10 Tips for Shooting Birds in Aquariums


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 f 6.3,  1/2500, ISO 800

Click on image to view large!

 I am enjoying a few wonderful days shooting  in Newport, Oregon and always do an aquarium shoot when I am in the area.

Some look down their nose at aquarium, zoo or other captive images of birds and animals.  Not me.  I have enjoyed countless hours of shooting in these types of environments, and indeed, have honed a lot of my bird shooting skills due to a “captive” audience.  It is important that you choose reputable venues and there are many.  The three locations that I have enjoyed the most are The Oregon Coast Aquarium, The Portland Zoo and Peace River Wildlife Center Rehab in the Fort Meyers, Florida area.  All of these locales do wonderful conservation work and treat their animals with the utmost of care.

Not only did I learn a lot shooting in these environments but a few years ago my husband and I landed a paid shoot at the aquarium plus  an 18 month show of our work in their Passages of the Deep exhibit.  On top of that, some of my best selling images continue to be aquarium puffins.  So don’t be quick to write off captive shoots as substandard!   It’s a lot of fun and a great learning ground with all sorts of possibilities.


 f-stop 6.3  1/6400  ISO 800

So here we go with some tips!

1)  Go during the last two or so hours of the day.  Shooting in sweet light is usually impossible due to hours of operation.  Most aquariums are a 9~ 6 type of operation.  The sun will be a little less high in the sky between 4 and 6 in the spring and summer when our days are so much longer.  Not only that but business tends to wind down a bit at the end of the day and it will be less crowded.  Which leads me to # 2…

2)  Be considerate.  Lots of families go to enjoy the wildlife.  Be thoughtful and share the prime viewing spots.  There are lots of young children around that need the space to view.  It’s easy to get wrapped up in what you are doing and forget about the  fact that you may be dominating the area making it tough for others to enjoy.

3)  Do a bit of research.  Many folks I know have been disappointed when they showed up at the Oregon Coast Aquarium to shoot puffins and they were “ugly”.  During molting season these guys are definitely not looking their best.  Spring and summer is nesting and mating season so there is a lot of activity and they are looking good!  So call your destination spot and ask about best times of the year to shoot what ever you are after.

4) Get down low!!!  Standing up and shooting down at the birds will not get you those close intimate shots that are so compelling. Perspective is key.

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 f-stop 6.3  1/1600,  ISO 200

5)  Use a telephoto lens.  I always use my 100-400 Canon.  I have tried the 500 mm but it was overkill and cumbersome in the small spaces.

6)  Hand hold.   Again, tripods are cumbersome in small spaces with lots of people and sea birds are practically impossible to track with a tripod.  Make sure you have your shutter speeds high enough to freeze the action.  I shoot anywhere from 1/500 to 1/2500.  My f-stops are usually between 5.6 to 7.1.  Depending on whether it’s overcast or sunny, my ISO ranges between 100 and 800.  Use available rocks or pool edges to lean on and to prop your arm up for steadiness.

7)  Shoot close ups.  This is makes the man made back ground less conspicuous and  helps with the less than ideal lighting conditions that often exist.

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  F-stop 6.3  1/1600  ISO 200

8) Get artistic!  Take advantage of the challenging shooting conditions. Shooting black and white birds in sunny conditions with less than pleasing background gives one a triple challenge.  I have turned this into an artistic advantage.  If you expose for the white part of the bird the background automatically turns dark to give you a nice low-key artistic image.

9) As always, focus on the eye and beak!  Not as easy as it sounds with fast moving seabirds!  But it is so important to get that eye sharp and the beak if you can.   As you can see by these images, I favor F-stop 6.3.  When shooting this close up it is tough to get the eye and beak in focus at 5.6.  If  I’m a bit further away I will go for 5.6 often to get the extra shutter speed.

10)  Use Al Servo Mode if your camera has this feature.  It is more efficient in tracking fast moving birds and your capture rate will be higher.

A final note.  I am conflicted as the next person when seeing wildlife in captivity.  It is a complicated situation in our world today.  So pick your locations well and support those that do a great job.

I hope this helps the next time your decide to do an aquarium shoot!  ~Susan


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