Because many exhibits are too dark to make sharp pictures of darting subjects, flash is often necessary. But take it off-camera. Otherwise, its output will bounce back from the reflective tank surface, causing underexposure and distracting hot spots in your images. Moreover, the harsh, direct light from an on-camera flash will visually flatten out and compress the shape of your subjects.
You've never used an off-camera TTL flash? This kind of lighting has never been easier. Choices include wired or wireless, radio or infrared, on a bracket or off. Most systems weigh little, are fully automated, and, if you choose wisely, don't cost much.
If you're working alone, an off-camera, side-arm extension bracket makes sense, but better and more varied pictures result if you simply ask a friend to hold (and aim) the remote flash for you. Visit your camera maker's website to explore off-camera flash options. If prices seem steep, search for radio remotes on eBay. (Radio signals don't travel well through water, however, so this option won't work if you put the light on the opposite side or above a tank.)
"Always bring a polarizing filter," says Carlson. "It won't help much eliminating reflections on glass or acrylic tank walls, but for open-top exhibits where you want to shoot through the water's surface, it will reduce or eliminate reflections."
George Grail of the National Aquarium in Baltimore also recommends a matte-black antireflection lens baffle. It's a rectangular foam-core panel up to
20x24 inches with a hole cut in the center for the lens. Shooting through one will eliminate tank reflections, especially for wide-angle shooting. The closer you are, the better it works.
Other useful gear: kneepads and a monopod. Tripods prevent you from chasing a moving subject and are often prohibited because they can trip up other visitors.
And watch out for those other visitors! Aquariums can get very crowded. "The best days of the week are usually Monday through Wednesday, and early in the morning, right after opening," says Bruce Carlson. "There are fewer people and the tank walls aren't smudged up yet." Most aquariums experience a downturn in attendance after Labor Day through early November, when school field trips start up again.
■^GO AUTO: Aquarium lighting, especially in daylit, open-top tanks, often means shifting light levels and color temperatures, as well as mixed light sources. For shots like this one by Ralf Schultheiss, auto exposure and white balance settings are often best.
SILLO SECRET: The trick for silhouetting people against glass? Spotmeter the water beyond them. Michael Grossman shot this at the Monterey Bay (CA) Aquarium with a handheld Canon EOS 5D and 28-75mm f/2.8 Tamron lens; 1/60 sec at f/2.8, ISO 1600.
▲ LET THE SUN SHINE IN: Plan your aquarium trips for bright, sunny days, which will better your chances for great pictures of sea life in open-top tanks. Christopher Chan captured this sunlit whale shark (and friends) at the Kaiyukan Aquarium in Osaka, Japan, with a Canon EOS 30D. He pressed his 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 Canon zoom against the tank to minimize reflections and camera shake.
The best time of day? For exhibits with natural sunlight, visit in midday or early afternoon for great natural lighting. Different fish are active at different times throughout the day, so try to discover when your favorite subjects are at their most photogenic.
Shooting through glass or acrylic windows poses its own set of photographic challenges. "In fact," says Bruce Carlson, "exhibits with highly curved windows—bubble tanks, for example—typically distort so much that clear, sharp photos are impossible."
Acrylic windows are often very thick. "Our largest is 24 inches front to back," says Carlson, "but most windows average anywhere from 2 < to 8 inches. You can't shoot through " them at an angle without getting £ a lot of distortion and chromatic o aberration. The trick is to shoot g straight through the window to o your subject at the tightest possible distance." But not too close. "Acrylic windows scratch very easily," he warns. "If you press a normal lens shade hard against one [to eliminate reflections], you can easily leave scratch marks. To prevent this, use only lens shades made of soft rubber."
High ISOs (800 or 1600) will allow you to shoot at the faster shutter speeds that freeze motion. (Most of these photographers use 1/125 sec or faster.) Shooting RAW will let you address white balance issues with greater flexibility later in software.
And software is your friend. More than any other type of nature photography, aquarium shooting almost requires digital touch ups. Air bubbles and floating debris in the water need to be cloned out. Noise reducers, such as Nik Software's Dfine 2.0, make shooting at ISO 1600 more viable, and sharpening can help bring back detail that thick tank windows begin to blur out.
*flf\TIPS OUT OF l^/THE BLUE
■Forget AF. More often than not, autofocus latches onto smudges or scratches on the tank window, not on the creature within. ■Slower is better. Especially when you're just starting out, concentrate on slower-moving creatures, such as lion fish, jellyfish, and frogs. "When all else fails," says Bob Couey, "photograph the beautiful corals and anemones. They don't move at all!" ■To clean tank walls, bring a soft cloth. ■Leave the kids at home. You'll get better pictures without an entourage. ■Fire freely. When shooting fast-swimming fish, don't wait for decisive moments. Set the continuous drive mode and fire away until you, your camera, or the fish poops out. ■Use high-speed sync. Remember your flash's high-speed sync mode? It lets you use flash up to your camera's fastest shutter speed, and aquarium
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4 O GREAT AQUARIUMS I ^ AROUND THE U.S.
