Author Archives: Gary Parr

Gary Parr

About Gary Parr

Reef Threads is a podcast and blog that discusses the most interesting subjects from the various forums, blogs, and magazines supporting the reef hobby. Reef Threads is produced by Gary L. Parr and Christine Williams Pasagelis, two veteran reef hobbyists. Gary has been keeping aquariums for most of his life, starting with a 1-gal. bowl of guppies. He has kept reef aquariums for the past 15 years. His current tanks are a 65-gal. LPS and leather reef and a 40 breeder that contains azooxanthellate corals. Gary’s other hobby is photography. He specializes in macro photography and currently spends most of his time photographing coral and marine fish. You can see Gary’s work in the Reefs and Animals sections of his website, You can contact Gary at Christine Williams started keeping fish while she was still a fetus. While the aqueous environment did lend itself to the hobby, it limited her to freshwater species, and so she decided to be born several weeks early. Through sign language, she demanded that her parents convert her crib into a reef aquarium and thus started her illustrious career in marine ornamentals. After completing her studies in biochemistry and molecular microbiology she went to work at “Animal ER” where unfortunately she was not filmed for the Animal Planet channel (though her feet did make a cameo during a rescue segment). She frequently lectures on reef topics including marine animal disease, fish husbandry, human-tank zoonosis, and fish cognition. Contact Christine at
Latest Posts

Getting Close To Small Polyps

When I travel, I like to spend at least one evening of a trip visiting a hobbyist and photographing his/her corals and fish. In 2010, I had a trip to New Orleans and made myself available to hobbyists in the area. I was able to make three visits that week. One of the hobbyists who said they’d put up with me was Tam Nguyen.
   At the time, Tam was living with his parents and spending his days as a dental student. His aquarium was in his bedroom. Actually, his aquarium system filled half of his… More:

You focus on the eyes!

Rule number one when photographing animals (that includes humans) is to get the eye(s) in focus. Your mind will accept just about any animal photo if at least one in-focus eye is present. If not, you tend to seek something else to look at.
   That’s a nice rule to live by until you try to photograph Calloplesiops altivelis, the Comet, or Marine Betta. As you can see in the image, this fish’s eyes are superbly camouflaged. While this fish is slow moving (a huge plus) the fact that it is generally shy and reclusive adds to the difficulty of creating a good image of this beautiful animal.
   I’ve had a handful of opportunities to photograph this fish in the past, but each time the specimen either wasn’t healthy, refused to move into an open area, or both. In 2010, during one of my Florida trips, I had the privilege of visiting Mark Iltis in Tampa. His reef has several nice animals, but the standout was his Calloplesiops altivelis. It was an extremely healthy fish that was comfortable enough to spend considerable time in open water, though never far from the safety of the rocks.
   I seized the opportunity to make several photos of this specimen. You can see some of the “keepers” in the Animals section at However, the image that is the focus of this article is my favorite for three reasons.
   First is the… More:

They Call ‘Em Sun Corals

As common names go, few corals carry a more accurate name than the Sun Coral moniker often applied to Tubastrea coccinea and Tubastrea aurea. Their yellow and orange colors are unmatched by any other sessile invertebrate.
   When photographing my Tubastrea colony, the challenge was not to deliver the brilliant colors. That’s relatively easy to do. The extra component I wanted to add was to convey the translucency and delicacy of the tissue without giving up any color intensity. Several previous attempts didn’t deliver the image I wanted, so I decided to do a little “shooting in the dark.”
   The first step… More:

Persistence and Luck Deliver at the Steinhart

Megalactis hemprichi at the Steinhart Aquarium, San Francisco

 Last week, while on a business trip to San Francisco, I had the pleasure of visiting the Steinhart Aquarium at the California Academy of Sciences. It’s a terrific place and it should be at the top of your list should you find yourself in San Francisco. You’ll discover a tremendous variety of animals, many not seen elsewhere, thriving in top-notch environments. To learn more, listen to this week’s Reef Threads podcast, which features guests Rich Ross and Matt Wandell from the Steinhart Aquarium.
   I could write much about the aquarium but this is a column about photography so I’ll tell you about how I captured this week’s image of Megalactis hemprichi. When I arrived at Steinhart, Matt Wandell was giving me a short tour and showed me a couple of anemones he and Rich had collected during a recent trip to the Philippines. Since they were anemones I hadn’t seen before, out came the camera. To photograph them properly, however, required… More:

Into the Abyss

During one of my trips to Florida last year I had an opportunity to photograph the beautiful display tank in the Coral Corral store in Tampa. One of the many corals in the aquarium was this, I believe, Acanthastrea bowerbanki. What struck me was the polyp depth. They reminded me of scenes from movies where the hero is being chased through the jungle by a gang of bad guys and stops suddenly at the edge of a waterfall that seems to go down forever into a dark abyss. The question is always whether to fight and risk capture/death or to jump and hope the pool at the bottom is really deep and not full of rocks.
   The photographic challenge was to capture the feeling of falling into that abyss using a single polyp. I had to search the colony a bit to find a polyp that had the right perspective. I decided to include the polyp above it in the final image because, after all, it is a coral photo. I also liked the feeding tentacles peaking over the edge.
   To achieve the necessary depth of field, i.e., to have the entire shot in focus so the “abyss” part doesn’t become blurry, was not possible with one shot, no matter what aperture setting I used. The solution was to create a stacked image which, in this case, involved making eight shots using a relatively shallow depth of field and combining them into one image with Helicon Focus Pro software. Image stacking uses the “in-focus” portion of each image. When combined, the result is one image with much more depth of field than is possible with a single shot. When stacking images, fleshy corals, such as this, are very challenging because they tend to expand or contract and almost always choose to do so while I’m shooting the stack of images. When this happens, the final stacked image won’t work because the details don’t line up from image to image. I got lucky this time and the coral remained absolutely still.
   The end result was exactly what I was after–a look into the deep polyp in which everything is in focus, all of the way to the mouth. I also was able to expose the shot such that I retained detail in the strongly lit areas and in the critical deep part of the polyp. The best part, for me, is that I get a slight sense of vertigo when I look at the image.… More:

