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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 results.

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.

Technical Considerations
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!

Photographic Techniques
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 45.
  • 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.

Photographic Aesthetics

  • FORMAT: 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 rejected.
  • 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.

Golden Rules
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.

  • 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
Practise may not make perfect but it is great fun and will eventually give you some good Koi photographs, so keep trying and ENJOY!