Let’s face it, the online coral WYSIWYG space is completely inundated with unrealistic photographs of corals for sale. The Photoshopping of coral images has reached such extreme proportions that it is getting extremely hard to even believe your eyes when some of these coral pictures are posted. Therefore, either you buy the coral anyway and hope that the coral shows at least some of the color you are seeing, or you restrict your shopping to corals that you can see in person at your LFS. In the former case you are bound to have some inconsistency between the photograph lighting and your tank’s lighting and more often than not you will be disappointed. In the latter case you are limiting your coral want-list to the moderate turnover of corals that your local aquarium store is receiving once, maybe twice a week. The third option is to reverse-engineer the blown out photos of many coral WYSIWYG galleries to something that more closely resembles a realistic coral.
Don’t get us wrong, there is a place and usefulness in Photoshop and it’s myriad of tools that can assist you in getting a raw photograph to look more like the real thing. Unfortunately, many coral vendors are not aiming to make the coral pic look more realistic, they are aiming to use Photoshop to sell corals for more money, and to sell them faster. Fear not because the same Photoshop tools that are used to blow out a coral picture can also be used to return a fairy tale coral to a more believable state.
First of all, there are a number of photo editing software suites for a number of platforms and operating systems which can be used to edit photographs and not all of them are made by Adobe. Photoshop and Photoshop Lightroom are the most widely used, there’s Aperture for Apple’s OSX, but you can also use the free photo editors like the GIMP, Picassa from Google, as well as the online Photoshop.com. If you have a newer smartphone you can also download a number of free or paid apps which offer just enough features to use the tips in this reverse-photoshopping tutorial. We most often use Adobe Photoshop Lightroom because it is specifically designed to be used with photographs and you can download a free 30-day trial from the Adobe website.
The reverse engineering of an over-photoshopped coral image involves the same basic adjustments that are found in most image editors. The most important parameters we’ll be looking at are white-balance, exposure, clarity, vibrance and saturation. In Lightroom all but one of these values are found under the ‘Basic’ section of the ‘Develop’ tab with ‘sharpness’ being found in it’s own window a little lower down. In other programs these adjustment functions will be found when navigating to the ‘Edit’ or ‘Adjustment’ sections of a certain photo editor.
The most significant truing you can do to an image is to ‘White-Balance’ a photograph. What it means when you use this function is that you point the image editor to an area of the image which is neutral in color; if you know something in the image is supposed to be white or flat gray, like gravel, eggcrate or certain powerheads, you can simply point the selection tool to that area and the editor will automatically correct the balance of colors in the image. Techniques will vary, and we sometimes don’t get the expected result from our first few white-balancing selections. However, you should be able to find a good neutral colored target after a few tries. You’ll know if you need to try again if the image turns predominantly one color. Ctrl-Z is your friend, use this command to undo individual edits to your image.
White-balancing an image is fairly straightforward for any kind of photograph but the rest of the process takes a little more finesse. There’s no way to give you guidelines for reverse-photoshopping every photograph because there’s no way to know how much the image parameters were pushed. The following adjustments take a little bit of trial and error but with practice you should be able to use your eyes to get the coral image closer to the actual appearance.
The second phase of reverse-photoshopping is to adjust the ‘Contrast’ and the ‘Clarity’ of your photo. Contrast relates to how much of a difference between a light color and a dark color, not to be mistaken with sharpness. We personally like to use the sliders in Lightroom to adjust the contrast back and forth until the pop of the coral image ‘feels’ right. After the contrast has been adjusted, try taking the same approach using the parameter of ‘Clarity’ which relates more to how much the detail of an image is visible. The ‘Sharpness’ parameter is very similar to ‘Clarity’ with Sharpness having more effect on the discrete lines in an image, and Clarity having more effect on the finer details of an image.
The final step in reverse-photoshoping is to reel in the overblown colors by using the vibrance and the saturation parameters. Vibrance relates to the brightness of the coloration, either a bright red or a dark red, and the saturation affects the volume of color within the digitally rendered image. Once again, the use of the vibrance and saturation tools is somewhat subjective, and it is difficult to tell you how much or how little to use them. Try adjusting the parameters for vibrance and saturation while observing reference points of color within the tank, like the PVC, powerheads and devices whose appearance you are familiar with in natural light.
There is a fine line between using photo editing tools to make your pictures appreciably better, and getting away from the natural appearance of a photo subject beyond a reasonable difference. This debated topic of photo manipulation has been around since the creation of photography, whether by manual tricks in the physical darkroom or digital tricks in Lightroom. This issue is even harder to discuss in the aquarium world where we keep weird animals, with weird colors under weird light. We do not claim to have expertise in digital photo editing but tried our best to share with you one method for correcting images that have been processed by inexperienced photoshoppers. If you have any tips on how you manage the discrepancy between appearance of digital images and real life, please share them below.