Coral Forest

Photographically, corals aren’t really interesting to me until I get close. As I move in, there is a point at which I enter a kind of alien world and start to see things I don’t normally see. This photo of Seriatopora is an example of that alien-world effect.
When I approached this colony, owned by Paul Law of Paul’s Corals, Mukwanago, WI, it wasn’t the colony that caught my eye. It was the repeating pattern of tall, slender “trees” that make an endless alien forest in which you could become entrapped forever. Once you enter the forest, there is that inner glow that piques your curiosity and sucks you in even deeper as you seek its source.
The challenge in capturing this image was to decide which portion of the colony to photograph, i.e., where does the image start and where does it end? I tried to find a section that offered a progression of spikes from front to back. The frustration is that I couldn’t get lower and use an upward angle because the coral would distort in the image.
The other challenge with this coral in particular, and SPS colonies in general, is that you’re almost always dealing with very strong metal-halide lighting that causes a wide exposure range from top to bottom. To keep from over-exposing the tops, you have to underexpose the overall image and then adjust the shadow areas in post processing. The pure-white growth tips are always going to be white and blow out at the very tip, but you have to minimize that so the image doesn’t visually become a bunch of white points.
Whenever I look at this image, I enjoy the polyps, colors, and the repeating pattern of vertical lines. But the little thing that makes this image work for me is that inner glow at the base of the colony that looks as if there is a camp fire lighting up the floor of the forest.
Technical details: 1/12 sec. @ f/22, ISO 400, Canon 7D, Sigma EX 180 macro, tripod, remote release, mirror lockup.–Gary L. Parr,, www.reefthreads.comMore:


This image is 3 years old, but still one of my favorites because of the story behind it. The image was created during a visit to the fish room of Rich Dietz. Most know him as Mr. Firemouth. We spent the better part of a day talking about reefs and photographing his corals and fish. In his display tank, he had a large colony of a xenia species I’d not seen before. As impressive as the colony was/is, it didn’t change my opinion about xenia, a coral that I discovered, much to my chagrin, that I’m very good at growing.
   As I photographed Rich’s fish and corals, I intentionally avoided the xenia colony. I had no interest in adding a xenia photo to my collection. Toward the end of the session, I was looking for other corals to photograph and kept going back to the xenia colony that had been tirelessly pulsing throughout the day.
   As I watched all of those pulsing polyps, I wondered: If I isolated one polyp and timed the shot at the moment the polyp opened, could I also get a movement blur in the background from the rest of the colony?
   I now had a photographic challenge and started watching the colony from a different perspective. I quickly found a polyp that could be isolated through depth-of-field control. I knew it wouldn’t be perfect, but was confident the isolation could be more than satisfactory. Once I found the right exposure setting, it became a matter of timing the shot. My focus was now on the rhythm of that one polyp.
   It took about 20 shots to get this image. Note that I still employed the rule of thirds and didn’t put the polyp in the center of the frame. I cropped the image from the left side because the full width of the frame presented too much of the blurred background and detracted from the “frozen” polyp.
   Xenia is still my least-favorite coral, but this shot will always be in my top ten because it’s a respectable result from an interesting challenge.
   Technical details: Canon 20D, Sigma EX180 macro lens, 0.4 sec. at f/16, ISO 800, tripod.–Gary L. Parr,, www.reefthreads.comMore:

Seeking More Than a Fish Photo

It's the detail in this shot of a Melichthys vidua that makes the image work.

 Whenever I photograph fish, my first goal is to get a good, sharp photo of the whole fish with a relatively clean background. Once that’s accomplished, I work to capture something better.
This past January I visited Rick and Terry Loewen of Tropical Reef Corals, Orlando, FL. In their display, they have a beautiful Pink-tail trigger (Melichthys vidua). The body color on this fish is rather plain, but the fins and tail more than make up for it. Triggers tend to be relatively easy fish to photograph because their bodies are large and rather stiff. The tough part about photographing this fish is to retain detail in the body without blowing out the white at the base of that striking pink tail. 

The contrast between the rather drab body color and the dorsal and anal fins and that bright pink tail makes the Melichthys vidua a rather striking fish.

 Once I had the “full-fish” shot (left), it was time to capture something better. The “something better” was this “head” shot (above). This shot is, obviously, cropped from the right side. I had to do that because the dorsal and anal fins were showing in the upper and lower right corners and, because they are such a bright contrast from the main body, pulled the eye away from the head.
With the distractions out of the way, I like this shot for several reasons. The primary reason is the detail I was able to capture. The scale pattern, tack sharp eye, visible “trigger,” and the teeth are all things I enjoy. But my favorite part is the pectoral fin and, in particular, the way you can see scales behind the fin.
Here are the technical details. Head shot: 1/200 sec. at f/10, ISO 400, 7D, 135L w/ext. tube, flash. Full-fish shot: 1/200 sec. at f/11, ISO 400, Canon 7D, 135L w/ext. tube, flash.–Gary L. Parr,, www.reefthreads.comMore: is the world's leading destination for sustainable coral reef farming and the aquarium hobby. We offer a free open forum and reef related news and data to better educate aquarists and further our goals of sustainable reef management.