How to take Pictures of your Cichlids

Cichlid photography
by Fredrik Hagblom ( the Cichlid Gallery )
You get quite a few reactions from your surroundings when you suddenly start spending your time starring through your camera into a glass container. My photographer-friends laugh at me, my kids are nagging me and my wife sighs and shakes her head. It seems like they had more understanding towards my earlier photographic projects for some reason.

– Sure, those fish are nice but how exiting could it be to look at fish-photography?

It really is very exiting with fish pictures. Even more exiting to create them and especially when it involves your own fish. I have always been fascinated by the interaction that takes place between our cichlids and the rest of the inhabitants of our flat. The majority of our cichlids have individual relationships with all members of my family. My wife is uninteresting, my son is highly dangerous, I bring the food and my daughter is harmless. One day I will try to photograph how she squeezes her face towards the glass and beats it with her little hands and a whole group of curious Tropheus gathers in front of her nose to check her out. If I would do something like that the entire group would press themselves against the back of the tank.

Sometimes you have to wait for a long time before the fish shows it self in the right way, like this Lamprologus stappersi

Cichlids posing

Returning to the subject of photography I must say that shooting cichlids that you “know” is very awarding. Sometimes it seems as if they are posing for you, moving back and forth, spreading their fins until you have gotten the shots you wanted. When you confront new cichlids it is more common that they shy away from the strange unnatural behaviour it is having a person following their moves pointing at them with a big object. The most difficult place to shoot cichlids is often at breeders since they tend to keep their breeding stock in peace as much as possible. This limits their experience of having people close to the tank to a degree that it might be impossible to get any good shots of them. This of course becomes even more frustrating due to the fact that these particular specimens, for obvious reasons often are the most beautiful ones you can imagine. Their posture and colour is brought out to an extreme degree when a lonely male gets to hang out by him self with a group of five to six females. And it doesn’t really make it worse that these males already from the start are selected for having that little “extra” bit of elegancy to their bodies.

In shops however it’s different. There it is more likely to come across intrepid individuals but the fish are often crowding their tanks and in the majority of cases they are not showing the slightest of their true colours.

Cameras can’t take pictures

An important detail that I was taught by my grandfather and father (both photographers since a very early age) is that it is not cameras that take pictures, it is photographers. This is probably very good to keep in mind especially today when technology takes care of practically half of what was ones my grandfathers actual craft. It’s great with all this progress of technology because the less time you spend on the technical part of photography the more you spend on creating images which is what it’s all about. The technical recommendations that follows are the conclusions of my experiences in aquarium photography and you should keep in mind that I have gone the traditional way. I have not even tried to use a digital camera, auto focus or built in flash or any other kind of automatic function simply because I don’t know how to and have never used it in my daily work as a photographer. This does not mean it is wrong to use such functions but I hope that some of the things I will be discussing can be of help also to those who choose to use more automatic/modern equipment.

It is possible to estabish a contact with the fish just like in human portrait photography. You can almost feel the intensive eye of this Dimidiochromis compressiceps.


Photography in general is mainly about light. The angle from which the light hits a cichlid greatly determents how we experience its shape, colour, fins and eyes. If one choose to use only the built in flash of the camera one likely gets a big reflection in the glass. If you point your lens at a straight angle against the glass this reflection also ends up in the centre of the image. If the built in flash is located high on your camera or you point the lens at an angle you sometimes avoid reflections but the shape of the fish becomes flat and boring.

The “correct” way to place the lights for aquarium photography is from above. This creates highlights on the back of the fish and lowlights underneath and we clearly experience the rounded, elongate body of a fish the way we are used to see it. Now, I like braking rules and would like to point out that the reason we are taught that the “above light” equals “correct” lighting is that this is the way we normally se fishes. In the lake/ocean all light comes from above and this is also the way they are lit in the aquarium. It is recommended to place the light from above to start with but all of you who have seen underwater documentaries at Discovery or BBC have probably noticed that due to the position of the camera the light can come from what ever angle and when light surprises us that’s when we get a truly great kick out of underwater photography. But maybe we shouldn’t start with cubism before we have learned to paint a classic portrait? (But if that’s what you want go ahead and do it.)

Fixed lights or flash?

First of all maybe we should say something about fixed light, in other words, lamps. In my opinion it is wise to use as slow a film as possible in all sorts of macro photography since it is the details that makes the pictures interesting. 100 asa or its digital equivalence is according to me the fastest possible film for this type of work. Due to the fact that you need a shutter speed of at least 125th of a second to freeze a moving fish most lamps are not strong enough, especially the ones located in standard aquaria lighting. I am not saying that good cichlid photos were never taken with fixed lighting. It is a little like feeding bloodworm to Tropheus. It may work but it might end up in a catastrophe. If you however happen to be the owner of a set of really powerful lights there is actually one more thing to consider. The unnatural strong lighting really stresses the fish. Not so much because they dislike the actual light but because they all of a sudden see everything in the room outside the tank from a different perspective. To bright new big suns with big stands and a whole bunch if threatening shapes and things in the room. It takes quite some time for them to get used to this. I can assure you that I have tried. One of the reasons why I have done this is because there is one great advantage in using lights. You can see what the lighting is going to look like when you look through the viewfinder. Using flash you won’t know this until you see the results. This means it might take a few sessions until you get the lighting the way you want it.

Experimenting with the placing of the flashes can be very rewarding. In this photo the flash is placed to the right giving the Discus an almost transparent look.

This very small advantage with the lights is to be compared to a large amount of advantages with using the flash. The really big advantage in using them is that the fish does not notice them at all. The flash bulb actually lights up and shuts down before the eye of the fish reacts to it. In a few rare occasions I have noticed reactions from the fish but I think this has been times when I have linked several flashes together with a prolonged flash blow as a result.

