If you’ve been to regional frag swaps in the New York area, you have most likely met Marcin Smok. He doesn’t draw much attention to himself as he quietly points his camera on whatever catches his eye. Marcin is a lifestyle photographer also and a blogger for reefs.com. We got a chance to chat with Marcin about his reef photography.
What got you started in photography, what was your first camera
I don’t remember how I started, but it was most likely my girlfriend, who also enjoys photography, that piqued my curiosity. She always pushes me to do new things, I even owe her for making me try saltwater aquariums, but it’s a long story 🙂 Anyway, I don’t quite remember the exact model of our first camera, but it was a Nikon point & shoot. What I do remember is how I destroyed it- it was at a rock band Deftones concert somewhere in some upstate New York club. Here’s the last picture that thing took before someone smashed it to pieces:)
If you had to pick between shooting a reef tank or a FOWLR which would you pick?
Reef of course. Corals amaze me, they are one of the very few living organisms on this planet that build new land.
How do you compensate for the blue light
It’s funny because I do both compensate and add blue light. I add it through a blue gel filter on my off-camera flash and cut it out from the final capture by using Yellow-colored photographic filters. Just about any yellow filter that fits your lens is good. In traditional black&white film photography, yellow filters were used to darken the sky and brighten up the foliage, as yellow filter lets through yellow light but blocks blue, its complementary color. You can get these filters for cheap on eBay, just make sure it matches the thread size on the lens.
If reef tanks didn’t have actinics, would you still photograph daylight corals?
Yes, I never rely on artificial lighting when taking photographs of corals in aquariums, I create my own actinics by using off-camera flash. Even if I didn’t have that, I would still shoot them, to me corals are beautiful not only for their coloration but mainly because it puzzles me how nature could create something that simple in its anatomy yet so sophisticated in its appearance.
Any experience shooting underwater?
Yes, I’m a SCUBA diver and I’ve had some experience taking pictures underwater, but I’ve never really invested in any professional equipment, as it was beyond my budget. I have my fair share of underwater reef photography, unfortunately, I’ve witnessed Florida reefs deterioration from my repeated visits to that state and I also captured some of the amazing underwater life in Hawai’i.
What motivates you to write blogs, do you ever get writer’s block?
I enjoy writing in general. I enjoyed it since I was a teenager and since I know a little bit about the reef keeping hobby, that’s what I write about most, but I also try to write about travel, geology and other stuff. I have this idea in the back of my head to someday write about my travels in rural America, we’ll see if that ever materializes. Writer’s block? Oh, don’t even tell me about that. My work is defined by writer’s block, most often than not I have to force myself to write something. I have about as many unfinished pieces as those published. Oh well.
Favorite time of day to shoot reef pictures?
It doesn’t really matter, anytime is good when I have equipment I can rely on.
Hot dogs or burgers?
Burgers anytime. Hot Dogs look lazy.
You have 5 minutes to pack, grab some gear and jump on your bike. Where would you go and what would you take with you?
First of all, I love my bike. I think biking is the ultimate mode of transportation, where ordinary scenery that we take for granted as bland and uninteresting suddenly becomes something else. It lets you slow down and enjoy every feature of the landscape you travel through. Cars are too fast. Anyway, I often daydream about taking a year off and bike to the West Coast and back. On a smaller scale, If I could pick one route, I would love to start in northern Montana, ride to Washington State, down to Oregon and California, then through Utah to Wyoming, ending in Yellowstone National Park.
What would I take? Good hiking gear and clothes, that’s for sure- sturdy boots, rain jacket, that stuff. Then my camp cooking gear, a tent and a good sleeping bag. Some money, of course and finally my Fujifilm XT-2 camera with 16mm and 55-200mm lenses (my Nikon is the workhorse, Fuji is fun). That would be a busy 5 minutes. On top of that, I’ll take Kamila, my girlfriend, with me, I ain’t going anywhere without her.
What came first – the corals or the coral names?
It’s a “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” question:) I personally hate fancy coral names as they make the hobby less affordable to everyone. I don’t even know most of my corals’ common names and when somebody asks me “Hey, what’s that corals you have there?” I always disappoint them by replying “That, to all my knowledge, is a zoanthid.”
Are you more passionate about saltwater or freshwater
It took me a long time and multiple tanks to answer that question. As much as I love planted tanks, if I could choose only one and if money allowed me to, I would pick a reef tank. Freshwater tanks are awesome, don’t get me wrong, but the amount of life that a reef tank can support cannot be outmatched and I guess that’s what I like about the saltwater side of the hobby the most. I also enjoy learning about new things and trying new stuff out and a reef tank is an amazing laboratory and a bottomless inspiration pit.
