I would like to ask for some inputs on how I can achieve similar low-key results for a fish: a fish

Current setup: Setup

  1. Small aquarium 30 x 15 x 15 cms (LBH)
  2. The sides and the back of the aquarium are covered by a black muslin cloth.
  3. The LED no longer has cardboard roll on it. I was using this to cut reflections, but it really reduced my working space. The LED helps me focus and provides continuous light.

Question: How do I implement the inverse square law here given the small space? I don't understand how to bring the flash closer to the fish than to the background.

Thank you for reading the complete post.


  1. Perfectly and FULLY illuminated subject with no part lost to shadows.
  2. Pitch-black background.
  • 1
    Just a suggestion: Light the fish from the top (or bottom) through the water and don't use an on-camera flash (to avoid glare/reflections from the glass). The area where the camera is positioned should be completely dark.
    – Era
    Apr 28 '16 at 18:02
  • Yes, thanks! I'm following those basics. Just wondering how many external flashes I would need. I find my best lighting comes from placing the ext. behind the fish, towards the camera. It register the colors this way, without being too harsh.
    – ABCD312
    Apr 28 '16 at 18:29
  • If you already have images, why don't you post them? Please do so and specify what you want to improve.
    – null
    Apr 28 '16 at 19:37
  • Sorry I don't have low-key images at present. The pictured image is what I desire to achieve, that should help you, I presume.
    – ABCD312
    Apr 28 '16 at 21:48
  • 2
    Can you share some results that you achieve with your current setup?
    – null
    Nov 20 '16 at 12:29

Ok, let us separate this into 2 parts.

I. The inverse square law.

In this case is the relationship between your light and your first object (1) versus the light and the background (2). The background, not the rear glass of the fish tank.

But this would apply in the case you are actually illuminating the background with the same light, which in this case you are not doing.

So the basic idea is that you should put a black cloth away from the fish tank.

Top view:

enter image description here

II. Basic light and fish tank setup

I would first try to use only a vegetal paper on the top of the fish tank (A) and a piece of aluminum foil on the bottom (B). Actually, I think some spill on the sides can work to reduce the shadows. Try putting some white boards on the sides (C).

Lateral and top view:

enter image description here

enter image description here

Unwanted reflections or stains?

If you see some unwanted reflections I would prepare a special softbox with a grid:

Take your flash and put some distance from a sheet of vegetal paper (D) and prepare a cardboard rectangle painted in black on the inside (E).

This way you will have a soft diffused light but with a protection of some extra spill but it is important that the protection is after the diffuser.

You basically want to protect the front and the black glass, mainly to avoid illuminating some stains on the glass (F).

enter image description here

enter image description here

Put the camera away from any light so you do not reflect it on the glass.

If you see the reflection of the fish on the rear glass you could try inclining the fish tank a bit so the reflection moves away.

A grid is normally this: https://www.google.com/search?q=softbox+grid, In this case, is just simply a box of cardboard, similar to what you used on your led. The difference is that the grid goes after a diffuser.

  • Thank you very much! I would like some clarification please: 1) What is the yellow polygon in the 1st diagram? 2) I shoot with a light source, any recommendations on it's placement? 3) What do you mean by softbox with a 'grid'? 4) I will try white reflectors on the side however, knowing fish I'm not sure how that will work. as they become transparent without a contrasting background. Again, I am very very thankful!
    – ABCD312
    Nov 23 '16 at 23:53
  • 1) Your light source. The flash. 2) Yes. See the second diagram. Above the fish tank with a difusser paper on top of the tank. 3) Read more carefully the instructions. I will try to make a 3D model but I do not promess to do it very fast. (If someone wants to clarify, feel free to edit the post)
    – Rafael
    Nov 24 '16 at 3:28
  • 1
    The power of the led lamp is insignificant next to the power of the flash... n_n
    – Rafael
    Nov 24 '16 at 15:57
  • 1
    Just put the led anywhere it does not interfear with the flash and keep your fish iluminated enough so you can focus.
    – Rafael
    Nov 24 '16 at 15:59
  • 2
    I updated with some rustic 3D images.
    – Rafael
    Nov 25 '16 at 7:19

This image appears to use a single wide diffuse light source above and slightly forward of the subject with a white reflecting card below the lens, so as to not show in the shot, tilted slightly toward the subject to fill the shadow area under the subject. You might have to "play" a bit to find the optimal location and angle. But, that's what it's all about. : )

If you feel the flash would stress the subject use normal lighting. You don't seem to require much depth of field to record so you can open up your aperture a bit to accommodate it.

