Life In An Aquarium

There are, of course, easier ways to get a close look at frogs. You only have to visit your local zoo, aquarium or animal park to find dozens of interesting amphibian displays. Most commercial terrariums are well designed, well lit and mounted flush with the wall offering you a window into an exotic rain forest environment, complete with ponds and thriving vegetation. Frogs live happily in a terrarium as long as the humidity and temperature are correct, and as long as they are regularly fed. I figured that shooting into this kind of confined space would be the easiest way to capture some close up frog footage. But I wasn’t aware of all the obstacles I had to face.

Recording LED

Shooting fish, frogs or lizards through the clear glass walls of an aquarium or a terrarium shouldn’t be too difficult, I thought. That was before I realized I was also recording my own reflection. Unless I moved the lens really close to the glass plate, I picked up not only the reflection of myself and my camcorder but also the bright lights shining behind me. It really took a smoke from my latest glass pipe from this online headshop to figure it out. Although, my polarizing filter removed much of the unwanted reflection and toned down the glaring highlights, my own tally light was still clearly visible in the glass. To remove that last annoying obstacle I had to either cover the LED with black tape or turn it off altogether via the menu.

Avoiding Reflections

By shooting through a glass display at an angle you can avoid your own reflection but you may still encounter the reflection of other visitors. If you want to record straight from the front, a rubberized lens hood allows you to place your camcorder a couple of inches away from the glass wall. This technique works well by cutting out any reflection, but on the minus side it will only let you capture a limited area behind the glass.

Wide Conversion Lens

If you intend to shoot larger areas inside an aquarium or terrarium without stepping back and being bothered by your own reflection, a wide-angle conversion lens is the answer. By holding your camcorder lens as close as possible to the glass you’ll avoid reflection from behind. While shooting through glass, I always use manual focus; this prevents any annoying focus hunting of the camcorder. In the auto focus mode, the camcorder has a tendency to focus on reflective highlights in the glass, while throwing out the focus of the main subject.

Steady Footage

Many modem aquarium and terrarium displays are designed to be especially user-friendly towards children. So, if you’re of average adult size, like I am, and if you want to get to the bottom of things, as when shooting a small frog sitting at the base of the display, you have to squat or kneel in front of the exhibit. You’re unlikely to hold your camcorder steady in this awkward position unless you can support yourself against the glass. But putting too much pressure on the glass can be risky business so a tripod is a far better solution. With your camcorder tripod-mounted at waist level and with the LCD screen flipped out, you get ease of operation and a comfortable view. When using a tripod to shoot into aquarium/terrarium displays, I always try to pick a quiet day (usually during the week) where my tripod and I won’t interfere with the free flow of other onlookers.

Clear View

Glass display windows at children’s level get quickly smudged by small, sticky fingers and ice cream coated faces, so another vital aid to a clear picture is to come equipped with a soft cloth and some spray-on window cleaner.

To separate a frog from the background and make it really stand out, I often choose a shallow depth of field. Shooting wide open in aperture priority mode will effectively reduce depth of field and blur the background. For similar results you can also use your camcorder’s auto setting of portrait mode or sports mode.

There are specially designed amphibian displays that allow you to observe the animals on dry land as well as below the waterline. Video footage of crocodiles, frogs, lizards and turtles becomes especially interesting when you can record these amphibians both above and below the watermark. Without getting your camcorder wet you can tape these creatures in two totally different environments, following an animal in a single pan as it slides from its dry rock into the depths of the water. Since underwater views magnify your objects use auto focus in this situation.

Video Lights

Although a video light is a useful accessory for the serious videographer, I avoid using such external light sources when videotaping nature displays in zoos and aquariums. Even though the frogs and lizards don’t seem to mind when you lighten up their home environment, your white balance cannot cope with two different light sources. Camcorder-mounted video lights will also produce reflection unless, as I mentioned already, you shoot through the glass at an angle. Battery-powered video lights can be held flush against the glass, away from the camcorder, thus creating no reflection while still illuminating the display. Personally, I try to avoid using any video light in a public place, as it is bound to disturb other visitors.

Infra-Red Light

The only light source I feel at ease using is an infrared illuminator to cast light into a nocturnal terrarium. Nocturnal displays have become very popular

but they are far too dark to capture watchable footage even using the best low-lux camcorder. To date, only Sony can offer an impressive range of night vision camcorder models that let you record in total darkness. It’s made possible with the help of an in-built infrared illuminator. Even while shooting through glass, you can illuminate an area of 5-6ft in front of you. The owl or the nocturnal possum will stare back at you with wide-open pupils, totally unaware of the bright but invisible light. Your fellow visitors looking at the same displays won’t be disturbed either; they’ll have no idea that you are illuminating the dimly lit display with bright infrared rays.

Although the light beam of the infrared illuminator is invisible to the human eye, your camcorder will faithfully record its bright reflection in the glass and close down the auto iris. To avoid recording any infrared reflection, use the same shooting technique as if you Were using normal video light.

Balancing The Light

All aquariums and terrariums have their own in-built light sources, usually neon lights that produce little heat and won’t upset the thermostatically controlled environment. Unless the display is designed for nocturnal animals, there is sufficient illumination for the average camcorder. Modern camcorders with engaged `auto white balance’ produce natural-looking colors under most artificial light conditions. The problem starts when you mix different light sources. Videotaping a terrarium in broad daylight (in a home, office or pet shop situation) can reveal a noticeable mixture of light making the display look unnatural. If possible, try to reduce the ambient light to such an extent that the illumination inside the terrarium derives from just a single light source.

Shooting Glass Houses

Recently I was asked to photograph and videotape a newly designed terrarium holding frogs, lizards and turtles. But shooting the whole display was not as simple as focussing on selected areas inside the terrarium. I couldn’t shoot at an angle to avoid my own reflection; instead I had to center my camcorder to prevent any key stoning of the glass walls. With the whole display in the viewfinder, there was a large empty space above and below the terrarium. To make the display stand out, and to reduce distracting elements in the picture, I covered the white wall behind the terrarium with a black cloth.

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