Your Guide to Aquarium Photography #6 - Top Down Shots

Top down shots have gained popularity in the last several years and are used by most online vendors for most of their coral shots. By simply...
  1. In our previous article in this Your Guide to Aquarium Photography series, we looked at tips for taking better pictures with mobile phones? This week, let's talk about Top Down Shots.

    Top down shots have gained popularity in the last several years and are used by most online vendors for most of their coral shots. By simply taking away any glass between the camera and the coral, the effect on clarity, white balance, and color rendition is amazing.

    Eventually, even high quality and ultra-clear glass is no match for camera lens glass. A thickness of 8-20 mm of glass will logically have a detrimental effect on the image. This effect is magnified by shooting at an angle to the glass which causes even more distortion and adds to the thickness of the glass. Other factors such as reflections and distortions also add to the detrimental effect of aquarium glass on photos.

    The difference is also clearly seen by looking at corals through front glass VS from the top to the extent that some have planned look down tanks—especially for clams which show the most difference when viewed from top VS through front glass.

    Left pic taken from front of tank. Difficult to see the zoanthids and shooting at an angle would create distortions. Right pic top down shot allows better view and improved image quality due to decreased distortions caused by the glass.

    This is not to say that top down shots do not have their challenges.

    Reflections from lights on the water surface can be very challenging, water movement can create turbulence or ripples that also make it difficult to shoot pictures. Positioning a camera and access above the camera to focus is not a given in tanks with canopies. Using flash is also very challenging.

    Effect of lights (left picture) and water movement (right picture) on a top down picture.

    A few tips for successful top down shots:
    • Turn off all flow.
    • Try to support camera by stretching neck straps against hand to decrease handshake.
    • If space allows to reach in to look into viewfinder to compose and focus it would make your life easier. So maybe include this consideration when designing your canopy. If you can’t reach, taking a few shots and moving the camera in between will eventually result in a few pictures including the coral in question and with good focus. This becomes easier with habit.
    • Some cameras offer a swiveling LCD which is to be considered when changing cameras if you do a lot of top down photography.
    • Flow can be stopped to avoid ripples and get a clean shot, yet light reflections remain and those can't be stopped.
    Pic taken with no flow in the tank. Still difficult to escape the reflections from the lights and their effect on overall exposure and colors.

    Top down acrylic boxes made of clear acrylic allow you to get even nicer images even if water surface is moving they also allow you to avoid light reflections because the front element of the lens is below the water surface where reflections occur.

    Some top down boxes have supporting screws that allow you to hold the box simply by holding the camera and also to zoom by rotating the box.

    Any transparent acrylic box or coral top down viewing box available on hand can also be used but make sure its watertight to avoid damage to your camera. I personally use the top down box seen below which is a cheaper model but available locally...


    When taking pictures of frags in frag tanks, one can experiment with black backgrounds which can make some colors look even nicer.

    The most important tip when taking top down shots is to always be careful not to drop the camera in the water and to cleanup any saltwater splashes on the camera.

    Pictures Lt to Rt: front shot, top down shot, top down box shot.

    Other factors to consider when deciding how to shoot your corals, include:
    • Coral shape, where a tabling coral is best viewed top down VS from the front where a staghorn or a branching coral might be viewed best from the front. Angling the camera to take an oblique shot at a branching coral might be best to avoid a foreshortening effect (coral looking shorter than it really is).
    Branching coral picture from the front (Lt pic) and top down (Rt pic) with coral looking dwarfed in the top down picture. The base of the coral was totally hidden by the coral in front of it in the front shot and clearly seen in top down shot.

    Tabling coral partially seen in a front shot (LT pic) and much better view on the coral and improved overall image quality in the top down shot (Rt pic)
    • Coral position where a coral on the top of the tank might not be possible to photograph using a top down box as there is no space to include the whole coral in the picture when having the camera in a top down box under water level.
    • Corals next to coral in question. If a coral is placed behind another one, front shots will be very limited, whereas if a coral is shadowed by one above it then top down shots except from an angle are not possible.
    • Stabilizing the camera is a bit trickier when shooting top down compared to front shots with a camera on a tripod. So if the tank or coral is under lit, top down shots might be limited.
    Lt pic showing limited part of the coral as the lower tabling part is parallel to camera, limited DOF possible to cover the whole coral. Middle pic is top down shot with limited picture quality due to reflections from light. Rt pic is top down box used showing better overall image quality and no reflections. Lt pic is still better represents how this coral is seen in real life in the tank and better shows the angle between the double tabling growth.

    Hopefully this article has helped you to learn how to take better top down pics! Be sure to try out some of these tips and share your results! As you have questions, feel free to join in the discussion thread, and be sure to check out the last article in our series: Your Guide to Aquarium Photography #7 - Post-processing!

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    About Author

    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.