Now we know about lighting, exposure, composition and some basic equipment.  Understanding and applying this information will yield the best results in any type of photography.  But, how can we specifically improve our reef tank photography?  What settings should we use?  In this section, we will go over some tips specific to reef tank photography.  With a few basic techniques anyone can take great photographs with any camera.

Using a Digicam

Here, I will use the Sony DSC-P5, a 3mp compact digital camera as a stereotypical mid-entry-level digicam.  These techniques, however, apply to all types of cameras.

#1 Read the Manual!
Many of us, myself included, tend to rip the camera out of the box as soon as we get home, pop in the battery and memory card and start snapping away happily.  We load the pics up into the computer and tell ourselves we will read the manual tomorrow.  It has now been 2 years and we still have not read the manual.

Well, actually, I do read the manual, though not necessarily the moment I get it in my hot little hands.

The manual is like a treasure trove and explains features included on the camera that are not published in the specifications.  It also explains how to use these features and situations in which they are applicable.  Although much of the information may appear basic and unnecessary, carefully reading and understanding the manual will allow us to optimize the camera depending on the shooting situation.

If the information seems frivolous and we think we already know it, consider it a review and read it anyways.  At the very least, we should skim over the information and quite possibly pick up some useful information we did not know.  I have read each of my camera manuals and all supporting documents carefully from cover to the index, and sometimes have read it multiple times.

Macro Button
Most digicams have a similar macro button.  Pressing this will activate the macro mode and is indicated by the flower icon on the LCD.  This "flower mode" changes the focal point of the lense, brining it closer to the lense itself.  Consequently, it allows the camera to focus on objects at closer than normal ranges.

The focal point change is accomplished by moving the exit pupil of the lense further away from the imaging surface.  This increases the magnification and reduces the minimum focal distance.  Macro modes on digicams allow us to get anywhere from 2cm to 10cm from the subject.  Check your digicam manual to find out what your minimum focal distance is.

When shooting macro photos, stay within the focus range of the digicam.  The minimum focal distance is measured at the camera's widest angle setting.  As a consequence, if the subject is at the minimum focal distance from the lense, it will appear sharp.  However, if we were to try and zoom in to get closer, the image becomes blurry.  This is because by zooming, we have increased the minimum focal distance, and the subject is no longer within the macro focal range.

Conversely, if we were to shoot a "normal" photo of our buddy standing next to our reef tank with the macro mode activated, the photo will come out blurry.  By changing the distance of the rear element from the imaging surface, infinity focus is no longer possible.

Look through a magnifying glass.  Hold it up close to your subject, and the subject appears large and focused.  Move it further back and the subject becomes blurry.  Move it further back still, and the subject appears inverted.  The magnified subject is our macro mode, the blurry range is the focal point, and the inverted subject is the normal operating mode of the lense.

Self Timer
No, we are not going to take a self-portrait of ourselves posing next to our favorite coral. Digicams are marketed toward the average "snapshooter."  As a consequence, many of the more professional features are left off.  One such feature is a cable release socket.  Most professional cameras have a standard socket where you can attach a cable to trip the shutter.  This cable is used to dampen the camera shake caused by mashing the on-camera shutter release button.

Some digicams offer infrared remote triggers much like a miniaturized television remote.  Others offer plug in electronic remotes.  However, if our digicam does not offer these options, we can still minimize blur in photos caused by camera shake, often seen as a vertical streaking of detail.

Just about every camera on the market has a self-timer used for delayed shutter triggering.  This proves very helpful in macro shots where it is paramount that the camera not be moved during the exposure.  Standard self timers delay the shutter release 10 seconds from its activation, with some digicams offering configurable delay options down to a 2 second delay.

To use the self-timer in macro photography:

  1. Press the self-timer button to activate the self-timer mode.  A round clock icon shows up on the LCD indicating this feature is enabled.
  2. Mount the camera on a tripod, or all this effort is largely negated by motion from hand holding the camera.
  3. Lock focus on the subject and recompose the shot.
  4. Activate the shutter release by fully depressing the shutter release.

Most cameras have a standard tripod socket.  This allows the camera to be securely mounted to a sturdy support.

