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Digital-Reefs – A Fresh Approach To Reef Aquaria Set-up, Management And Observation

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Digital-Reefs – A Fresh Approach To Reef Aquaria Set-up, Management And Observation
by John Clipperton


Having been a keen reef photographer for the best part of a decade now, I’ve found it interesting to watch the evolution of digital technologies in that time, and to witness their rapidly developing relationships with reef-keeping. There is no question that digital technology has now become deeply entrenched within all aspects of the hobby, indeed, the fact that you are reading an article on such a subject on a reef-keeping website elegantly proves this point! As such, rather than writing another standard reef photography type article, I thought it would be more productive and interesting to take a look at this subject alongside various other kinds of media, rather than in isolation. Actually, digital technologies are now so diverse, rapidly developing and potentially useful to reef-keepers, I suggest that a completely new concept or ‘school of thought’ may be adopted by those interested in such aspects of the hobby. This concept of a ‘digital-reef’ – that is an aquarium, or aquarium system, that has been designed thoughtfully to both utilise and capitalise on digital technologies in a number of different areas – can be used either to create a system entirely, or to enhance an existing one. Unlike Berlin/Monaco/Mud/DSB/ULNS/Hybrid type models, which of course deal with the fundamental biological set-up of a system, the digital-reef ‘approach’ can be applied to any of the well-established system models, and might even enhance them in many ways. Some of the guidelines raised here may be things that you have already done, or plan to do anyway of course. The main purpose of this piece is to gather these tips into a coherent approach and to introduce the basic concept.


System Design


A beautiful reef created by ITC Aquatics showcases colourful LPS corals under blue LEDs.

Creating a ‘digital-reef’ aquarium requires detailed appreciation and planning at a very early stage to ensure that the system or tank selected is optimal for the application of digital technologies. Specifically, carefully attention should be given to the construction and location of the display aquarium itself. If glass is to be used, particularly for large aquariums that traditionally utilise relatively thick panes, low Iron glass should certainly be considered to improve visual clarity and colour rendition. Keeping glass as thin as possible without compromising tank durability should be investigated carefully. Acrylic aquaria, although potentially quite expensive, typically have superb optical clarity with higher light transmission values than even ‘Optiwhite’ glass.


Acrylic offers high light transmission rates and excellent colour rendition for aquarium subjects. Sample courtesy of Neptune’s Acrylic Tank Manufacturers.

The size and shape of the system can also be optimised. Aquaria with curved viewing panes or other unusual shapes that deviate from standard rectangular or cubic formats, while initially attractive, can cause problems with both viewing and particularly imaging whatever is in the aquarium, defeating their true purpose in a sense. Bow fronted tanks are a perfect example. Also, consider the overall positioning of the tank (to cut down on external reflections especially), type of background used, and where in-tank equipment will be placed as all of these factors have ramifications both viewing and imaging purposes. As an example, if you put a large tank in a small room, you may find it impossible to image the tank in its entirety.


With only a few feet clearance, an ultra-wide angle lens was required to image this massive tank in one shot (shot at Acropora House).

Lighting is another area that deserves careful thought and planning. It not only needs to be of the correct spectrum and intensity for the organisms you wish to keep, but it should also showcase this livestock effectively. This is particularly important for digital imaging purposes if additional light sources cannot be brought into play. As an example, a common problem encountered when using high contrast ‘point source’ lighting such as Metal Halides or even LEDs that are suspended over the centre of the tank is that organisms near the front of the tank actually present their shadowed side to the viewer. This is particularly noticeable with fishes near the front glass. Mounting the main lighting so that it is slightly angled towards the back of the tank, or adding supplementary illumination along the front of the tank can remedy this problem. The tank trim is also worth considering. Does it allow easy access around the top of the tank if you wish to do ‘top down’ photography or use a viewing dish? Do the lights allow easy access while limiting ‘light spill’ into the surrounding room? (light-spill will create reflection problems). As we can see there are many factors in the set-up of a system that can seem small but may be optimised under a guided approach.


As well as considering livestock requirements, think about the qualities of different light sources and how they will impact upon viewing and imaging tank subjects.

System Management

Digital monitoring and control systems are nothing new to reef aquaria but in the last few years such systems have moved on from being used primarily just to automate laborious processes or to monitor and adjust water chemistry into new areas of tank management such as lighting control, circulation and feeding. Nowadays, using smartphones and IP cameras it is perfectly possibly to monitor and control such elements of a system when you are far away. Some of these systems really encapsulate the ethos of the digital-reef approach, while others may be more limited in their usage. At the end of the day, it is ultimately for the individual to evaluate the potential benefits of such a system if they wish to incorporate one. The suggestion here though is that well-designed systems should not only improve convenience of care and the apparent aesthetic ‘realism’ of a display, but also provide tangible benefits to the organisms kept under that system. It is also worth mentioning that such control systems are not strictly required under the approach outlined in this article. Actually, one could argue that founding a captive reef without ‘hands on’ experience, or entrusting too much to an automated system, would be unwise. However, the ability of the latest systems to enhance the realism of captive reefs through the manipulation of light and flow cycles, and to therefore benefit livestock (if the myriad of other factors are taken into account), makes them highly desirable if a disciplined approach can be adopted. In addition, their ability to reduce the likelihood of major tank crashes makes certain even more attractive. Basically, providing the fundamental reasons for using such a system are understood, their incorporation can make for a display that is successful and impressive not just biologically, but also technologically.


