Harlequin Shrimp

Photographing Harlequin Shrimp in Indo-Pacific and Hawaii
By Mark Strickland & Jenna Szerlag

Remember the scene in the original Karate Kid movie where the old sensei instructs his young protégé in the finer points of car polishing…. “wax on, wax off!”? Watching a pair of Harlequin Shrimp waving their flat, paddle-like claws in slow, concentric circles, I can’t get that scene out of my mind. These gentle-looking, inch-long crustaceans are hardly as agile as even a beginning Karate student, yet are fierce predators nonetheless.

Found throughout the tropical Indo-Pacific and Hawaiian Islands, they feed exclusively on sea stars, attacking and eventually subduing animals that may be 100 times their own weight and size. Even the huge Crown-of-Thorns, which have almost no natural enemies, are not safe around these guys.





Photography Tips for Harlequin Shrimp

Where to find Harlequin Shrimp

Best Lenses 


Harlequin Shrimp feeding on Linckia starfish Maui, HI Photo Jenna Szerlag


If you’ve ever tried to lift a large sea star from a rocky substrate, you know about their strong grip… it takes considerable effort even for a human. It’s hard to imagine how these little shrimp could prevail over such forces, but they take it in stride. Working as a team, one shrimp methodically snips suction-tube feet from each arm of its prey. Meanwhile, its partner grabs an arm-tip and backs up like a tractor, gradually pulling the sea star over onto its back. Once that’s accomplished, the pair drag their hapless victim off to a preferred dining spot, typically under a rocky ledge or coral head.

Subduing such large prey must be a real challenge, but eating it all in one sitting would be a physical impossibility. However, nothing goes to waste, as the shrimp devour the sea star one arm at a time, keeping the increasingly disfigured animal as a live captive until every bit is eaten. Depending on the size of the sea star, this process may take up to two weeks… pretty horrific, huh? Maybe Karate Kid isn’t the best movie reference for these remorseless killers after all; Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs suddenly seems more appropriate!

A pair of Harlequin Shrimp in Maui, HI 100mm Lens,  1/200, f/20, ISO100


Facts About Harlequin Shrimp

It's no wonder why the Harlequin shrimp is so sought after as an underwater photography subject.  With their glamorous colors and attractive appearance they fill an image with bright pleasing color. Not to mention they almost pose proudly for photographers with their starfish meals. Here are a few facts about our beloved shrimp:   

Behavior: Usually found in pairs and territorial.  Females are larger than males. They often stay in one location for months.

Diet: Harlequin shrimp are verocious eaters. They feast on most species of starfish found within their habitat that at most times can be much larger than themselves.  A starfish meal may last up to two weeks. 

Range: Hymenocera Elegans are found in Indo-Pacific and Hymenocera Picta in Hawaii. The two look similar  except the color variations. In Hawaii, they have large reddish purple spots often with yellow surrounding them.  Indo-Pacific harlequin shrimp have spots that tend to be browner with a blue outline.

Concerns: Aquarium collection for trade. Do not disclose exact locations of any harlequin shrimp online.

It's important as a photographer to respect underwater marine life, and not to harass these shrimp just to get the perfect shot. I've heard stories of dive guides keeping them in a bag, and putting them out when it's time for a diver to get a shot. This is terrible and behavior like this should be actively discouraged by all divers. The best thing to do, is to enjoy whatever marine life you find underwater, and not to pressure dive guides to find any one particular species.


Photography Tips for Harlequin Shrimp

Harlequin Shrimp can be difficult to photograph with their reflective white bodies.  It is easy to blow out the details in bright highlights if you are not careful with your strobes. Try to expose for their brightest part, which will usually be in their claws if facing directly at you. Sometimes an angle from the side, a profile view, can help to subdue hotspots on its body gleaming back at the camera. 

Harlequin shrimp are not skittish and tend to stand their ground to divers. Most often, one will find them slicing up a starfish and enjoying their lunch perfectly posing for the camera. Capturing animal behavior in you shot is always a great way to create visual interest. 

Try to aim your focus on the eye. If you are able to select your focal point on your camera, move it to where the eye will be in the frame then compose your shot with the focal point directly over the closest eye. Good bouyancy is key here, their eyes are tiny!  

