George Farmer interviews Jason Baliban, one of his favourite American aquascapers whose first project was this amazing creation 'Valley to the East'.
When I first saw this aquascape a couple of years ago I immediately contacted Jason Baliban and told him how impressed I was. His bold use of colours and textures works brilliantly in combination with the effective hardscape selection and composition. The result is one of my all-time favourite aquascapes.
Jason shares his experiences, techniques and advice with me in our in-depth interview.
What inspired you to create this aquascape?
This was my first attempt at an aquascape. Prior to this tank, I had never set up a layout with the intention of having a finished product after 3-4 months. With this layout, I had a vision and went through all the motions I believed were the right things to do.
At the time I was very inspired by the demos I had seen from Jeff Senske and Takashi Amano on the use of wood and hardscape. I still had strong interest in Dutch and impact styles, so I used a lot of texture and bold colour. Those influences are very evident in my finished work.
Of all my layouts, this one, although long torn down, still evokes the most conversation and emotion. I still get emails from enthusiasts amazed by this tank. Yet at the same time I still get comments stating that it was too busy and unfocused. These two drastically different opinions really confirm that this the most powerful layout I have done to date.
How often do you maintain your tanks and how long do you take? Or do you just prepare them well for photography?
When I first started in the hobby, I was doing very large water changes weekly with 50% RO water. This took the better part of a day to complete, but every year my maintenance tends to get less and less.
These days my maintenance routine consists of a weekly 20% water change and daily dosing. I would say I spend 30 minutes per week to maintain my 2-3 aquariums. Of course, if I have to trim, it can take much longer.
To prepare a layout for photography, I will wipe the glass very well and do a larger water change. Then, I will let the tank sit overnight and take the photograph the next day.
I do have challenge tanks however. I have those that will always have some form of algae in them. These days I don’t really try to figure out why; I just follow procedures to prevent the algae from getting a good hold.
These days, if my CO2, lighting and nutrients are in good order and still have algae I tend to just manage the algae by forever tweaking my parameters.
Your photography is excellent. What set-up do you have?
I knew very little about photography even as little as two years ago, so that is very nice to hear.
I picked it up because of the hobby and saw these wonderful layouts captured or even enhanced by the photographer. This was something that I wanted to learn and get better at myself.
Of course, there isn’t too much information on ‘How to shoot a planted aquarium,’ and so much was trial and error.
All of the aquariums currently on my website, www.projectaquarium.com were shot with a Nikon D80 with an 18-55mm lens. This little lens is very cheap and often overlooked — however, it is very sharp and has little distortion.
My general approach is to put as much aquarium light as I can find on top of the tank, in some cases over 500w. I used two remote SB-800 speedlights for the white backgrounds, adjusting the flashes manually to dial in the right amount of light that I want in the background.
Can you explain your fertilisation routine in greater detail?
Sadly, I am really not a great horticulturist. I meet a lot of people who love to talk plants. They love to talk about origin and needs, and all kinds of exciting things. Generally during those conversations I am very quiet as I know very little of the topic. I focus on layout, composition and texture as these are the things that excite me about this hobby.
My current routine for nutrients is pretty simple. I dose my macros all in one solution. This has a pretty standard ratio of NPK. I tweak it a little, given the excess nitrate in my tapwater. I dose very lean, similar to an ADA approach. I use 1ml of macro per 45 l/10 gal and 1ml of micro per 91 l/20 gal daily.
For CO2 I use diffusers and generally dial in a bubble rate of 2-3bps for 227 l/50 gal or 3-5bps for 409 l/90 gal.
How old is this layout and how long did you keep this aquascape running for?
The main photograph was taken exactly three months after the initial set-up. In retrospect it could have gone two more months to give the plants more time to mature, but at the time I was moving out of that house and the tank had to be torn down. I often wonder what the layout would have looked like if I had given it two more months to mature.
What advice do you have for newcomers to the planted tank and aquascaping hobby?
Join local clubs and online forums. We all started ‘new’ at some point and most of us would not have made it if it were not for the support systems offered in those forums and clubs.
Learn to grow plants. There are two directions to go in this hobby. Some people love to create layouts and others love to collect and grow any plant they can get their hands on. Even though their approaches are very different in execution, they both require that you should be able to grow plants.
Copy your favourite layouts. If you want to create aquascapes, copy your favourite by your favourite artist. This will get you thinking about factors like composition, layout and textures. The beauty of our hobby is that nature does most of the work. Even Mr Amano could not create the same layout twice — nature just doesn’t allow it.
Understand what you want out of yourself and this hobby will greatly affect the approach you take.
Reach out! We have the best people in our hobby. They are friendly, constructive and without ego. I have never been involved with a hobby that possesses such amazing, humble, and helpful people. We truly have a great culture!
You were recently placed second in the AGA aquascaping contest. What are your thoughts on such contests?
Contests are interesting as it really is a subjective thing to rate art. That being said, most of the contests that have endured have a fair and proven rating system in place.
I will continue to enter them, as I haven’t felt their rules or judging affect the way that I approach the hobby.
Name: Jason Baliban
Location: Pennsylvania, USA
Occupation: Systems engineer
Years of experience: Almost four years
Favourite aquascapers: Takashi Amano, Slobodan Lazarevic and most of the guys from the CAU. It really changes from year to year. I have been inspired by everyone who had the courage to post a picture of their art. Everyone who puts themselves out there deserves admiration.
Dimensions: 120 x 45 x 55cm/48 x 18 x 22”; 285 l/63 gal.
Lighting: 4 x 55w Power Compact T5 (2 x 6700k + 2 x 9325k) on a timer seven hours per day
Filtration: Eheim Pro II 2028
CO2 system: Pressurised CO2 with reactor
Water parameters: pH 6.7, KH 10, GH 12
Substrate: Seachem Flourite and Sand
Fertilisation technique: Maintain 10-20ppm of NO3, 1-2ppm of PO4, 15-30ppm of K and dose 5ml Tropica Plant Nutrition daily
Décor/hardscape: Driftwood and rocks
Plants: Vesicularia ferriei, Taxiphyllum alternans, Anubias coffeefolia, Anubias barteri var. nana ‘Petite’, Rotala sp ‘Green’, Pogostemon stellatus ‘Broad leaf’, Didiplis diandra, Cryptocoryne pontederiifolia, Cryptocoryne parva, Cryptocoryne crispatula var. balansae, Cryptocoryne wendtii ‘green’, Bacopa caroliniana, Ludwigia glandulosa
Fish and inverts: Trigonostigma hengeli, Otocinclus, Caridina multidentata
Maintenance regime: 30% water change weekly; trim when needed.
This article was first published in the February 2009 issue of Practical Fishkeeping. It may not be reproduced without permission.