is behind it will appear fuzzy. Now move your finger out to arm’s
length. Your finger will be in focus and the background will be a
little sharper. Like your eyes, the camera can only focus on one
area at a time. The closer the distance from the subject to the lens,
the more critical the DOF. My tankbuster setup is as follows:
• Remote trigger
• Light source
• Hand mirror
• Dry-erase marker
To start, determine the “sweet spot” in your tank. This might
be one area that the fish frequents or a particularly well-decorated
portion of the tank. This is not as critical as with smaller fish, since
we are going to use the fish’s natural behavior to our advantage.
Lock your camera down on a tripod in front of the tank with
enough distance so you can frame the fish in the designated spot.
Try to give a little more room than you need so the fish can swim
in and out of that area. Once you have the area framed, use the
marker to indicate on the tank the far left and right of the area that
is in the viewfinder. Look through the viewfinder and focus on the
fish when it is in that sweet spot, preferably closer to the front of
This is important: Make sure your camera is on manual focus.
Otherwise, every time you start to take a shot, the camera will
try and refocus on the moving fish. We are going to rely on zone
Select the highest aperture you can to match the amount of
light you can provide. The best is some sort of diffused speed
light (flash). But if you are shooting available light, try adding an
additional light over the top of the tank. For the setup, make sure
that your shutter speed is at 1/60 to 1/125 at a minimum—the
faster, the better. If you are using a flash, consider adding a second
light set slightly below and angled up from the bottom of the tank.
You don’t need anything fancy. Many times, I have resorted to using
upended laundry baskets and crumpled towels to hold and angle a
flash. The important thing is that the main light must be above the
tank and diffused.
Examine your flash closely. Some will allow you to override
the TTL (through-the-lens) metering and push the output to a
different focal length setting. If possible, adjust the flash to a wide-angle setting. If you are using a longer lens as suggested, this will
effectively force the flash to throw a more evenly dispersed cone of
light on the subject.
Now for the fun part. Using the hand mirror, or even your finger
if that’s what the fish responds to, tease it back and forth in front of
that sweet spot. Keep an eye on your marks to ensure that the critter
is in that zone. When the fish reacts to the mirror, quickly drop it
and trigger the camera. Don’t worry about refocusing. Anything
within that zone should be in focus with your setup.
When I judge or grade aquatic photography, in addition to
looking for the submissions to be technically correct (in focus,
color, contrast, etc.), I always ask myself how difficult it would
be to get that photo. With this method, you are guaranteed to get
those stop-action poses that always seem to happen when you don’t
have a camera in your hand. This setup works even better if you are
photographing breeding cichlids. Their home base is their breeding
site, so your sweet spot is predetermined. Plus, their actions are
very predictable when it comes to guarding their fry.
Adding enough light to the photo tank to allow the use of a higher
aperture will ensure a better depth of field. This can be critical to
having both the front and back of the fish in focus. This shot of a
tiger-striped silver dollar (Metynnis fasciatus) offers a perfect
example of what can be achieved through proper camera settings.
Tankbuster cichlids like Amphilophus citrinellus make very good fish
models. Their hyper aggression makes it easy to get a little action
into the photo. Properly lighting both top and bottom helps to make
the subject pop.