLR can do the job equally well, the technology has developed so much in the last few years and I would say as long as it is a new generation DSLR, you are good to go, regardless of the brands or models.

B. Lens – Canon EFS 17-55mm. Most photographers will tell you that lens is more important than the camera itself, in aquarium contest photography, this may be true as well. You can use any modern DSLR body but do choose a good lens that serve the purpose. When it comes to lens selection, the first question is always: wide angle or not wide angle. To answer this question, first and foremost, you have to know whether your camera is full frame or APSC. APSC has a crop factor of 1.6x (for Canon, I am not sure about other model), which means if you are using a focal length of 17mm (supposedly a wide angle) on APSC camera, the effective focal length is 17mmx1.6 = 27mm (which is not a wide angle anymore). So if you are planning on shooting your tank with wide angle, do keep in mind that there is a crop factor if your camera is APSC. Please bear in mind that some contest does not prefer contest photo using wide angle lens, but other contest may not have this restriction. The design of your layout may also shows different results/effects on focal length. There are some designs that basically do not give a significant difference between a wide angle or non-wide angle, so do check this point before deciding on your focal length or lens use.

How to take great aquarium photos for the contest

C. Flash/Lighting – Lighting is the single most important factor in aquarium photography, period. If you can control your lighting well during photo session, you are half way to your success. I have been using studio flash light for the past 10 years but before that, I packed as much T5 fluorescent lights as I can on top of my tank just to squeeze in the amount of light needed. I have to say that with the revolutionary development of powerful LED aquarium light nowadays, sometime using these LED light alone is sufficient. One point to take note is that different tank layouts may require different setup of your lighting. Some tanks are darker with a lot of shadows, some tanks are having too many plants/hardscape near the water surface (that may cause over-exposure). Therefore, the angle and intensity of your lighting setup during photo session can be different for every layout. This is the advantage of using studio flash light or other external flash light, because you can adjust the intensity and angle of your flash light freely, something that aquarium light may not be able to do.

 How to take great aquarium photos for the contest

D. Remote triggers – As I am using studio flash light, I need a remote trigger to sync my camera shutter with the flash light that I use, just a simple device that you can get from most camera shop, one for my camera (trigger) and one for the studio flash light (receiver). Another remote trigger which is important if you are shooting the aquarium by yourself, is the remote trigger for your shutter. In my case, as I have to chase the fish by myself, it is not possible to sit in front of the camera and click the shutter, so a remote shutter trigger is a must. However, I do not really have a “remote” trigger as I am using one with a cable, I just have to make sure that the cable is long enough so I can still trigger the shutter while I am standing on the side of the tank and chasing the fish. It can look awkward at times but I have been doing that for as long as I can remember.

 How to take great aquarium photos for the contest

E. Tripod – Just the basic equipment that everyone should have. You can never shoot an aquarium contest photo by holding the camera manually.

How to take great aquarium photos for the contest 

F. Soft box – If you are using studio flash light or normal external flash light, a soft box is very much recommended so that the light can be dispersed evenly.

2) My camera settings

A. Shutter speed – 1/80 to 1/120. Shutter speed setting has 2 important functions: firstly, it helps to freeze your fish, so that your fish will look sharp in your photo. A shutter speed that is too slow will make your fish blur as your need a fast shutter to freeze the moving object. Secondly, it helps to control the brightness of your photo. A fast shutter will make your photo darker and a slow shutter will brighten your photo. Having said that, freezing the fish movement is the primary function of the shutter setting because we can control the brightness of the photo with other parameters (see below) but only the shutter speed can give you a sharp image of the fishes. In general, if you are using fishes that swim extremely fast (like Puntius Denisorii or Rummy rose for example), you will need shutter speed faster than 1/100, but for fish that do not swim as fast (like Altum Angel or some tetras), sometime even 1/60 will do. If you can freeze your fish movement using a wide range of shutter speed setting, that is the time that you can use the available shutter speed range to control your photo brightness, but firstly make sure your fish image is sharp.

B. Aperture – f8 to f14. Aperture control the depth of field of your photo and also the brightness of your photo. Depth of field means how sharp you want your photo to look from the nearest point to the furthest point of your focus. If you are using bigger aperture (f4 and below for example), the item that you are focusing will look sharp, but further away from the item that you focus will look blur. For example, if you are focusing on the main rock of your tank using f4, the rock will look sharp but items far away from the rock will look blur. On the contrary, if you are using smaller aperture (f16 and above for example), you will have very good depth of field, which means the item that you focus and all other items that are far away from your focus will be all sharp. In aquascaping contest photo, we will definitely want everything to look sharp in the photo, so a smaller aperture is preferred. However, the smaller aperture will render your photo to be dimmer/darker because you are limiting the amount of light to hit the sensor. From my experience, f8 to f14 is a good value for reference, it will give you good depth of field (sharp photo away from your focus point) and at the same time the brightness is manageable.

