Koi Photography -
Painting with Light
by Nigel M.W. Caddock
There are many dimensions to Koi photography of which taking the actual
photograph is just one. As with all aspects of Koi keeping it is often
when all the key factors combine successfully that the best results are
achieved. The objective of this presentation is to identify the key
parameters and offer some practical options to help you get the very best
The Role of Koi Images
Photographic images play a vital role in many areas of the development of
our hobby. In addition to offering newcomers a 'shop window' they offer
everyone an educational opportunity to compare different Koi and to learn
from the different images.
In addition, it is possible to review visually in magazines and books
infinitely more koi than would be possible by direct observation at shows
or at vendors premises. Koi images offer the ideal training opportunity
for variety identification and to learn the basics of Koi appreciation.
This information is the very foundation on which more detailed knowledge
can be developed and refined.
In addition to images of Koi, images of Koi ponds and systems also
offer a wealth of information which enthusiasts can tap into to develop
their own pond and system ideas. The availability of quality images is
thus vitally important not only from an information and educational
perspective but also from an enjoyment aspects also.
The key purpose of this presentation focuses on Koi photography but we
will also briefly discuss key aspects of Koi pond photography.
There are two key aspects to this area these are the equipment (and not
just cameras and lenses) and the phctographic techniques applied to
successfully using the appropriate equipment.
CAMERAS: Good quality equipment is of course important but just
buying expensive high quality equipment does not guarantee that you will
take good Koi photographs.
It is generally the case that the better quality and size of the
negative, the better the image will be. Thus small format cameras such as
110 or instant Polaroids although having their niche uses will not provide
you with images of consistent high quality. At the other end of the scale
although large format cameras without doubt produce the best results their
cumbersome nature does represent a limitation to some users. If you can't
get used to them and are not comfortable with large format the quality of
the results will reflect this mismatch. Better to be comfortable with 35mm
than uncomfortable with large format. It is the case however that
virtually all top Japanese Koi phctographers use large format camera like
Mamiya, Bronica etc. and if you can cope with their bulk they do offer the
best results. They are of course the most expensive cameras to buy and the
film and processing is also the most expensive of the available options.
As an anecdote to this perhaps the key reason for the Japanese preference
for large format cameras is that when they are photographing Koi not only
are special photographic facilities provided but they also often have a
team of helpers to prod the Koi into cooperation so all they have to
concern themselves with is getting the shot! Most western photographers do
not have these luxuries and cannot do everything as well as wrestle with a
large format camera too.
The pragmatic solution is 35mm and there is no doubt that good quality
35mm is the ideal compromise. 35mm should however be regarded by serious
exponents as the rninlinum standard for consistent high quality. With very
few exceptions ALL NI PHOTOGRAPHS ARE 35MM. Camera brand is almost
irrelevant as long as the quality is good.
LENSES: The specific make of lens is again almost irrelevant as
long as it's compatible with your camera.. The quality of the lens
however, fundamentally impacts on the quality of your image even more so
than the camera so do make sure your lens is good quality.
The selection of lens formats currently available is mind boggling; it
is best to keep it as simple as possible. 28mm - 75mmm zoom provides the
ideal range of options that will allow you to cover most Koi photographic
situations. Zooms are also very useful as they allow you to get close
without having to physically get so close that you risk 'spooking your
target' thus making your already tough job even tougher!
AUTOFOCUS: Autofocus is a very useful tool but you do need to
fully understand their limitations. Even the most advanced system
available will not cope with focussing on the convex back of a Kohaku! Red
pigment on curved surfaces totally confuse autofocus systems. To avoid
this, focus on the pupil of the eye, a reflective scale, a shimmi or the
leading edge of the dorsal bone as your autofocus needs an optical
contrast to get a fix on. This is a limitation not a problem and if you
are aware of it you can effectively deal with it.
POWER WINDERS: Given the limited time frame of opportunity when
the Koi is ideally located, you ideally need to get as many shots as
possible off. Power winders really come into their own for this duty and,
if you can justify the cost, power winders are well worth the investment.
If you do plan 'rapid shooting' power winders are a prerequisite but it is
also important that the rest of your equipment is compatible with your
power winders capabilities.
FLASH GUNS: Compatibility is again vital and if you are planning
to run off three frames a second then you need to make sure that your
flash gun is up to the job. Always check manufacturer's recommendations
and make sure that your flash is not only compatible with the rest of your
equipment but also suitable for the duty you require it to perform. High
performance rapid shoot capability flash guns are not cheap. If that's
what you want, you need to be prepared to pay the price.
