One of my favorite fish in the ocean, the yellowhead jawfish (Opistognathus aurifrons,) are a burrowing species of fish that make their home in the sand or rubble of reefs all over Caribbean and tropical Atlantic Ocean. Often times you will find whole communities of them living in close proximity to one another, utilizing a greater set of eyes in order to watch for potential predators. Identified by their light-yellow heads which slowly fades into a pearly white and blue hue body, the yellowhead jawfish maxes out around 4 inches long. In order to make their burrows, jawfish use small rocks and shells as support to keep the sand from caving back in. Jawfish are known as ‘mouthbrooders’ where the female will lay the eggs while the male will proceed to gather the laid eggs, keeping them in the safety of his mouth until they are ready to hatch. Every so often, the males will come out of their burrow, never more than a few inches away from the entrance, and aerate the eggs by spitting them in and out of their mouths exposing them to the oxygen-rich water. This is known to many underwater macro photographer enthusiasts as the ‘money shot.’ Commonly referred to as “chumming,” the whole aeration process is over in less than a second so a high shutter speed between 1/200-1/250 is essential to get the eyes of the eggs sharp and in focus.
Tips for Photographing Jawfish:
Where to Look.
You need to be in sandy rubble areas to find them. Slow down, get yourself together, and look carefully for motion off in the distance. If and when you do find one, look around the one you found as often there are others close by.
Go Low and Slow.
Upon locating your subject, at a distance, get as close to the bottom as possible. Approach slowly, inching your way closer and closer either crawling or finning your way towards it making sure not to make any sudden movements. If you do happen to scare it back into its hole, back off a little and wait for them to come back out.
Helpful tip: Before approaching, dial in your camera settings to as close to what you think you will be shooting at. This minimizes movement and time to adjust the settings when you are in close proximity to a fish that often retreats at the slightest sudden movements.
Look for Bulging Jaws.
If you see a jawfish with a bulging jaw or what looks like a full mouth, you have most likely found a male with eggs. Males with eggs are especially weary and shy so if you do find one with eggs, exercise great caution, as often times once scared into their burrows they will not come back out. Depending on how long the eggs have left until they hatch, you may see the eyes of the embryos inside the eggs. The eggs start out cloudy and opaque and as they develop, they get progressively translucent to where the eyes of the embryos become distinguishable.
When it comes to photographing these small timid fish, a macro lens with a 60mm or 105mm focal length is crucial to not only magnify the image, but also to see the detail of your subject. My lens of choice when shooting small subjects that may only give a short window of time to photograph them is my 60mm. The reason why I prefer the 60mm over the 105mm in this scenario is mainly due to the quicker focusing ability of the 60mm. Under the same lighting conditions, the 105mm is slower and often ‘hunts’ for focus compared to the 60mm, something you don’t want when you are under such a time crunch.
Helpful tip: A focus light will help out your camera greatly when trying to focus, especially if shooting in low light conditions or a cloudy day.
When photographing jawfish, especially one that is holding eggs, you will want to make sure you get as much of the jawfish and eggs in-focus as possible. Hence, a high f-stop of f/11-f/32 is recommended for beginners or your first time seeing one to make sure you get a crisp, in-focus shot. If you are more advanced or want to get more artistic, you can lower your f-stop to f/1.4-f/8 to attain a shallower depth of field. Depending on what aperture setting (f-stop) you are shooting at, you may have to adjust your ISO to account for the amount of light that is getting to your sensor. A good starting point for your settings when approaching a jawfish would be to have an ISO of around 400, 1/200 sec, and your f-stop around f/11.