focal length: 42 mm
shutter speed: 1/50
aperture: f/2.8
ISO: 1000
flash: not fired

This was the second time I’ve shot at an aquarium, so I’m no expert but here are a few things I’ve learned from my experiences:

  1. Don’t use your flash - Not only does the marine life not appreciate it (some animals are sensitive to light), your photos will look flat and most likely have a huge burst of light captured in the image. Not to mention serious reflection problems off the tank glass. Ugly and mean. Don’t use it
  2. Be prepared to use a high ISO - The tanks are lit but only very slightly, so there isn’t much light. If you want to be able to see the marine life in your photos, you’ll most likely have to use a high ISO (above 800) especially since flash is a no-no.
  3. Remember the hand-held shutter speed rule - For a 35mm or full frame camera, the slowest shutter speed you should use is roughly the reciprocal of the focal length you’re at. For example, if I’m shooting with a 50mm lens, the slowest my shutter speed can be is 1/50 sec to avoid camera shake. If you have a crop sensor, you should account for that. 50mm on a Nikon D40 is a 75mm equivalent (to a full frame sensor) so you should stay faster than 1/80 sec. You might need an even faster shutter speed than that if your subject is moving quickly and you want to avoid motion blur (aka freeze action).
  4. Shoot wide open - When you’re in such a dark place with poorly lit tanks, you’re going to need all the light you can get. Shooting wide open (e.g. f/1.8 or f/2.8) means you’ll have a narrower depth of field. Shoot from further back if you want more of your subject to be in focus.
  5. Remove your polarizer when indoors - I made that mistake, I guess because I thought I would need it to reduce the glare off the tank glass but forgot that it might be dark enough that there would be no or little reflection. Keeping the polarizer on your lens will bring your exposure down about 1.5 stops meaning you have to use a higher ISO, slower shutter speed or larger aperture to compensate for the darkness of the filter. Oh, and it’ll enhance the blue hues like crazy. Not good.
  6. Anticipate your subject’s movement - Marine animals usually move around, so try to anticipate where they are heading, compose your shot and wait for your subject to swim into place.
  7. Bring extra memory cards - Because there is so much to see and most of the subjects are moving (including your kids) you might need to do a lot more takes. Deleting as you go along takes time, so consider taking enough memory cards to last the visit.
  8. Shoot in RAW format - Getting the white balance right the first time might be more challenging in a dark aquarium rampant with blue hues. I had to heavily adjust the white balance on the photo above because it was completely blue when I shot it. Luckily I shoot RAW. Trust me, white balance is tough to correct with JPG’s.

These tips apply to shooting in a dark aquarium and not at the outdoor exhibits. It’s just a quick list I thought up that might help you if you plan on taking a trip to the aquarium sometime. Please feel free to share any other tips you have for shooting under these conditions.

focal length: 48 mm
shutter speed: 1/30
aperture: f/2.8
ISO: 2500
flash: not fired

Laura is a Vancouver wedding and portrait photographer. Visit laurahana.com.