POWER: All the above photographic hardware consume prodigious
quantities of power in the form of batteries. Despite the claims some
ancillary equipment manufacturers, rechargeable batteries are fine and
offer by far the cheapest source of power. Specialist power packs are also
a good option especially if you are planning a long shoot as there is
nothing more irritating than flat batteries. Whatever your selection
always have overcapacity with lots of spares.
FILM: For best consistent results use top quality brand films -
Kodak/Fuji/Agfa etc. Do not use often cheaper 'kown brand' films. They are
not as good and the last thing you need when you have died in a ditch to
get a great shot is the result to be poor simply because the film is not
up to standard. Equipment selection, generally, and film selection and
processing, in particular, are aspects you do have control over so it
seems sensible to take advantage of this potential.
FILM SPEED: Generally, the slower the film speed the better the
result; thus, for 35mm, MASA slide film is best with 1OOASA print film
second and 2OOASA at a push but no faster If possible avoid fast films
(above 2OOASA) as they are not designed for fine requirements and the
results often appear grainy, soft or even out of focus.
SLIDES v PRINTS: It is the case that slides/transparencies give
the best quality. Just how much better is a matter of judgment. Selection
also depends on what you plan to use your photos for. It is the case that
for printing purposes slides give better reproduction but they can be a
real pain in the neck for viewing as they are very mconvenient and you
have to set up equipment like projectors and screens to fully enjoy them.
This is of course not the case with prints. Prints are generally more
convenient and in my view more fun, more friendly and much less
pretentious! 95% of photos induded in NI are off 35mm PRINTS
FILM PROCESSING: Having worked hard to get good photos, it is
criminal to compromise all that effort by using cheap and nasty
processors. Use quality labs NOT the booths!
There are an infinitely varying number of photographic techniques and
styles which can produce excellent results. In order to offer a usable
guide, the following represents the technique applied by the author
- LIGHT: The
control of lighting is fundamentally important. Although Koi always
look best in daylight, it is the case that they DO NOT photograph best
in daylight. It is the case that the best results are obtained by
controlled flash photography, and the better the control the better
the resulting photo.
- GLARE: Glare
is probably the Koi photographers' single biggest enemy, and Koi
photographers go to great lengths to remove it. While polarising
filters are fine for surface glare and invaluable for shooting ponds
with Koi on bright days, they will not remove enough glare for quality
Koi photography attempted in daylight. The solution is to remove the
glare by shading the subject and tank containing it as comprehensively
as possible by using shades/blackouts or even better by photographing
indoors where no light is shining on the tank water In other words,
take your photos in the dark!
- TANK COLOUR:
The colour of photographic tank or container is also vital. Too light
and the Koi colours are flattened; too dark and the contrast offers
displeasing appearance or distorts the resulting colour balances.
Having tried them all medium blue is best.
- TANK SHAPE:
Koi are pretty stupid... nearly as stupid as their keepers and if you
show them a round tank they will merrily swim round the edges for
hours. Oblong tanks tend to deter this process and often relax the Koi
quicker thus making our photographic tasks slightly less difficult.
- WATER LEVEL:
The water level in the tank may seem trivial but it is in fact
important. Too little and the surface will be continually disturbed
too much and the body of water will distend like a gently rolling
balloon without a membrane. The correct level is obviously determined
by the size of Koi you are photographing; generally the ideal is
enough to cover the extended dorsal by around three inches.
- WATER QUALITY:
It is important to remember that although your primary task is taking
the photo you always need to remember that your real primary task is
to protect the welfare of the Koi you are photographing. To this end,
make sure the tank is clean and has had no contact with potentially
harmful chemicals or materials. Also make sure that no residual debris
is present. Also ensure that the water you plan to put into the tank
is the same as the water your target Koi has just come out. This is
important especially in terms of temperature and pH as both thermal
and pH shock can be lethal and also remember the smaller the volume of
water in your photographic tank the bigger the potential risk, so
check, check and double check! It is also important to consider that
while your Koi is in the small tank it will be contaminating the tank
water, not just with organic physical material that may spoil your
photo but also chemical contamination which my build up and put your
Koi at risk. To reduce the risk, make sure you regularly check the
tank water quality and unless you have a big tank (100 gallons plus)
make sure you change water completely at regular intervals. These
risks are very real but likely to cause problems only if you are not
aware of them; don't be caught out. It is no good being sorry after
the event!An additional indicator of deteriorating tank water quality
especially in small volumes, is a proliferation of gungy surface
bubbles that won't go away. They are often synonymous with organic
build ups, so use that as a guide and be aware of this risk
- TANK LOCATION &
KOI MOVEMENTS: Make sure your selected location is as safe as
possible and as near as possible so as to minimise the distance the
Koi has to be moved. NEVER, NEVER, NEVER leave a tank containing a Koi
unattended. If you do have to leave it for a short time, make sure the
tank is securely covered.