C. ISO – The main function of ISO setting is to control the brightness. Bigger ISO will give you brighter photo and vice versa. The downside of using extremely high ISO is the “noise” level of your photo, you will get a slightly blurry photo with a lot of small pixelated white dots (called “noise” in photography term), especially if you enlarge the photo. However, modern DSLR has done a good job in controlling the noise effect of high ISO setting, so as long as you are not using extremely crazy ISO (like above 5000), you are normally fine with the noise effect. My usual ISO setting is 100-1000, on extreme cases (like Pure in 2020), I use ISO5000 and I paid the price of having a “dreamy” photo.

D. The Shutter Speed, Aperture and ISO – as you already read, all 3 of these settings affect the brightness of your photo. While shutter speed (freezing fish) and aperture (depth of field) has their primary function, ISO is purely to control the brightness. Therefore, you can play around with these 3 setting to get the correct brightness that suits the effect of the aquarium photo you want to create. Every layout is different depending on the design so there is no fixed setting for all.

E. Focal length – I mostly use 17mm on my APSC camera that effectively give me a 27mm focal length. To be honest, I do not think focal length gives a big impact on contest photo, wide angle or not wide angle, the effect is not apparent all the time. The only time that I used a real wide angle setting in 2018’s “Faith” (17mm on full frame), I got penalized by the contest organizer, so I tend to think that it is not worth to use wide angle setting, what for? The effect is not really that great and you risk points reduction.

3) Some important guides during photo session

A. I often wear black shirts and pants during photo session – to minimize any chance of reflection. Try to avoid wearing bright color outfit or those that has shinny prints, you may get reflection in your photo.

B. The whole room should be as dark as possible, the only lights source should be from the aquarium. Therefore, for my contest tank that is in the living room, I can only shoot at night. The contest tank that is my fish room, I can shoot anytime as long as I close the door and window. Why it has to be dark? Firstly, we want to avoid reflection in the aquarium, any lighting source in the surrounding may get reflected in the photo. Secondly, we want the camera sensor to capture only the light from the aquarium. If the surrounding is bright, the sensor may pick it up and it will affect the setting. If you have no other options but to shoot the tank in day time where the surrounding is bright, it is fine as long as you take care of the reflection factor. You can use black cloth to cover the reflection source or find other ways to make sure the bright surrounding does not affect the photo quality, you will be fine as well.

C. The light source (be it studio flash, external flash or aquarium light) has to be placed at least 30cm above the aquarium. Placing your light source too close to your aquarium will easily cause burn out or over-exposure, even with a soft box. We want a soft radiant of light over the whole tank, not a strong concentrated light on a certain spot. So the higher you place the light source, the better is to get the soft and consistent dispersion of the light.

How to take great aquarium photos for the contest 

D. Cover the top part of your aquarium with a black board (the space between the aquarium and your light source). This is very important. Your photo will look sharper and better with this black board (please see attached photo). As mentioned before, we want the light to come only from within the aquarium, so if we do not cover the space between the aquarium and the light source, the camera will pick up the light from the light source directly and not only from within the aquarium. You will get a compromised photo as a result.

4) How to get a bright background – normally, we want the open space or the end point to look bright, not gloomy or grey.

A. The distance between the aquarium and the wall must be at least 15cm or bigger. If you place your aquarium too close to the wall, it will be very hard to get a bright background.

How to take great aquarium photos for the contest

B. A white wall or a wall with white backdrop (white cloth or white paper)

C. Get the setting of shutter speed, aperture and ISO right, play with these 3 setting until your background is brightly lit.

D. Shine enough light on top of the aquarium.

E. NEVER paste a white background at the back of your aquarium glass. Yes, you will still get a white background but it will look like a wall and it will look artificial. The brightness of the background should be created by the lit-up space between the aquarium and the wall, so that you will get a bright infinite space that bring you depth and 3D effect. We do not want a white wall.

F. In the event that you still do not get a bright background as you would like it to be, you can put light source at the back of your aquarium, either at the bottom or from top. You can also put aluminum foil at the back of your aquarium to help reflecting as much light as possible to the wall.

5) How to get a black/dark background

A. There is a common misconception that a black background is created by sticking a black paper directly at the back of the tank glass. If you do it this way, you will only get a greyish background and not completely black.

