The Mystic Aquarium and Institute for Exploration (or MAIFE, as they abbreviate it) is located smack in the center of Mystic, Connecticut, and the area they call Old Mystick Village (that’s not a typo…). The whole Mystic area is one of the hottest tourist spots in Connecticut (it wouldn’t be a reach to say it’s the only tourist spot in Connecticut), and the Mystic Aquarium and nearby Mystic Seaport are popular summer destinations for Connecticut families and visitors from out of state alike.
The aquarium is ripe with photographic subjects. Tank after tank of exotic, colorful fish; beluga whales; touching tanks filled with sea stars, coral, and so forth are all dying to be made into beautiful images. On a busy day like Saturday, the first day I went, you’ll be surrounded by people wielding their point-and-shoot cameras like claymores, blasting their body-mounted flashes directly into the tanks.
The greatest challenge to photographing at the aquarium (this applies only to the indoor tanks) is getting enough light. Even the most brightly lit tanks provide much less light than you think, most often because your eyes have become accustomed to the darkness and your brain is working to normalize everything you see.
For this trip, I brought only my Canon 50mm f/1.4, which I kept at f/1.4 almost the entire time. I often had to push my 5D to its highest sensitivity, the equivalent of ISO 3200, and even then I couldn’t always get a shutter speed fast enough to handhold for the shot, much less to freeze the motion of a quickly swimming fish. The aquarium will definitely put your skills and your equipment to the test.
In an ideal world, such as a sponsored shoot (not to imply that assignments are often, if ever, ideal), much brighter lights and possibly even softboxes might be employed to make the scene more technically feasible. If I had my way, I would place a single softbox or flash with diffuser above the tank where the standard light source is located and fire it with a PocketWizard or similar. Light that comes through the surface of the water has a wonderful, shimmering quality to it that most people recognize immediately.
Of the 180 or so photographs I made on this excursion, only about five of them were good enough to toss up here. The major problem was, as I said before, not getting enough light. Even when the classic “focal length reciprocal rule” indicated that I should be able to handhold the shot, the fish I was trying to capture was moving too quickly. My problems were compounded by the 50mm f/1.4 being a fairly mediocre lens and suffering from a good deal of chromatic aberration and vignette (which I don’t mind too much, but it bears mentioning).
I attempted to use Lightroom’s “lens correction” features to fix the chromatic aberration, but rather than having one of the two “classic” (and somewhat subtle) forms of aberration, the lens demonstrates what is often referred to simply as “purple fringing,” which means you’re basically out of luck. Add to that the fact that most of the images were pretty blurry and you can see where I’m going with this. That having been said, I think these five photos are fairly nice catches (no pun intended) out of a big group of rejects.