A Giant Pacific Octopus in Boneless Beauties.
Aquariums can be frustrating environments for eager shutterbugs hoping to capture memorable moments with a living collection of unpredictable, rarely cooperative animals. The combination of thick acrylic viewing windows, occasionally dim lighting and frequently fast-moving subjects makes for a steep learning curve that can challenge even seasoned photographers.
To help flatten that curve a little, we’ve put together a few tips to help you make the most of your time at the Tennessee Aquarium. By following these simple guidelines, you’ll be better equipped to capture as many memories as possible during your visit, whether you’re using your device’s camera app or are toting around a dedicated DSLR or mirrorless camera.
If you want the best pictures, whether your subject is a shark, a turtle or an otter, you need to be closer. Not to the animals – though that helps – but to the transparent barrier that separates you from thousands (even hundreds of thousands) of gallons of water.
Acrylic panels used in commercial aquariums are fantastic for viewing creatures like Giant Pacific Octopuses and Gentoo Penguins with our eyes, but to a camera lens, they pose significant challenges.
Though they’re transparent, aquarium windows are usually quite thick. That depth interferes with photographs taken through the panels. As a result, images of animals taken through acrylic may sometimes appear fuzzy or slightly out of focus, even if they look crystal clear to the naked eye.
Acrylic windows are also highly reflective. Lights from other exhibits or gallery signage may be reflected in the acrylic through which you’re trying to photograph. In the moment, you’re often laser focused on the activity in your viewfinder, so you might not notice these blemishes until you look at the picture later.
To correct both problems, try to get your camera lens or smartphone camera as close to the acrylic as possible without touching it. That will help eliminate reflections and ensure your image is as clear as it can be. If possible, try to point your camera straight-on with the acrylic and not at an angle, which can lead to fuzzy images.
Photographers who use cameras with interchangeable lenses often purchase silicone lens hoods. These rubbery devices screw onto the end of the lens and are flexible. By blocking out light around the lens, these hoods can eliminate reflections when pressed up against an acrylic window. Since they’re soft, they also won’t scratch the acrylic.
An Alligator Snapping Turtle peeks its head above water.
Left: Stewy the Green Sea Turtle swims in the Secret Reef. Right: A Panther Chameleon in Island Life.
Turn off your flash
Aquarium galleries can often be dark environments, and flashes are designed to brighten things up. Seems logical to enable yours, right? Unfortunately, the pulse of light created by a flash can do far more harm than good.
While reflections from other exhibit lights are bad, the reflection from a camera flash off an acrylic panel is even worse. You’ll likely end up with a photograph of nothing but a burst of light if you try to take a picture of an exhibit with your flash turned on. Even worse, you might disturb other guests or — in the case of the aforementioned Giant Pacific Octopus — cause stress to the more photo-sensitive animals.
In short, turn off your flash. If left on automatic mode, most cameras, particularly those on phones, will self-adjust settings like exposure and shutter speed to compensate for images taken in darkened environments. Depending on your camera, the results might not be as sharp as photos taken in bright environments, but the elimination of reflections will almost always produce higher-quality images.
Use your exposure slider and tap to focus
If photographing with a smartphone, you’ll often find that your phone doesn’t know what to do when pointed at an aquarium exhibit with dim lighting. The image might look too bright and washed out as the camera tries to compensate for the low light, or you might have the opposite problem in an exhibit with bright light.
Technology has you covered, though. Many cameras, including those on smartphones, offer manually adjustable exposure. Take advantage of your exposure slider or dial to home in on a setting that captures the scene as your eyes perceive it. Manipulate the image’s exposure up or down until it looks right on the screen, then take the picture.
Although phones and dedicated cameras often do a good job of focusing all on their own, don’t forget that you can often tap on the screen to properly focus your camera on your desired subject. In an exhibit with lots of small, quick-moving fish, your smartphone might opt to focus on the driftwood resting at the back of the tank instead of the brilliantly-colored fish swimming in the foreground. Tap until the camera selects the fish as its focal point, which will help ensure your picture turns out as you’d hoped.
Aquarium lighting, especially in saltwater exhibits, can sometimes be on the cool end (greens and blues) of the color spectrum. If your image’s coloration looks unnatural, you can try using your favorite editing app — or even built-in adjustable sliders — to adjust the tint to add a compensating warmth to your photo.
A False Percula Clownfish in Island Life.
Left: A North American River Otter blows bubbles in the water. Right: A Florida Flagfish.
Many guests will try to follow fish with their camera, but it’s usually better to wait patiently for the shot you want.
Fish can usually tell when they’re being noticed or followed because they’re always looking out for predators in the wild. Fast movement to track them with a camera might spook them, leading them farther away from the acrylic, where it’s harder to get clear photos.
Patiently waiting and snapping your photo at the right moment will give the animals a chance to adjust to your presence and prevent motion blur caused by moving your camera around.
Even though it may make capturing a picture of a feisty fish a little easier, you’ll get the highest quality images by turning off your camera’s burst mode. Although higher-end DSLR or mirrorless cameras can take many images in rapid-fire without a loss in quality, phones tend to achieve this quicker pace by actively reducing the resolution of each image in a burst sequence.
It may seem counterintuitive, but if you find active fish and turtles difficult capture in a photograph, you might have better luck catching the moment you’re looking for on video.
By recording a 20- or 30-second video clip, you can play your footage back, frame by frame, until you see an image you’re happy with. Then, it’s as simple as screen grabbing that frame and saving it as a photo.
The image will be lower quality than it would be if you had taken it in photo mode, but if you’re planning only to share the image on social media and won’t be printing it out, you may not notice a big difference. Be sure to adjust your device’s video recording settings to its highest setting (most modern devices are capable of recording in 4K or higher) to ensure any individual frame is of the highest possible quality.