I think that darkening the room would make the flash comparatively more apparent to the subject. A normally lit room should be fine with a darkground.

EDIT: The darkest backgrounds cannot be made using dark material such as card or cloth. The secret is to use nothing. Construct or find a box with a black interior. Cut a hole in the box that will be the background. Light that enters the box will not escape and there can be no reflections from a hole. Position the lens opposite the hole so that you photograph the fish when positioned in front of the black "hole" background. This is one way to get a truly black background for your subject.

Off topic: I think you are truly considerate to take account and responsibility for the stress of the subject caused by pursuing your interest. I don't think many have this kind of a personality.

  • - Thank you very much for the kind words, they made my day! Wouldn't a white reflecting card show up starkly as a reflection since we have the aquarium glass involved? Apologies maybe I wasn't too clear earlier. the fish will be in a simple LED lit aquarium, with the ext flash shooting into it from other angles. While this is the plan, I think there is no need for a 2nd ext flash. Thus the dark room should not stress it further. Could I ask how you could decipher so much just looking at an image, I would love to reach this level of expertise someday!
    – ABCD312
    May 15 '16 at 23:03
  • 1
    @user2440943 - I made a lot of mistakes, kept notes, and have a high-performance file-retrieval system. ; )
    – Stan
    May 15 '16 at 23:18
  • @Stan- I would like to revisit this topic and would greatly appreciate if you would be so nice as to help me again.
    – ABCD312
    Nov 20 '16 at 10:46

One thing that may help is to move the background farther back so that avoid having any flash spill onto it. There's no reason that the background needs to be right up against the tank, although you may need to make it larger if you move it farther away.

  • That's an intriguing idea. I will try it out and post back about the results!
    – ABCD312
    Nov 20 '16 at 16:43
  • @Caleb- an update on this suggestion. Unfortunately it is invalid for fish. It slipped my mind earlier but fish lose their colors in a bare tank. Thus the background serves the purpose of encouraging color development. Thanks!
    – ABCD312
    Nov 20 '16 at 23:50
  • How do the fish know how far away the background is? Also, I'd think you could apply any treatment you like to the sides or bottom of the tank.
    – Caleb
    Nov 21 '16 at 0:26
  • A survival instinct. But my next trial will be to cover the bottom and sides only. On a different table, point towards the longest end of my room. I image this should achieve the inverse-square law. Thanks Caleb! Will update with results when time permits
    – ABCD312
    Nov 21 '16 at 11:40
  1. Take the fish out of the aquarium using a specimen container or bag. This will improve flexibility when positioning the fish relative to the background and the lights. Positioning, lighting, and exposure can be established with the specimen container prior to placing fish in it to reduce stress on the fish. A fish mannequin [perhaps a fishing lure] placed in the specimen container may aid in setup. The constrained dimensions of the specimen container will increase the likelihood of the fish appearing within the camera's image frame.

  2. In post processing set the black point to the background shade of gray. Adjust gray point and white point if necessary.


The issue appears to be with the distance from your background and the lighting sources and direction(s). I found this article on photographing fish:

enter image description here

enter image description here

Oddly, the article doesn't say who wrote it. Scroll about 3/4 of the way down the example images are very good. The article also offers tips such as using aluminum foil for additional reflection.

Consider PRO STUDIO LIGHTS - Adding substantially more lumens with professional studio lights would brighten the fish, the auto-focus system would work faster and in theory, less stress on the fish.

  • Thanks for the images. I will try this out. This supports @Caleb 's suggestion of distancing the backdrop. However the 2nd picture doesn't make sense. By 'optional light source' if he means flash I don't see how it work. A flash shot from the front of an aquarium is always visible in the picture. Thanks but this is macro, so AF isn't of any concern.
    – ABCD312
    Nov 21 '16 at 10:48
  • Update: I've completed reading both parts of the article. The 1st images is to capture an aquascape, since back-lighting fish in anyway results in unsightly results and washed out colors. The 2nd image seems more suitable. I will try this with a distanced backdrop instead of a reflector.
    – ABCD312
    Nov 21 '16 at 11:31
  • A side note: The images are from one of the best fish-photographers, they are not the authors images.
    – ABCD312
    Nov 21 '16 at 11:32
  • Sure. I think the back drop distance will help. The equipment layout diagrams offer alternate setups. Can you borrow or rent a few studio lights with more lumens? Nov 21 '16 at 13:23

Maybe you can have a piece of black cloth / cardboard on the inside of the back of the fishtank, so you can avoid reflections from the back glass wall of the aquarium?

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