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All posts for the month May, 2012


It was on a recent trip to the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, GA that I was inspired by the topic for this article. By the way, as a quick aside if you’ve never been to the Georgia Aquarium you should definitely go as it’s quite an amazing place. You can find out more about them on their website www.georgiaaquarium.org.

Anyhow, while I was there I was quite surprised to see not one, not two, but no less than 4 people actually using an iPad as their camera at the aquarium. Don’t get my wrong, I’m not a camera “snob” who thinks that good photos can only be taken by a true camera.

I mean some of the cameras being built into cell phones these days rival most point and shoot digital cameras in terms of both pixel count and scene selections. So then why would I have an objection to someone using an iPad to shoot photos at an aquarium?

Don't do this at the aquarium!

Well in a nutshell an iPad does not have a large enough aperture or high enough ISO levels to take decent photos in the kinds of conditions and light levels found in an aquarium; and the best reason of all, you just look plain stupid holding a giant iPad trying to photograph a fish!

I seriously could not believe that I saw 4 people doing this. One of which actually then tried to use the “flash” on the iPad while taking a photo. Don’t believe me? Check out this photo I sneaked in of one of the “iPad shooters”.

Not only that, I recently went to the NY Aquarium and saw someone there shooting fish with their iPad as well! This is an epidemic we must stop immediately.

Even in NY!

So as much fun as it is for us to go on and on about a bunch of crazy tourists who would descend upon an Aquarium walking around trying to take photos with a tablet the size of a small television, I think the best way to help these people is for us to discuss and educate them with some proper tips and techniques for taking great live animal photos in a low-light environment such as at an aquarium or even perhaps a zoo.

First let’s talk about the lighting that we’ll find at an aquarium. There’s usually quite a mix of outdoor exhibits with possibly harsh direct sunlight, and also indoor exhibits with large tanks and low-light levels. Lots of different challenges to overcome, but totally do-able.

Let’s talk about the outdoor exhibits first. Shooting live animals, especially ones that are in an exhibit such as an aquarium is a very different “animal” from shooting people. If I were shooting a group of friends outdoors and there was harsh lighting, I could ask them to move into the shade.

You can’t do that with animals. They’re notoriously stubborn, and they probably don’t understand english.

If there was no shade, perhaps I might use a diffuser above them to filter the light and make it softer. With animals in an aquarium this is also not possible. Not only can you not get anywhere near the animals due to those pesky fences, but animals love nothing better than to soil a nice clean white diffuser, nasty stuff.

So what can you do to battle harsh outdoor lighting? The easiest solution is just not to shoot in it. Most people usually spend a couple of hours visiting an aquarium. So you can easily start with the indoor exhibits during the mid-day hours when the sun is at it’s harshest and save your outdoor photos for either earlier in the morning or later in the afternoon when the sun is less harsh and gives a nice golden color to everything.

“But Scott…you say, the outdoor Penguin Feeding is at 1PM, are you telling me that I can’t photograph it”?

Huh? When did I say you couldn’t photograph it?  Of  course you can photograph it, you just need to use a different technique. So what else can we do to battle the harsh mid-day light?

We can use our fill flash! This technique can be done with any camera flash, but really works well if you can use an off-camera speedlight. Using a fill flash allows you add a pop of light from the front that can help to soften those harsh shadows, especially under the eyes, formed by direct overhead mid-day sunlight.

When shooting in “automatic mode” on your camera…you guys still don’t do that even after reading my blog posts right? When shooting in “automatic mode” your camera will not turn the flash on because ordinarily you would not need flash in bright sunlight.

Since we want to make sure that the flash fires to balance out the light, we have to set our flash mode to “fill-flash on our cameras”. This setting will let the camera know that we want the flash to fire whether the camera feels we need it or not. So there you have it, a way to capture the super cute Penguin Feeding and still make sure those penguins look their best, after all they are wearing their tuxedos.

Just try to convince this Walrus to move into the shade for you. Good luck!

After you’ve seen all the seals, penguins, and of course walruses (or is it walri?) outdoors, it’s time to head inside and take some shots of jellyfish, sharks, and sea turtles.

Photographing indoors at the aquarium presents a whole new set of obstacles to deal with. The first being that a lot of these exhibits have very low lighting. Why should that stop you though, you read the Dengrove Studios Blog, you know how to deal with low-light situations. Plus you’re walking around with a flash, you think to yourself…you’re all set.

