Photographing the Reef

by | Mar 17, 2015

By Lissa Mann

Photography is perhaps not the most important part of reefkeeping, but it is definitely part of the fun. Most reef sites have an active photography forum for sharing photographs of all of the aquatic life we try to keep. A camera is also an important tool for getting advice and information on hitchhikers or fish ailments from people who are not in a position to make a house-call. A good, clear photo can make all the difference in getting help for a fish or an ID on a coral or hitchhiker.

Those that know me know that my ex-boyfriend got me involved in the reef hobby. I originally had no desire to have a box of water in my own apartment; I was content to look at his tank. I have always been an avid amateur photographer, and he constantly bothered me to tote my camera and equipment over to his apartment in order to photograph his thirty three long. The conditions in his apartment bothered me though – the tank was in a place where I couldn’t get far enough away because of the placement of the tank, he had the whole thing lit by one MH so there was a dark area on the edges and he insisted on running 10K MH with no actinic supplementation so all the photos looked yellow. Needless to say, none of my photos from that period will ever see the light of day. He finally convinced me to take the plunge myself by reminding me that with my own tank, I’d be able to take all of the photos I wanted to in exactly the conditions I wanted. So with that as my impetus, I have sunk thousands of dollars into always having a subject to photograph.

I am going to put a disclaimer here that I am not a professional photographer and I am almost entirely self-taught. That being said, I think there are a few tips that I can give everyone reading this that will help you take the most perfect picture possible of your home aquarium (and your pets and your kids and anything else you’d like to photograph).

Lesson 1: Learn to use your camera

This seems basic, but I find that it is a step that many people forget. Most people get a camera, take it out of the box, and shoot everything on the same automatic settings for forever. When I post my photographs, the first question I get is, “What kind of camera are you using?”

For the reference of everyone reading this, I am using a Pentax K20d which is the top pro-am model camera by Pentax. I tend to use a Pentax 100mm macro for a lot of my reef photos, though I also will use my Pentax 50mm fixed focal length or my Tamron 18-250mm zoom if I feel like it.

Okay, now please feel free to forget that because I firmly believe that it doesn’t matter. Yes, perhaps I can get slightly better pictures with better equipment – if that weren’t true, there would be no reason for anyone to ever upgrade their camera. But the truth is that perfectly beautiful pictures can be composed and taken with a lousy, 3MP point and shoot camera.

Beautiful photographs are not made by the camera, but by the photographer behind the camera. Understanding the limitations and strengths of a particular camera can allow a photographer to maximize the photographic potential in every picture. Cameras – even point and shoot cameras – have a manual setting for a reason.

Lesson 2: Lenses

The array of lenses available for SLR cameras is dizzying and to the novice, it can be very confusing. There are two major components of a lens that should be taken into consideration before purchase: the focal length and whether it is a fixed focal length or a zoom.

The focal length is the number in millimeters that is listed with a lens. For instance, I use a 100mm macro lens for most of my reef photography. 100mm is the focal length. When I do architectural photography, I use the wide end of my 18-250mm lens. 18mm would be the approximate focal length with no zoom applied to the lens. The larger the focal length is, the smaller the diameter of the view. A 100mm macro has a very narrow diameter of view and makes the subject appear closer to the camera. A 18mm lens will have a very wide field of view and if anything makes the subject seem further away.

A zoom lens allows the photographer to change the focal length. With my 18-250mm lens, I can vary the focal length at any point within the range. As the focal length gets larger, my field of view gets smaller and the subject gets larger. A zoom lens allows a photographer greater flexibility, as well as the ability to be farther away from the photographic subject. A fixed focal length lens does not allow for any flexibility, but the picture quality tends to be better. Fixed focal length lenses are also usually much lighter than zoom lenses and can be used at larger apertures for more light gathering capability (see the first Bi-Weekly Photo Focus). The trick is to make sure that each lens is used with its capabilities in mind.

In point and shoot cameras, beware of the optical vs. digital zoom. Many point and shoot cameras on the market talk about a 10x digital zoom. This is not the same as an optical zoom. An optical zoom lens on a point and shoot camera works the same way as a zoom lens on an SLR. A digital zoom simply enlarges the image using a way of averaging the pixel colors. This usually leads to poor picture quality. Make sure to carefully read the fine print when purchasing a digital point and shoot with zoom.

Lesson 3: White Balance and Color Casts

Somewhere in every camera is a place to change the white balance. Changing the white balance can remove unrealistic color changes in a photo by sensing what is actually supposed to be white. Most cameras come with an automatic white balance which may or may not be adequate for reef photography. For our reef tanks, in general, the bluer the lights are (i.e. 14K, 20K, or lights with heavy actinic supplementation), the greater the chance that the white balance will need to be adjusted to compensate for the blue cast of the lights. The other color issue that plagues tank photography is the color cast of the glass itself. Unless the tank glass is starphire (or another low iron glass), there will be a slight green cast to all photos. Changing the white balance can counteract those color effects.

