I was recently at a friend’s house who is still relatively new in the hobby and he wanted to show me his new tank and his new additions. Like most of us he was proudest of some the new additions of crazy named corals that he had just gotten. As he was pointing them out to me, when he came to three of his new additions he made the comment “those don’t look like much now, they are coloring up”.
I then asked where he got them from and what colors did he expect them to turn into as to me eye they already were nicely colored and quite impressive. He then showed me the shots he saved from the website and said that this is what he expected them to look like once they colored up. I didn’t have the heart to tell him, but the shots that made him buy the corals were supersaturated, ultra-Photoshopped pictures and that even under perfect conditions these corals would never look like that. Seeing this problem, and it is a problem, firsthand, not only made me feel bad for my friend, but it made me feel bad for what this activity is doing to the hobby.
Unlike the early days of the hobby when most of us were happy keeping brown sticks that if we were lucky had a bit of color at their tips, the corals available to us today are truly stunning and possess colors and multiple colors that we could have never dreamed of. I have purchased corals from most of the online vendors, so I feel pretty confident in knowing which vendors “augment” their coral’s pictures and which vendors take pictures that are truly representative of the corals they are selling.
But it is not my intention to tell people how to spend their money or to be the coral police. Nor is it my intention to call any particular vendors out, but rather my intent is to not only bring this problem to light, again, but more importantly to help hobbyists, especially new ones, to know what to look for and if possible reverse Photoshop the picture to get a “true” glimpse of what the coral looks like. I also decided to bring this problem up as it is not just hurting the hobby on an individual basis, but in my opinion it is hurting this entire hobby in several ways that I will discuss below.
With the advent of digital photography almost 20 years ago came the advent of post-production software like Photoshop. To be honest, taking good photographs of our tanks and corals is another hobby unto itself, so this software has a very useful purpose as they allow even bad photographers like myself to occasionally come up with a good picture with relatively little effort.
However as with most things, some individuals have taken its use to an extreme. Add to this the now widespread use of LED lights, which bring out colors in our corals that had previously never been seen and the prices that highly colorful corals bring and you have a recipe for abuse. When Photoshop was first being used by online vendors the claim was that they needed to use it to “brighten” the photographs of the corals since the use of Actinic lights made many of the photographs look dark or dull or overly blue.
Now however, this dullness is no longer a problem and after seeing many of the ads for corals as well as purchasing many corals online it is clear that the use of Photoshop ranges from not being used at all through slight adjusting to downright fraud by misrepresenting what the coral actually looks like under virtually any light used. And it is fraud when hundreds of dollars are charged for a coral that will never look anything like the photograph that is posted to sell it online.
There are several ways that a photograph can be manipulated to improve the coral’s coloration in order to get a premium price. The most common and most impressive to the eye involves changing the saturation of the coral. To put it simply, in this process all of the colors are simply made more intense. Rose becomes cherry red or beige yellow becomes lemon yellow.
When this process is done none of the colors on the coral look dull or muted everything has a bright neon tone to it. There was even a recent post on this process and how anyone can oversaturate the colors of their coral in a photograph. It is a rather simple technique made all the simpler by the use of only blue LEDs to further bring out the coral’s colors. I must admit that despite knowing that this process was done to the pictures of the corals in the article they were still quite awe inspiring. Unfortunately they do not actually exist.
The other common adjustment that is used to improve a coral’s color is to adjust the white balance/color temperature. As all of us know who try to take pictures of our tanks if we make no adjustments to the white balance the color of the photograph will look intensely blue. This is because the camera does not know that the lighting on a tank is blue and for the most part does not self-adjust to correct this. This is why when we photograph our tanks we need to adjust the white balance of the camera by taking a shot of a white or gray card under the blue light so that the color will be adjusted correctly and the tank will look like it does as we see it, not like the deep blue shots that we see if the white balance is not adjusted.
When some vendors make this adjustment the colors shift the colors so that greens become yellows or the greens simply become more vivid and pronounced which produces a marked contrast with it and the other colors on the corals. To my eye, neon green corals with equally pronounced differently colored polyps or corallites are extremely attractive and I understand why they fetch a higher price.
One other way that corals are enhanced, and to me the most dishonest of the ways is when the photo editor changes the hue of the coral. This may not sound like a big deal, but the reality of this adjustment is that what occurs is that in this process a more desirable color replaces a less desirable one. For example I have seen corals that were brown but had purple corallites and red polyps.
Since both of those latter two characteristics are desirable the editor may change the body color to green or blue or whatever to make the coral look spectacular. The beauty of changing the brown to another color is that when the coral is shipped and the recipient is unhappy all the vendor has to say is that the coral was stressed during shipping and that is why the color was lost. I would love to say that corals do not stress during shipping and turn brown, but I have seen this happen to frags that I brought from tanks that traveled a relatively short distance so it is a perfect excuse as to why an expensive coral is brown.
This technique is also the most difficult to discover because when hue adjustment is made it targets specific colors. As a result the rest of the photo may appear normal. So the gravel will still appear white or fingers keep their normal color, so this is why this is the most dishonest practice in photo manipulation.
