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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
The Regal AngelfishPygoplites diacanthusDistributionBlue Belly VariantIndo-Pacific OceanYellow/Orange Belly VariantRed Sea, Indian OceanOften called the "Holy Grail" of angelfish for the reef enthusiast, not many angels garner the same attention as the Regal Angelfish. Rarely does a fish that is not an aberrant or a hybrid merit the same attention this fish does naturally. This gem of the sea is rare enough to be prized among aquarists but common enough to also be within the budget of most enthusiasts. While in years past the problem was finding a fish like this, recent availability has made the problem one of longevity rather than availability.I have been lucky enough to be 2 for 2 with these fish and have a pair in my reef. One is an Indo-Pacific blue belly while the other is an Indian Ocean yellow belly. These fish have been the centerpieces of my aquarium for about 2 years and the success I have enjoyed so far has been predicated on the fact that I did extensive research on these fish including talking to our resident marine angelfish expert, John Coppolino. So, how are you going to find your own success and add this centerpiece to your aquarium? The secret lies in proper acclimation.When acquiring one of these, it is important to get a smaller individual. Reports vary, but most agree that the Regal can reach a maximum size of about 10". That said, that is far from being an ideal size to acclimate to aquarium life. You will want to find a fish that is less than 4"-5". It's difficult to gauge what a good specimen is based solely on size, though, as smaller fish are less likely to have stored fat reserves and will be more affected by shipping trauma and lack of food. If you find a smaller fish that is already too emaciated, you may be too late to save it. Even if it is eating in the store, this does not guarantee that it will eat with you, so be prepared to help it as much as possible.Finding a smaller fish is preferential because an adult fish has already established feeding patterns that may be difficult to duplicate in the aquarium. In the wild Regals mostly eat sponges and tunicates, a diet which most, if not all, aquarists are ill prepared to handle. The key, therefore, lies in acclimating the fish to what you will actually feed on a long term basis. When they are younger and are forming their feeding habits, they are more likely to adapt to a captive diet than when they are larger. Getting a Regal to eat will be the hardest task you will face in terms of survival.In the wild, juvenile Regals often will hang out in and around caves where they can graze in relative security. Duplicating this environment is the best bet to getting one to eat what you are offering. Prior to getting my first Regal, I plumbed a 50 gallon Rubbermaid stock tank with some sand and rock into my main system. I decided to placed it directly into my system without putting it through a separate quarantine first. I did this to ensure that I had as much stability during its acclimation as possible. Although most will not want to do this, for such a delicate fish it was the route I chose. It did have some medicated baths before I introduced it into my system, both in the store and in my home, but other than a freshwater dip every couple of days to ensure that there were no flukes, I didn't take any other preemptive measures to ensure that it was disease and parasite free.On a daily basis I offered clams, mussels, scallops, small chunks of fish, shrimp, mysis, cyclopeeze, flakes, pellets, nori, random martinis and snifters of brandy or whisky, and anything else I could find in the house that might be appealing to a fish. I pretty much left most of this in the system until it wasn't even appealing to the detrivores so that the Regal had as much of an opportunity to pick it over as it could. It took a little while for it to show signs of eating what I was introducing and I slowly pared down what I offered until it would eat whatever it was given rather than be picky about what it wanted. Based on my conversations with Copps, getting it to eat was the most important thing, it didn't really matter what it ate as long as it ate. For me, the key to this system was that it was dark, offered live food and rock for it to pick over, and the sides of the system were opaque so that it could feel more secure rather than having to face the world and see me enter the room every day. Once it was eating, I kept it separated for about another month until I got another Regal. My intention was to keep it on its own but when I got the new one, a yellow belly, I decided that it was time to make the move and let the smaller one acclimate into the main system before stressing it out with a larger one. I followed the same regimen with the second Regal and introduced it into the system prior to adding my Imperator to the acclimation? tank. So, I'm now going on 2
