Shane's World Right CatfishologyRight Remote photography of catfish

Article © Håvard Støre Andresen, uploaded May 04, 2009.

Many catfish are nocturnal and refuse to gather out in the open during the day. Photographing single specimens that venture out is not that difficult, but capturing a whole group of shy nocturnal fish is close to impossible by just waiting in front of the fish tank. When using food to lure the catfish out the water gets dirty, and also the fish move and pose somewhat differently before the camera. Feeding behavior is interesting, but doesn't necessarily produce the most beautiful species picture. This is especially true since we often use food items that really don't fit to well into the biotopes we try to recreate. A half eaten cucumber is not really nice, and will not give you the look and feel of real biotopes. One effective way to solve these challenges is to use remote shooting. It is a little advanced, and requires some studio equipment but is well worth the effort.

Equipment set-up1. Equipment set-up

Sample photo2. A group of Baryancistrus sp. L177 gathered on dark rocks. The photograph was shot remotely with a Canon EOS50D and a Canon macro EF100mm lens. The camera settings were 100iso, Aperture 18, Speed 1/250 and white balance of 4200k. Shooting took place only a few minutes after dark.

  1. This is what you will need for remote shooting:
  2. A camera with the possibility to connect an external flash. This is a must, and is almost exclusively found on SLR cameras. There are exceptions like cameras in the Canon Powershot series that also has this feature. If digital, the camera should preferably be able to shoot pictures in RAW format.
  3. One or more lenses. A zoom lens will do, but high quality fixed macro lenses work a little better. I use 30, 50 and 100mm fixed lenses.
  4. External flash and cable/connections to the camera. Several flashes give you greater opportunities to properly illuminate the subject. It is therefore better to buy several cheap ones rather than just one expensive one. Portaflash 336 VM is by far the cheapest one, and is more than sufficient for the task.
  5. Software that enables you to control the camera remotely via usb interface is optional, but a huge advantage. This software usually comes with the camera. Alternatively the camera can work on its own by using the timer shooting function. If an USB interface is used you will also need a long USB cable from the fish room to another room with a computer.
  6. A stable tripod.

I start preparations hours or preferably a day before shooting. Both inside and outside of the front glass is cleaned thoroughly. Usually I let the fish starve for at least 24 hours to minimize the amount of debris in the water. Often I will rearrange rocks and sand a little to make the area I wish to photograph more visually appealing. If there are a lot of tetras in the tank I will remove most or all of them. Their presence in front of the catfish can ruin the best shots. The camera is placed on a tripod at the appropriate distance to capture an area of the tank that I like. Now I need to decide exactly where to focus. The point of focus should be in the area I want the fish to be. I prefer the fish to lie on rocks or wood rather than on gravel/sand. The Portaflash 336 VMs are placed over the area I wish to photograph. Sometimes I place them directly on the cover glass, and sometimes I hang them from the ceiling to get a better spread of light. The master flash gets connected to the camera. When test shooting I prefer to control the camera from my computer rather than using the cameras LCD display. I check that the focus is exactly where I want it. White balance, exposure time, iso and aperture must all be set manually. Often I will readjust the tripod and flashes after a few test shootings to get the desired composition and lighting.

Now that all tests are completed the actual remote shooting can begin. I turn off all the lights in the fish room and close the door behind me as I retreat into the neighboring room. I start timer shooting at once and study the first few pictures to see if any exposure adjustments are needed. Then it is time to sit back and enjoy the pictures as they are uploaded to my computer. I use different intervals when shooting remotely. Usually around 10-15 seconds during the first 100-200 pictures or so, and often with longer intervals later into the night. It is very interesting to see the pictures of my plecos in almost real time as they are downloaded every few seconds. It gives me an idea of how they move around and how they use the available space. After around an hour a lot of my plecos usually retreats back into hiding. If I wish to photograph more I sneak into the fish room and drop some small quantities of food into the tank and continue to photograph. The pictures taken after feeding gets dirtier because of particles suspended in the water. Since rigging and preparations takes a while I usually shoot a few hundred pictures during a session. The raw files of 500 pictures will take up around 15 gigabytes of hard disc space, so it is important to be critical when choosing what few images to keep. The pictures I keep are usually among the first 30 shots, because this is when the fish are most active. Plecos don't seem to get very disturbed by the flash.

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