Attraction
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San Diego

Birch Aquarium

Birch aquarium is a sweet, little aquarium in La Jolla that makes up for it’s smaller size with quality exhibits.

You can take great photographs of the fish without the crowds of larger aquariums such as Monterey Bay!

Monterey Bay Aquarium is huge in comparison but when I visited, I could barely get to the tanks without being stampeded by a sea of kids who somehow don’t think that adults are allowed “a turn” at seeing the exhibits.

I much prefer the relaxed atmosphere of San Diego’s own Birch Aquarium for photography. It’s definitely still a kid-friendly place to go shoot so if you’re travelling with family, this might be a good stop.

The Nitty Gritty

Best Time of DayOpen 9-5am daily, fewer crowds the better. Ticketed Admission.
Parking is free for 3hrs.
Versatile GearFast lens - any prime would be great, a fast zoom would be good too.
Canon EF 40mm f/2.8 STM Pancake Lens
Tamron SP AF 17-50mm F/2.8 for Canon | Nikon
AccessoriesRubber hood to kill reflections
Cleaning cloth for fingerprints

Incredible Colors of the Deep

Like most aquariums, Birch aquarium is fairly dark with spotlit tanks. This makes for some challenging lighting but also leads to some incredible shots.

You also have to watch out for the speed of the moving fish making it harder to use longer exposures.

Go with the fastest lens you have, i.e. the one that allows the widest aperture, and use the highest ISO you can bear.

I took these photos a while ago and at the time I was shooting with the Canon XTi. Loved that camera but the ISO definitely got too grainy at ISO 800 so I was forced to keep it to a maximum of ISO 400.

img_6979

Exposure
1/125s ƒ/1.8 @ ISO 400
Focal Length
50mm
Camera
Canon EOS DIGITAL REBEL XTi
Date & Time
August 30, 2009, 3:07 pm

I love how vivid the yellow of the fish is against the blue of the tank. You get a lot of opportunities like this due to the bright colors of the sealife, which is why this can be a fun place to go shoot.

Check out this lionfish below.

Actually, I’m not sure why is this called a lionfish and not a tigerfish?! Lions don’t have stripes. Strange.

Birch Aquarium Lionfish

Exposure
1/125s ƒ/1.8 @ ISO 400
Focal Length
50mm
Camera
Canon EOS DIGITAL REBEL XTi
Date & Time
August 30, 2009, 3:14 pm

You can see with this one, I had a very narrow depth of focus, which is due to the wide aperture I needed to use for this capture.

With a newer camera, you can use a much higher ISO, which will let you stop down some to get more in focus if you need.

I’d definitely like to go back with my 70d and spend an afternoon there seeing what I can capture. This is one of those instances where the gear can make or break a shot.

Things to watch out for

Reflections can be a real problem with glass surfaces. They can ruin your photos and it’s very easy for our brains to ignore them and focus on the fish.

But your camera will capture them and before you know it, you have a toddler shaped splotch on your photo!

One trick is to use a rubber lens hood that will block out the light without damaging or scratching the glass.

Shooting dead on instead of at an angle can also help, especially if you wear black yourself.

Carry a lens cleaning cloth to wipe fingerprints off the glass before you shoot.

Birch Aquarium Jellies

The best tip I can give you for shooting the beautiful jellyfish is to Avoid. Lunch. Time.

Twice daily they feed the jellyfish with what looks to be clouds of white dust designed to ruin your photos.

Okay, maybe it’s just yummy brine shrimp larvae, with a side of krill but it sucks for the photos unless you want to spend an hour spot-cleaning each one.

Australian Spotted Jellyfish

Exposure
1/125s ƒ/3.2 @ ISO 400
Focal Length
50mm
Camera
Canon EOS DIGITAL REBEL XTi
Date & Time
August 30, 2009, 4:29 pm

Don’t miss out on the moon jellies which they light up rather spectacularly.

They’re so well-lit I would think you’d be able to capture them with your phone as well.

I love how incredibly alien they look, the patterns of light almost remind me of a circuit board. Beautiful creatures.

Birch Aquarium moon jelly

Exposure
1/20s ƒ/1.8 @ ISO 400
Focal Length
50mm
Camera
Canon EOS DIGITAL REBEL XTi
Date & Time
August 30, 2009, 4:08 pm

Don’t Forget the Flora

Other than the fish, the plants in the tanks can be quite beautiful too, so definitely look for good shots of these. Sometimes you can find a fish nestling among the fronds and that can be a nice frame for the shot.

Coral reefs are fast disappearing in the real world, so it might be harder to see these in the real world soon, which is truly sad.

Photography at Birch Aquarium

Exposure
1/400s ƒ/1.8 @ ISO 400
Focal Length
50mm
Camera
Canon EOS DIGITAL REBEL XTi
Date & Time
August 30, 2009, 3:10 pm

Birch Aquarium

Exposure
1/1000s ƒ/1.8 @ ISO 400
Focal Length
50mm
Camera
Canon EOS DIGITAL REBEL XTi
Date & Time
August 30, 2009, 3:21 pm

Special Exhibits

Birch Aquarium always has a couple of exhibits that are changing, which is a good reason to go back and visit.

When I went, there were some beautiful seahorses which I find really unusual and unique. I would love to see one in the wild, but I’m not sure how likely that is.

Seahorse

Exposure
1/25s ƒ/2.2 @ ISO 400
Focal Length
50mm
Camera
Canon EOS DIGITAL REBEL XTi
Date & Time
August 30, 2009, 3:45 pm

Seahorse

Exposure
1/80s ƒ/1.8 @ ISO 800
Focal Length
50mm
Camera
Canon EOS DIGITAL REBEL XTi
Date & Time
August 30, 2009, 3:50 pm

They also have a great shark tank with such fast moving sharks, I struggled to get a good shot.

Again, perhaps a return trip with my higher ISO Canon 70d would allow me to capture that.

You can also go touch some creatures in the tide pools, although I much prefer to shoot tide pools in the wild.

Final Words

Birch aquarium is really a pretty great place to spend an hour or two and shoot some great photos. It may not exactly be travel photography, but it can make for a fun and educational afternoon.

Were you able to get some great shots at Birch Aquarium? How about that elusive shark? Let me know in the comments!

This post contains affiliate links.

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Shimona Carvalho
Photographer, Engineer, Traveler who wants to help you take incredible photographs on your next trip.
kid-friendly
macro
nature
phone-friendly
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