Tank disasters cause people to leave the marine aquarium hobby more than any other reason. All of the following, emotionally draining and expensive disasters have actually happened to aquarium tank owners. Some disasters destroyed not only the tanks but aquarist's homes as well. Read carefully and learn from someone else's mistake instead of your own.One disaster can wipe it all out. Read on.Moving Too Fast:Although in and of itself this may not cause a disaster, it is the root cause of many of the following disaster scenarios. Patience is the absolute number one rule in this hobby.Prevention: Take the time to educate yourself on all aspects of your tank. Plan as much of your tank setup as possible. Make absolutely sure you are buying the equipment, fish and other livestock that is right for your tank. Confer with fellow aquarists before moving forward.Not Understanding Tank CyclingTank cycling, also referred to as the nitrogen cycle or new tank syndromeAll aquarists must understand what tank cycling is or risk a mass die off. A tank cycle is necessary to establish beneficial bacteria that will eat toxic ammonia, nitrites and nitrates, but a cycle can also kill livestock. One needs to also understand the various reasons why more tank cycles can happen long after the tank has been established.Prevention: Do not add livestock during a cycle. Do not add too much livestock at one time as it will cause a new cycle. Remove dead fish quickly! Understand why tanks can cycle more than once. Read up on tank cycles! Learn the causes of 'mini-cycles'. Excellent article: What is the Nitrogen Cycling Process? http://saltaquarium..../a/aa073199.htmPump Gets BlockedFlow is perhaps the most important tank parameter. If the intake to a pump, sump, refugium or other system becomes blocked, flow may be interrupted. Without flow, water quality will degrade quickly and temperature may drop suddenly. With this type of disaster, some aquarists have lost most of their tank livestock overnight. Cucumbers, anemones and other creatures can block intakes. Filters can become saturated with detritus, seaweed (macro-algae) or detritus and cause blockage in the filtration system. Pumps may burn out if they are blocked or if they run dry.Prevention: Examine your filtration system and sequentially list each and every item that water flows through. Determine if anything can become clogged and clean it on a regular basis. Consider pushing a bulbous shaped piece of screen into an intake. Most pumps come with a small vent-like attachment that goes over the intake and prevents blockage. Disassemble and clean pumps often. Soak them in vinegar to release salt build up in them. (Rinse out all vinegar). Replace pumps and pump impellers before they break. Keep spare pumps or pump impellers on hand.Floods and SpillsWater on the floor is caused by pumps or attached hoses that get out of control. Floods can also be caused by poorly designed plumbing usually between the main tank and a sump or refugium. Almost every tank owner has let heir change out container overflow when filling it with filtered water.Prevention: Use plumbing designs that cannot flood even if a pump fails. For instance, pump water from the top of the main display upward towards the sump and let gravity bring water back through a pipe near the top of the sump. The return pipe should be several times larger than the uptake and very difficult to block or clog. Flexible, curved tubes are less likely to clog than PVC pipe with 90 degree turns. When filling large containers with filtered water use loud, audible timers to remind you when they are full. A wrist watch with a countdown timer is ideal.Failure to Properly Clean Filter MediaThis applies especially to bioballs but also to mechanical filtration and large carbon packs. If bioballs are filled with beneficial bacteria and you clean them with bacteria-killing tap water, then a sudden ammonia spike could result. The sudden lack of ammonia eating bacteria will cause an ammonia spike that can quickly kill everything in a tank. Also, if you have lots of bioballs and you remove them all from the tank at once, an ammonia spike could result.Prevention: Clean bioballs and other filtration media with a soap-free brush in used tank water from a water change. Remove bioballs gradually, perhaps 25% at a time.Electrical DisasterThere are a substantial number of aquarists who have failed to read equipment safety instructions and had electrical disasters some of which resulted in their homes catching fire. Unventilated chillers or equipment, failure to use drip loops, faulty wiring, lack of GFCI outlets and other electrical problems have all resulted in serious problems that can destroy a tank and your home.Prevention: Use drip loops! Allow power cords and any cable to hang down in a loop so that when water spills it doesn't run along the cable down to the equipment. Please don't say 'water spills won't happen to me.' Aquarium equipment can produce a lot of heat therefore make sure that all electrical equipment has adequate ventilation. One tank owner put a chiller in a closed cabinet. Because there was inadequate heat dissipation the chiller overheated and caused a major house fire. Ground all electrical devices. Old and faulty equipment often lets electrical current leak into the water. Consider putting a titanium ground in your tank water to prevent stray voltage from killing you and your fish. After a water change out, use a flashlight to check for water spills before restoring power.Putting Contaminates in the TankSeveral common scenarios:* You wash your hands with soap and don't quite rinse all the soap off and then you put them in the tank. Soap may have phosphates.