- PHOTO BUDDY:
In addition to learning from each other, a photo buddy will also help
you double check all the aforementioned and two pairs of eyes, ears
and Koi instincts are always better than one!
- PHOTO ANGLE:
It is a much quoted misnomer that the best angle to shoot Koi is 90.
This is not the case; the correct angle to take Koi shots is in fact
- FINALLY: Please
always remember that although it is nice to have good Koi photographs
the welfare of the Koi comes first - so do check the tank water and
keep checking it. Make sure the Koi can't jump out! (as they often try
to do) and remember you can always take another photo another time and
if the Koi is obviously not happy at being subjected to your
photographic advances abandon them and try again another time.
Always shoot in port:rait format NOT landscape. Landscape shots rarely
work as do unusual upside down or sideswipe shots which sound clever
but are in fact a waste of film.
- FRAMING: Make
sure you have the head and tail in the shot and try to keep the Koi
generally in the centre of your frame. There is nothing worse than
having a great Koi photo with the tail missing! It is vital that the
Koi is framed only by the tank background. This may sound
contradictory but the Koi is the focus of the photo and any third
party incursion into the frame will detract from the quality and
impact of your Koi image. Make sure your target Koi is not clamped to
the side of the tank or has its nose buried in the corner, instead
wait until it is away from the sides and corners and located as near
to the centre of the tank as pdssible.
- POSE: It is
important that the pose emphasises the imposingness of the Koi so do
try and make sure the Koi's overall pose is attractive and not forced.
- PATIENCE: It
is vital that you have patience and wait until the Koi is still, don't
try and chase it round the tub not only will this exacerbate the
chase, it will spook the Koi and irritate you!
- PECTORAL FINS:
Pectoral fins are vital components to photos of Koi. Their suitable
deployment or not often make the difference between a good shot, a
great shot and a poor shot. Shoot when the Koi has flared pectoral
fins NOT when they are clamped to its side-
- FOCUSING: It
is of course vital that your shots are in focus. However, the nature
of Koi photography is such that it is virtually impossible to have all
parts of the Koi in the same sharp focus. Unless the Koi is small
don't even try, instead focus on the eyes; this will ensure that the
front three quarters of the Koi are sharp and the tail is slightly
softer The result will be a much more natural and pleasing image which
appears attractive not forced and graceful rather than staid.
- KEEP IT SIMPLE: Close
head shots and clever angles can be very dramatic but good shots are
very difficult to get and you will waste lots of time and film trying
to perfect the unperfectable. Concentrate on refining your basic
techniques as you will find this much more rewarding.
- TAKE LOTS OF SHOTS:
Good Koi photography is one of the most difficult of all photographic
challenges. There is no easy way and no quick solutions. If you follow
the above advice and take lot of shots you will develop a successful
style and technique that provides good consistent results. A good
success rate given all the above is 10% to 20%. So take lots of photos
to get a few good shots. For every photo included in NI forty are
- POND SHOTS: Pond
photos can be very boring unless you make a big effort to make them
creative and pleasing. Seek out the unusual angle; look for the
position which enables you to naturally frame the shot. This may
involve climbing onto garages or aawling on yoiir. stomach but the
results are worth the effort. Night shots are also often very dramatic
and once you have mastered the basic technical challenge, you can have
lots of fun experimenting with long tripod exposures, etc. Unlike
shooting Koi be adventurous and take the unusual challenge; you will
be amazed at what you can achieve.
The very best Koi photographers are those who keep Koi and take photos.
Although being technically competent is OK to a degree, to get the best
shots you have to love Koi and understand them. The essence of success is
in understanding and appreciating their four dimensional form and being
able to express it in a two dimensional photographic image.
Practise may not make perfect but it is great fun and
will eventually give you some good Koi photographs, so keep trying and
- There are none!... But...
- Prepare properly - make sure
you have correct equipment
- Beware glare
- Be patient - Don't rush!
- Take lots of shots
- Develop your own technique
that works for you
- Always remember your subject
is someone's beloved pet - so take care of it at all times