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PHOTOGRAPHING POND LIFE - TANK PHOTOS

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The simple problem with photographing pond life is that it lies low and is wet. That is, ponds are dug into the ground and much of interest lives under water. Even prostrated in mud the photographer cannot maximise the potential but fortunately there are two obvious and simple solutions to the watery dilema – tanks and trays. 

There is a real art to photographing anything in a glass tank and sadly it is rarely encountered.  Buying a nearly made aquarium and lighting it with an angle poise on the living room table is not going to rectify this.  A little effort and planning will pay dividends in the final picture.

Firstly it is always best to build your own tanks. Have a glazier cut the glass to your requirements and ensure that at least the front pane is scratch and blemish free. You will make a mess of the silicone seaming but it doesn’t matter – these receptacles are for work, not for displaying on the mantelpiece.  Secondly build or cannibalise a heavy duty workbench which will support the base of the tanks at chest height. There is nothing worse than kneeling or craning down to peer into a camera when you have plenty of other distractions and irritations to contend with. Comfort always helps with concentration. Now a couple of tricks of the trade.

Build a large ‘background tank’ which you fill with substrate, weed, debris etc. but never any of your living subjects. Construct it as deep as possible whilst considering the weight of water it will hold and the stability of your supporting table. Once complete this tank will need a couple of weeks to settle down, for the silt or sand to clear from the water and for all of the vegetation to recover from its uprooting and transplanting. Make any future adjustments well in advance of taking pictures and with care but aim to make this tank look as real as possible so use lots of debris not a smooth, gravelly or sandy base. Also, because this permanent set will be the background to all of your tank pictures, a little diversity of light coloured texture from right to left will provide more scope of a variety of shots.

Next construct a series of ‘subject tanks’, up to the same height as your ‘background tank’ and of adequate width to hold the relevant subject i.e. if you’re photographing a dragonfly larva it doesn’t need to be as deep or as wide   as a tank used for a shoal of Minnows. Fill this with clean, fresh water and nothing else. As usual allow it stand for a couple of days to de-chlorinate and also for all of the air to come out of solution. Initially the glass sides will be coated with thousands of tiny silver bubbles which if you dislodge will only reappear again. The benefit of this two tank technique is obvious – your subject can never disappear into the weed or silt as soon as you introduce it and lead you to angrily poke it about whilst all the while churning up a mess and wrecking the set. In your ‘subject tank’ use minimal and clean natural supports – single strands of weed, twig or stones and gently coerce your subject to pose on these not against the glass. From the front it will look as if that subject is actually in the rear tank amongst the natural set. Infact it is held in a highly controllable environment where it can be coaxed with a long handled soft paint brush or removed without any distress or damage.

Poor lighting is what ruins most tank pictures, normally because there’s too much of it. Consider reality, if you were submersed in a pond all the light would come from above - thus shield the back and at least one side of your tanks with dark paper or card. Then begin the difficult task of reducing reflections by shading yourself, your camera and everything behind you from any bright light. I hang several metres of black drape on stands, wear black, throw another drape over myself and the camera,  loosely wrap it around the tripod and for all this trouble completely solve the problem. 

Another tip is too make your ‘subject tank’ slide-able, especially if you’re photographing a macro subject. It becomes easier to gently slide the tank and subject toward or away from the lens rather than to refocus the camera or shift the tripod back and forth. I put a layer a cloth (felt) on the bench top and put the tank on top of a stainless steel tray.

Lastly make sure your glass is clean, inside and out - magnetic aquarium cleaners, lint free cloth and a tiny carefully applied amount of window cleaner will do the trick. Use as shallow depth of field as you can get away with  and always shoot at ninety degrees to the glass. Flash works well if it is heavily diffused but its best to shoot a few test rolls and keep note of your experiments. I prefer to use softer, natural light and remember you can always boost that or localise it by using a mirror to reflect light into the subject. A patient  assistant is invariably a necessity for this method of lighting. One last comment; photographing a subject in a tank is obviously not something you do in ten minutes before tea. By the time you’ve cleaned the tanks, prepared your set, collected the subject, or several of them, hung the drapes, readied the camera waited for the light and waited for the animal to swim into the right position several hours will have passed. And it’s a frustrating business directing a shoot with a cast of Caddis Fly Larvae or Common Frogs so to alleviate insanity I’d write off a whole afternoon if not the best part of a day.

 

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