Photographing Corals

Okay, so now we have set up our cameras, and know all the nitty-gritty details of photography.  On to actually taking photos of our tanks.

The intricate nature, color, and shape of corals make for interesting subjects for photographers.  Their sessile nature makes it easy to experiment with different techniques as the lighting will remain constant, and the subjects are not going anywhere soon.

Clean the Lense
Professional photographers place diffusion filters in front of the lense to create a soft glowing effect on subjects.  This works by diffracting the light incident on the lense in random directions.

Fingerprints make great diffusion filters as they are oily and smeared easily across the lense.  In this sample, "Spooky," a fingerprint acts as a diffusion filter to create a spooky, foggy effect in this night scene (taken by my daughter when she was a 1 year old with her fingerprint).

If it is not our intention to add this effect to the photograph, make sure the lense is clean.  Use paper specifically designed to clean lenses or a microfibre cloth, not your shirt.

In the lense section we discussed how optical coatings enhance the performance of lenses and how their application is one of the contributing factors with high lense costs.  If we are going to spend the money for quality glass, why risk ruining it?  Do not use solvents, chemicals, or rough abrasive surfaces to wipe the lense, as we will also wipe off the coatings, significantly degrading lense performance.

Clean the Glass
Stuff on the surface of the glass confuses the autofocus system, and causes it to try and focus on the glass itself.  Remember that the AF system attempts to focus on the nearest object, which happens to be all that stuff on the glass.

Additionally, a film of algae on the glass acts as a green diffusion filter.  Not only will our shots have that nice diffused effect, but they will have an unevenly distributed green cast to them.

If the view of the coral is obscured by algae or whatever on the glass, scrape it off before trying to take a photograph.  However, do not take a photo immediately after cleaning the tank, as fine particulate matter will remain suspended in the water column as you photograph, creating a marine blizzard in the final photograph.

Likewise, do not photograph the tank immediately after feedings.  It's a good idea to wait 30 minutes to an hour for particulate matter to sediment out.

Kill Circulation Pumps
If you have never cut power to your reef tank, it is a good idea to try now and see if your tank floods.  This tells you that you have more to worry about than taking photos of your reef system.  If you have no switch for your pump, and the cord is inaccessible, then, again, you have more problems to worry about than taking photos of your reef.

Note:  In the case of a flood, remember that salt water is a good conductor of electricity, our reef system should have easily accessible plugs and proper Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter (GFCI).  Should we have a spill, we want to be able to kill our pumps before water gets to it and shorts it out.  That way, it gives us time to wipe down the mess and helps prevent electrocution.

Corals and fish do fine without circulation for short periods of time.  We do not want to go on a 24 hour shooting spree, but an hour or two will result in no detrimental effects.

With all the excitement of getting that perfect shot, however, remember to re-establish circulation once completed.  Also, make sure the tank is running properly prior to dashing off to the computer to download our photos.  During the photo session, be sure to keep an eye on the water temperature.  Metal Halides over a small tank can quickly warm the waters to unsafe levels for its inhabitants.  If the temperature rises too high, re-establish circulation and take a break.

And again, I'm not liable for any incidental damage that may result (my lawyers make me say this).

So there is no real excuse not to cut circulation other than laziness.  There are, however, numerous benefits to cutting circulation.

Marine Snow:  Marine snow is caused by light reflecting off the surface of particles suspended in the water column.  This can wreak havoc on an otherwise spectacular photo.  It gets all over the photograph, in the background as diffused round circles, in the foreground as little white specs, and everything in between.  It obscures the intricate details of the corals, it reduces image contrast, and it steals color resulting in a washed out image.  Not only is it difficult and time consuming to deal with in post processing, it reduces the overall quality of the final processed image.

By killing the circulation pumps, the biggest boon is that marine snow will be greatly diminished.  It is not entirely eliminated, but it is brought down to manageable levels.  Microbubbles will have a chance to float, and particulate matter is able to sediment out.  As we will see in the next section, this will save us an astronomical amount of work in post processing.  Take 10 minutes to prepare for your system for a circulation cut and save yourself 10 hours in post processing work.

Coral Motion Stops:  On their own, corals move excruciatingly slowly.  With the exception of corals like Xenia, where there is constant motion, most coals will cease to move and sway when the current dissipates.  This allows us greater control over our photography.

We can, therefore, use a smaller aperture to capture deeper details in our macro work.  It allows us the flexibility to choose an aperture appropriate for what we want to capture.  Additionally, it also allows us to shoot at base ISO for clean, crisp images.  And all of this without having to worry about shutter speed.  The shutter speed can be in the seconds and as long there is no current from nearby fish, the images will come out sharp.

Get Close
Unless we are trying to document the coral for growth patterns or for sale, it is not necessary to capture the entire coral in our photographs.  In fact, colonies in the wild tend to be so large that if we did attempt this, there would be no fine detail.

Photographs become more interesting as we simplify.  Close in and shoot a single branch, or maybe a couple polyps.  In the image to the left, we see the entire Zoanthid colony.  Roll the mouse over the image to see a tighter crop.  Framing it so it captures only a few polyps makes this photograph much more interesting.  Fine details become apparent, the background is less distracting, and the colors appear more vibrant due to the increased contrast between the subject and background (the colors are actually the same in both crops, but it tends to blend in with the background colors in the first shot).

Keep Lense Perpendicular to the Glass Surface
Both on the horizontal and vertical axis.  Remember that glass-air interfaces bend light (the pencil in a glass of water trick comes to mind).  As we move off-axis, light rays are no longer parallel and this results in distortion.

In the photograph to the left I moved the camera off-axis at a slight angle as if I wanted to capture the top of the Zoanthid colony.  The resulting image is quite dizzying, with a smearing of lines, horizontally, vertically and diagonally.

Roll the mouse cursor over the image to see the same shot taken with the lense perpendicular to the glass surface.  Although the angle has changed, the quality of the photo is much better, the image is sharp, crisp and clear.

Top-down Shots
These types of shots can create an interesting perspective, as this view is not often seen by aquarists.  Additionally, the sunscreening effect of the coral's colors are most concentrated at the top surface where it is receiving the greatest amount of solar energy.

Shoot through the water's surface as with any reflective surface such as glass.  However, be careful not to submerge any part of the camera, as the marine salt water will be assured to kill it.

An acrylic box can also be built to house the camera so the lense actually penetrates the water's surface, thereby reducing reflections and allowing us to shoot at any angle we please.  As these boxes are open and it is not a waterproof housing, care must be taken not to submerge the box so deep as to have salt water overflow into the box, flooding the lense.  Furthermore, tests should be carried out to ensure the seams are watertight.

In the midst of photographing our subjects, we tend to concentrate intensely on our subjects at the expense of our environment.  One of the reasons I photograph with both eyes open is so that one eye can concentrate on the subject, and the other can observe the environment.

Slow Down
Corals are not going anywhere anytime soon and we are not in a race to see how fast we can photograph them.  Slow down, plan shots carefully, pay attention to all the aspects of photography we have discussed so far and apply these techniques.

It is not uncommon to see a photographers spend several hours working a subject.  Watch them and we will see that they will walk around looking at the subject from different angles.  They may just sit and wait.  What are they waiting for?  Outside of reef tanks, such as in nature, the light changes via the sun's movement, clouds sail, and shadows move in and out of a scene.  Nature is dynamic, subjects move in and out of an area of interest.  Slowing down and observing the environment while shooting will allow us to get that once in a lifetime shot.