Changing the white balance can drastically change the quality of a photograph. The location of the place to change the white balance will be different on each camera, but every camera manual should say where it is.

An underwater housing or an apparatus for taking photographs from the surface of the water can make a huge difference in accurately reproducing the colors from a tank because there is no glass to add any unsightly color casts to the photo. Additionally, when taking photos from the front of the tank, the light is unidirectional and there are often shadows cast in parts of the photograph. From the top down, there is a more even light spread which often leads to more vibrant looking photographs.

Lesson 4: Aperture

In photography, the word “aperture” refers to the size of the opening of the diaphragm inside of the camera lens that regulates how much light your film is exposed to. In other words, it’s a re-sizeable hole on the inside of the lens. When the hole is small, only a little light gets through and when the hole is large, a lot of light gets through. The “f-stop” refers to the aperture and the larger the f stop, the smaller the aperture – i.e. f/2.8 is a very large aperture whereas f/32 is a small aperture. In SLR cameras, the f-stops are listed around a black ring on the part of the lens closest to the camera body. In a point and shoot, there should be a manual setting in one of the menus where it will list an option of how to change the f-stop – refer to the user manual.

Why do we care? Aside from getting a proper exposure on your photos, the size of the aperture will affect your depth of field. Depth of field refers to how much of the picture is sharp and in focus. A shallow DOF means that only items in the foreground will be in focus. A deep DOF means that the entire frame with be in focus.

There are a couple of ways to prioritize the aperture in a photograph. In a digital SLR, there should be a wheel to spin at the top of the camera to put the camera in Av mode. Av mode allows for the selection of an aperture size and has the camera automatically choose the right shutter speed for the right exposure. Or the camera can be used in M mode and both the aperture and the shutter speed can be selected. With this option, it is necessary to look through the viewfinder and see whether or not the shot is going to be overexposed or not using the built in light meter in the camera. In my camera, the light meter is at the bottom so as long as the arrow is in the center, I know I have a proper exposure. If there are any bars to the right of my arrow, then my photo settings will overexpose my photos. If there are any bars to the left of my photo, then the photo will be underexposed. Most point and shoot cameras have menus that allow for the adjustment of aperture and shutter speed.

I actually often underexpose my reef photos by approximately one stop. The lights are so bright on my tank that what the camera sees as a correct exposure is very bright. By underexposing one stop, it makes the background an under-exposed black and makes the colors of my corals really pop.

Lesson 5: Shutter Speed

The shutter speed on a camera indicates how fast the photo will be taken. Most cameras have shutter speeds that run from 1/5000 of a second to 30 seconds long. The longer the exposure, the more light will be allowed into the lens. An image will be captured for that long, so any movement in front of the lens will be captured as a series of images laid over top of one another as the exposure goes on. Very quick shutter speeds are excellent for capturing stop-action motion. Very long shutter speeds are great for creating fluid, sometimes dreamy looking photos.

In general, I do not recommend long shutter speeds for reef photography. Long shutter speeds will turn fish into blurs of color shooting across the photo and will turn corals into a blurry mass on a crisp, solid rock. Rather, I would recommend using the fastest shutter speed possible in order to get good stop action motion on the fish.

Just like with the aperture, there are two ways to change the shutter speed. The first is to put the camera on Tv mode (shutter priority). Doing this tells the camera to prioritize the shutter speed and adjust the aperture automatically for a proper exposure. The second way is to use M (manual settings) and this should be done in the same was as specified in the aperture section.

Lesson 6: ISO

ISO is a term from film photography. When photographers still shot mainly with film, one of the things that was important was choosing the right film speed. The films “speed” is designated by the ISO and the higher the ISO is, the faster the speed. ISO 50 film is the slowest film whereas ISO 3200 is the fastest film. The speed of the film indicates how sensitive the film is to light. The faster the film, the more light sensitive it is. With high ISOs, the shutter speed can often be faster and the apertures can be smaller. However, as ISO goes up, image quality goes down. Images shot at high ISOs generally have a very grainy appearance.

Digital cameras don’t use film, but these usually have a setting that is equivalent to changing to a different ISO film. This is called the ISO equivalent. My camera runs between ISO 100 and ISO 3200 and even has a mode where I can prioritize the ISO and the camera selects the aperture and shutter speed. This is the first camera I have had that has that option. Personally, I would not recommend this. I generally set my ISO manually for photographs. I leave it at 100 for shooting outside and I will adjust it to as high as 3200 for shooting in truly low light conditions.

For reef tanks, the ISO shouldn’t have to go any higher than ISO400. To get really crisp stop action motion and up those shutter speeds, try upping the ISO a little.

Hopefully these tips will help you use your cameras to their greatest potentials. Try out some of these techniques and if you are feeling brave, post your results in the Manhattan Reefs photography forum. Happy shooting!

  • Lissa Mann

    Lissa Mann is a Real Scientist™; and has been keeping reef aquaria for five years. She enjoys pina coladas and long discussions about evolutionary theory.