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Photographing Your Reef and Posting Your Photos


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Photographing Your Reef: A Primer




At the very least

A word about aperture...

...and Composition



The full tank shot

Uploading and posting to the forums



Nothing can be more frustrating than spending all that time and money on your beautiful reef, but not being able to get quality photos to post on nano-reef.com. Hopefully with the help of this guide you'll be able to show the rest of us what it is you get to enjoy every day! Most of this primer is written for DSLR and advanced point and shoot (P&S) users. If you use a basic P&S, fear not: mixed in you will see tips especially for you that will allow you to stretch your trusty little camera to its full potential.


First and foremost, READ YOUR MANUAL (cameras, lenses, and all other equipment you'll be using). You cannot possibly hope to take great photos if you do not understand the features available to you. Also, understand the basics of your camera's settings and how they interact with each other. This is a good place to start: http://www.thepeaches.com/photography/Basics.htm.


Again, I cannot stress enough the importance of learning everything you can about your camera and how to use it. When asking for advice or help with a particular technique or photo, understanding what those who are helping you are saying is going to be key.


At the very least



- Turn off all pumps and powerheads that provide water movement in your tank.

- Put your camera on a tripod or other sturdy support.

- Clean your tank, inside and out.

- Shoot parallel to the front glass (point the camera straight into the tank). Shooting at an angle will cause distortions.



- Shoot at the highest, finest, largest setting possible. For P&S cameras, that means the largest JPG set to Fine. For DSLRs and advanced P&S cameras, shoot in RAW.

- Start with auto white balance, it will often yield acceptable results. When you gain skill (and if your camera is capable) you can use a custom white balance setting.

- Shoot on the lowest ISO setting available on your camera.

- Turn off your flash, as all it will do is create a flat, dimensionless, yellow-tinged photo.

- Use either a remote shutter release or your camera's timer function when taking photos. This will help to eliminate camera shake caused by pressing the shutter button.



- Most images will need some adjustment after you take the photo. This can include contrast, brightness, sharpening, color saturation and white balance adjustments, as well as other more advanced adjustments. The basics can be done with the software included with your camera or a program like Google's Picasa; the more advanced adjustments will require a more advanced program like GIMP or Photoshop.

- Make sure to resize your photos to make for faster uploading to a gallery website (Photobucket, Flickr, etc). With the exception of the first three, all the photos in this article were resized to 600 pixels wide.


A word about aperture...

When shooting your tank, either macros of individual coral polyps or full-tank shots, the aperture you set can be the one thing that makes or breaks your image. Here's an example of the same image taken at three different apertures. Which one looks best to you?



member: Lalani


The photos were taken at f/2.8, f/11 and f/32, respectively. Selecting a large aperture (small number, like the first photo taken at an aperture of f/2.8) lets you choose what part of the photo you want the audience to focus in on by isolating it and blurring the background or foreground. The best way to ensure the correct exposure is to set your camera to Aperture priority mode. This will let you choose the aperture setting you want, and the camera will automatically select a shutter speed for you. This takes half the guesswork out of the equation and lets you focus on the other aspects of getting a good shot.


P&S Tip: If you do not have manual control of your camera, try using the preset modes that the manufacturer provides. The Macro (indicated by a picture of a flower) or Portrait (picture of a head or face) modes usually provide shallow depth of field, keeping your subject in focus while blurring the background. Keep in mind though that many cameras gently blur the entire image in Portrait mode, so it may not be quite as sharp as you would like.


