As a National Training Specialist for Nikon, much of my job is educating photographers and photo enthusiasts how to take great photographs and videos with their Nikon photographic equipment. On a number of occasions, I’ve been asked to lead Photographer’s Night at the Aquarium of the Pacific, in Long Beach, CA. After taking many photographs in this environment, I decided to put together all of the tips that I’d found to be the most helpful when visiting an aquarium with your camera.
Reflections and Refractions
The single biggest challenge to aquarium image creation is dealing with the external reflections. The aquarium is lit so you can find your way around, which can cause issues because the light reflects off of everything! The walls, benches, your clothes, your camera gear, you and the other visitors as well will all be visible as reflections in the glass of the large aquarium tanks. In order to even be able to attempt taking worthwhile photos, you need to control the reflections. Blocking them is a start. You could wear all black clothing to block the reflections…but even all black clothing usually has buttons... and then there’s the issue of your face. Yep... it reflects too. I guess you could go dressed in full Ninja gear... But the looks you’re likely to get... May not be the best idea.
So, the solution is to use a lens hood. When pressed against the face of the aquarium tank, a lens hood will form a cone of reflection free darkness. Score! Well... almost. The problem is that a hard lens hood that’s made of either plastic or in some cases, metal, will still have some issues. They can scratch the front of the tank’s glass or acrylic surface. As photographers, we need to tread lightly and not ruin the experience for the next visitor. Additionally, many lenses now come with scalloped hoods that would still let in light. And don't even get me started on the fact that most modern public aquariums have "upgraded" to curved-face tanks. These curved faced tanks can even gather reflections from around corners! Here is where the rubber meets the road... err... fish tank. By using a simple generic rubber lens hood, you can create a completely reflection-free cone of darkness.
The rubber lens hood is excellent for bending and adjusting to your body's small movements as you hold the camera against the tank surface and try to compose your image. Nikon offers rubber lens hoods to fit a variety of lenses. Check your lens' manual to make sure you're using the correct one. The rubber will not harm the tank face, and they're inexpensive. They work best on normal to moderate telephoto lenses. When paired with a wide-angle lens, it is easy for the lens to "see" the hood. This causes rounded black cropping of the corners of the picture, so you’ll have to take care when composing your photographs with a wide-angle lens; you may need to crop your final image so the lens hood is not visible. You also need to watch out for light refracting through the face of the tank. Many modern aquarium tanks are made of a thick acrylic material. I find that I need to be extra careful when photographing through such a tank face. In this situation, you will need to shoot perpendicular to the tank face, otherwise you’ll likely see a colored (purple) ghost of your subject. This is due to the way light passes through the face of the tank.