Behind the Scenes at Sheltered Reef Aquaculture – Article 1
Since opening our business and launching our website, the number one area we have received comments and questions on has been our photography. All of the comments have been positive and most of the questions are in the “how do you do it” category. Among the many principals our company was founded on is complete transparency of what we do and how we do it. To us the most important aspect of our business is meeting or whenever possible exceeding customer expectations. If our customers know everything about our company inside and out, then it is much easier for us to meet their expectations. We never want a disappointed customer!
Our approach to photography
We set 1 rule to follow without exception for all of our photographs; The photo of the coral must accurately represent what the customer is buying. The last thing we would ever want is for one of our customers to purchase our corals based on the picture, only to receive something they could never get to look the same way or at least similar in their tank. Sure, whatever their lighting may be will have the coral looking a little different than our photographs. But as hobbyists and consumers ourselves, we have experienced the disappointment and frustration of receiving corals that no matter what we did never looked even close to the photograph on the website we purchased from. Therefore, as we are taking and processing our photographs of our inventory, we are frequently comparing it to the live piece in our system to ensure it is an accurate representation of what the customer will receive.
What do we use
The camera system we use is a Canon® M3 mirrorless body with a 28mm AF-M macro lens. On the lens we use 2 filters, a simple UV protector filter, and an 812 warming filter. Our lighting, probably like many of you, is pretty heavy in the blue spectrum. This is great for the corals to grow, but not so much for photographing them. The warming filter helps absorb the blue cast from our lighting and warm up the photo so you can more easily get accurate coloration without a lot of unnatural fluorescence driven by the lighting. The whole camera system is housed in a CamDive rigid underwater case. The only way to take high quality photos is by taking them in the water. Finally, we have some supplemental lighting we add through a Kessil® A360N mounted to a sled that rides on the edge of our tanks. As nice as the housing is, we take our photographs from the top down and the size of the housing blocks some of the overhead light. The supplemental light helps us with that, but introduces more shadowing of the piece because of the angle it is coming in at and it is a single source.
Our Kessil Sled
Taking the photographs
It all starts with taking the photographs. Now, we aren’t professional photographers (big surprise there I know), but we like to think we know what looks good and what doesn’t. We “pose” all of our corals on black acrylic so they look nice and we get a lot of contrast between the coral and the background which makes the coral stand out better. This takes a lot more time than just photographing them in place for two reasons; For one, we have to track the position each piece came from so we can put it back in the right spot and assign the location to the photograph. This helps us locate them among the hundreds of frags that are in each tank. The other reason is once you touch the coral, it will close. After we move them, we have to let them sit for a while to reopen before we take the photograph. Luckily, for frags we have a 4’x6” black acrylic strip with 18 holes drilled in it, so we can do 18 corals at a time.
The camera settings we use while taking the photos are pretty simple. We shoot in aperture priority mode with an aperture setting of f/8.0 and save all images in RAW format. All other settings are factory default except for the metering mode which is set to “Spot metering”, and the “High ISO Noise Reduction” is set to “High”. In this mode, the camera automatically adjusts the shutter speed to between 1/40 sec and 1/80 sec which for our lighting and exposure automatically sets the ISO to between 800 and 2400. Overall this give us a sufficient depth of field, a fast-enough shutter speed to reduce blur (with a steady hand and the image stabilization technology of the lens), and a low enough ISO as to not get too much noise (also due to the noise reduction built into the camera). Exposure with underwater photography is tricky and sometimes isn't exactly right. Even using evaluative metering, due to bright ripples of light from the water and other reflective/refractive factors, exposure is very difficult to nail.
Processing the photographs
Once we have a set of pictures we get to the part where we process them for the website. I won’t really get into all the detail around our naming and location system for the corals and their photos, but if that interests you feel free to send us an email and we’ll tell you all about it. Instead I’ll focus (like how I worked that in?) on what we do to clean up and prepare the photos through Photoshop®.
If you remember from earlier in the article, our approach is to accurately represent the coral for the customer through the photograph, therefore, we do as little manipulation of the image as possible. There are a few things though that we adjust from the RAW image to make the photo look right.
1. White Balance – We set the white balance on all of our photos to 8500K. Since we shoot under 10,000K lighting, but we add the warming filter, 8500K looks just right for color rendition.
2. Exposure – This varies depending on the original exposure, we adjust up or down depending on the needs of the photo.
3. Shadows – We typically increase this by 75%. Since we have a supplemental light set at an angle to the coral, a lot of shadowing is cast. This setting helps even that out to a certain extent.
4. Clarity – We also increase this to 75%. This helps to eliminate some of the cloudy effect we get from the bright white reflection of the frag plugs and some of the noise introduced by the high ISO speeds used by the camera.
5. Vibrance and Saturation – If the photograph was slightly overexposed, we increase these by 20% - 40% to compensate for the washing out of the colors. If the photograph was properly exposed or even slightly under exposed we sometimes don't adjust this at all.
And that is all we touch. You can see in the following set of images an example of the same image in RAW and processed.
Raw Image (slightly over-exposed)
The processed photograph looks most like the actual coral under a pretty broad range of lighting. Our pictures aren’t always perfect, but they are always a good representation of the live coral. Sometimes no matter what we do with a particular piece either because of its size or its shape we cannot get the correct exposure, and from that point forward it is very difficult to adjust it properly. This is mostly because the one thing you really can’t process out of the RAW image is noise introduced by very high ISO speeds over-driving the image sensor in the camera.
The last thing we do with the image after we make the adjustments is save and format it for our website. The M3 is a 24 megapixel camera, that is way too big for a website. So we reduce it down to 0.2 megapixels and crop it to 8x10 & 72dpi. Then we watermark the image and save it to JPG with a file name that provides the location of the coral the image came from and the date it was taken.
Conclusion & What’s Next
The better we can get our exposure at the lowest ISO speed possible while maintaining a fast-enough shutter speed, the better the quality of the photos and the easier it is to process them. Between the underwater housing and the close proximity of the camera to the piece due to the shallow depth of our frag tanks it is difficult to get enough light for the exposure at low ISO speeds. We think that the key improvement we can make is adding more supplemental lighting. We are working on a system to use three A160s either mounted overhead, or perhaps to the camera housing itself. Even better would be underwater lighting, but it is difficult to get those with the right color temperatures to make the coral look like it would in an aquarium with reef lighting. The goal is to get the exposure we need at both a higher shutter speed and a lower ISO speed. And a secondary goal is to have the light coming in at multiple directions to more evenly light the coral and reduce the shadows.
A lot of time and effort goes into getting these photographs out to our website so our customers can see what they are spending their hard-earned dollars on. We hope you find this article helpful with understanding what happens behind the scenes and maybe even with taking better photographs of your own corals.
Coming next month: "Fragging, mounting & healing corals"