You want to take pics of your aquarium and you have come to the realization that your smartphone just isn’t cutting it. Congratulations! There is hope for you yet. I’ll try to answer the question, “What camera should I get?” or at least get you moving in the right direction.
Shiny, expensive new toys are always fun. But as aquarium enthusiasts, we know that much of our disposable income is going towards those beautiful aquariums. Photography is another disposable income black hole and if you are not careful, you run the risk of getting sucked right in.
I’m a professional photographer myself so the last thing I want to do is discourage you from diving in head first and discovering all the joys of photography and the toys that come with it. But I’m going to restrain myself and try to put things into perspective so you can get a solid taste for the photography hobby while making the reefing hobby that much more enjoyable without breaking the bank. Let’s be smart about it! Buy wisely once, rather than poorly two or three times.
I’m going to try to touch on things somewhat briefly, giving you enough information to get you started, and if you need more details you can do some research on your own. These are just some basic tips that I find are useful or worth thinking about when choosing a new camera.
DSLR IS KING!
Put away the phone. They’re great for spur of the moment shots, they work well outdoors, and they’ve really come a long way, as good as many compact “point and shoot” cameras or better! But if you want to learn anything about photography I highly suggest you pick up a “real” camera with full manual controls. Especially if you are looking to photograph a Saltwater Reef tank. The blue lighting creates its own set of challenges. So this is what will we focus on from here on out. You shouldn’t be looking at anything else.
And don’t be dissuaded by the cost. Prices have really come down and you can get a basic DSLR with a “kit” lens for the cost of just a few nice dinners. Buying used is also a good way to get into the hobby. Kind of like learning to drive stick… nothing wrong with learning on a beater. Then once you have some experience you can choose to upgrade to something nicer.
Full Frame, APS-C, 4/3, Micro 4/3… These are just some of the various sensor sizes found in modern day digital cameras. The larger the sensor, the more pixels and information can be captured, giving you a clearer, more detailed image. Most common DSLRs will be Full Frame or APS-C which are your largest two sizes, but even Micro 4/3 which is about half the size of a Full Frame sensor, will give you outstanding images compared to the itty-bitty little sensor in your smartphone.
This is more important than you may initially think. You need to decide how you want to use the camera and how large of a camera you are willing to use. If it’s just going to sit next to your tank, it may not matter much. If you plan on taking it out of the house on family outings, how much weight are you willing to carry with you? Will you choose to leave your camera at home because of the extra bulk/weight? Or do you have big hands and need a camera that has a little more breathing room between the various buttons?
Mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras are designed to have the advantage of smaller size, lighter weight, and lower cost than the typical DSLRs, while still allowing users to swap lenses, unlike most compact cameras. You lose the optical viewfinder, replaced by a digital viewfinder. Digital viewfinders have come a long way, and on most current cameras they are so good that you forget you are looking at a digital screen. So don’t let this dissuade you. If small size is what you want, mirrorless may be your best bet. At the time of this writing, we are just beginning to see full frame mirrorless cameras. Due to the sensor size, they are not all that much smaller than their mirrored siblings, but it’s pretty evident that this is the direction the market is heading and there really isn’t a need for the larger mirrored cameras in most situations.
The only downside to currently available mirrorless is noise handling. Mirrorless still can’t quite match the most current traditional mirrored DSLR. But it’s getting so close, and today’s mirrorless still beat yesterday’s mirrored in this respect.
Another huge reason to choose a DSLR style camera… being able to change lenses. For shooting close-up images of your coral or fish, you will want to purchase a “macro” lens. This will be your most used lens when shooting your aquarium. Then depending on what else you want to use your camera for and how far you want to take the hobby will determine how large of a lens lineup you will be looking for in a camera system. Before choosing Canon, Nikon, Olympus, etc you will want to look at their current lens-folio to see what is available and what they cost.
When camera shopping you will see the option of buying just the camera body or a “kit” which is the body with a lens included. This lens is usually a cheaper zoom lens, but as a beginner this is fine for now and will be a decent everyday walk-around lens. The price on these kits is usually a pretty good deal. If the budget is really tight and this will mainly be for shooting your tank, I’d get the body only and put your money towards a nice Macro lens instead. And remember… bodies come and go but lenses are forever (almost)! In other words, pick a system (Nikon, Canon, Olympus, etc) and stick with it.
