So you want to take pics of your reef and you have come to the realization that your smartphone just isn't cutting it. Congratulations! There is hope for you yet. ;-)
Shiny, expensive new toys are always fun. But as an Every Day Reefer, we know that much of your disposable income is going towards that beautiful aquarium. 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 the Every Day Reefer can get a solid taste for the photography hobby while making their 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.
Put away the phone. Put away the little point-and-shoot camera. If you want to learn anything about photography I highly suggest you pick up a "real" camera with full manual controls. This is key, and I go over the importance of it in my previous photo post. So this is what will we focus on from here on out. You shouldn't be looking at anything else.
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.
Physical Size of the Camera
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 loose 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.
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... lenses come and go but bodies 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.
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 effect 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.
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.
- 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.
- 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 used to be good, you may like it... I personally can't stand the new Facebook-like format of the galleries.
- 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.
That's pretty much it. The rest is up to you. Have fun!
Next up... we'll go over some basics of using the manual controls of your shiny new toy!
Which camera do I own?
I have two. The first is a Nikon D800. This is my "pro" camera. This one gets the most use on the aquarium, and it's 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.
The second camera is an Olympus EM-1. It's a 4/3 mirrorless camera, but one of the best you can get. It could be used on a pro shoot and it would be nearly impossible for you to tell which of my aquarium photos were taken with this vs the Nikon. This is the camera I tend to take with me on family outings due to the light weight and small size. The camera, several lenses and accessories can all fit in a small shoulder bag. Their 60mm Macro is a fantastic lens.
Top down shot taken with the camera tube from Building An Obsession
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Close-up of a Desjardini Sailfin Tang eating LPS pellets off the mouth of a plate coral. Shot through the front glass.