Describe your aquariums
I’ve had way too many tanks in my life, haha. I used to be obsessed with high-tech planted tanks before I started my first reef tank and at some point in my life, I’ve had a 59g reef tank and a 75 gallon planted tank in the same room. Currently, I have a 100g mixed reef tank and I just started a tiny nano planted tank hosting freshwater shrimp that sits on my computer’s desk helping me getting distracted from work :).
I keep all kinds of corals in the reef tank, but I would say it is SPS dominated as hard corals take most of the real estate in that aquarium. That being said, I also keep soft corals (zoanthids, gorgonians, xenia and a couple of others), some LPS, mainly the Elegance Coral my clowns host that is the highlight of the bottom part of the tank, as well as various inverts and oddballs- I have two sand sifting starfish, a fighting conch, three short spined urchins, a goby shrimp without a goby buddy, two extremely lazy cleaner shrimps and one Scarlett cleaner shrimp. Oh, and tons of pods and bristle worms.
In terms of fish, I enjoy keeping them with equal passion as keeping corals and my tank reflects that because I probably have too many fish in there. My favorites are Leopard wrasses, of which I have 4 different species and angelfish from the Genus Genicanthus (currently swimming in my tank are female Genicanthus bellus, female Genicanthus watanabei and female Genicanthus semifasciatus). What else- two Dragonets, a Coral Beauty angel, pair of clownfish, trio Lyretail Anthias, a Possum wrasse (he’s awesome), some odd-looking goby I got for free from somebody, a Royal Gramma, Kole Tang and a couple of other wrasses. Most have names (again, my girlfriend:)) and I probably forgot to mention a few.
The freshwater is fairly new and it materialized partly thanks to you when you sent me some supplies from Brightwell Aquatics. I use their line of shrimp specific additives and the Rio Cafe soil as a substrate. Two pieces of driftwood, a couple of small rocks and a few easy plants. As much as I would like to have pressurized CO2 to grow more demanding plants, I decided to keep this tank very simple and with minimal maintenance. So far, it works wonderfully.
Are you an SPS guy, LPS, mushrooms, softies, what’s your favorite group of corals?
I don’t have one and my tank perfectly reflects it. What I can say is that I would never have a tank with just one of these groups of corals. I like SPS corals because they are hard to keep and they literally create new rock over their lifespan. I like LPS corals because they are great looking and come in countless different variants. Mushrooms are easy to propagate and have amazing patterns to them. Softies create a sense of movement other corals can’t. Anemones fascinate me for their ability to move from place to place, they represent the next step in the evolution tree to me. If I had to pick, I would probably go with that Elegance coral I have in my tank, that thing is a beast. And you know what, I take back the statement that I would never keep a tank with just one group of corals. If I knew how to feed them and keep them alive long-term, I would set up a non-photosynthetic softies tank.
Advice to hobbyists trying to take good pictures
Get a yellow filter, that will improve your reef aquarium photography instantly. If you can’t, see if your camera has a custom white balance setting and set it to the highest Kelvin number possible (usually 10K). Second, always shoot at fast shutter speed, even if you have to bump up the ISO. Today’s cameras have great ISO management and since corals are tiny animals with a lot of details to them, shutter speeds of 1/100 and higher are necessary. Finally, practice, practice, there are no shortcuts here. I look at images I took only 2 years ago thinking “I could do better than that”. Don’t get discouraged by your mistakes, I sometimes take 100 pictures where only one is a keeper. Oh, and when you try to shoot wrasses, sorry, you are on your own:)
Recommend a filter that hobbyists can use
It depends on the photography tool you use, but generally speaking, any filter that lets through yellow filter and filters out the blue will do. There are two filters I personally use all the time are Tiffen 52mm Yellow 2 #8 and a ProMaster Deep Yellow. If you don’t have a filter thread on your camera, you can buy an adapter or simply hold the filter in your other hand. I have one lens that I like, the Tamron 45mm f/1.8 and for a long time, I didn’t have a matching filter so I simply used an oversized one and taped it to the front glass element of my lens. From the website I would choose the IceCap has better lens choice. That orange looking one is what I use, however the best option I like is a plastic gradient card that I hold to my phone with a rubber band. Ghetto, but it works.
Now that Marcin has shared some tips, let’s see those pictures roll in. Post them up on your social media and tag @marinedepot