I always say that you only really need three things to be successful in this hobby: good water quality, good water flow, and good light. All of those things are pretty involved, but lighting in particular gets a lot of discussion because of the three, it is the most expensive and the thing that is going to most dramatically affect how the fish and corals in your tank will look.
Corals can color up differently under different lighting systems to varying degrees, but lighting systems can also drastically affect the appearance of the same exact coral. A lot is made of what corals look like online. Are the images oversaturated? What kind of lighting was this taken under? Will it look like that in my tank? The list of questions goes on and on. What most people do not realize is that much of what that coral will look like has more to do with the lighting selection by the hobbyist than the image of the coral online.
Obviously there are pictures online that look way off, but assuming for a moment that the picture is good, there is a really good chance any coral is going to look very different from tank to tank depending on the light.
I liken lighting to makeup for corals. If ever one needed evidence of the power of makeup, do a search online for movie stars without makeup. It makes a huge difference. Lighting in the reef tank can alter the look of a coral drastically, so if there is a particular piece that just doesn’t look quite right, it is well within the hobbyist’s power to change the appearance.
The difference in appearance from what one sees online versus what it looks like once in the home system can be cause for concern; however, it does not necessarily have to be a deal-breaker. One might think that the solution to this is to only shop in person for corals, and honestly, when selecting new corals for Tidal Gardens, I try to do that as much as possible. Still, nothing is 100 percent.
I have purchased corals in person that looked spectacular. One in particular looked truly special. It was glowing red and yellow. The yellow in particular drew my eyes right to it. An hour later, when it was in my tank, it was…nothing. The red wasn’t really much more than a tan color, and the yellow was maybe a slightly different tan color. Had I purchased this coral online sight unseen, I might have been disappointed with what I received, but that wasn’t the case here. I bought this piece in person! Luckily, I have different tanks here with different lighting, and it did not take long to find a color combination that brought out that fluorescence.
In summary, while there is no sure way to pick out a coral, you do have a great deal of control over what it will look like regardless.