The Bright Side Of Aquarium Photography
Question: I would appreciate it if you could share some tips on how to effectively photograph (still and short video clips) in a modern aquarium using digital equipment and techniques, and ideas for some unique perspectives that were not possible during the film days. –A. Jaleel, Via the Internet
Answer: Oh heck, it’s all about the light again. The improved low-light capability of digital DSLRs, and the opportunity to enhance tonal quality in post processing, are probably the most significant differences between film and digital capture in the deep shadows of aquarium settings.
I still use a pair of flashes when I’m doing serious still photography of aquarium subjects in tanks, where I want high-resolution images at lower ISOs. The flash also increases depth of field, because you can use a smaller aperture. Keep in mind, the water sucks up the light from the flashes within a few feet, so the backgrounds will still be quite dark, but this could add drama. Make sure you are close to and perpendicular to the Plexiglas (glass)—shooting from an angle will kill your sharpness, and standing away from the glass will put reflections of the flash, your camera or yourself into the image. Some tanks have very thick glass, and they might keep you from getting perfectly sharp images. If the glass is curved, the odds are that you will not get the sharpness you desire. But under the right conditions, macro photography in many of the small tanks can be very rewarding. Choose the right macro setup that allows you to be close to the glass and still focus on the subjects; I find that 100mm macro is usually the most utilitarian for small tanks.
Using an auxiliary light source for videography of aquarium subjects is not advised, because the constant light source might be—or perceived to be—detrimental to the marine animals. You will want to talk with the aquarium staff about the institutional policy beforehand. Video generally deals well with higher ISOs under low light, and its typical uses do not demand the same resolution as stills.
From another perspective, advances in digital technology have enabled me to convey a more complete aquarium experience—the interactions between the visitors and the residents. I’ve had great fun doing both stills and video, following my grandkids around in the Denver Aquarium. I use one of these videos in my seminars to demonstrate the joy and technique of creating a video that tells a story. The great thing is that the kids are so interested in the subjects (and the subjects interested in them), they forget about me, and I can get candid stills and video. Some tanks have bright lights in them or are open to the sky above, and these give excellent results.
In the video clips, I usually start on the kids and then slowly move to what they are looking at. The lighting in the spectator areas ranges from dim to very dark, so high ISOs are necessary, and the auto-exposure and auto-focus capabilities of today’s DSLR video handles the shifts from dark hallways to brightly lit display tanks quite well. I intersperse the videos with some still close-ups of the marine subjects from different perspectives. Keep the final product in mind as you are working at the aquarium. Take some establishing shots and close-ups to add interest and complete the story. Of course, if the place is wall-to-wall people, all of this will be difficult. I go early on a weekday.
Later, assemble the stills and video clips in a program such as iMovie or Premier Elements to make a video that documents your excursion. The editing can be as much fun as capturing the images. A little underwater music will spice up the production; use the free music clips included in your editing software, or download free or purchased music from the internet. Be sure to use only licensed music, not only because it’s the right thing to do but also because using music without permission will limit your ability to share your work.
Cropping The Cost, From Capture To Print
Question: I’ll never be able to afford the big, fast glass pros use, but I still want to make high-quality large prints of wildlife. How feasible is it for a non-professional to use an affordable telephoto such as a 300mm f/4 to obtain high-quality 16×20 prints by extensive cropping of the central picture area of a full-frame DSLR? –M. Rank, Ohio
Question: For wildlife photography on a budget, I have heard that a 300mm f/4 lens coupled to an APS-C camera is an effective option. Is this a preferred setup to an affordable telephoto zoom, or are there other approaches? –G. Blackman, Adelaide, Australia
Answer: As your questions suggest, reaching out to wildlife can be accomplished at least three ways: extending the focal length, increasing the resolution to enable post-capture image cropping, or employing the crop-factor advantage of an APS-C sensor at capture.
But first, the “fine” print: When large prints are the goal, it is critical to employ techniques that achieve maximum quality—resolution and detail—from whatever camera/lens setup you’ve got. This means that the image is as sharp as the 300mm f/4 telephoto is capable of rendering. A sturdy tripod is required. Employ a lower ISO to minimize noise, and choose the aperture that is the sharpest for the lens. Usually, that’s between f/8 and f/16, but stop down at least one f/stop from wide open if you can. Some sharpness will be lost at wider apertures, and those smaller than f/16 will produce diffraction and a resulting loss in sharpness.
Now to the fun stuff: The camera being used, whether full-frame or APS-C (I’m assuming it’s a DSLR) should have a reasonable pixel count, which corresponds directly to resolution. Most of today’s DSLRs have 18 or more mega pixels (MP)—the more the merrier—with up to 50MP from the Canon full-frame EOS 5DS cameras. Even an 18MP file can be cropped to a degree if proper technique has been employed.
I can crop into just a quarter of the frame with my Canon EOS 5DS R with good results for 16×20-inch prints or internet display. With my EOS 5D Mark III (22MP), I’d be lucky to get a 50 percent crop. Combined with the 300mm f/4, that’s still the equivalent of a 600mm lens. Keep in mind that a quality 300mm f/4 telephoto can handle a quality 1.4X or 2X tele-extender and still allow substantial cropping (see remarks above regarding technique). For prints larger than 16×20-inches, say 20×30 or 30×40, you’ll need to start with a lot of megapixels, superb technique and engage in limited cropping.
Using a camera with an APS-C-sized sensor would add another 1.6X or 1.5X crop factor at capture. There are a number of quality DSLRs with APS-C sensors available from different manufacturers, and by adding a quality 1.4X tele-extender to the equation (usually matched from the same manufacturer as the lens) you will take your 300mm to the 672mm range, with the additional possibility for a small amount of post-capture cropping.
What about a zoom lens? I’d say that a quality zoom that allows the addition of a 1.4X tele-extender would match up to the 300mm f/4 prime telephoto, but an inexpensive consumer 100-400mm lens (f/5.6) would not. Until the EOS-1D X Mark II arrived, I used the reasonably priced Canon EOS 7D Mark II (APS-C) with the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM zoom and a Canon 1.4X tele-extender; this gave me a quality zoom capable of 896mm and a close-focus distance of 3.2 feet. Still, this lens comes in at around $2,000. Your 300mm f/4 lens is a very good, less-expensive alternative to the high-priced glass, especially coupled to an APS-C camera body, as long as you work carefully—and use a tripod (nag, nag, nag).
Image Stabilization With Monopods
Question: I know that you shouldn’t use Vibration Reduction (image stabilization) when the camera is mounted on a tripod. But should I use this technology when using a monopod? –A. Lavallee, Willow Bunch, Saskatchewan, Canada
Answer: Absolutely! The problem with using stabilization on a tripod isn’t really about the tripod, it’s about long exposures, when the camera stabilization component becomes confused and starts to move the focus, hunting for the right spot to counteract any movement, which isn’t occurring. The end result is an out-of-focus image. Because monopods are never absolutely motionless, long exposures are precluded and there will always be slight movement in the camera; that’s when stabilization is doing its best work.