No tripod socket?  Try using Velcro to attach your camera to the tripod, but be careful to make sure the attachment is secure; I am not liable for any damage that may be caused should the camera should fall off.

Pictured here is the flash mode button.  It works a bit differently than the other buttons.  Where, with other buttons, they toggle the modes on and off, the flash button will flip through various flash modes:

Auto:  In auto flash mode, there is usually no icon displayed.  The camera decides when to use the flash based on its readings of the ambient light.  If it decides it is too dark, it will fire the flash.  If it thinks it is bright enough for a good exposure, it suppresses the flash.

Forced: This is indicated by a lightning bolt seen here.  The flash will fire regardless of the amount of ambient light.  Outdoors on a bright sunny day, the flash will still fire.  This is useful for fill flash to soften harsh shadows cast by a high-noon sun.

Red-eye Reduction:  Indicated by an eye icon; the flash will fire a series of strobes prior to the main flash to cause the pupils to constrict, theoretically reducing the aperture of the eye causing less light to be reflected from the back of the retina (red in color).  This is the most useless feature of any digicam.  Turn it off and keep it off.

An explosion of bright light in a darkened room will almost always cause people to blink in reflex.  So, effectively, we have reduced red-eye by not showing the eyes.  Furthermore, it does not address the root of the problem.  The main issue is the flash is usually placed too close to the lense, and the resulting reflection comes straight back into the lense.  Think of looking at a mirror straight on.  We see a reflection of ourselves.  Now turn the mirror to an angle so we are looking at it at say, 45° - notice we no longer see our own reflection.  By moving the mirror, we have changed the angle of light reflected back.

The flash works the same way.  By increasing the distance between the flash and lense, we increase the angle at which the light is reflected.  Therefore, light from the reflection of the flash off the retina does not enter the lense.

In photographs where red-eye becomes an issue, have the subject look at a bright light source.  This will cause the pupils to constrict.  Also, red-eye can be fixed easily with most imaging programs.

Off:  This is indicated as a lightning bolt with a slash through it.  It causes the camera to suppress the flash regardless of ambient lighting levels.  In darker scenes, this will result in the camera using slow shutter speeds.

My recommendation is that you turn off the flash on your digicam.

Why Avoid The Popup Flash?
Typically digicam popup flashes are underpowered and not able to produce enough light to properly illuminate the scene. This issue is compounded by the fact light does not travel far in dense mediums such as liquids.

The lighting from the flash also tends to be harsh, resulting in sharp transitions between light and dark.  Notice the harsh shadow under the shrimp in this photo.

Digicam flashes offer little to no control over light levels.  At best, we are offered "high/normal/low."

Inaccurate flash output.  Most digicams do not use the more sophisticated TTL flash metering.  They use a thryster diode to judge the amount of light reflected back.  This often results in improper lighting levels depending on the scene and framing of the subject.

No control over lighting angles.  The popup flash is in a fixed position on the camera.

Reflections.  Similar to red-eye, because of the proximity of the popup flash to the lense, light is reflected back into the lense and results in not only a large white spot, but an overall reduction in contrast and color saturation.

So I tell you to avoid using the flash, but I use one myself - What a hypocrite!  Keep in mind I use an off-camera flash.  This allows me to use a more powerful flash, direct the output where I want, and offers fine control over flash output.


There are ways to avoid reflections using the popup flash.  One is to shoot at an angle to the glass, which does not yield good results due to the distortion effects of the glass.

Another way is to mash the lense flat up against the glass so it actually contacts the surface on all edges of the front filter ring.   This ensures light does not enter the lense from the outer surface.  Notice, though, light will be reflected off the back wall of the tank.


With a little post processing, voilà!  We get a pretty nice image.

However, in general, this is a poor technique for several reasons:
  • The only control we have over framing our subject is to use the zoom, which increases the minimum focus distance as stated earlier.
  • Some subjects may be closer than the minimum focus distance resulting in out-of-focus images.
  • Most importantly, some lense elements protrude outward, and mashing the lense up against the aquarium will cause glass to rub against glass, destroying both glass surfaces.  Also, on many digicams, the lense outer ring is made of metal.  Would you take a metal razor blade to your acrylic tank?