B. The ultimate black background is created by the dark space between the tank and the wall. To do this, firstly you need to have a black wall, or you can put some black cardboard or paper or cloth on the wall. After that, you need to cover the top part of this space between the tank and the wall, depending on the effect and the surrounding, you may need to cover the sides too.

 How to take great aquarium photos for the contest

C. By doing this, you are creating a completely dark area behind the tank where no lights can penetrate. You will have a beautiful black background

6) How to create a blue tint on the background

A. If you see my layout Dream-On in 2019, you will see some blue tint at the background. Please see attached photo how I created it. I call it the poor-man’s light screen.

 How to take great aquarium photos for the contest

 How to take great aquarium photos for the contest

B. The effect of the blue tint is by trial and error. I need to adjust the amount and location of blue paint on the paper to get the effect that I want.

C. I believe by using the same technique, you can create any colors effect that you want.

7) The timing of photography

A. We want the photo to be taken at the prime of our tanks, at the time when the plants look the best. If your tank has majority stem plants, the best photo session will be 7-10 days after the trimming of the stem plants.

B. If your tank has plants that grow at different pace (and most likely you have), you will need to know the correct timing to do the last trimming of your various plants, so all the plants that has different growth rate will peak at the same time. For example, you cannot trim your moss and stem plant at the same time and expect them to look great at the same time. Moss will take at least 1 months to grow back and look good while stem plants usually take 7-10 days.

C. Do not take photo when your plants are “sleeping” – especially stem plants. Always take photo when the plants are awake and blooming.

D. On the day of photography, you should turn off the CO2 (depending on your lighting period and the time you plan to shoot, sometime you need to turn off CO2 the day before). Regardless of how nice pearling can be, during photo session, we do not want those Oxygen bubbles. O2 bubbles in the tank may create unnecessary disturbances or distraction to the overall image. Therefore we should not supply CO2 before the photo session to avoid having the O2 bubbles all over the tank during photo session.

E. One more point to note, if you are having plants like bolbitis or ferns in your tank, the O2 bubbles underneath the leaves will create a buoyancy effect that lift up the leaves, in most layout, we do not want that to happen. Bolbitis or ferns look the best when their leaves are pointing downward, not upwards.
Please respect the contest by removing ALL equipment during photo session. Showing the equipment in a contest photo is a statement of how you disvalued and disrespecting the contest and the judges. Being a judge myself, tanks with equipment will automatically being ranked at the bottom half of the list, no matter how good the layout. If you are not willing to spend just 5minutes to remove all the equipment, why should the judges waste time on your entry?

8) Now we come to the question that I have been asked the most – photo editing. Can we edit our photo?

A. My first advice is always to read the contest rules clearly. If it says no editing is allowed, that is the rule we have to follow.

B. If we somehow still decide to edit our contest photo, we have to do it at our own risk and accept the consequences of being penalized or disqualified. Simple as that. Once that happens, we have to respect the decision of the organizer as we are the one violating the rules in the first place.

C. Do I edit my contest photo? Yes I do. Resizing (which is allowed), cropping, lens correction, brightness/exposure/color adjustment, enhance sharpness of the photo. Are these editing allowed? Read 9A.

D. In summary: 1st - follow the contest rule. 2nd – if we still decide to edit, do it with a clear conscience: what can be edited, what should not be edited. 3rd – accept the decision of the organizer if we are being penalized for violating the rules.

E. There are waves of disqualification in 2020 around the globe due to photo editing. There are also contest that do not exercise their disqualification right and let the contestant keep the ranking although the same tanks are being disqualified at other contest. To me, there is no right or wrong, the organizer has the absolute right to execute the way they deem fit. Every decision has a reason behind and there is no point for us contestant to question and be mad about it. If we do not like their decision, we can choose not to enter the contest in future and rest the case. All contests are free to enter and it is also free-will for everybody to choose not to participate. I do not see the point of arguing that some contest is being unfair.

F. Are those disqualified tank deserved their ranking in those contest that they are not being disqualified? Absolutely yes. If anyone thinks that they are being placed highly because of the editing, they are wrong. I am quite sure that those tanks will still get the same ranking if they are not edited. We all like to consider ourself an “artist” in our own right and all artist is perfectionist. Some edit their tanks to get rid of that tiny bit of imperfection and to satisfy the artist-ego, but for contest judges, I am sure they do not see it differently with or without editing. A bad tank will not become a world beater even if it is heavily edited.

G. Having said all these, I want to say that I do not encourage “illegal editing”, they are rightly to get disqualification by violating the rules. But I also do not look down or disrespect those who has done it. A good tank is a good tank no matter what, no amount of editing can deny it.

If you finished reading this post – wow! You must be extremely free! Thank you and I hope you find it useful.

Author Josh Sim

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