On Assignment: Dude for LumiQuest

I shot the original ad for the LumiQuest Soft Box III back in 2008, using a pre-production sample. I love that light mod, and use it all of the time.

So when Quest Couch asked me to shoot a second version for the bigger LTp and left the subject matter up to me, I eagerly started looking for a subject.

This is my favorite kind of job -- full creative control. I imagine this is what Annie Leibovitz must feel like on a regular basis. Except that this job was not even in the same financial zip code as hers are. No matter, I was looking forward to it.

I kicked it around in my head for a while before realizing that I had been walking past a good subject 20 times a day or so. I don't really use the LTp much for people. I still prefer my SB-III for that, in combo with on-axis fill. (McNally is exactly the opposite.)

But for shooting small-scale items, both the SB-III and LTp are obviously the equivalent of huge soft boxes. So I decided to light and shoot a small, moving subject. Enter Dude, Ben's betta fighting fish.

When Ben first asked to get a betta, my first response was the same as many parents: to start pre-thinking the proper way to conduct a fish funeral. Do we bury it outside, or is it more of a burial-at-sea thing? (Ba-wooosh.)

But Ben was persistent, poring through books on betta fish and learning far more than any 11-yr-old kid has a right to know. So we caved. And Dude (and his across-the-hall roommate Poseidon) have become fixtures ever since.

For fish, they are actually quite entertaining. Bettas are beautiful, to begin with. But they are also quite interactive with people, and have a lot of personality. Ben has trained Dude (no lie) to jump nearly an inch out of the water to get his food off of the tip of your finger. You can even feel his teeth on your skin. Dude is gonna eat, one way or another.

Susan told me that Ben is even trying to teach Dude how to read, holding up cards that say "light" or "food," followed by the appropriate change in environment. I am skeptical. But I have been wrong before.

One day last month, Ben's braces meant a trip to the dentist to get five teeth pulled (yuck). I figured this was the perfect day to balance out the bad by doing some studio shots of Dude.

Shooting Fish in a Barrel

Seemed easy enough. Put a huge (to Dude) soft box over the top of the aquarium and blast away, right? Turns out, not so much.

For the first try (seen just above) we put black construction paper behind the aquarium to clean up the background, and used fill cards along with an LTp up top. Cool photo, but several problems surfaced. One, the black was not black due to the paper being so close. And there were still reflections in the glass when we moved it further back.

Two, any particulate in the water became bright, out-of-focus points of distraction against the dark background.

Three, as Dude swam around that meant huge (relative) changes in light-to-subject distance. And since the light on Dude was so variable (within a constant-lit environment) TTL did not feel like a good fit either.

Back to the Drawing Board

We decided to solve problems one and two by wrapping Dude in light. This not only cleaned up the background, but also erased the backlit particulate. Key light and background were LTp's. The side lights were SB-III's. Presto: Instant, full-wrap light chamber:

This left us with the variable light problem as our only remaining issue. Oh, plus how to follow focus a hyperactive betta with a macro lens…

Actually, that last problem was solved by my experience shooting high school wrestling matches before autofocus cameras. Rather than continually micro-focus as the wrestlers squirmed around on the mat I would focus on the general area, then bob and weave to mimic the distance changes the wrestlers were hitting me with. This is very intuitive to learn, and very effective. Only problem is you look like you are in some sort of trance when you are shooting.

So it was with Dude. I zone-focused my 60/2.8 Nikon micro lens to a distance wherein Dude filled most of the frame, and then bobbed and weaved to cancel out the distance changes as he swam around. With a macro subject, you need a lot of aperture to hold focus, and the combo worked pretty well. I shot between f/22 and f/45.

Speaking of aperture, that was our last problem to solve. We did that by fudging a little. We set the background flash (in an LTp, and through a piece of printer paper) to go white at f/32. If it went a little more white (or less) that was easily tweaked in post. The key light up top was adjusted to roughly match that working aperture, and the side lights were down about a stop and a half.

