A picture speaks a thousand words…

Since opening our business and launching our website, the number one area we have received comments and questions on has been our photography....
  1. Sheltered Reef AC

    Sheltered Reef AC Well-Known Member R2R Supporter Platinum Sponsor

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    Behind the Scenes at Sheltered Reef Aquaculture – Article 1

    Introduction

    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)



    Processed Image


    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"
     
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  2. revhtree

    revhtree Owner Administrator Staff Member Team R2R R2R Supporter R2R Excellence Award Photo of the Month Award Build Thread Contributor Article Contributor Partner Member 2018

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    Very nice and thanks for sharing!
     
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  3. Reefpharmer

    Reefpharmer Well-Known Member

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    Very informative and helpful, thanks !
     
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  4. islandbreeze

    islandbreeze Well-Known Member

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    very informative, thank you!
     
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  5. Sheltered Reef AC

    Sheltered Reef AC Well-Known Member R2R Supporter Platinum Sponsor

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    Thank you to those who have read and commented on this article so far. My nephew and I were just talking today about our photographs. One of the vendors we work with was telling him that we should take our pictures under more actinic lighting to "jazz them up". Since we never dismiss any feedback, we are considering putting 2 pictures of each piece, one under the 10K and one under actinic. We wouldn't switch to only actinic shots. But to me the corals look really great under the 10K and it is more natural. I do agree that there are a lot of pieces that look even better under heavier actinic lighting. However, I'd rather have our customers comment that the corals they receive from us look even better in their tanks than the pictures as opposed to the other way around.
    For those of you who have read the article and browsed our website, what are your thoughts? Do our pictures need to be "jazzed up"? Honest feedback is always appreciated by us.
     
  6. hatfielj

    hatfielj Well-Known Member

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    Nice write up. It takes a lot of work to get a reef photo to look natural. Photoshop is such an important tool as is the software inside the camera that does so much of the heavy lifting initially.
    And no I don't think your photos need much work. I personally am not a fan of 10k lighting, but I agree with your assessment that it's important to portray them accurately for your customers so there aren't any unrealistic expectations.
     
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  7. Sheltered Reef AC

    Sheltered Reef AC Well-Known Member R2R Supporter Platinum Sponsor

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    It is, and being able to process the raw images is so much better than trying to process jpegs. Our first camera was an underwater point-and-soot. Being a startup, we wanted to keep costs as low as possible. But in practice, it just didn't cut it for us. Not that it took bad pictures, but the post processing was just to difficult and didn't get the results we wanted. So we had to go with a more sophisticated (a.k.a. expensive) camera system. No worries though, the point-and-shoot has been re-purposed for family vacations. :)
     
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  8. tautog83

    tautog83 Well-Known Member

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    Personally too much actinic isn't jazzing it up its just showing not realistic color. I mean hell a green slimer and some brown zoos glows it doesn't mean they are that striking in regular lighting . I think the way you are doing it now is fine .
     
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  9. Sharvey103

    Sharvey103 Well-Known Member R2R Supporter Partner Member 2018

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    Thank you for the writeup and your transparency in sharing how you do photos of your corals.
     
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  10. smokin'reefer

    smokin'reefer Well-Known Member R2R Supporter Partner Member 2018

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    Thanks for that write-up. up. I just scanned through it and got some helpful tips. Can't wait to get home and read it in a little more detail.
     
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  11. want2bsleepy

    want2bsleepy Well-Known Member Build Thread Contributor Partner Member 2018

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    As a semi-professional photographer (weddings, portraits, etc.), I can both appreciate an accurate portrayal as well as an embellished photo. As a consumer, I REALLY like that you try to make your corals look as natural as possible. Too often in this hobby you purchase a coral online and when it shows up you are disappointed in the difference in how it looks in person versus the photo. I would, however, love to see the coral in actinic lighting as well, to show how awesome the coral can "pop" under the right lights. I think the idea of having both photos side by side would be a great treat to potential buyers and would set you apart from the competition!
     
  12. nitro

    nitro Well-Known Member R2R Supporter

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    Awesome job
     
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  13. Sheltered Reef AC

    Sheltered Reef AC Well-Known Member R2R Supporter Platinum Sponsor

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    Great feedback, thank you!
     
  14. JoeIII

    JoeIII Well-Known Member R2R Supporter

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    This is excellent information. I like that you provide your typical settings and why. This provides a solid starting point for someone who may want to replicate your results in their own aquarium.

    It may not hurt to provide actinic pictures for pieces that react particularly well to the light, but never at the cost of the daylight photos. In my aquarium I have my LEDs ramp to only blue for a portion of the day so I can enjoy all the different looks, and it is possible that seeing different spectrums may sway my purchasing decisions.
     
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  15. Sheltered Reef AC

    Sheltered Reef AC Well-Known Member R2R Supporter Platinum Sponsor

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    More great feedback, thank you!
    So far we have about 400 photos already taken. We working with our web designers to try and help us streamline retaking them under actinics and loading them to the site. We'll probably start with only the active products on our website and take it from there. Should be within a week or so for the update. :)
     
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  16. Sheltered Reef AC

    Sheltered Reef AC Well-Known Member R2R Supporter Platinum Sponsor

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    In order to be able to see a couple of examples of the same coral under both 10K and Actinic, we added 2 products to our website where I listed them with both pictures. I'll add them here too so you can see the photos...
    TrachyRainbow001-10K-20170629.jpg TrachyRainbow001-20K-20170629.jpg

    TrachyTieDye001-10K-20170629.jpg TrachyTieDye001-20K-20170629.jpg

    Thoughts?
     
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  17. Toomanyfish

    Toomanyfish Well-Known Member R2R Supporter Build Thread Contributor

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    I like the natural tiedye and the 20k rainbow
     
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  18. Sheltered Reef AC

    Sheltered Reef AC Well-Known Member R2R Supporter Platinum Sponsor

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    Well there you go... one vote for including both. :) Thank you for weighing in!
     
  19. want2bsleepy

    want2bsleepy Well-Known Member Build Thread Contributor Partner Member 2018

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    I like both versions!
     
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  20. Bob E

    Bob E Well-Known Member Partner Member 2018

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    very informative, thanks
     
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