Jellyfish (or sea jellies) have a bizarre, otherworldly appearance, like aliens that have ended up our oceans. Their strangeness makes them eye-catching subjects for photography – if you can manage to get a nice shot of them.
Fortunately, you don’t have to go scuba diving to get awesome jellyfish photos. If you can visit an aquarium with jellyfish, you’re certain to get a cool shot eventually. You don’t even need the best camera – though a fast, wide-angle or macro lens would help.
The main thing you need is patience, plus the right techniques. Whether you have the perfect camera setup or just a smartphone, here are some quick tips to help you get nice pictures of jellyfish.
Tips for Photographing Jellyfish at Aquariums
Besides being interesting, jellyfish are one of the best subjects to shoot at aquariums because their tanks are usually striking to look at. The lighting is often dramatic, and the backgrounds are designed to make the jellyfish stand out.
Moreover, unlike large tanks with schools of fish, there’s not much else in the tank besides the jellyfish. This minimalism is perfect for photography. You can easily compose an image with few distractions.
Before visiting the aquarium, be sure to check if they have any rules about photography. Most aquariums don’t allow tripods or flash photography. You wouldn’t want to use a flash anyway, but you’ll miss having a tripod with low lighting. Image stabilization on your camera or lens will help, but even then, you’ll need to use the techniques below for the best images.
Get up close to the tank.
Besides the low lighting, one of the biggest problems in aquariums is avoiding reflections, which interfere with photos. These reflections can come from ambient lighting, other people, or your camera. (Hence, you don’t want to use flash!)
To minimize these reflections, you need to get as close as possible to the aquarium glass. Then, you’ll be looking straight through the glass, leaving no space for reflections. This strategy works well with flat glass, but not with curved glass, which refracts more light. For this reason, look for jellyfish tanks that are flat, not curved.
If you’re still having trouble with reflections, you can get a rubber lens hood, which will allow you to press your camera against the glass. This will create a cone of darkness around your lens, eliminating all reflections. It might even work with a curved tank, depending on how dramatic the curve is. Best of all: rubber lens hoods are cheap! It’s an easy way to instantly improve your jellyfish images.
Experiment with your ISO, aperture, and shutter speed.
The low lighting conditions are the next challenge you’ll have. Low lighting can be a real problem without a tripod, but you do have one advantage with jellyfish compared to other sea creatures: they move slowly, so your images are likely to be sharper than with fast-moving fish.
Still, your images may look blurry at first, especially if your shutter speed is too slow. Of course, if you speed up your shutter speed, you’ll need to deal with the darkness by adjusting your ISO and aperture.
You’ll likely need a shutter speed that’s at least 1/60, so your ISO will be fairly high, and your f-stop will be lower. In aquariums, an f-stop of 5.6 or lower is common. A wider aperture is better since it’ll allow you to keep your ISO low, but it also means you’ll have a smaller depth of field.
If you need a larger depth of field, you’ll probably end up with an ISO of 1000+, perhaps even 3200! Keep adjusting your settings until you find a combination that works. If you’re still getting too much noise (i.e. graininess in your photo), try shooting in RAW, using a lens suited for low lighting, and/or switching to black and white photography.
Shoot in black and white.
With a high ISO, your images will invariably have some noise. You can try to reduce this noise during post-processing with a RAW file, but another simple strategy is to remove the color.
By shooting in black and white, you’ll draw more attention to the lighting and composition, so the noise won’t be as obvious. The vibrancy of the color won’t matter, either. In fact, some graininess can even look nice in black and white. It can give the image a vintage look, adding to its atmosphere rather than detracting from the image quality.
Stake out a good spot and be patient.
Like all wildlife photos, you need to be patient to get the best images – even when you’re in an aquarium. You might feel self-conscious at first, standing next to the same tank for a long time, but this perseverance can pay off.
In most cases, though, you won’t have to wait for long. Unlike fish and other sea creatures, jellyfish rarely hide in the corners of the tank. They’re often in the center of the tank or by the glass, ready for a close-up.
So which spots are the best? You want to have a good view of brightest section of the tank. Strong, even lighting that covers a broad space is ideal for jellyfish photos. It’ll light up any jellyfish that floats by, giving you great opportunities to shoot away.
Many of the above images were selected from our community on Flickr.