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Dive Photo Guide


The Caribbean Lionfish
By Joseph Tepper, January 29, 2011 @ 06:51 PM (EST)

By Joseph Tepper

The Red Lionfish

Red Lionfish (P. volitans)

Description: The Red Lionfish is a venomous, reef-dwelling fish that is named either for its resemblance to a lion or perhaps for its fearsome predatory reputation. The fish is identified by long, poisonous spines along its dorsal and pectoral sides, as well as its zebra-like red-stripped pattern.

Location: Although native to the Indo-Pacific, Lionfish have been introduced into the waters of Florida and the Caribbean.  This  makes the lionfish an important photographic subject to know how to shoot well when diving in these areas. As an introduced species, lionfish could potentially have devastating effects on the Caribbean ecosystem and good photography can be a valuable asset for conservationists and scientists in trying to mitigate these effects. 

Environment: Lionfish are often found close to the reef, rarely free swi mming in the open water.

Depth: 10m to 100m 

Behavior: Lionfish are most wary of human visitors. It is most often found living alone under ledges with spines sticking out in case of an unwise, surprise attack. The hunting practices of the lionfish are quite a spectacle to behold: the sit-and-wait predators often stay motionless until a weary passer-by is sucked into their mouth using the negative pressure differential as a vacuum.

Equipment Tips:

Pick a lens...any lens: One of the great things about shooting lionfish is that there are many lenses that compliment their colorful dispositions. Macro lenses such as the 60mm are great for shooting portrait shots of that handsome face, while wide angle lenses like a 24mm or zoom are also great for including some coral and blue background in the shot. Using extreme wide-angle or fisheye lenses with their close focus distance can be difficult: once the subject feels threatened by your presence, it may turn away completely and leave you with a "fish tail" shot.

Compact Rules: The biggest advantages of shooting lionfish with compact cameras is the ability to capture diverse ranges of image types otherwise impossible with a DSLR. Resist using the digital zoom and get close (and get closer) to achieve wide angle success, or switch to macro mode and take great profile or abstract shots with a touch of strobe light.

It takes two to tango: This is true not only with dancing, but als o lighting a lionfish. Because most lionfish shooting opportunities take place with at least a partial coral backdrop, it is beneficial to shoot with two strobes to eliminate harsh shadows created by the trademark spines and pectoral fins onto the coral. There is no need to blowout the image with too much strobe light, but a touch of light from each will avoid distracting shadows and make that red really pop!

Underwater Photography Tips:

Composition is King: To make truly special lionfish images, it is important to remember some of the most crucial rules of underwater composition. Perhaps no habit is harder to break when shooting these fish than shooting down into a pile of spines and unattractive coral. This can be difficult because 99 percent of the time a threatened lionfish will do the two worst for a great shot to deter your presence: turn its back on you and swim away. If this has happened to you don't worry! Instead of chasing after it and ending up with a bunch of well exposed, poorly composed images, be patient. There are always more fish in the sea.

Obeying the rule of thirds and having the subject's body angled makes images more aesthetically pleasing

Eye to Eye: As eye contact is important with any subjects, it is equally important in the case of shooting lionfish. Poor eye contact not only leaves the viewer looking in vain for a specific point to focus on, but will also give the feeling that the subject was not interested in being shot (probably a common occurrence in underwater photography, but when visually present in a shot, this gives the appearance that the fish is trying to escape!) lionfish

Try shooting profile shots on a slight angle and solid eye contact to add drama

Background Awareness: Although similar to making conscious composition choices, choosing the right background is invaluable when shooting lionfish in the Caribbean. There are many shots I have sitting in my trash bin of perfectly exposed lionfish profiles for one big reason: the background was, well, "blah." While using two strobes to side-light the subject can help avoid poor shadows, it can also bring unusual texture to otherwise unimpressive backdrops. However, avoiding these backgrounds to begin with is also a solution!

Balancing a colorful background and blue negative space with the lionfish makes the image "pop"

Creative Shooting: . Experimenting with side lighting and backlighting can bring unique results. Using a super macro lens, such as the Nikon 105m or Canon 100m, can bring fantastic abstract results; but keep in mind those spines!

While passing up less-than-desirable lionfish subjects -the ones stuck in crevices or glued to dead coral- and being patient with your subject are not new techniques by any means, they are both imperative when trying to capture a Red Lionfish picture to make those other snap-happy shutter bugs green with envy.


  • While the lionfish was once just a subject for the lucky few able to dive the pristine waters of the Indo-Pacific, its invasion of the Caribbean has made it a much more practical, and thus important, subject to know how to shoot.

  • The lionfish is one of the few subjects that you can shoot with almost any lens or compact camera. The opportunity it presents for abstract macro, close-up portrait, and of course, wide-angle makes it a fun fish to shoot!

  • Separate yourself from the other photographers with mindful composition and patient photography.

  • Experiment with lighting to bring out the brilliant red colors.

  • And I would be amiss if I failed to mention... DO NOT TOUCH!


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