April 2013 Meeting

Wednesday, May 1st, 2013 at 12:15 pm

Jason Baliban, renowned aquascaper, aquarium photographer, and owner of ProjectAquarium.com, spoke on the topic of Photographing your Aquarium at GWAPA’s April 27th meeting in Bowie, Maryland.

 He gave an excellent overview on how to get the most out of “point and shoot” style cameras, everything from how to set up the shoot, what camera settings to use, and how to use photoshop. 

One of the most important pieces of advice he gave was to add extra light when photographing an aquarium. Use any extra light to can to allow for faster shutter speeds (freezes fish, provides less blurring) and smaller apertures (allows for larger depth of field). Try to use a mixture of bulb colors. We use a rather narrow range in our tanks, and as we add different colors, it becomes more natural in a photo.


To demonstrate how he adds light, Jason showed a photo of the tank that won 2nd place in the 2008 AGA contest. He admitted that “it looks kind of dangerous” with over 500watts of lights trained on the tank, some on microphone stands.


To set up for a shoot, clean the aquarium and glass. This may seem obvious, but some people skip this step, and water spots will ruin an otherwise excellent shot. Remove all hardware, and make sure to clean behind where the filter was. Jason keeps a bucket next to the tank and places all hardware in there until he is finished with the shoot.


Use a timer or remote trigger, as pushing a button moves the camera.


Use a tripod, or set the camera on a table with books piled up to achieve the correct height. No matter how careful you are, your hands are going to shake and you will not get the best shot.


Use a wide angle and zoom out, which will let you get as close to the aquarium as possible. He showed us some pictures so we could see the difference between shots that were taken zoomed out vs. zoomed in, and there was much more appearance of depth in the zoomed out shots. “We are trying to create an appearance, something that doesn’t necessarily exist,” he explained. Jason says that he finds trying to create depth to be the most challenging thing in aquascaping.


Turn off all lights in the room before shooting. It doesn’t make sense to spend so much time creating an aquascape and painstakingly setting up the shoot only to see a reflection of “your big dumb face” in the tank. Also turn off the flash –it’s not helping, and will only create glare.


Tapping lightly on the glass right before you shoot will make the fish school.



It is not just the amount of lighting that is important, but the color of the lighting and the “white balance.”  Different lighting creates different hues and color casts. White balance adjusts red, green, and blue to create a truer white. The human eye does this automatically (your brain tells you what it’s supposed to be).


Cameras have automatic white balance adjustments to handle different lighting situations, but some “guess” better than others. (That’s what those settings on your camera for things like “cloudy” or “incandescent” are for.)


Incandescent light has a yellower light, fluorescent light has a greener light, and daylight a bluer light. Jason showed pictures of different white balance settings: auto white balance, daylight, tungsten or incandescent, and fluorescent.


He moved on to explain shutter speed and aperture. The shutter speed controls how long light hits or (exposes) the camera’s film or sensor. Use a faster shutter speed to freeze fish and have less blurring. Aperture works like the pupil of the eye, and controls how much light is passed when the shutter is open. This controls the depth of field.


Your camera’s computer determines the shutter speed and aperture. It takes a “guess” as to what you are shooting, and some will “guess” better than others. Most cameras do not have an aquarium setting.


Exposure compensation is used after the camera makes its guess. It is usually adjusted in 1/3 or 1/2 stops in plus or minus fashion. To demonstrate exposure compensation, he showed us photos with best guess, plus 2, minus 2, minus 3.


Jason offered some final tips in “putting it all together” : using a white background (move the tank away from the wall, and use poster board to create a smooth white surface), using strobes or remote flashes (allows for more control), and doing postproduction editing with Photoshop.


Photoshop can be used to make small adjustments to a photo. The “burn tool” can darken areas that weren’t dark enough. Hue saturation can be used to get more green (really the same thing as doing white balance). The “stamp tool” can be used to duplicate one area, and put it over a snail to eliminate the snail from the picture. The same thing can be done to make a rock look more moss covered, or “get rid of snail poopy.”


There is some argument about whether using Photoshop like this is somehow “cheating.” Jason did not go into that in depth, but did say that there’s nothing wrong with removing a blemish or leaves, but once you start adding plants or moving rocks, that’s something else entirely. He has judged AGA contests in which it appeared that some entrants had done just that.


Another use for Photoshop is to get an idea of how a tank will look if things were rearranged, before re-scaping.


After his presentation, Jason answered questions, and gave some hands on assistance in photographing a tank Jen Williams brought to the meeting.



Aquarium Photography

jason baliban




The meeting concluded with our usual mini auction.



Club news:


Registration for our aquascaping contest is $5. The contest is being sponsored by Brightwell Aquatics. Members who registered at the meeting were able to choose 2-3 bottles of  Brightwell Aquatics products for planted tanks. It’s not too late to register: look for more info about the contest on the forum, and at upcoming meetings.


GWAPA, CCA, and PVAS will team up to host Aquafest the weekend of October 18-20. There will be speakers, an all day auction, and an aquascaping event sponsored by GWAPA. Some members may recall the popular  “Iron Aquascaping” contest last time between Jason Baliban and GWAPA member Jeff Ucciardo.  If you have any ideas for a keynote speaker for Aquafest, please tell a board member.


GWAPA is giving serious consideration to hosting the Aquatic Gardeners Association Convention in 2014 or 2015. The board is willing to make the commitment to host this event, but needs help from the membership. If you are willing to commit to doing whatever you can –especially if you have experience or contacts that would be helpful– please speak up! We need to make a decision soon, so we can get favorable hotel rates and start planning.


GWAPA last hosted the AGA convention in 2003, and brought in Takashi Amano and Oliver Knott.