Reef Photography - Part 3
Posted by Jon Lazar , in Photography 26 October 2011 · 0 views
Leafy dragon seahorse from the Florida Aquarium, Tampa.So now you've finished snapping pics of all your favorite corals and fish, and you're ready to begin posting them to WAMAS. You've read through Part 1 on taking focused pictures, and Part 2 on composing an attractive photo, and you're ready to start uploading. Not so fast! If cameras worked as well as the human eye, your pictures would appear true to life in color, brightness, composition, and focus, and you'd have a bunch of wonderful memories of the beauty of your reef. In reality though, your pictures almost certainly don't look exactly like what you saw when you were shooting, so you need to spend a few minutes tweaking the pictures on your computer. Adobe Photoshop is probably the most widely known post-processing application, but you don't need to buy something that expensive to get good results. I use Picasa's picture editing software for most of my post-processing, and that's what I'll refer to in this article. It's relatively easy to use, it's lightweight, and it's free.We spent a lot of time in Part 2 talking about how to frame your subject to make it look its best, using techniques like the rule of thirds, making sure the fish's eye is in sharp focus, leaving lead room in front of a fish, and avoiding distracting backgrounds. But sometimes, despite your best efforts, another fish wanders into view and messes up an otherwise great shot. Or the picture comes out a little bit too bright, or too dark, or the colors in your picture are just a bit off from real life. This is where post-processing, or photo editing, can come to the rescue.Photo editing software. As mentioned earlier, I've found the freeware Picasa program does fine for most of my simple photo editing. I don't use it to store or share photos online; I just use it for cropping and adjusting brightness, and sometimes to tweak colors or remove bubbles. There are plenty of other programs out these that work just as well or better, and if you already have a favorite it probably has very similar tools. The main Picasa tabs are "Basic Fixes", "Tuning", and "Effects", and are located on the left side of the screen.The Basic Fixes tab displayed here contains key functions like the Crop tool and the Retouch tool. The Lighting and Color buttons can be found on the Tuning tab. You can also call up the details of the photograph to determine what settings you used for shutter speed, aperture, etc. This can help you identify what camera setting are getting you good pics, and which ones aren't. I do the following steps with my photos, and will discuss each step in detail below: 1. Crop photo 2. Adjust brightness 3. Adjust color 4. Retouch photoCropping. Cropping, or reframing, is simply zooming in on a picture after you've already taken the shot. You can use this to make the subject appear closer and fill more of the frame, and bring out the details that you can't see on screen when the subject is so small. For this to be successful you need to set your camera to shoot pictures as large as possible. Most cameras will call this setting "image quality" or "file size", and you want something like "jpg fine" or "large". This is the original photo, and this is as close as I could zoom in. The subject of the photo is the male anthia with his friend, but you can't see him clearly because he's a small fish in a big photo. I want to be able to see more of the anthia and less of the background.Here's the same photo recropped. Now the anthia is clearly the center of attention, and you can make out the details of his face and markings much better.I've recropped the photo again to make all the tiny details visible.If you zoom in too much you can end up with a picture that's too grainy. I wouldn't crop much further than this.Cropping is also useful to recompose your photo to screen out those things that snuck into your photo and are distracting. Things like other fish, powerheads and plumbing, the waterline of the tank, and light reflections can all be cut from your picture by cropping.I turned off the pumps before taking this picture, causing the waterline to drop and the lights to become visible. A single crop removed the distracting horizontal splash of light.In this example the main subject is small, there's a powerhead and an extra fish in the picture, as well as lines from the opposite corner of the tank. A simple crop makes the subject more visible and literally cuts out all the distractions.Another example of using cropping to bring out the details of a tiny subject and make the background less noticeable.Brightness, Color, and Retouching. Adjusting the brightness levels in Picasa is usually as easy as clicking a single "magic wand" button and letting the software do the work for you. Sometimes I'll increase the shadows, the highlights, or both to make the subject stand out better. The fill light doesn't seem to work well, and makes pictures grainy if you use more than a tiny bit. The color tool here can help sometimes, but it's not the best feature. I get much better results by shooting with the camera in fluorescent lighting mode in the first place.Once I've corrected for brightness and color, if needed, I'll retouch the photo to eliminate bubbles or other specks in the picture. Again, a light touch is best and it's tough to try to fix a picture that's full of microbubbles. It's much better to turn the pumps off in the first place. I asked the staff at the Florida Aquarium to turn off their pumps, and they just stared at me for a really long time. So I ended up using the Retouch tool for a bunch of these pics.Here's an example of the whole process:- Start out with a well focused, well composed picture. - Crop the picture to make the fish take up more of the frame so it's easier to see.- Adjust the highlight and shadow levels.- Adjust the color, if necessary.- Touch up any spots.Original pictureCroppedHighlights and shadows both increased. This makes the subject brighter and the background darker.Removed a few bubbles on the right side of the picture with the Retouch tool.Saturation. A word or two of warning about adjusting saturation levels. It can be tempting to increase saturation levels during post-processing in order to get colors closer to what your eye sees. Almost everyone who tries this overdoes it, and ends up with pics that glow eerily and look completely unnatural. If you must tweak the saturation, restrain yourself to raising it only the tiniest amount. Conclusion. You don't need a fancy digital SLR and a bag full of lenses to take really nice reef pictures. The key to successful reef photography is taking lots of pictures and figuring out which settings work best. Apply the few basic techniques we've discussed in these articles, like getting a focused picture, some basic photo composition, and how to crop and balance your pictures. Good luck, and I hope to see your entries in the Picture of the Month contest!About the author. Jon Lazar is not a professional photographer. However, he has taken thousands of reef tank pictures and a couple of them turned out pretty good, so he's agreed to present a few pointers in a way that requires almost no understanding of photography at all.