Seashells, Barnacles and Sand Dollars

March 1, 2013 at 2:50 pm 1 comment

This month we look to the sea for seashells, barnacles and sand dollars.  The world is full of diverse creatures and while some are similar, no two are quite the same.   This selection was both bought and found.  Some shots were discovered on casual strolls next to the surf. We highly recommend beaches as  prime spots for scenic getaways and prime photographic opportunities.  The Bengals didn’t understand our interest, but gamely tried to play along.

Seashells are defined as ” the shell of a marine animal, especially a mollusk”.  These are different than barnacles and sand dollars.  Barnacles are a marine crustacean with an external shell that attaches itself permanently to a variety of surfaces.  Sand Dollars on the other hand are flattened sea urchins that live partly buried in sand feeding on detritus. So a seashell is a more general term to cover pretty much any hard structure protecting a marine organism, barnacles are the actual animal living within a shell that attach themselves to pretty much anything and everything, and sand dollars are the rather pretty little animals living in the sand eating whatever is left.

First our favorite beach picture taken at Seaside Oregon.

Seaside through the seashell

[This was shot with the Canon EF-S 10-22mm lens  just a few inches from the shell.  With the wide angle, the beachhead and a little of Seaside is framed in the background.  The Canon 60D’s fold out viewfinder lets you put the camera on the sand w/o laying down in the water with it.] We played with illumination on these shells.

_MG_6740 _MG_6742

[These shells are shot on a letter-sized sheet of frosted acrylic from your neighborhood Home Depot.  The sheet is supported on a pair of old slide carousel boxes and those are sitting on top of a sheet of white fabric.  All of that is inside a Giottos Light Tent (here).  The picture is shot at f22 at 1 second at ISO 200.  The shell is lit from daylight and a flash below the frosted acrylic lights the bottom of the shell.  It’s experimentation to find the flash level you like.]

[With such a long exposure, a tripod is needed.  The Live View is great for focusing; I set it to 5x zoom and waited for the shakes to die down before clicking the shutter with a remote cable release.  You could use the 10 second self timer as well.  All this was set on the carpet in my office so any nearby movement would set things shaking.

If you look closely a the reflection of the tip of the shell on the left, you’ll see two reflections: one from the top of the acrylic and one from the bottom.  I’ve yet to figure out how to get rid of the double reflection.]


[This shell was shot much like the others with a 200mm lens; this is simply cropped to the spiral pattern inside the shell.  A macro lens would give a more usable image, but this is ok for a thumbnail on the web.]


[This mussel was run through the black and white processing in Lightroom but the larger story is what isn’t in this image.  The acrylic picks up lint rather easily; the little wipes for glasses did an ok job of removing them but it was up to the Spot Healing tool in Photoshop Elements to clean them all away.  Adobe’s Content-Aware Fill is pretty amazing.  Once you set your brush size to easily cover the spot, you just click and the spot’s gone.  The nice even background helps a bit too, I’d expect.  Once I set the brush to be about the size of the whole corner thinking I’d get all the spots at once; it didn’t work out as Photoshop decided to copy a chunk of shell instead.  Undo can be very handy.]

[This trio was shot at f/16 at 1.6 seconds at ISO 200.  If you look closely, the middle barnacle is quite sharp but the one in front is a bit fuzzy: depth of field at work.]


Another favorite beach picture.

[Seaside’s beach is not only a great walk but great material.  Lisa stuck a sand dollar in the sand and the 10-22mm lens pulls it all together with the horizon.  Getting low with a wide angle lens almost always gets something interesting.]

Seaside, OR

[These three shells are clustered nearby; it’s the 200mm lens that compresses them together.  You’ll often hear that portraits are shot best with a longer lens as it flattens out the face – that’s what you’re seeing here.]


[Those bigger shells have stood up to surf and time; could they survive a Bengal?  Hiyu and Kuri were happy to put them to the test.  Hiyu loves playing with noisy things; the white tissue paper was perfect and it gives a great background for a flash picture.]  The shells did survive all the taste tests.

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[The cowrie shells are shot at f/14 but at 1/80th of a second to get that nice black background.  The earlier shots were all over a second in afternoon light; cutting the exposure turned afternoon into night.  In this case, there’s a flash both above and below the shell.  The bottom flash, in the second and third images, has a blue gel whereas the top flash has a Tough Plus Green or CTO gel.  The shell first had a bright hot spot right on top; it seems shooting through the top of the light tent wasn’t enough to diffuse the light.  The Lumiquest Promax system comes with a diffuser too so both of them evened things out nicely.]

130224-60D-7084 130224-60D-7085

Cowry or cowrie (it’s spelled both ways) shells are the homes of marine snails, the term refers to both the animal and the emptied shell. The term “porcelain” actually comes from the old Italian term for the cowrie shell (porcellana) because of the similar translucency. Cowrie shells have been used as currency along with jewelry and décor: the classical Chinese character for money was originally a stylized drawing of a cowrie shell. They have also been used as dice (roll six or seven of them and however many land opening up is the number rolled). Our cowrie shell is a common Cypraea Tigris.

_MG_6805 _MG_6804


The Nautilus is of the Cephalopoda class which puts them in the same category as octopus and squid however the Nautilus is one of the class with a shell.  The interiors of these shells have chambers that serve as buoyancy tanks which allow it to change depths and also makes for beautiful patterns when halved.  Below is Hiyu pretending he is a Nautilus.



Our favorite sand dollar is a perfect miniature that we set on a tile that we found during a shopping excursion at a home improvement store.  These stores are also good sources for plexiglass and other background material.

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Not content to just enjoy the beauty of the shells we also played around with bases of salt, everything from deicer to table salt.  Once again lighting was a major factor in these shots.

[Oddly enough, salt is a wonderful background.  A little dish of table salt is easy to shake into a perfectly flat surface; a little shell fits nicely on top. ]


_MG_6897 [This shell is sitting on a bed of white crystal water softener salt.  I’d guess it’s intended for swimming pools or something but I got it by mistake when looking to deice the driveway.  It makes for a fine background when backlit.  The challenge is to light the salt and light the item above it.  I never did get the balance the way I wanted.  With a red gel below, the salt looks like lava but it’d get washed out by the flash above.]
[One thing I did try was to take advantage of flash fall off. Light fades as the square of the distance. David Hobby ( explains it much better but if your flash is a foot away from the subject and the background is four feet behind the subject, then the flash is 1/16th as strong. If I could get the shell way off the salt and get the flash close to the shell, then I might be able to get both lit properly. Or do it in Photoshop.] _MG_6901

The cat were even more confused by the piles of salt our insistence on not sharing.

_MG_6866 _MG_6841


[Again, table salt makes a fine background for a macro picture.  In this case, we went a bit wild with the post processing in Lightroom with the Clarity, Vibrance and Saturation all pushed to 100%.  The salt has absolutely no color so the little shading in the shell comes right out.  If I look at this closely enough, it almost looks like the shell is floating on a froth of water bubbles.]


Hiyu helped with set-up and tear-down.



Entry filed under: Macro, Photography. Tags: , , , , , , , .

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Lee Cressman  |  March 1, 2013 at 3:00 pm

    Love the blog. I learn something new with each one that comes out.


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