Monitors and controllers vary massively in price, features and quality. Avoid gimmicks and consider reliability.

System Observation and Imaging

As well as optimising an aquarium for enjoyment by direct viewing, many modern reef aquarist design systems fully intending to document their progress and share their achievements through online sources and magazines. Take a look at any of the modern day reef forums and there is bound to be a photography forum lurking somewhere. For reef aquarium photography, a DSLR camera is usually the best option for balancing price against quality.


Imaging your reef can be a rewarding an interesting pastime which can confer a greater understanding and appreciation of the stock in your care.

The ability to use lenses optimised for certain situations and the larger sensors employed in such cameras generally give the best image quality (if used correctly!). That said compact cameras and even mobile phones may achieve perfectly acceptable results in certain situations (i.e. where ambient light levels are high). Whatever camera you use, to get the best shots when taking images of your reef inhabitants, try to keep flat on to the glass to avoid distortion effects. Maximising the amount of light available is also critical as this allows you (or your camera if you are using auto or semi-automatic modes) to select suitable settings to capture images at sufficient brightness, depth and sharpness. Using the on-camera flash is usually not desirable as the flash will just bounce back off the tank glass, or illuminate the subject unnaturally.


Don’t’ believe anyone who tells you ‘use these settings for fish, and these for corals’. Analyse each subject on its own and identify the key attributes to establish a shooting technique.

An off-camera flash is a better option particularly if it can be moved independently of the camera (wirelessly or by cable). Studio lights have even been used by professionals for certain tank shoots. If a subject is completely static though, flash may not be necessary at all. Instead use of a tripod and a slow shutter speed may permit the selection of sufficient depth of field and low ISO setting while maintaining proper exposure. In short, a lot depends on exactly what you are trying to image! The use of such techniques, both flash and non-flash, should provide a solution to the imaging of most subjects. As well as ‘standard’ photography, there are also numerous specialist forms of imaging that may be used to both document and showcase our reef tanks and their inhabitants. Pure fluorescence, time-lapse, HDR and 3D imaging are just a few relatively new areas that offer great potential to enrich both the hobbyists experience, that of the wider community and, in some instances, the livestock itself (see NOTE below). And photography is just one media of course. The same general guidelines actually hold true for several other forms of imaging that an aquarist may wish to use. For example, videography and webcams can also showcase your reef, with the latter also tying-into remote monitoring of your system.


Specialist lighting and filters allow us to see an unseen world of coral fluorescence. In this shot green fluorescent proteins are highlighted in an Acropora sp. coral. It would be entirely possible to map changes to such pigments under different lighting schemes in this manner.

NOTE: While I was writing this article I was interested to notice news of a discovery that serves to illustrate the potential of following the approach outlined here rather well. The discovery was that certain SPS coral species capture and consume live planktonic prey items rather than just deriving nutrients from photosynthesis and dissolved nutrient uptake. This has previously been a contentious issue but now, using high magnification videography, it has actually been witnessed, recorded and shared. This fact, which is clearly of great importance to reef aquarists who keep such corals, was only made possible because the system that held the subject had been designed with this purpose in mind. This adoption of an almost scientific mind-set where we see our livestock as something that can be observed and studied in detail, rather than as a status symbol or something purely decorative, is central to the digital-reef approach.


The basic message that I’ve tried to present in this article is that, to present your reef and its inhabitants most effectively, recognising this as an aim in itself and giving this aim a high degree of importance is critical right through from set-up to on-going tank management. Some may say that these considerations do not require the application of such a framework. However, I suggest that a disciplined and thorough approach can potentially be very useful in all aspects of reef-keeping… not just the biological side. I’ve always been a keen supporter of the “less technology, more biology”, approach promoted by certain reef experts, and marvelled at their knowledge in that area. However, in light of recent advances in digital technologies, and their continued integration into our systems, I suggest that may now been time to present an alternative ideology. As such, the digital-reefs approach calls for “more technology, and more biology!”


Success with a reef aquarium isn’t guaranteed despite all the new technology we have, indeed committing to the creation of a Digital-Reef demands considerable commitment, vision and tenacity.

** This article is due to appear as an extended, in-depth two part series in UltraMarine Magazine in 2012 **

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