So considering how easy it is to manipulate the colors of a coral what is a hobbyist to do? First and foremost buy from vendors that have sterling reputations. The big well-known vendors and many of the small newer vendors have no reason to do this as their reputations mean everything to them so they do not need to enhance the colors of a coral for a quick sale. Just as it is easy to augment the colors on a coral it is just as easy to make it be known that this is occurring and who is doing this.
However it still occurs so you need to know what else to look for. First when you look at a coral, and I know this may sound crazy, but look to see what its genus and species are rather than its crazy name, and look it up online or in a book, to see what it actually looks like. Obviously this will take some effort, but once you get used to doing this you can quickly look it up to see what it looks like naturally and then go further and see what the range of its looks may be.
This will at least give you some idea of what it may look like in your tank. And despite my unhappiness with how color manipulated corals never look like their pictures in my tank, I do know that many corals morph in coloration from tank to tank, so this is why I suggest you look at a range of pictures to get a better idea of how it may look.
However, I also understand that this may be difficult as often we are faced with only seeing a frag of a coral, so we have no idea what a colony and hence what the coral actually is. When this occurs there are still things you need to do to determine how close the natural color is. First look at the things surrounding the coral and look at their colors.
Look at the eggcrate, plug, gravel or even the fingers holding it to see if their colors look natural. That is eggcrate should be white or black, there is no blue eggcrate. Most gravel is white or gray, and the only people I know who keep blue gravel are keeping goldfish. And most plugs are gray, black or white. So if any of these things are blue, the colors on the coral have been adjusted or enhanced so either pass or ask to see the coral in a more neutral light.
It is your hard-earned money that you are spending and while I know the demand for the most colorful corals is high and you are afraid you will lose out on being able to buy a one of kind coral if you ask to see this, the result is you will save your money by not buying a coral that does not actually exist. I once asked this of a vendor as a result of his fingers being blue in the photograph. He said that the colors were true, so I asked him why then were his fingers blue, his response was he had spilled ink. Needless to say I did not buy from him. So if the vendor refuses to provide this, my advice is don’t buy it. Again I know this is difficult.
Now if you are technologically savvy, you can actually reverse the process. That is you can at least partially reverse a picture that has been manipulated if you really want to see what your coral actually looks like. In this process you need to have one of the post photography software programs and something in the picture besides the coral to work from.
So, if you have the coral on a gray plug or white gravel or held then all you do is go to the program and use it to bring the color of that item back to its natural color or close to it, and in most instances it will being the color of everything in the picture back to its natural or at least closer to its natural color. I do not do this often as it is time consuming and not always possible, but it can reveal what a coral actually looks like to those really interested. So why is the overuse of Photoshop so damaging to the hobby?
First for new hobbyists, they overspend on corals that they think will be incredibly colorful so then when they do not reach this potential they get frustrated. From my own experience when people are frustrated or unsuccessful they tend to stop doing what they are doing so this results in new hobbyists leaving the hobby.
In addition it hurts the hobby by making it impossible for the LFS store to compete. This is because since these corals are photo enhanced when they are seen in a shop the shop’s corals pale in comparison. As a result the LFS lose business and the customers think they don’t know what they are doing since their corals can’t compare with the coloration of the corals seen online. Despite the success of many online vendors, most hobbyists still get started in the hobby through the LFS, so if they continue to go out of business fewer and fewer new hobbyists will join the hobby.
Lastly, in my opinion this practice hurts the hobby by driving prices higher and higher. I have no problem with people making money, however when I see frags of a supersaturated coral that does not actually exist selling for the price of a washer or stove or car I know this is not good for the hobby. I say this because I know I am not the only one seeing this.
The collectors have computers too, so when they see a mushroom go for $6000, guess what, the price of all mushrooms goes up. The collector who sold it for $10 is not going to take $10 for the next one. The price is now $100 for the same mushroom. So to the wholesaler, and the shop, etc, etc. increase their markups and as a result the price of everything goes up and eventually this could make the hobby cost prohibitive to more and more of us and especially younger hobbyists.
Hopefully at the very least I have provided some ideas of what to look for to reduce this problem’s occurrence, and it is a problem as many of my colleagues and friends in the hobby acknowledge. With Photoshop the colors on any coral can be manipulated to a degree once never thought possible.
We may not know what colors some of our corals are and what they can turn into unless we actually know what a coral looks like. To my mind the excessive use of Photoshop makes us a bit colorblind to how beautiful our corals actually are. While I used photographs of Acropora to show how these techniques can be used to manipulate the colors of the corals we see, these methods can be used on just about any coral. I have seen them used on Acans, mushrooms and especially chalices to enhance their colors as well as their price. So when buying colorful corals be careful and think as your eyes can be fooled by today’s technology.
Since I am not well-versed in photography, I know obviously, I would like to thank my friend Christopher Kriens for his help and insight on this article as well as his photographs to illustrate what is possible with Photoshop and its over use. I would also like to thank Jason Fox and Christopher Jason for their photos showing how far this can be taken and to Jason for not employing it.