Harlequin shrimp have beautiful colors. Think about the kind of background you want to make these colors pop.Does the background has contrasting colors?  Both a background with sharp focus or a nicely blurred background make great underwater photographs. A good understanding of how aperture controls your depth of field and how different strobe positions control how much is illuminated is helpful. Your background will change dramatically just by changing your angle by a few inches. The difference will make completely different photos!

  • Be conservative with your exposure as to not create hot spots on the shrimps reflective body
  • Focus on the eye
  • Capture its behavior - eating the starfish!
  • Pick a background that compliments its colors to make the shrimp stand out

Harlequin Shrimp sitting on Linckia starfish Maui, HI Photo Jenna Szerlag


Best Lens Options for Harlequin Shrimp

60mm Lens: On a cropped sensor camera  the 60mm is good for photographing shrimp in their habitats.Auto-focus is fast, night photography is easy, and you can get close to the subject. Also good for low-visibility dives.

100mm / 105mm Lens: This lens is great for filling the frame and blurring out the background and for those hard to reach crevices that shrimp like to reside in due to the increased working distance. 

Fisheye Lens: These lenses could give you a creative image with expansive backgrounds. Possibly include the entire coral head it is living under? You will need to get very, very close so that the shrimp doesn't look non existant in the frame. Check the focal distance of your lens before diving with it to learn its limitations for shrimp photography. 

Compact Cameras: If you zoom out you will get the effect of a 60mm lens. If you're looking for the effect of a longer lens such as the 100mm, zoom in all the way. Wet lenses will give you additional macro capability.

Further reading on lens selection - Macro lenses for underwater photography, Lens basics for beginners, 60mm vs 100mm macro lenses


Harlequin Shrimp lifting a Linckia starfish Maui, HI 100mm Lens, ISO 100, 1/200, f/29

Dive Destinations for Harlequin Shrimp

Harlequin Shrimp are found in the Indo-Pacific range and the islands of Hawaii. Most photos of Harlequin Shrimp that you see have been taken specifically in LembehSeraya Bali, and Maui. They can be very difficult to find and sightings are not guaranteed but it is common that once the shrimp is spotted it will be seen at one location for several months.


harlequin shrimp underwater photography
 A pair of Harlequin Shrimp, Hymenocera elegans, keep a tight grip of a sea star arm. These shrimp feed exclusively on sea stars, and are normally found in pairs, working as a team to overcome their prey, which is often much larger than the shrimp. Richelieu Rock, Thailand, Andaman Sea


harlequin shrimp underwater photo
 Among the few natural enemies of the destructive Crown-Of-thorns sea star, Acanthaster planci, these Harlequin Shrimp will subdue their prey, then keep it as a live captive for 2 weeks or more while slowly devouring it. Three Islets, Mergui Archipelago, Burma/Myanmar, Andaman Sea


harlequin shrimp
Harlequin shrimp in Anilao, photo by Scott Gietler. 60mm lens + 1.4x tele, F25, 1/250th


Further Reading

Underwater Critter List for Macro photographers

Best Muck Diving locations



Jenna Szerlag

As a long-time Hawaii resident, Jenna moved to Maui in 2002 to pursue her interest in diving. Discovering the beauty of the islands and the desire to show it to the world led Jenna into her passion for nature photography. She pursued her education by attending hands-on workshops and conferences with respected educators mastering the camera topside before taking her photography underwater.  

Jenna is a certified Hawaii Marine Naturalist and enjoys travel and adventure. Her images have been published in Forbes Magazine, Travel and Leisure, calendars and several other publications. She has been a professional contributor for Pacific Stock since 2012, the largest worldwide curated stock photography agency exclusive to the Hawaii and Asia Pacific Regions. You can find her images at www.jennaszerlag.com and on Instagram @seaofphotos.

Mark Strickland

Mark Strickland is the friendly store manager at Bluewater Photo.  Be sure to give him a call if you have any questions. His life-long interest in the sea has included over 10,000 dives and careers as lifeguard, boat captain and scuba instructor. His passion for underwater photography has led him to many top dive locales, including Virgin Islands, Australia, and Thailand, where he spent 17 years as Cruise Director on a series of live-aboards. www.markstrickland.com


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