Stonefish, probably one of the ugliest fish in the sea but they can be incredible subjects.  They can be found in shallow water usually hiding in a rubbly bottom or buried under the sand. Many times they get confused with other members of the same family, the scorpionfish, however, the stonefish has a much bigger head and prefer not to swim unless is necessary, once you find one you can come back dive after dive and chances are it will be in the same spot.

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Stonefish perched on a Red Sea reef

The Challenge

Stonefish are masters of camouflage and tend to blend remarkably well with the surrounding environment. For this reason, trying to isolate the subject from the background is a very difficult task. A single strobe without diffuser helps to minimize the amount of light falling around the subject. If you have one, you can use a snoot to better direct the light directly on the stonefish. Using a tight crop on the fish face is also a good way to eliminate unwanted background.

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Stonefish are masters of camouflage and can be difficult to spot on the reef.

Occasionally stonefish burry themselves in the sand leaving only the top of their head exposed. If this is the case, the challenge lies in controlling the exposure of the sand. This is a problem encountered in places such as the Red Sea where the sand is white. In volcanic areas such as Lembeh in Indonesia, the sand is black and does not reflect light the same way.

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Black Sand reduces the risk of overexposure.

To light stonefish buried in the sand, I prefer to use my strobes above the housing in what is called “bunny ears” and tilt them downwards. This creates a pool of light in the area where the fish is buried. If using a single strobe make sure it is positioned in the center, above the housing pointing downwards if you want a relatively flat lighting. By moving the strobe to the sides you will create strong shadows, this is great if you want to show the texture of the fish.

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A single strobe coming from the right emphasizes the contour of the “nest” and brings up the face of the stonefish.

Tips for a successful image

Stonefish are relatively common fish but they are hard to spot. The knowledge and experience of local dive guides are always your best allies to find them. They hunt by ambushing pray and to do that they can remain still for days or even weeks allowing algae to grow on their skin to better blend with the surrounding reef. Once you have found one you can come back over and over during different dives to try different lighting techniques or composition. Photographic trips such as the Winter Warmer are a great opportunity to find and photograph stonefish giving you the opportunity to dive sites several times so you can work your subject in different ways.

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Occasionally you can spot a stonefish crawling along the bottom. This huge red one was wandering in the shallows in Jolanda Reef, Northern Red Sea

The shape and texture of stonefish are ideal to work with light. Try to frame the fish as close as possible, concentrating on the head and face, this way you will be able to crop unwanted and distracting elements on the background. By lighting the subject from the one side, you will be able to create strong shadows on the nobbly skin on the opposite one, this will accentuate the textures and shape of the fish.

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Filling the frame with the face of the stonefish brings up all the rough texture of its skin.

Because of their extremely placid nature, stonefish are excellent subjects to practice different lighting techniques. Continuous lighting instead of strobes can create very dramatic and moody images.

Considering the areas where stonefish are normally seen framing options are somehow limited.  Go relatively low to the ground to capture the shape of the fish but be aware of overexposing the sand or reef, your housing will be almost on the ground.

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When living on a sandy or rubbly areas stonefish tend to become hairy.

Another option is to shoot straight from above. This angle will help to show the shape of the fish. Because of the position of mouth and eyes, this is also the best possible angle to shoot a fish portrait.

Occasionally you can find a stonefish just sitting on the sand or a small pinnacle, this is a great opportunity to attempt some different compositions, especially if you can have a bit of the surface in the frame.

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A bright red stonefish lies on the sand. I composed this shot using the rule of thirds and placing the fish on the right side leaving some leading space on the left.

Stonefish can vary in color and texture, most of the time they are a bit hairy and brown in color but in some occasions, you can find one with a purple or orange tone, these ones tend not to be hairy and the texture of their skin is more visible. Pay close attention to the huge pectoral fins, these can be interesting for some abstract compositions.

Where to find them

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The big pectoral fin is impressive and it looks great when fully extended.

Stonefish can be found across the Indo Pacific in shallow coastal water, from Indonesia to the Northen Red Sea. On my Red Sea trips, we do our best to visit dive sites such as The Barge and Beacon Rock (Dunraven Wreck) where you can easily find a few individuals on a single dive.

Join Mario on one of the  “Winter Warmers “ photo trips to have the chance to dive carefully selected dive sites in the Northern Red Sea and take your underwater photography skills to the next level.

Mario is well known for his patient, calm approach to teaching underwater photography – he will help you develop new skills and build your confidence in a relaxed and fun environment.