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Black or White: Which Is Better for Aquarium Backgrounds?

Amar Salvi has been a nature aquarium enthusiast for over 35 years and owns his own Nature Aquarium Gallery in Navi Mumbai, India.

Is it better to use a plain black background for your aquarium or a white one? What about blue backgrounds or underwater scenery prints? Learn everything about backgrounds here.

Is it better to use a plain black background for your aquarium or a white one? What about blue backgrounds or underwater scenery prints? Learn everything about backgrounds here.

Choosing the Best Background Colour for a Fish Tank

One of the considerations that hobbyists face while setting up their aquarium is whether it should have a background or not. Many people prefer tanks without a background, but that depends on what's behind the aquarium. If there's a plain white wall behind it, maybe you'll skip the background entirely—but what if there's clutter behind it or some other less-than-appealing view?

If you choose to add a background, there are still more decisions to make: Would you prefer an underwater scenery print or a plain, single-colour poster? If you go with a plain poster, the most popular colours tend to be black, white and blue—but which one do you pick?

Underwater Scenery vs. Plain Backgrounds

Many hobbyists opt for an underwater scenery print; however, these often don't look very realistic. Either the picture features some "not-so-skillful" Photoshop work or the scale is all over the place, with some elements looking huge and others looking tiny. This lends an unnatural feel to what should ideally be a natural scene combined with the real-life plants and fish inhabitants.

This is the reason why many advanced aquarists prefer to go for plain backgrounds in either black, white or blue.

Comparing Black, White and Blue Fish Tank Backgrounds

Here are my opinions on when to use these common colours in your tanks.

  • Black backgrounds provide a more natural setup for biotopes where the underlying theme is dark water, as in the Amazon River biotope. Combined with driftwood and black substrate, the black background provides a complete natural look that's close to the real thing.
  • White backgrounds provide a lot more depth to the aquascape and showcase the plants and fish very well. While a dark background absorbs the colours and generally shrinks the perspective, a white background accentuates the colours well.
  • Blue backgrounds are generally best for marine reef setups, since the blue accentuates the colours of the fish and provides a more natural feel that evokes the ocean.

It is generally obvious when you should use a blue background, but the choice between black and white takes more consideration.

My Experiment With Black and White Backgrounds for Planted Tanks

I have experimented with both black and white, beginning with a black background for my Amazon biotope tank and then moving on to a white opaque background. You can compare my results in the two photos below.

Do note that these photos show the same aquarium. The only difference here is the background poster, which I replaced from the outside (no Photoshop tricks here!).

Before: My Amazon biotope tank with a black background.

Before: My Amazon biotope tank with a black background.

After: The same Amazon biotope tank with a white background.

After: The same Amazon biotope tank with a white background.

You can see the difference for yourself in the photos! When I saw how much bigger and brighter my aquarium looked with the white background, I felt like I had stumbled upon a secret. Little wonder, then, that most professional aquascape artists use white opaque backgrounds to accentuate their aquariums!

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After I tried the white background for the first time, I was hooked. Shown below are some photos from my other setups using white opaque backgrounds.

This is my nano nature tank with a white opaque background.

This is my nano nature tank with a white opaque background.

This is my 6-foot planted nature aquarium with a white opaque background.

This is my 6-foot planted nature aquarium with a white opaque background.

Does the Background Colour Affect the Fish?

There has been some interesting scientific research on whether the colour of the aquarium background has any impact on the fish. In the video below, the interviewer talks with Dr. David Pool, who has a Ph.D. in Zoology with a specialisation in freshwater fisheries biology. Dr. Pool discusses how some species may try to camouflage themselves against a white background, causing their skin pigment cells to contract. This makes the fish appear pale and less colourful.

Along the same lines, an interesting study on goldfish was carried out in 2013 and published in the Aquaculture Research journal. The fish were raised in four differently coloured tanks: black, white, blue and red. The researchers found that the goldfish raised in the red and blue tanks were chronically stressed (keep in mind that goldfish are not a marine species, so the blue colour is not natural for them).

The fish in the black and white tanks were much less stressed. In addition, the fish in the tank with the white background had the best growth rate, but—just like Dr. Pool said in the video above—their colour was not as intense as that of the other fish.

How Do I Know if the Background Is Affecting My Fish?

Keep a close eye on your fish after adding a new background to the tank. If you notice any changes in their behaviour or colouration, or if the fish suddenly seem stressed or confused, it would be wise to remove the background (or replace it with a different colour or scene) and see if that helps.

Benefits of Aquarium Backgrounds

In case you're still trying to decide if you need an aquarium background at all, here is a quick review of the advantages that backgrounds offer.

  • They hide clutter behind the tank, such as cords, shelves or gaudy wallpaper.
  • They add depth to your tank.
  • They make the colours of the fish and plants pop more.
  • They make the aquarium easier to admire from a distance.
  • They evoke the natural environment your tank is emulating.
  • They add a cohesive theme for your aquascape.
  • Black backgrounds reduce stress on fish that need a darker environment.
  • White backgrounds make a small tank look bigger.

Choose a Background That Suits You and Your Fish

To my mind, given my personal experience, I would go with a white opaque background for any type of planted aquarium. For a marine reef setup, I would go for a light blue to dark blue background instead. Then again, it's a matter of personal choice, and if you do find a good background featuring nice underwater scenery that looks attractive and natural, then use it!

Always remember to monitor the wellbeing of your fish after you add or change the background. If they seem to be stressed by a new background, remove or replace it. Their health and happiness is of the utmost importance.

More About Fish Tank Backgrounds

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Comments

Linda from Middlesbrough on February 26, 2019:

Thank you. Very useful info for a beginner like me.

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