* Your maid or a well meaning friend sprays Windex all over the tank glass to clean it. Windex has a lot of ammonia and thus will cause a cycle. This scenario has caused many fish kills!* You put your hands in the tank after you touched some other contaminant such as lotion or your dog's anti-flea and tick medication.* You worked on your lawn mower engine then put your hands in your tank
Some of the most interesting inhabitants in my tanks are my Borneman anemones (Phymanthus buitendijki). Unlike our favorite bubble-tips they are not frequently available, although I did get my first from a WAMAS vendor and a second from another member (thanks, Jan!).These anemones are known to be hardy and to tolerate a wide range of conditions. One of mine has attached itself to rockwork in the sand at the bottom of a 90 gallon tank that has both 150w metal halide and T5 lighting. Two more are in a 3 gallon pico with CF lighting. These two have moved directly under the lights and often are stretched to close to the surface of the tank. Neither tank has high flow in the areas inhabited by the anemones. None are direct-fed, and while the anemone in the larger tank benefits from daily generous tank-wide feedings of frozen food the pico inhabitants only receive a pinch of granulated food every morning. All appear happy and healthy. While the anemone in the larger tank has yet to reproduce, the one in the pico created a clone via natural pedal laceration. The Borneman is not known as a host anemone
Tubastrea sp. under actinic lighiting dining on cyclopezeThese beautiful species are arguably most recognized denizens of corals. Their bright colors adorn many coffee table reef and diving books. We, as keepers of the reef, cannot help but be awe inspired by them and think how great they would look in our own aquariums. Remarkably, these beautiful corals are not that difficult to keep and by providing them with a few key necessities, they will thrive and grow in your aquarium.Placement: The single largest thing that sets Tubastrea apart from most other corals in the hobby is they do not have symbiotic zooxanthellae in their tissue to supplement their carbon needs (i.e., they need to be fed). Since they will need to be fed, you should place them in your aquarium in a location that is easily accessible. Also, just because they are not photosynthetic does NOT mean they should be placed in a cave at the bottom of your aquarium! Tubastrea need a flow rate high enough to keep detritus from settling in between their individual coenosarcs. On the reef, they can be found alongside sps in near full sun, finding a place in your aquarium with good flow and accessibility for feeding is very important.Feeding: Tubastrea will generally extend its feeding tentacles anytime there is food in the water column. Also, in my experience, once acclimated Tubastrea is not picky and will accept all kinds of food from fresh seafood to pelleted fish food. Feeding should be no less then 3-4 times per week for growth and propagation, although feeding daily will reward you with growth rates to rival some zoanthid species. A note on initiating feeding: Occasionally Tubastrea arrives in poor condition with receded and thin coenosarcs, when in this condition, careful coaxing is needed to initiate feeding. Feeding can usually be initiated by removing the coral from the aquarium and placing it in a smaller container on the counter (ensure it is on a stable surface that will not be easily bumped). Once in the container, add some mysis or brine "juice" to the water and wait 30-45 minutes. After this time, the coral may extend some feeding tentacles (even the tiniest extension is enough) and open the individual polyp mouths. Carefully, (using too much force will cause the coral to close) place some small pieces of meaty foods in the mouths and tentacles of the coral; with some practice, you will find the necessary finesse to this method. Return the coral to the aquarium after an hour whether any extension has been noted or not. Some particularly stubborn corals may take a week or two of this nightly treatment to begin fully extending in the aquarium, but this method almost always works. Once the Tubastrea begins to open, feed it daily and it will usually make a full recovery.Tubastrea species are hardy corals that are not difficult to keep as long as just a couple of needs are met. The bottom line is: place them in a location with good flow, lighting is unimportant, feed your sun corals several times a week, and watch them grow!Sun corals can be purchased locally through our sponsors. If you have any questions of further care, please contact Chad.