Flash reflection on a fish tank

Well…not quite. You’d better leave that flash in your camera bag for the indoor exhibits. Why…you ask inquisitively? Well, have you ever tried to take a photo of yourself in a mirror with the flash on? I’m sure anyone who has, experienced a giant white reflection of light in the middle of your photo.

Unfortunately for us, a big fish tank behaves exactly the same way as a giant reflective mirror. Pop a flash on it and you get a big white light blob in the middle of our lovely fish. So what can we do to get nice indoor photos of our fishy friends? Let’s revisit some of the basics that we’ve talked about before.

So what are some things that we can do to ensure we get great low-light photos at the aquarium? In past articles we’ve talked about raising the ISO on our cameras in low-light. ISO controls how sensitive to light the sensor of your digital camera is. When we increase the ISO it makes our photos much brighter. Perfect for a low-light situation such as indoors at the aquarium. Plus with today’s modern digital cameras you can easily shoot up to an ISO of 1600 or higher and still get very usable shots.

So what’s the downside? You may recall that every adjustment we make to our camera settings have side effects as well that we must take into account. In our case, raising the ISO setting also raises the noise level in our photos. Basically, the higher the ISO the more grain that will show up in your photo. Most modern digital cameras handle this noise very well up to ISO 1600 or even greater. In addition, it’s a pretty simple process to run your photo through a software program that can eliminate noise caused by high ISO.

Great…so we simply raise the ISO and we’re all ready for those sharks to show us their sharp pearly whites. Perhaps, but raising the ISO may not be enough given how dark some of these aquariums can be. So what other settings can we adjust to help us take better photos in low-light?

Using a slower shutter speed causes fast moving objects to blur

You may also recall from some of our previous discussions that shutter speed has a lot to do with the exposure of your photos and can help you take better photos in low light. This is true, however there is also a problem we must consider.

In order for the shutter to allow more light to hit your sensor you need to slow down your shutter speed. This will increase the exposure of your photo and make it brighter. Makes sense, but we also need to keep in mind the side-effect that slowing down the shutter speed has as well. When you shoot with a slower shutter speed the motion of your subjects tends to blur in a photo. As you can imagine this would not work very well when trying to shoot a fast moving fish. All you would get is a big blur streaking across your photo.

Those of you who own some photographic equipment might think that perhaps a tripod could help you out in this situation. It certainly does help keep a camera steady during long exposures using a slow shutter speed. However, we need to keep in mind that a tripod helps to eliminate camera shake caused by your hands, unfortunately, it does nothing to slow down a fast moving object such as a fish.

So in this instance you’ll be happy to know that you can leave your tripod at home and don’t have to lug it with you since it’s not going to help you get better photos at the aquarium. Plus it really wouldn’t be safe, people might trip on it, which is why a lot of public places won’t even let you use one. That, and it helps them sell more high-priced postcards.

Ok, so slowing down the shutter speed may not be the best option. However there’s still one more technique that we can employ.

We can use a larger aperture setting. By increasing the aperture, more light is allowed into the camera when taking a photo. Combined with raising your ISO this should go a long way to getting a nice photo of your friends from the sea.

And since ISO, aperture, and shutter speed are all related, by raising the ISO and also increasing the size of your aperture, this allows you to increase your shutter speed while keeping the same exposure level, thereby allowing you to “freeze” your subject better. Which is perfect for shooting those fast-moving fish!

High ISO and large aperture combine to create a perfectly exposed low-light photo

So to sum up, armed with the proper photographic techniques there should be no reason why you can’t take some great photos with even the simplest point and shoot camera at an aquarium in any type of lighting. Notice I said camera, not iPad!!!! By the way…you cell phone shooters are safe for now, but we might talk in the future.

Scott Dengrove is a professional photographer from the NYC area. Scott’s work has been featured in many national photography competitions and published in several nationally circulated magazines and publications. In addition, his work can currently be seen in 2 exhibits at Cosi® restaurants in New York and Connecticut and a traveling exhibit entitled “America: Coast to Coast”. For more information, and to see more of Scott’s work visit his website at www.dengrovestudios.com and connect with him on his Facebook page at www.facebook.com/dengrovestudios