My son Jake, who is autistic, has a passion for tropical fish-keeping. As Jake had never showed much interest in anything other than music, I encouraged this passion, as I myself have always had a couple of fish tanks in one room or another and I thought it would be a good way for Jake and I to interact more together. I allowed him to have a few tanks in the single garage, and as his passion grew, so too did the fish room, moving from the single garage to the double garage, in order to accommodate the 32 tanks which we have now accumulated . His main interest lies in the keeping and breeding of New World Cichlids ie Cichlids from North, Central, and South America.
Most cichlids are well known for their aggression, particularly at mating time, which can lead to many problems when attempting to set up a community tank of different cichlids and sex. Jake's community tank, which is 8'x2'x2' contains some of the most aggressive of these cichlids, which to date, seem to be living in something akin to harmony, apart for the odd tussle and torn fin. Rather surprising, as his stock of choice consisted of what are considered to be, amongst the five most aggressive cichlids kept in Aquaria. As these fish grow, (some of them can reach 75cms), no doubt there will be trouble, at which time the most dominant fish that can hold their own, will remain in the 8x2x2 whilst the others will be housed in 6x3x2's.
As Jake became more proficient at looking after the fish and his husbandry improved, I decided to take a small step back and focus on mastering the photography of such fish. Photographing small community fish, which can be moved to a small tank purely for photography purposes, bears no resemblance to the photography of such big fish, because of the problems of catching such fish in large tanks and moving them to another (confining) tank in order to photograph them. Apart from that, The moving of any fish to a different environment causes them to become stressed which, In turn, can then lead to sickness such as White Spot (Oodinium). I therefore decided that any photographs that I took, would be of the fish in their permanent environment.
Mastering the technique was, to say the least, the hardest photographic assignment that I have ever set myself. Problems arose such as water stains on the front glass, barely seen by the naked eye, appearing in the photo. Suspended matter in the water column, and air bubbles, also barely seen by the naked eye, showed as white spots on the image. Research of technique (of which there is very little on the net), told me that I should turn off the filtration to reduce turbidity, but this proved fruitless with such large fish as their movement alone disturbed any sediment (excretions) lying in the gravel. Two choices arose.............meticulous house-keeping of the tank ie. the vacuuming of the gravel a few hours prior to photography (no mean feat in an 8x2x2 or 6'x3'x2' with fish that would take your finger off given half the chance) or "snapping away", hoping for the best, and cloning out any specks on the image in Photoshop later. I chose the former path, but even so, there are still occasions when specks of sediment show in the final shot and cloning is the final solution.
Other problems arose such as reflection of self, or objects in the room opposite the tank, appearing in the front and back glass of the tank being photographed. This can be overcome to some extent by standing to the side of the tank, or turning off the lights and photographing at night, when only the tank is lit. Lighting was the major problem due to the low wattage of tank lights. Somehow, the subject had to be lit, and to achieve the best results I wanted to shoot at low ISO and high shutter speeds in order to reduce noise and to freeze movement. Tank lighting alone led to slow exposures at high ISO, which in turn led to movement blur when the fish moved and "noise" in the image. Using on-camera flash was out of the question as this invariably leads to flash reflection in the glass. Off camera flash was the only way to go to achieve the results that I wanted. A couple of tries with my canon 580EXll connected to the camera via a remote cable proved fruitless, as the cable was too short to allow me to stand well back from the tank so the fish couldn't see me and so that my reflection was not in the glass.
I decided to invest in a wireless trigger for the flash but on looking for a Canon, I realised that the price didn't justify the odd few shots that I would be taking of the fish. Researching, I found an article relating to a canon dedicated wireless trigger made by Yongnuo. The reviews were favourable and at less than half the price of Canon, I hinted to the kids about my upcoming birthday and sure enough, they chipped in together and bought me one.
The rest is history. Endless hours with the flash sitting atop the tank, facing down with diffuser in place, waiting for the fish to swim under the flash, only to find the image under, or over-exposed. A piece of sediment showing in the image in a position that my limited photoshop skills would not let me clone out. Hours and hours of trial and error until such time as I found that setting the camera to manual, with a shutter speed of 250sec and an aperure of f16 invariably produced the best results with the flash set at ETTL. The Canon 100mm macro allows me to sit well back from the tanks but I occasionally use the trusty old cheapo 50mm 1.8. It's cheap, plastic, but pin sharp, mounted on a Canon 40D which is rather dated at only 10 megapixels, but it's tough enough for the fishroom and it's humidity, and me stumbling around with only the light from one tank to see what I am doing. My aim was to "isolate" the fish from it's environment...........to portray the fish in all it's beauty without any distractions from the tank decor. Sometimes I manage it, many times I don't. The fish don't often comply with coming to the front of the tank so that the "isolation technique" can be achieved. In some of my images, the whole fish may not be visible, or may be out of focus. This is deliberate technique aimed at highlighting the features of the fish............colour, finnage, aggression, menace etc.
There may be times where I need quick "grabbed" shots. I may walk into the fish room and the fish are doing a "mating dance" or spawning, and I don't have time to set up a lighting system, and have only 30 watts of tank lighting to shoot with. To facilitate this, I always have the 50mm 1.8 Canon lens ready on the camera with the iso set at 1600 and the lens wide open. This normally gives an exposure of 1/30 to 1/60 sec but due to the slow shutter speed and lens aperture, these images are never going to be totally satisfactory, but at least they capture what I am trying to record, although depth of field is limited and movement may not be frozen.
It's taken me many hours of trial and error to get to the position where I think my images are good enough to "go public" I've been challenged, frustrated, been hot and sweaty, (it reaches 34C (93.2F) in the fish room in summer}, but the trip has been worth it. I hope you think so too.
Please click on the thumbnails below to see the true beauty of our fish. Images are large so please allow time for the page, and multiple images, to load.