...and Composition

When most people take photos, their natural tendency is to place the subject in the direct center of the frame. This often leads to photos that are static and boring, the very definition of 'snapshot'. Reef photography lends itself to rule-breaking, as there are so many 'subjects' in a shot that having one of them centered is not boring at all.



member: el fabuloso


If you find yourself looking through your camera at a scene that is dominated by a single color or texture however, placing the subject in the center of the frame will end up looking boring. The solution is as simple as shifting the subject off-center. But if not dead center, then where should you place it? Imagine a grid separating your image into thirds both horizontally and vertically, like in tic-tac-toe. Try and place your subject on one of the lines or, ideally, on one of the intersections. This minor shift will automatically make your images seem more dynamic and interesting. While the rule of thirds works very well with general shots, it can often show its weaknesses when doing close-up or macro work. Take the following photo:




Because of the textural quality of the zoanthids filling the entire frame, dividing it into thirds to create a composition doesn't work very well. With shots like this, the texture of the subject is key. Try to find a contrasting element (differing colors or growth forms) and feature them instead. In the photo above, the two different color morphs provided enough contrast to bring interest to the photo.


P&S Tip: Don't have a dedicated DSLR with a macro lens? Fret not. As long as your camera is set on its highest setting, you can crop down to about twenty percent of the original image and still retain plenty of detail and sharpness for posting online.


Remember, the shapes of your coral aren't the only thing that can make a good composition. Consider color and the contrasts between different corals when deciding how to frame your shots. And remember, sometimes not following any rules will get you great photos, as well.



member: stoney waters


Now that you have your camera set up and set correctly, let's start taking some photos!



Corals are ideal subjects for photography. They have intricate, almost alien shapes, as well as vibrant, saturated colors, as shown in the open brain coral below. The lighting over them stays constant and the corals themselves remain motionless, allowing you to spend all the time you need getting the best image. There are a few things you can do to help get the best shot, however.




First off, kill your pumps. As in all aspects of photography there are differing opinions on this, however turning off your pumps offers a few distinct advantages. First, it allows 'snow' in the water to dissipate. Microbubbles have a chance to surface and detritus can be allowed to settle. This snow shows up as an abundance of white specks and can ruin an otherwise great photo.


Another reason to turn off your pumps is that it freezes coral movement. With the exception of some types of xenia, most corals will become motionless without water movement. This allows you to use a smaller aperture to get more details from your macros, as well as letting you shoot at the lowest ISO available, all without having to worry about shutter speed. Your exposure can be seconds long and your images will still be sharp.


As far as composing your shot, the main rule is to keep it simple. Unless you're trying to sell an entire colony, it is almost always better to focus on just part of a particular coral instead of doing a wide shot. Getting in close lets you showcase the coral without other corals or your rocks acting as distracting elements.



In contrast to corals, fish offer a greater challenge to your photography. Most of the fish we put in our reefs are active, and refuse to stay still long enough to get a sharp shot. While all of the techniques used to take great shots of corals apply to fish as well, there are a few things you can do to overcome the challenges presented by fish.


First, use a fast shutter speed. Earlier, I recommended setting your camera on aperture priority and trusting whatever shutter speed the camera chooses. This works well for sessile creatures, but not many fish will stay still for possibly a full second. Rather, set your camera on shutter priority for fish, and choose something fast, say 1/125sec or faster. Keep in mind you may need to bump the ISO up a bit in order to achieve a shutter speed and aperture combination that works for you.



member: 05XRunner


P&S Tip: The ideal mode for shooting fish is the Action mode, which most camera manufacturers label with a photo of a running man.


When photographing fish, try and focus on the eye. It can be difficult, but as humans we look to an animal's eyes as an emotional indicator. A photo of a fish where the entire body is in focus but not the eye will cause us to feel disconnected. By contrast, a photo of a fish with the eye in sharp focus draws us in.



member: Kigs


Last, take lots of shots, the more the better. Sometimes it can take a couple hundred shots of the same subject before getting one that really works, and the payoff is definitely worth the effort involved.


Full-Tank Shots

For a lot of people (myself included) full tank shots can be the most challenging part of photographing your reef. Often, you are left with a photo with some parts washed out and other parts too dark. Our reef tanks are lit by strong directional lighting coming from above. This means that the top parts of rocks and corals are much brighter than the underside or shaded parts. Our eyes are able to compensate for the difference, but our cameras cannot. You can either assist the camera in getting the correct exposure while you are taking the photo, or you can use photo editing software to fix the photo afterward.