You also don’t need to stick to the same brand lens as the camera body. In other words, if you bought a Nikon, you don’t HAVE to buy a Nikon lens. There are third party lenses that come in different versions with mounts to fit all the big name brands. Some of these lenses can be as good or even better than the name brand lenses but at a much lower price. As an example, one of my all-time favorite Macro lenses is the 90mm Macro from Tamron. The original version comes in right around $499. This lens is a STEAL! It’s optically 95% as good as the 105mm Nikon lens, you just give up some heavier duty materials and the Vibration Reduction feature of the Nikon, but at 1/3 the price.
If you have the extra cash and want that extra little bit of goodness, the Nikon 105mm VR is a beautiful lens. https://amzn.to/2GOyyk3
Also, when shopping for a macro lens for the aquarium, I prefer “longer” lenses. Lenses with more reach. 60mm would be the absolute minimum but I would recommend something more like a 90mm. The 105 is nice, too. This helps with larger tanks, when trying to shoot coral that is farther back from the glass. You can always take a couple steps back if you are too close, but once your lens is touching the glass, you can’t get any closer. On the other hand, if you are business that is shooting mostly top-downs in shallow water, the 60mm would be a better fit.
Honestly, it doesn’t matter. If you can figure out the above requirements, any of the brands that fit those requirements will work. All the major brands will have pretty much the same features, and in the end, they all do what we need them to do. But like buying a car, or new furniture, you will have personal preferences. One brand will have different ergonomics compared to another brand. The shape of the camera body, the button placement, the size… these are all attributes that affect how the camera feels in our hands. I always recommend that you head out to your local stores and handle the different cameras. Take them for a test drive and see how they feel!
This shouldn’t be an issue with most modern day DSLRs, but it’s worth mentioning. Look for cameras where the delay between pressing the shutter button and hearing the shutter click is pretty much undetectable. There is nothing worse than missing a shot of your fish because the shutter went off a fraction of a second too late after hitting the shutter button. Many cameras these days are fast enough to focus AND take the shot at what seems like the exact same time. So pay attention to this when test driving. Firing off an autofocused shot in the blink of an eye, or even multiple shots in a fraction of a second is another nice feature that separates a DSLR from a cheap point-and-shoot or smartphone camera.
What else should you budget for?
It’s not just the camera and lens. Here’s a few other things you will have to have.
- Memory Cards. I prefer two smaller ones over one huge one.
- Memory card reader
- Software – I highly recommend Adobe Lightroom for organizing and processing your images. Here’s a short article and video that goes over the basics of using Lightroom to edit your images.
- Online gallery hosting – I really like SmugMug. Nice interface, easy to use, the basic level pricing is a good deal and worth it. I do not recommend the freebies like PhotoBucket for serious photographers. The interface is horrible. Flicker is another popular option worth looking at. It has more of a social aspect to it. If you are thinking about setting up a SmugMug account, here is a link to save you 20%!
- Top-Down Camera Tube – These let you dip your lens into the water to get ultra-clear top-down shots of your coral. There is one from Building An Obsession that I personally own and has some nice features, and there is another available from Avast Marine.
- Tripod – I personally don’t use a tripod very often at all when shooting my tank, but many people find them to be necessary. I think you can put this one off for now and see how you do without it. A good tripod can be quite expensive.
OK, you’ve gotten this far and you are probably as confused as ever. I probably didn’t give you the clear cut answer you were looking for, did I? This is because there really is no one-size-fits-all answer! To simplify it a bit…
- Figure out your budget first.
- Then go test drive different brands of DSLRs… all shapes and sizes. Try to narrow it down to what feels good. Check out your favorites online, making sure their system will work for you. And don’t fret too much over all the detailed reviews online trying to sort through all the different features of each. It’s all fluff. If the camera lets you choose your own aperture, shutter speed, ISO and white balance… then you are set. I’ve got cameras of all shapes and sizes and in the end, it’s nearly impossible to tell which image came from which camera.
That’s pretty much it. The rest is up to you. Have fun!
Which camera do I own?
I’ve had so many. I was a Nikon fanboi for years. Most recently my “pro” camera was a Nikon D800. This one got the most use on the aquarium, and it was also my go-to camera for paying gigs. Top of the line quality images, but at the cost of MUCH more bulk/weight and huge file sizes. I finally upgraded to the Nikon 105mm Macro VR lens after using the Tamron 90mm Macro for many years.
Most recently though, I’ve sold all my Nikon gear and now shoot Fujifilm mirrorless. At the time of this writing, I have the Fuji X-T3 and X-E3. These do everything I need them to do. Their 80mm macro is INSANE!! IMO, it beats the Nikon 105mm.
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