So now, with my focus locked (and controlled by moving my camera along with Dude) I only had to worry about my exposure as he got closer or further from the key light. As he would swim down to the bottom, I'd go to f/16 (which, with the lens extension, was close to f/22). At the top of the tank, I'd change it up to f/32 (f/45 with extension factor). In the middle I would swap to f/22 (f/32 ext.)

This worked like a charm. Actually, it became intuitive after just a few laps around the tank. In the end, we probably had fifty good photos. The colors on a betta fish are pretty unreal to begin with, and just about anywhere he goes he is in great light.

In the end we chose an image where he was interacting with the water's surface, both for context and a bit of a reflection. Look for Dude to be popping up in a trade show or photo magazine near you.

And if you decide to build an impromptu studio around your own fish, link to the results in the comments!


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Blogger Reibs said...

Dude is probably going "Holly Sh*t.. who keeps setting of those light grenades!!!"

January 16, 2012 1:06 PM  
Blogger Geoff Holden said...

I've shot my own aquarium a bit in the past. I was just using a single diffused strobe fired straight down into the water. I have a lot of live plants and other tank decorations that I thought would make for a decent background, so I didn't have to do much, but I really do like the white background and will have to try ithat myself sometime.

January 16, 2012 1:15 PM  
Blogger Romefotos said...

Hello Mr. Hobby , why didnt U shoot Dude jumping out of the water with Ben holding the food ? By the way great pics , my favorite is the one with Dude looking straigt at U .

January 16, 2012 1:17 PM  
Blogger Richard Kimbrough Photography said...

I agree with the guy who asked why you didn't shoot Dude in the air. Now that would be cool!

And I hope you held up the sign that said "Light" before each shot, to help in the training process.

January 16, 2012 1:30 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...

Dude in the air might be for next time. His speed woulda been one variable too many for me the first time out.

The timing would be pretty tough -- seriously, it happens faster than your eye can see...

January 16, 2012 1:37 PM  
Blogger stan chung said...

Hi David,

I've been shooting fish for quite awhile but not like this. Very interesting because it's rather impossible with really tiny fish to use AF, especially if they're black.
I would normally just have a couple of SB 800 slaved sitting on Lightspheres for sufficient coverage with an SU800 remote trigger or better on SB29 cable as the infra red pre-flash freaks the fish a little.

As for the bubbles and detritus- that is taken care of in PS I'm afraid so this makes for a different kind of look.

January 16, 2012 2:09 PM  
Blogger Jonathan Cohen said...

Beautiful fish images -- I'm inspired to mess around with these ideas a bit later today. Here is a recent shot done with a single strobe in an umbrella, starring my then-five-year-old son's goldfish, Carlos K. Krinklebein:


January 16, 2012 2:19 PM  
Blogger Kevin Demsky said...

The dude abides!

January 16, 2012 3:07 PM  
Blogger Yugo said...

Cool shoot! Makes me think it'd be fun to play with the ratios / colors of the different flashes to add contrast and shape - bit of a challenge with four "walls" of solid light!

My favorite shot was actually the one with black paper on the sides. All good ways to deal with glass, reflections, backgrounds, and floating particles.

January 16, 2012 3:55 PM  
Blogger Ryan said...

Is this a case where i-TTL metering might have made your job a bit easier, by automatically managing the exposure changes as Dude swam from top to bottom?

January 16, 2012 5:38 PM  
Blogger Drew said...

I once had a betta I called Helga. They're such awesome fish. One day I came home and Helga had jumped out of the tank and was all dried up on the counter top. I cried for an hour. I was thirty-three at the time.

January 16, 2012 5:50 PM  
Blogger carlos benjamin - benjphoto.com said...

Most people who do aquarium photography cheat a bit. Put a second piece of glass the height and width of the aquarium and only give the little guys enough room to turn around. You can angle the second pane for reflection control (a little) and still keep the fish within prime subject to camera distance so you can remove the DOF variable (mostly).

January 16, 2012 7:21 PM  
Blogger MindStorm said...

Sounds to me like you did this the hard way. I recently shot some fish ( http://www.mindstormphoto.com/20-studio/00-current/ ) and didn't have to dodge to keep in focus.

I bought a small 4" square display cube at Tap Plastics. I put each fish in the cube while shooting, which allowed me to get good focus repeatedly with the camera on a tripod.