When you set your camera on auto, it tries to find the medium shade in the frame and expose for that. Inevitably, highlights will be blown somewhere in the image due to the limited dynamic range of digital cameras – those highlights will be in areas facing the light,namely your corals. In general, if the highlights are blown on the subject, you need to dial down the exposure to recover that information. If information is lost in the background, this becomes less of an issue unless it deters from the composition of the photograph.



member: GobyInPeace


All DSLRs have an option to adjust the exposure value (EV) of your image. Adjusting it down one or more stops will keep your corals from getting burned out. As with all other camera adjustments, it will take some experimenting to determine how much to adjust the EV to get a good balance between eliminating blown highlights and still keeping detail in the shadows.


There are also ways to improve a full-tank shot once it is on your computer. Adjustments to an image's curves will often eliminate harsh shadows; another option is to use the Shadows & Highlights function in Photoshop to automatically adjust for those two perameters. A similar plug-in can be found for GIMP.



member: dshnarw


The are also a few different ways to frame your full tank shots. The most basic way is to shoot straight-on, having the tank fill up the entire frame of the shot. This perspective gives you the clearest view of your corals, with the least amount of distortion since you are shooting parallel to the glass. You can also shoot what is called a 3/4 shot. This lets you show off your tank while taking into account the surrounding room.


Editing and posting to the forums

Ok, so you've adjusted your camera to the ideal settings. You've made all the necessary preparations to your tank, and you've now taken a set of well-composed photos with the proper exposure and focus. Well they don't do you much good in their current form – after all, you want to share all your hard work with the rest of the community on nano-reef.com, right?


Everyone has a different workflow, but here's what works best for me. The first step is to resize the photo. This makes uploading it to the website faster, and helps to conserve space. I usually resize my photos to 600 or 1000 pixels wide. This can be done in any image editing program, and can also be done after you upload your photos if you don't mind the wait.


Next is uploading the photo. You can choose to either upload directly to nano-reef.com , which will allow you to then add your photos as attachments to posts. This creates awkward thumbnails that much be clicked on for the full size photo. A better option would be to upload your photo to an online album site like Photobucket, then just copy and paste the 'img' code into your post.


For example, here's a screenshot of a photo album in Photobucket. After creating an account and uploading your photos, you just hover the mouse over the photo you would like to post. A menu will drop down. Depending on your browser, when you click on the 'img' code it may automatically copy it for you, or you'll have to hit Ctrl+C to copy the code.




Once you have the code copied you are ready to post your photo. You can use either the Fast Reply or the Add Reply buttons at the bottom of every topic. When the post editing window opens, just paste the code you copied earlier. Make sure it has the pbucket2.jpg [/center]


And a close-up of what the code looks like, with the tags:




Then just click Add Reply, and your photo will be posted! The process is similar for other online photo album sites, all of which also offer their own tutorials on how to post images you have hosted with them. This is the photo that the above code posts:






Well, hopefully now you have armed yourself with the skills and information you need to take great photos of your reef tank and its inhabitants. But remember, there is always more to learn. So take as many photos as you can, and don't be afraid to play around and experiment with your camera until you get the perfect results. Also, I encourage you to post your photos or questions for help, as there are more than a few talented photographers on the site who are all willing to share their knowledge. Good luck, and happy reefing!

  • Like 4
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Ahh I wish I had some one like you to tell me how to do things the first time around.

(This is what a lot of people need)


Very nice!



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Aperture section added.

Hey, new section looks good. One suggestion though. When you say with a smaller aperature setting, i.e 2.8, you can blur the background it should also say and or foreground. Sometimes blurring zoas in the front and having the ones in the back in focus looks cool.

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Which pics are yours Lan?

Captions too small?


Hey, new section looks good. One suggestion though. When you say with a smaller aperature setting, i.e 2.8, you can blur the background it should also say and or foreground. Sometimes blurring zoas in the front and having the ones in the back in focus looks cool.

Noted, and changed. Thanks. :)

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