Shooting reef tanks is hard. This article is everything you want to know about how Tidal Gardens shoots photos and video!
What camera do we use to shoot the corals?
There are a number of different cameras we shoot with but primarily we shoot with two Canon cameras. For still images we use a Canon 5D mk II. It is an older Canon DSLR, but it produces excellent results.
When selecting cameras with interchangeable lenses, it is a better idea to focus on the lenses that fit the type of photography you intend to do and then to buy a body that you can afford. Most camera bodies are capable of professional quality photos. If in the future a newer body comes along with features one simply MUST have, the lens collection will still work with the new body.
For video, we shoot with Canon cinema cameras. We started with a Canon C100 and later upgraded to a Canon C200 which allowed for high frame rate 4k capture. A Canon C100 which is an entry-level cinema camera. A cinema camera is very nice because ergonomically it is a joy to work with. Below you can see a video overview of the C100:
Although DSLR’s and phones can take good video, they are a pain to use because they were not designed from the ground up to shoot video. They happen to have the option, but that’s about it. A cinema camera has the layout of the controls in a way that makes sense to a video shooter and professional connections which are otherwise tricky to adapt to DSLR’s or phones.
The Canon C200 is a much more capable camera. Below is a video talking about it as well as some of the other equipment we use here:
What lens to you shoot coral with?
About 95% of the shots were taken with a Canon 100mm Macro. Canon makes two 100mm macro lenses, an f/2.8 Macro, and an f/2.8L IS Macro. The f/2.8L IS Macro is more expensive because it is a part of Canon’s “L” series of professional lenses that boast better build quality and better optics. In this case however either of these lenses would be great for stills and would produce nearly indistinguishable results. Macro lenses by their very design tend to be some of the sharpest lenses available. We use the f/2.8L IS version because that “IS” stands for “image stabilization” which is extremely helpful in shooting video.
The remaining 5% of the shots of coral are taken with an ultra closeup lens called an MP-E 65mm also made by Canon. This is a specialty lens that is essentially a 5x microscope. It is very tricky to use, but is able to take shots that no other lens is capable of taking. To see this lens in action, take a look at the video below:
When I try to shoot my tank I get bad results. Do you have any tips?
Photography is a loaded subject, but the first thing to familiarize yourself with is proper exposure. Once you get a grasp of that, it will be easier to go back and see what the problems were in past photos. The majority of poor results are usually exposure related. The video above has a deeper discussion of exposure as well as some additional tips.
Do you shoot under LED's?
At Tidal Gardens we get asked all the time if we shoot our pictures under LED. I can guess the reason people ask. LED lit tanks, especially those dominated with blue and royal blue LED’s, have a distinct ultra fluorescent appearance that is, shall we say, less natural in appearance. The colorful highlights are greatly exaggerated and the thinking most customers would have is the coral won’t look like that in their tanks.
The short answer is no. Tidal Gardens does not shoot under LED’s, but it has nothing to do with the natural or unnatural appearance of corals. The real reason is LED’s are the worst lights to shoot under. LED’s have very narrow spectral peaks compared to other types of light that tend to have a more robust spectrum. Our eyes manage to see the color better than a camera sensor so it doesn’t seem so bad. On the contrary, corals look great! To a camera though, all it sees is a massive overload of single colors and the resulting image is covered in blobs of blue and purple with zero detail. T5 and MH bulbs will give you the best looking photos, so we primarily shoot under a mix of natural sun and T5.
Do you post-process your images?
For those unfamiliar with post processing, it refers to the manipulation of the coral image by software to change color and exposure levels. Post processing is often the subject of heated online debate. The problem lies in the potential to abuse post processing to enhance colors beyond what anyone would see under any conditions. This is essentially deceptive trade practices, that eventually leave buyers with a sour taste in their mouths and in turn consider ANY type of post processing undesirable.
This perception is unfortunate because post processing is a necessary tool for a professional photographer. That may be an understatement, because post processing is half of digital photography.
There is no such thing as an “unprocessed” image. A digital camera is very much an analog light gathering device that tries its best to turn the light it collects into 1’s and 0’s and packs it into a file. It is not possible to view this file directly. It is not a visible image, it is just data. What pops up as a preview is one of an infinite number of conversions of this data into a visible image. In essence, the camera is doing the processing for you. The moment you can see an image it has, by definition, been processed. The question is whether the camera can do a better job of processing an image than a professional software program can.
In the case of reef aquarium photography, you will almost always get a better result with a software editor than what comes out of a camera. Camera sensors are designed to shoot what we commonly see outside in nice warm, bright light. Our tanks are dim and use a fringe part of the color spectrum that modern camera sensors are not well-tuned to see. The processor in the camera will do it’s best to convert that information into an image file you can see, but it can always be improved substantially in post.
Can I use your photos or videos in my project?
In the past we have licensed material to others for some type of compensation. Our photos and videos have been used in industry publications such as CORAL Magazine, Reef2Rainforest, Saltwater Smarts as well as nature shows and displays created by the BBC, Discovery Channel, and the Smithsonian.