January 16, 2012 9:15 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I used to raise Cambodian Bettas which have flesh colored bodies and highly iridescent fins. When I photographed them I used a small mirror to get them flare their fins which is a natural instinct to protect their territory from other males.

January 16, 2012 9:37 PM  
Blogger Vu Le, DDS said...

So in fact, it is NOT easy to shoot fish in a barrel.

January 16, 2012 10:36 PM  
Blogger Chris Johnston's Nambian Photography said...

Dude!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Don't go towards the light........

January 17, 2012 12:47 AM  
Blogger Thomas Shue said...

Wont that bind the fish or something ;)

January 17, 2012 3:23 AM  
Blogger nutritiousblog said...

does Dude still seem to have any eyesight left? Or does he keep bumbing into the water tank's walls? "Deep fried fish" takes on a whole new meaning! ;-)

But seriously: Very cool solution. Thanks for sharing!

January 17, 2012 4:49 AM  
Blogger stan chung said...

Definitely not easy! :))
Here's some examples-hope you don't mind me spamming- this is just my hobby that gets me some pocket money when I help cover some local events.





January 17, 2012 5:24 AM  
Blogger Zack Whittington said...

I shot my fish, Francis, 2 years ago. Looking back, I should've added more fill to the can of food.

January 17, 2012 10:16 AM  
Blogger Matt Perko said...

Great shots David. Bettas are beautiful fish.

I made a conceptual video that briefly features a betta using hotlights in a similar fashion.


Two lights to light a piece of white foamcore for the background, and then just one light at camera left, a bit far away, as key. It was far enough away that the exposure was fairly even across the small tank. A reflector at camera right helped even things out. The specular light works nicely on the fish.

The color in the beginning is just ink dropped into a tank of water (separate tank), with only background lights. In the last sequence the ink saturated tank of water is behind the fish.

January 17, 2012 10:42 AM  
Blogger JimDonahue said...

Is that fish upside sown?

January 17, 2012 10:02 PM  
Blogger Subhrashis said...

Dear Dave... love these images... I also had betta's for a long time in my schooldays, and they rock.
I rather like the effect produced by the particulates (Starry sky, anyone? ), together with dudes great position in that image!

And Stan Chung, your images are lovely, specially the guppy tail!

January 18, 2012 7:09 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Could you lose the left or right strobe and replace it with a mirror?

January 18, 2012 7:14 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Longtime reader, first time poster...

Great article! My aquariums were the first thing I shot when I got my first DSLR. Going back to them is a great way to show myself how much I've learned in the last year.

I've had good success shooting my guppies in a 40g tank by putting two flashes on stands on the corners of the tank. I wrap the flashes in gallon ziploc bags and rubber band them around the lightstand. The flashemounts are bent ninety degrees to the stand, and then the flash heads are bent another ninety degrees down and tilted towards the center of the tank. The flash heads are submerged about 2 inches or so, and I leave the blue and red HO Flo lights on. I don't have a great lens for this yet, but I stay in my lens' sharp zone at around f8 to f11. Like you, I figured out the "duck, dodge, weave" focus technique intuitively a while ago.


January 19, 2012 1:04 PM  
Blogger Michał said...

Great photos David! (I also like the guppy by stan chung).

Some time ago, I decided to do a project for the New Year, I wanted to use a fish tank and do a "thorow a clock in to the water thing". I thought it would be simple ;] but as you mentioned: reflections, air bubbles, particles, imperfections on the glass were among many problems which arised. To make things even more complicated I added christmas lights to the equation. Here's what I got: http://www.flickr.com/photos/39701810@N02/6607752207/in/photostream (I hope it's ok even though there's no fish in it)

January 19, 2012 1:57 PM  
Blogger Shaun Raney said...

Took me a week, but I did it.


January 26, 2012 10:50 PM  
Blogger Sara said...

ohhh beautyful

January 30, 2012 1:46 PM  
Blogger CarlSanSoc said...

David, what do you call a fish with no eye? "Fsh". Sorry

February 01, 2012 6:03 PM  

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