Shooting The Colorful and Camouflaged Flathead Crocodilefish
By Steve Miller
Dive guides in the Indo-West Pacific (think Wakatobi, Lembeh, etc.) will often ask photographers if there is a particular animal or coral that they would like to find for their images. For many of us, Flathead Crocodilefish (Cymbacephalus beauforti, known also as De Beaufort's flathead) will be the first thing out of our mouth.
There are a lot of good reasons for this, Flatheads are as much fun with a macro lens as they are a fisheye. Also, Flatheads are known as ambush predators who will hold very still for long periods of time, this allows a photographer to slow down and think of the best angle and light for the capture. It is safe to assume that as long as nobody crowds them, you will have all the time needed for "the perfect shot."
Perched up high in ambush, Crocodilefish will stay this way as long as you don't disturb them. © 2022 Steve Miller
These reasons are compelling, but for me the most important thing is the way that Flathead Crocodile fish can color up while camouflaging themselves. These colors will only exist for the duration of your flash, and they can be amazing! It works both ways though, if you find one laying in the sand they can be totally colorless. I have seen them look completely black and white with almost no coloration. Certainly the detail of their fins and their million dollar eye are still interesting, but with a little saturation boost in Adobe® Lightroom and the right background, these fish can be stunning.
Until your eye is trained, you may swim right by Flatheads without seeing them - that is their strategy. Take a good long look at one, then turn away for a few fin kicks and you may not be able to find her again, although your ability to find them will get better as you see more. Other times, they will perch up high as if on display. Flatheads prefer to rest with a view around them, so they will often “perch” like a bird in a tree, this is what you are looking for.
The largest Flathead Crocodilefish I have seen was over 3 feet long, the smallest under a foot long. You will probably never see them swim unless they have been disturbed.
Not often seen together, we can assume this is a mating pair. Wherever the larger fish moved, the smaller one would follow. © 2022 Steve Miller
Finding and shooting Flatheads
I look for Flatheads where I want them to be, and I look for them on every dive. This means on the edge of a drop-off (even a small one) where they are looking out at what swims by. This pose is ideal for getting the camera lower than the fish. Downward camera angles on the reef can create a chaos of color and texture. To separate the subject from this chaos, a severe upward angle will replace all of the clutter with the clean gradient we get whenever we shoot up into open water.
Pro-tip: Set your manual camera exposure to image the background water to a pleasing deep blue and put the strobes to TTL. If you prefer a black background, stop the aperture down to 2-3 stops darker than what the light meter requests, and leave the strobes on TTL.
Sometimes you may see Flatheads in the bottom of a canyon or crevice with a sand bottom. If you can't get in there, I'd suggest moving on to another subject, hopefully another Flathead perched up high on the reef!
Sand will impact the coloration that Crocodilefish use for camouflage. © 2022 Steve Miller
Million Dollar Eye
The color and detail in Flathead eyes is amazing. They have a tasseled curtain that functions like an eye lid and reacts to light. In my experience, the super brief duration of a flash doesn't bother them at all or cause the eye to change.
To fill the frame with one of these large eyes and a macro lens, you will end up very close, within inches. There is something satisfying about swimming away from such a close encounter with the animal still resting peacefully where you found it. And if they swim away, you screwed up and should feel a little bad about it.
The most beautiful eye in the ocean? Many macro photographers would say yes! © 2022 Steve Miller
Favorite Lenses and Configurations
This may be the most versatile subject out there as far as lens choices are concerned. There is no lens that won't work as long as it focuses very close. My favorite would be a super wide angle fisheye lens with two strobes. The super wide lens will allow you to get the water column as a background and boasts a depth of field that makes all the important parts sharp. Two strobes are almost a must here because you have to approach very slowly and carefully, repositioning strobes can be noisy and spook them. Depending on the bottom around them, one strobe could easily be blocked.
I've photographed dozens of these fish over the years, but when I see one on a ledge it still thrills me because I know the hidden colors that my strobes can reveal, as long as they hold still for me.
With patience, practice, and the right lighting, the Crocodilefish will astound you with its coloration. This image was captured using fluorescence filters to which bring out the green highlights. © 2022 Steve Miller
Ambassador Steve Miller has been a passionate teacher of underwater photography since 1980. In addition to creating aspirational photos as an ambassador, he leads the Ikelite Photo School, conducts equipment testing, contributes content and photography, represents us at dive shows and events, provides one-on-one photo advice to customers, and participates in product research and development. Steve also works as a Guest Experience Manager for the Wakatobi Dive Resort in Indonesia. In his "free" time he busies himself tweaking his very own Backyard Underwater Photo Studio which he's built for testing equipment and techniques. Read more...