Your Guide to Aquarium Photography #5 - Taking Better Pictures with Mobile Phone Cameras

In our previous article in this Your Guide to Aquarium Photography series, we looked at the differences between using DSLR cameras and mobile phone cameras for aquarium photography. This week, we will continue that discussion by answering the question: How can I take better pictures with my mobile phone?

Different mobile phones have different tools that make it easy to take a good picture. It takes a little bit of trying to find out what works best for your tank, lighting, and the shots you are after.

Focus and Exposure

A short tap on the screen of most mobile phone cameras will set the focus and exposure on the selected object. A long press will lock the exposure and focus so that if you recompose, focus and exposure remain unchanged. On some mobile phones this also sets the white balance if shooting in “automatic white balance” mode. I try to focus on different items, rocks, or sand to try to have the camera adjust white balance and also have a good exposure. If taking a full tank shot, it’s best to try to focus on the middle of the tank left to right and front to back in order to try to have most of the tank in focus.


Exposure Compensation

Tells the camera to increase or decrease exposure to achieve desired effect or correct for bad exposure. When setting exposure with too much white in the picture (sand), camera tends to underexpose the rest of the picture, so increasing exposure a step or two will correct for this. Same way if there’s too much black in the picture, the camera will tend to over expose the shot so setting a negative exposure compensation helps. Also, if you want a fish or a coral to appear slightly more or less bright, adjusting the exposure compensation accordingly will get you closer to the desired image exposure, without having to edit the picture. For some mobile phone cameras this setting is hidden in the menu, for others it’s just a slide bar on the screen which I found very practical as one can see the effect while making changes.


Automatic exposure fails to get the desired exposure


Left: Positive exposure compensation overexposing the picture. Right: Negative exposure compensation value gives better overall exposure

Gridlines can be set to appear or not on the camera screen when taking pictures. They can be of help when trying to take pictures applying the rule of thirds because it shows you how your composition looks and also helps by showing you how straight the horizontal and vertical position of the camera is.


Burst mode

Burst mode is available on many mobile phone cameras. This mode causes the camera to shoot a burst of shots at around 10 pics per second and then allows the choice of the best picture and automatically deletion of the other images that were not selected. This is a good feature to use when taking pictures of moving fish as one can chose the shot that is in focus and has least blur as well as choosing the shot where the pose, angle, or position of the fish is best.



I find flash of little to no use in aquarium photography with a mobile phone. Except maybe for very dark or night shots, the amount of shadows generated, the reflections on the glass, and the washed colors resulting from use of flash makes it inconvenient. Increasing ISO, exposure compensation and having a steady support are all considerations to try before resorting to flash use.

HDR High Dynamic Range

A very convenient option where the camera takes 3 shots (bright, balanced, and dark) and combines all three in to a single picture that has more details all over the brightness range. DSLRs are also capable of doing the same, but in most cases, combining the pictures is done in post processing (although some newer models process the shots in camera to combine them as well).


Left pic taken with HDR turned off. Notice the overexposed highlights. Right picture taken with HDR on. Notice the better exposure over the complete dynamic range.

One can also experiment with other options and tools that are available for most mobile phone cameras like time-lapse photography, slow motion, filters and clip on lenses.

Filters and clip on lenses have gained popularity for mobile phone cameras where polarizing filters are used to reduce glare and clip on lenses are added in front of camera lens to get a wider field of view or zoom more. Dedicated lights and filters are also available to use together in front of DSLR or mobile phone cameras to better capture fluorescence in corals. These are all beyond the scope of this article.

Hopefully this article has helped you to learn how to take better pics with your mobile phone camera. Be sure to go practice some of these tips and post your results! As you have questions, feel free to join in the discussion thread, and be sure to check out our next article in this series: Your Guide to Aquarium Photography #6 - Top Down Shots.
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Maroun is a hard core reefer from lebanon since 2000. In a country with (until recently) limited quality livestock and hardware, he was lucky to be a frequent traveller which allowed him to gather an impressive coral collection over the years and to connect with many reefers and reefkeeping masters. He has kept different tanks throughout the years 23g, 80g, 150g and currently runs a 400g tank linked to an 800g total system with multiple frag tanks and sump in basement. Maroun has contributed to the hobby by starting forums in the middle east and as part of the moderating team on R2R. He connected with many reefers and helped them start up and run their tanks. His strongest areas of knowledge are in system design and setup as well as in his other passion: photography and aquarium photography. His build threads speak about his dedication even when facing multiple ups and downs and running an elaborate setup while being located in a different country...a new challenge and a true test of the robustness of his setup and his remote coaching skills to his wife who has been caring successfully for the tank over the last 9 months.

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