Photo Insight with Heather Angel

Heather Angel explains how she captured this impressive-looking eastern water dragon by shooting through a glass tank using flash

An internationally renowned photographer of the natural world and author of more than 50 books, Heather brings her expertise to AP

It?s easier than you might think to photograph fish and reptiles in public aquaria and vivaria, but there are a few things you need to bear in mind. In some aquaria flash is prohibited because it can frighten the animals, so always check the aquarium?s policy before you start shooting.

I took this image of a male eastern water dragon in the Sydney Aquarium in Australia. I wanted to capture the beautiful red colouring on the underside of the water dragon?s neck and get a sense of the reptile?s character. The Sydney Aquarium is a fantastic place, not least because the tanks are clean (allowing a clear shot), but most importantly you can use flash.

I?d been to the aquarium the previous day and spotted these water dragons lying on a rock. You could photograph them from above, but it wouldn?t have made an exciting composition. On this morning, one of the water dragons was sitting bolt upright in the water with its neck slightly craned and beady eye alert. Unfortunately, it was quite far back in the tank so it was difficult to get the close-up shot I wanted. I went off to explore the rest of the aquarium and when I came back it had moved closer. Now was my chance.

I had a small towel with me, so I wiped the glass to remove any fingerprints. Unfortunately, you can?t do anything about scratches on the glass. These will appear as small white lines on your image that you will have to clone out using the Healing Brush or the Clone tool at the editing stage.

Aquaria are dark inside so you do need to use flash. The tanks are usually reasonably well lit, but there often isn?t enough available light so flash has to be the prime light source.

I wouldn?t recommend using a slow shutter speed as this will cause blur in your image, although you could try photographing a non-moving organism such as coral with flash and a slow shutter speed to see what effects you can create.

One of the main problems when photographing through glass is that the flash will bounce off it. If you stand directly in front of the tank with your flash on the hotshoe, the flash will be reflected in the glass.

You could remove the flash from the hotshoe and mount it at an acute angle, but the easiest solution is to keep the flash on the hotshoe and stand so you are at an angle to the tank. I was standing in front of the water dragon, but slightly to the side at something like a 45° angle. This meant that when the flash fired it didn?t bounce off the glass back into the camera. I crouched down and, using my Nikon D200 camera with a Nikkor 70-180mm Micro zoom lens and a Nikon Speedlight SB-800 flashgun attached to the hotshoe, I photographed across the surface of the water.

If you look at your image afterwards and think it doesn?t adequately light the scene you can increase the flash intensity, but be careful not to set your flash too high as you risk overexposure.

Another thing to remember is to avoid wearing white or pale-coloured clothes as these will be reflected in the glass. You also need to be careful not to catch your hand in shot or indeed a reflection of you taking the picture! Look out for reflections of other people, too. Sometimes there is a railing in the way, but if you can get right up close to the glass, a rubber lens hood will allow you to hold the lens close to the front of the tank. This means you?re less likely to capture unwanted reflections in your shot.

For an image like this you don?t need a huge depth of field, but it?s crucial that the underside of the water dragon?s neck and its eyes are in sharp focus. I used an aperture of f/8 and focused my image manually.

I love photographing marine wildlife and this is where I started my career. The great thing about this kind of photography is it can be done in any month of the year. It is especially good to do in winter when the weather is bad outside and flowers have long since faded.

Heather?s latest book, Exploring Natural China (published by Evans Mitchell Books, priced £19.99), is available to buy from To see more images by Heather, visit For information on courses run by Heather and her son Giles, visit

Heather Angel was talking to Gemma Padley