To be able to shoot fish “my way” you first of all need a camera, preferably one with a changeable lens and an outlet for an external flash. Pretty much all cameras with changeable lenses features such outlet and quite a few compact cameras as well. Then you need flashes, preferably three of them. At flee markets or in ads you can quite often find old flashes at a very low price. Or you might have one lying around. The only thing that’s important is that you can hook them up to your camera with a cable and that they flash when they receive a signal from the camera. It’s not important if some of the buttons or switches seem to be out of order, the strength of the flash can be set by changing the distance between flash and object. You now hook up one of the flashes to your camera with a cable and buy a small sensor to connect to the other two that make them flash when they sense another flash going off close by. You have now turned these two flashes into what photographers call “slaves”. The cable will cost you under 10 dollars, the sensor about 15. I have found several old flashes of all kinds and brands in flee markets and in ads for less then 10 dollars. An alternative to this is of course buying new slave-flashes with built in sensors. The prize of the smaller ones range between 35-60 dollars a piece.

What about the exposure values? If you use negative colour film of 100 asa, which is what I recommend, you wont get a very long depth of field with above mentioned equipment, but it is enough I think. I do not think that the longer depth of field you can get the better in all occasions. Just remember to focus the eye of the fish and you will be fine. If you ask me I actually think that you can intensify a fish portrait by letting the extended body of the fish be out of focus.

It is of course an advantage if you have a flash meter so that you can measure the exact strength of the flashes but it is not necessary. Just select the exposure time for flash sync. It can be marked as an X on your camera or it could be one of the exposure times marked in red. Use F-stop 4.0 with a 50 mm lens and you will be fine. If you wish to use a different asa or a shorter/longer lens you either have to measure with a flash meter or try a couple of times to get it right. If you place the flashes at a distance over the surface and they are not of professional strength, then set your aperture to 2.8. Color negatives are pretty tolerant so a little under or over exposure is easy compensated during scanning or printing your images.

Botodoma wavrini

What kind of camera?

Regarding the camera I recommend one with manual focusing. Auto focus is slow and when you shoot details you often come across situations when your target fish has all its fin rays pointing in the right direction and your camera is focusing on a leaf on the side. The auto focus also tend to get confused by the strange proportions that might occur on an object seen through water at close range. Also the majority of the auto focused lenses that I have tried have serious problems focusing on objects at close range. It is not always you wish to focus on an object that is in the centre of the image and when your whole viewfinder if filled up by an object that does not measure more than an inch and a half, you better be spot on with your focus. Go manual because you are not going to focus that much anyhow, I will tell you more about that later.

It is important to use a lens that has the ability to focus at close range. It needs to be able to focus an object located approximately 5 inches from the lens. It is not a good idea to use a wide-angle, Wide-angle is everything shorter than 50 mm. Lenses that have the ability to focus on objects at close range are called macro-lenses. There are pure macro-lenses but also plenty of zoom lenses that have a macro setting. Usually a macro-lens has “macro” written on it but you can of course just look through the viewfinder and focus on something to tell if the lens is capable. I work with a 50 mm macro and it has worked fine for me. 50 mm lenses are often called “normal” since they pretty much imitates the shapes and forms of objects the way we see them with our eyes. Shorter than 50 mm is wide-angle and longer is “telephoto”. Telephoto lenses press together the image in a way that the fish might look both short and fat.

Here you can clearly see how the “slave-flashes” that I have placed on top of the covers, light up the fish.

How To Focus

If you use several flashes you can place them directly on top of the tank covers. If the covers are dirty they need to be cleaned otherwise you loose several F-stops. Place the flash that is connected to your camera beside you at a distance of approximately one and a half foot. Point it towards the centre of the tank so that it is at an angle and not pointing directly towards the glass surface. Don’t chase the fish around with the lens. You decide where the photo is to be taken. On that spot you should wait until your object swims by. You can of course make minor adjustments in either direction but if you keep still the fish will eventually come close. You just need a great amount of patience. Because of this it is very important to sit comfortably and to be prepared to sit for a long time. I always sit with the camera risen looking comfortably with both eyes over the viewfinder. When a fish gets close I can then just lower my head and look through the viewfinder without scaring the fish with sudden body movement.

Most of the time It will do you no good to keep focusing back and forth. Just focus on a spot a few inches behind the glass on a spot where you find it likely that the fish will pass and the make swaying movements with your whole body against or away from the glass to capture the focus. Like most of you know it is quite common that cichlids move between fixed spots in their territory. If you are to shoot a tank that you have never seen before it is of great help to first stop at a distance and observe the fish for a while before you start laying out your equipment. Later when everything is in place and you have sat down still for a while in front of the tank, things behind the glass will return to normal.

If you have powerful flashes it can be a good idea to rise them up a bit above the tank. In this case you should totally remove the cover-glasses and you will have the light spread a little more. If you are to work with only a single flash from above this is necessary since you otherwise only light a small part of the tank at once. With some tape and a broom-stick you can place a flash at any angle. It can also make a very interesting result if you place one flash hitting the tank from one side. When you experiment with the flash angles just make sure that you don’t point them at your self. This may result in your own image being visible in the front glass of the tank.

When you photograph your own fish you nomally establish the best contact. In my own group of Tropheus “Kala Island” i am practically accepted as a member.

From camera to publication

It is often cheap to get your negatives transferred to a CD when you have them developed. The CDs you get from print shops are most of the time enough for publishing your photos in magazines and of course for the web. Photographing cichlids is a good way of closely examining their behaviour and I hope that this article might encourage you to take one step further into the art of cichlid photography. Good cameras are always an advantage but remember that the most important traits in becoming a good cichlid photographer are cichlid passion and patience.