< CLOSE ENCOUNTER:
Aquariums make great settings for family portraiture: Capture the interaction between your children and the sea life. If your main goal is to photograph the creatures, though, better leave the kids at home. Beau Brashares shot this encounter at the New York Aquarium in Coney Island with a Nikon FE2 and 105mm f/2.8 Nikkor on Kodak Tri-X film.
shooting is a perfect situation for it. It will capture fish sharply, even when the ambient light is bright enough to cause motion blur at normal sync speeds. ■Use rear sync. "Set your flash's rear-curtain sync mode to put motion blur behind your swimming subject, not in front of it," says George Grail.
■Crop tight. "Fill the frame with your colorful subjects," says Couey. "And if your DSLR offers it, dial up saturation to retain that color." ■Don't waste time. "No Flash" exhibits, super-fast-moving fish, and creatures behind scuffed glass are typical time-wasters. Move on. ■Join up. Aquariums are often very photo-friendly places. They link up with photo clubs and community colleges, and may even offer their own photo classes. Ask the membership office about opportunities such as special entry privileges, as well as lectures and tips from expert photographers.
The one recurring theme these pros stress: Patience and return visits are your best hope for killer aquarium photography. Don't expect miracles the first time out. But also don't doubt that, with patience and the right equipment, miracles will come. O
•ADVENTURE AQUARIUM, CAMDEN, NJ
Shark lovers, this is your home base. One of only two aquariums in the U.S. to exhibit a great hammerhead shark, its 550,000-gallon Shark Realm includes more than 20. For $165, you can even snorkel among them.
•AQUARIUM OF THE PACIFIC, LONG BEACH, CA
In addition to the three main galleries highlighting the major regions of the Pacific, there's a Shark Lagoon, as well as a Lorikeet Forest aviary with tropical birds and a waterfall.
• DISCOVERY COVE, ORLANDO, FL
Get a more hands-on, outdoors experience in the free-flight 250-bird aviary, the Shark Habitat, and the swim-in coral reef with 100 stingrays. Or take a dip with a bottlenose dolphin.
•GEORGIA AQUARIUM, ATLANTA, GA
With more than 100,000 animals representing 500 species, the Georgia Aquarium offers myriad photo ops. It's also home to both cold-water belugas and whale sharks.
•JOHN G. SHEDD AQUARIUM, CHICAGO, IL
This long-established aquarium is packed with stunning modern features such as the Wild Reef, where sharks circle overhead and stingrays glide below the see-through floor.
• MONTEREY BAY AQUARIUM, MONTEREY, CA
www.montereybay aquarium.org The 28-foot high kelp forest at this converted cannery is home to wolf eels and sardines. This aquarium also houses one of the country's largest collection of jellies.
• MOODY GARDENS, GALVESTON, TX
Texas may be the last place you'd expect to find penguins, but you can check them out here along with seals and sharks. While you're there, visit the Rainforest Pyramid full of tropical plants and birds.
• MYSTIC AQUARIUM, MYSTIC, CT
Swim with a beluga whale, touch a cownose ray, learn how to care for a penguin, watch a sea lion show, or gaze at the fluorescent coral at this hidden gem.
4 O GREAT AQUARIUMS I ^ AROUND THE U.S.
•NATIONAL AQUARIUM, BALTIMORE, MD
www.aqua.org Come for the impressive reptiles, giant turtles, and rainbow variety of frogs. Stay for the giant Pacific octopus that instantly changes color and skin pattern.
•OREGON COAST AQUARIUM, NEWPORT, OR
www.aquarium.org Unlike the mega-aquariums, this friendly spot keeps it local. Fortunately, lots of compelling creatures live here, including turtles, sea otters, seals, sea lions, and an amazing variety of jellies.
•SEAWORLD SAN DIEGO, SAN DIEGO, CA
www.seaworld.com/ sandiego For sheer variety, you can't beat this venue's Aquarium de la Mer, which offers macro-scaled seahorses, a giant Pacific octopus, and much in between. Trying to find Nemo? He's here; so is Shamu.
•TENNESSEE AQUARIUM, CHATTANOOGA, TN
www.tennis.org It's rare for an inland aquarium to be packed with this much wildlife—from penguins to crabs, jellies, sharks, eels, and even butterflies and birds.
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