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How to Bring Out Color in Cichlids

One of the attractions of owning cichlids is the brilliant colors they can display. Fish tank owners who want brightly colored fish but don’t want to start a marine tank, have a smaller selection when it comes to colorful freshwater fish to choose from. Cichlids are an excellent choice however, sometimes their colors just don’t pop like you want then too. As a cichlid owner, what can you do to bring out their vibrant colors?

There are many ways to bring out the color in cichlids such as purchasing male cichlids, ensuring a stress-free environment, providing ideal water conditions, letting the fish age and gain more color naturally, experimenting with different cichlid foods, using good quality fish tank lights, and using contrasting background and substrate colors. 

There are many other ways you can bring out the color in cichlids. The ways mentioned above might seem obvious to you however, if you are not applying all of these methods at the same time, then you’re not maximizing the opportunities for your cichlids to light up! In this article, I will review each of the previous ideas and add a few more so that when you are done reading, you will have the confidence and knowledge to get your beautiful cichlids as colorful as possible.

Best Ways to Bring Out the Color in Your Cichlids

In random order, here are the different things I would do to ensure the color of my cichlids pop!


  • The type of cichlids you buy can dictate how colorful they are. African cichlids tend to be more colorful than South American cichlids, especially cichlids from Rift Lake in Africa. So, this is an easy one. Look for African cichlids. Just be aware that African varieties are a bit more aggressive than their South American cousins.


  • Male fish in most species are more colorful than female fish. Make sure you have at least one male in your tank. Depending on how big your tank is and how many females are in it, you might be able to have more than one male. Typically, you want one male cichlid per 2 to 3 female cichlids to keep aggression levels at bay.


  • Further to adding males to your tank, sometimes having too many males can cause stress for the fish and their coloring diminishes. If you find the males are fighting each other, the best thing to do is to remove the aggressors. One of the pros of doing this is when the males start to feel safe again, their colors will come out more. 


  • Sometimes it’s just a matter of timing. As cichlids age and are kept in a comfortable environment for long periods of time, they will display their colors optimally. Older stress-free fish show their colors more than younger stressed-out fish.


  • Further to my point above, having a stress-free tank not only breeds healthier, happier fish but more colorful fish. Do what you can to give your cichlids the stress-free life they deserve and you’ll be rewarded by their beauty. As with any tank, the water parameters, temperature, and flow need to be ‘just right’ for fish to be at ease. Make sure you know the needs of your cichlids in their environment to ensure they’ll be at peace.


  • Bigger tanks are a requirement when keeping cichlids. Even though you can put cichlids in a 30-gallon tank, I wouldn’t recommend anything smaller than a 55-gallon. Cichlids are big fish and need a large tank. If the tank is too small, the fish will feel anxious, and their colors won’t show as they should. Bigger tanks help to lessen outbursts of aggression, which in turn reduces stress.


  • Cichlid food is an easy way to help bring out your cichlids color. The big fish food companies like Fluval and Tetra among others all manufacture foods that help to bring out the color of cichlids. Don’t get hung up using just one brand because that’s all your local fish store carries. You should try different types and brands for a month or more at a time and see if you can tell any difference in the coloring of your fish.

***Check out these cichlid foods on Amazon***


  • You had to know this one was on the list. Lighting can affect how the colors show on your cichlids. Sometimes just having a bright light isn’t enough. Cichlids don’t necessarily want super bright lights on all of the time. If you have the lights on for too long, it can adversely affect how the fish feel and in turn, affect how their colors display.
    • I have indirect light on my tanks, so I have my light timers set to turn on at 12 noon and shut off at 9PM every day, all year long. I have even thought of pushing that 12-noon time out by at least another hour because the indirect lighting is so bright.
    • I know our instinct is to turn on the bright tank lights and have them on all day long and into the evening. It’s just too much light – for any type of fish.
    • It helps to promote the growth of algae and will stress some fish out. This will lead to a fish looking bland instead of bright and vibrant.
    • Extended daytime lighting in your tank can lead to frustration and potential aggression with cichlids. If you have a dimmer on your lights, you can set them to turn on slowly like a sunrise and turn off like a sunset.

Check out these LED fish tank lights to upgrade your lights today.

electric yellow cichlid

Two Easy Ways to Bring Out Your Cichlids Coloring

There are two things you can do before you even put any fish in your tank that will markedly improve the chances your fish will display as colorful as possible.

Those two things are a very dark background and a sand or rock substrate with natural colors.

I would suggest having a black background as most colors will pop against black. The best background for African cichlids is black, in my opinion. South American cichlids look good against black or a very dark blue.

For substrate and large rocks for cichlids, I would recommend using sandstone, slate or river rock. Keep it as natural as possible. Your fish will appreciate that, as it will mimic their natural habitat. This increases the chances of them displaying their colors as brightly as possible.

Why Are My Cichlids Pale?

A cichlid will look pale because of any of the reasons listed previously in this article. I suggest you go through everything I have offered so far and make sure you are doing those things.

If your fish are still looking pale, it’s possible that you have a female that just won’t ever show those bright cichlid colors you want to see.

A couple other reasons could be that you have young fish and they just need to grow a bit longer and will eventually start coloring up.

The other reason a cichlid might have gone pale is it is sick and or dying. If it looks sick and you have other fish in the tank, consider placing it in a quarantine tank until the issue is resolved.

African cichlid


To conclude this article, I just want to suggest that when you are working on your cichlid tank to improve the coloring of your fish, go through the points suggested in this article like a checklist and ensure you are doing everything right.

Remember that these fish are living creatures, your pets that you have chosen to care for. Even though you are wanting more colorful fish for your own viewing pleasure, you’re improving their lives in the process.

One thing I want to add regarding lighting is that now with LED lights, there are many color options to choose from. You can play around to see what works best for your tank but here’s what I have learned and you should know:

  • Blue light can wash out color in cichlids.
  • White light can and will improve the look of the fish.
  • If you can get lighting with a shimmering or storm effect do so, your fish will look amazing in that shimmering light.

I hope this article has been of help to you. Thanks for reading. Good luck bringing out the color in your cichlids.

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