DPG is a comprehensive underwater photography website and community for underwater photographers. Learn underwater photography techniques for popular digital cameras and specialized professional underwater equipment (wide angle, macro, super macro, lighting and work flow). Read latest news, explore travel destinations for underwater photography. Galleries of professional and amateur underwater photography including wrecks, coral reefs, undersea creatures, fashion and surfing photography.
Dive Photo Guide


Gurnard Lionfish
By Eric Riesch, December 16, 2011 @ 09:00 AM (EST)

By Eric Riesch

Settling down to the bottom at 60 feet I notice a partially buried fish, appearing at first glance to be something in the Scorpionfish family, maybe a Stonefish or Devilfish.

As I draw closer, I notice a high spiked dorsal fin characteristic of Lionfish. Suddenly, with the same dramatic flair of a flamenco dancer snapping out a fan, the fish casts out its pectoral fins and dances across the sea floor.  I spit out a loud “yahoo!” through my regulator, muffled by the water but still audible to all my dive companions. This is what muck diving is all about!

The mystery fish is a Gurnard Lionfish. It is one of the most colorful and unusual Lionfish encountered in the tropical pacific waters. The strikingly beautiful pectoral fins are only exposed when moving, so catching the critter in the proper position is the first problem for photographers.

The second problem is that the pectoral fins are most visible from behind and above. A tail shot is not ideal, and for most fish portraits the trick is to get close and stay low. For this particular species, photographers will have to abandon their normal rules and try many different angles.

Parapterois heturura  Lionfish - Scorpaenidae

Description: The fish is white to light brown with reddish brown bars across the body and is seven to nine inches in length with thread like filaments on the spines of its dorsal fin. Fan-like pectoral fins are collapsed when idle and extended in a wing-like motion when moving, exposing fine blue bands on the inside with red edges.

These fish are exceedingly rare. They can be found resting on the bottom of mud and sand from 10 to 1000 feet in depth (we suggest the former), inhabiting the tropical Pacific region, primarily in Southern Japan, from Bali to Alor in Indonesia and throughout the Philippines.

Behavior: The Gurnard Lionfish is usually a solitary species. They can partially bury themselves in the sand, often not seen by the hastier diver. Lionfish are voracious eaters and this species is no exception-- they eat tiny crustaceans and small fishes. Lionfish are primarily nocturnal feeders, although they have been observed feeding during the day.

Photography Tips: While a SLR macro setup with a 60mm lens is preferred, you can also take some excellent shots with compact cameras. The important considerations when photographing this species are more about understanding the movements of the fish and correct positioning of the photographer than what equipment works best.

Most fish portrait and identification photography is taken with the species turned slightly toward the photographer at the same depth or slightly above them. Rules are different when shooting fish species that extend their pectoral fins and radiate color from behind, like the Gurnard Lionfish. Photographers should angle their camera slightly downward and more to the side of the fish to expose the detail of the fins.

This is one of the few times when two photographers shooting the species at the same time will actually help. Each photographer should position themselves on either side of the fish, a few feet in front of the species and slightly above to anticipate forward movement.  By using multiple photographers the fish will be unable to quickly turn away from either photographer and increase the chances of a profile shot with fins extended.

If the fish doesn’t move, don’t loose patience and do not touch the fish! Lionfish have venomous spines that can inflict great pain. A patient photographer will be rewarded with a colorful display of extended pectoral fins and a fantastic subject to photograph.


Quick Tips for Photographing the Gurnard Lionfish

  • Shoot slightly from above with the fish angled toward the camera.
  • Anticipate movement and be patient.
  • Get close, but exercise caution as Lionfish are venomous.
  • Shoot from different angles and wait for the dorsal and pectoral fins to be fully extended.
  • Get the camera settings ready and shoot quickly when the fins are extended. When the fish stops to rest, the pectoral fins will be collapsed.

Author Bio
Eric Riesch is the photo editor at New World Publications on their series of marine life identification books. For more information on the Gurnard Lionfish see page 371 of Reef Fish Identification Tropical Pacific by Humann, DeLoach, Steene and Allen.


Be the first to add a comment to this article.
You must be logged in to comment.
* indicates required
Travel with us

Featured Photographer