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Reef Photography - Part 2

Posted by Jon Lazar , in Photography 23 July 2011 · 0 views

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Jellyfish picture taken with my circa 2002 Nikon 4500 camera at the Monterey Aquarium. Point and shoots can take great pictures if you do it right.

If we're going to approach reef photography as an easy recipe to follow, you have to be prepared to add more to the mixing bowl than just technical capability. A focused, properly exposed photo is important, and you can pick up some tips on snapping better photos here in the last edition of WAMAS Waves. But to get your pictures from a lukewarm, kind, and encouraging "nice" to a more enthusiastic and genuine "NICE!", you have to throw at least a tablespoon of art into the mix as well by optimizing the composition of the picture. That's what we'll discuss here.

Taking a focused picture. Ok; yes, this was covered in Part 1, but it's so important it bears repeating. The most common problem with reef photos is that they're blurry, and a blurry picture looks poor no matter how well it's composed. Remember to (a)set your shutter speed to something fast enough to freeze the fastest thing in your picture (try 1/250 sec or faster, or the Action/Sports setting on a Point and Shoot), and (b)keep the camera level so the lens is parallel to the aquarium wall you're shooting through. (Don't angle the camera up, down, left, or right.)


Prepping for the shot. There are several things you can and should do to make your pictures nicer, before you even turn your camera on.

Clean your tank up. Remember how your mom would make you wear a nice shirt and comb your hair on school picture day? Didn't you learn anything? Clean up your tank before you start shooting, and pay particular attention to any areas you're going to be zooming in on. Cleaning up the inside and outside of the aquarium walls should be a no-brainer, but also vacuum up some of that cyano and move all those loose frags out of sight or put in a bucket or something. Your coral may be beautiful, but when it's sitting on a mat of cyano it looks like a supermodel posing at a Jersey landfill.
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Not the worst photo ever, but all the algae and the old frag disc distract from the zoanthids. Reefers will think "Ugh-nutrients are too high." Non-reefers will see all the pretty purple and wonder if that's what the picture is supposed to be of.


Pose your coral. Sometimes the coral you really want to take nice pictures of is in a place where it's difficult to take a good picture. Maybe there's another coral in the way, or there's a big ugly powerhead right behind it. Don't be afraid to reposition a coral to a different part of the tank to get a better picture, and allow time for the coral to recover so that it has good polyp extension and looks natural.


Lighting conditions around the tank. It's intuitive that having the right lighting inside the tank is important to taking a good picture. What's not so obvious is that the lighting conditions outside the tank are important too because they can detract from an otherwise excellent shot. When the light from table lamps, televisions, and windows reflects off the outside of the tank and into the camera, it messes up your carefully focused and composed picture. This is doubly true when the back wall of the tank is clear and the tank is not up against a wall. Follow these steps to reduce unwanted lighting:

- When taking a FTS, turn off the nearby TV and close the drapes, or wait until after dark.
- Avoid using the camera's onboard flash. A remote flash is much better if you need to use a flash at all.
- If your tank has a clear back wall, consider hanging a black screen behind the tank to hide plumbing, wires, and other equipment. I've temporarily taped a black plastic trash bag to the back of my tank before to accomplish this.
- Wear a dark colored shirt to minimize reflections.
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This FTS would be much better without the two-toned background. The photographer could have hung a dark backdrop behind the tank to make the reef stand out better, and the powerheads and overflows would have disappeared. White can look good too, but not white and blue.


Composing and taking the shot. So by now you know the steps to getting a good focus, and you've prepped the room so that you can take some "NICE!" shots. Next is to compose the pictures you want and actually take the pictures. You can often improve the composition of a picture after you've taken it by making fixes with a post processing program, and we'll talk about cropping and other ways to tweak your pictures in Part 3. But if you really blow the composition from the start you may not be able to recover later.

The rule of thirds. A basic photography composition technique is to divide your picture into 9 equal parts, like a tic-tac-toe grid, and try to line up parts of your picture along one or more of those lines. There are all kinds of theory on why this makes your pictures look better. Don't worry about why it works; just follow the rule when you can. Try to align horizontal or vertical lines that occur in your photos along the imaginary lines that make up the "thirds". If nothing else, avoid always taking perfectly centered pictures and try to place things slightly off-center.
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The mushroom picture on the left uses the rules by aligning along the top horizontal and right vertical lines. The anemone picture on the right implements the rule of thirds by leaving the left third of the photo blank

Background. Choose your background carefully so it complements the subject of your photo. For example, if you're taking a picture of your yellow tang, see if you can snap it against the black background of the tank wall or a dark cave area. Also, avoid backgrounds that are very busy with other fish and corals unless you can make them blurry while keeping your target focused. A distracting background will draw attention away from the main subject.
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In the left picture, the lionfish's friend has ruined the shot. You have to think for a moment to see where one fish starts and the other stops, plus the picture is not sharply focused. The picture on the right still contains the second fish, but in a way that does not detract from the main subject.

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Not every background has to be black. Here the Fiji leather makes a nice background for the neon goby to pose against.


Fish eye. The human eye is naturally drawn towards the eye of the subject, so fish pictures look most natural when the fish is somewhere between facing towards the camera and a full profile. Avoid fish pictures where the fish is facing away from the camera. Also, ensure the fish's eye is in focus.
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This one gets deleted. The anthia is turned too far away from the lens.

Lead room. When taking a picture of a fish, leave space in front of the fish's head. The idea is to make it look like the fish has some space left in the photograph to keep moving, before he hits the edge of the picture. This is referred to as lead room, and makes the picture look more natural.
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The blank space on the left makes the picture feel more balanced. Also note that the eye is sharply focused, and the dark background puts the viewer's attention solely on the fish. NICE!

Pick a good subject. Finally, unless you're documenting an illness or case of STN, choose healthy fish and corals to take pictures of. Fish with ich, tattered fins, and emaciated bodies do not make appealing subjects. Acropora with algae growing on the tips of branches where the tissue has died, corals with brown jelly disease, and zoanthid colonies with zoa pox just plain look bad. Take pics of something else in your tank until those critters recover.
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Not an attractive subject unless you're documenting the effects of ich. On the good side though, note that the "horizon" between the green brain and the background falls along the top third of the picture, and the goby is in pretty sharp focus.

Conclusion. This may seem like a lot of work just to get some artsy photos. But for me, much like a proud dad, much of the pleasure of the reef aquarium hobby is expressing and sharing the beauty of the creatures in my tank with others. My camera and I will never truly capture this beauty, but I want to get as close as possible so that others can see what I see. I think a lot of others in the reef community, especially those in WAMAS, have similar motivations for their hobby and I hope they're able to better showcase their animals by following some of these steps. Happy reefing!



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